Pistol Opera Review
The Assassin’s Guild quarterly results are in, and Miyuki, otherwise known as “Stray Cat” (Esumi Makiko) has just been informed by her agent Ms. Uekyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi) that she currently resides as being the no.3 contract killer in Japan. Taking the no.2 position is “Useless Man”, while “Hundred Eyes” (Masatoshi Nagase) sits happily at the top spot. But Miyuki now wants out of her profession, having become slightly jaded by the whole thing. However, Uekyo soon offers her an ideal contract, which asks of her to assassinate Hundred Eyes: all very well, but no one actually knows who he is or what he looks like. In the meantime she’ll also have to contend with a bunch of other crazy killers and a young girl by the name of Sayoko (Hanae Kan), who takes quite a liking toward Miyuki and wishes to be taught how to kill people.
Suzuki’s decision to revisit the film that inevitably earned him so much notoriety at Nikkatsu is a curious one, though certainly not unwelcome. It isn’t so much a remake, but an extension of the tale once told by Jo Shishido under his guise of Goro Hanada, which has enough by the way of fond references and direct lifts to keep it borderlined between past and present. Seijun Suzuki moves forward his plot from the cult classic Branded to Kill to a new modernised environment, in an as much as our lead protagonist is now a wily female, forced to contend in the male dominated world of contract killing. The plot remains as basic as Branded to Kill’s, with Stray Cat preparing to achieve number one status. Sealing its status as a sequel is of course the return of Hanada himself.
After all these years Suzuki still proves that he’s got plenty up his sleeve. The cynicism in comparison to his previous works is largely subdued, and with the times changing and the evident amount of freedom that’s been bestowed upon him he sets out to create a picture which is simply about enjoying the cinematic medium through using alternative methods of storytelling. Pistol opera contrasts against its predecessor thanks to a defined colour scheme, which signifies changes in character moods, such as Miyuki’s alternating kimonos and unannounced décor swaps, while it more than matches Branded to Kill’s utmost surrealism. Once more it’s Suzuki’s firm handle on visual representation that sees to it that what narrative there is is ultimately overshadowed by pleasant aesthetics of dreamy images relating to Japanese pop culture and folklore. One thing I notice with Pistol Opera is that whilst it parallels Branded to Kill in many ways, it significantly embellishes a whole lot more. Take the final act’s hellish landscape for example, which takes place at the Grotesque World Fair. Here the director approaches his character’s psychological breakdown with a far more physical representation of being trapped under nightmarish layers of sin and torment. He ignores logic by indulging in the damned as his Jigoku-like stage, complete with writhing male bodies, marks the backdrop to Stray Cat’s final showdown. Symbolism is rampant with images of Hiroshima and paintings of bloody slayings swivelling on giant boards, where the whole thing culminates with a poetic and deathly ballet, which is a silky as Pistol Opera’s James Bond style opening credits. His glorious finale, awash with red and yellow is quite unlike anything he’s previously done, even eclipsing Tokyo Drifter in giving a new meaning to bizarre, while elsewhere little touches such as pianos in bamboo groves and dreamscape images of the River Styx underline some strong sentiments in regards to its lead characters and their given circumstances, which again shows the director conveying far more beyond words.
It’s clear that Suzuki at this point was also moving ever closer to realising his dream of making a fully fledged musical. Song and dance play a role here and although they’re not as outwardly as those depicted in his most recent film Princess Raccoon they nonetheless inject a healthy amount of lyricism in accompaniment to the barrage of unusual stylistic choices and contemporary Jazz compositions. More often than not however Suzuki’s unpredictable nature sees him fleet from one genre element to the next. Whether or not that’s down to impatience or wanting to cram in as much nonsense as possible is entirely for him to say, but there’s sure enough plenty of offerings. His sense of humour is as sharp as ever and he seems to be having even more fun with several female characters in tow. He creates childish slanging matches to highlight just how absurd the world around Stray Cat has become and he even gives Miyuki a plastic gun to toy around with, while momentary scenes featuring “Painless Surgeon” or wheelie gangsters lead on to bizarre little comical moments that demonstrate pure levels of idiocy. But on occasion he’ll suddenly slow right down and the pacing will drastically fluctuate, even allowing time to practically stop while one or two supporters voice lengthy monologues, from which you can literally feel yourself drifting away. Indeed, an oddball collection of ideas, but one that could never be accused of being anything other than inventive.
Knowing that the original intent was to bring back Jo Shishido in the iconic role of Hanada makes one wonder what the film might have been like had it actually happened. Though Suzuki doesn’t seem to know himself why, there’s very little to worry about. Hira Mikijiro puts in a fine performance as the dishevelled and weary former assassin who now harps on about the good old days and still thinks he’s an ace killer. Mikijiro’s role is fairly slight, but he’s so good in channelling the spirit of Shishido’s that you simply buy into his character. It’s a nice sense of continuity afforded by the director as he welcomes in a younger model who is destined to live out a similar fate. Meanwhile Suzuki sticks to familiar Branded to Kill territory with his other amusingly named hit-men, this time with cult actor Masatoshi Nagase donning the black to portray a new killer called “Hundred Eyes” (who only drinks pretend tea), while Sayoko Yamaguchi carries out the most ambiguous role as Stray Cat’s veiled confidant.
And of course Esumi Makiko is our window into the film, and a very effective lead she is too, lending plenty grace and self assertiveness and displaying her character’s cold-hearted approach to her job, while also managing to depict her vulnerable side without any loss of credibility. As close as Pistol Opera is to Branded to Kill there’s a feeling as if Suzuki is drawing inspiration from other notable sources: the film manages to bear an uncanny resemblance at times to Luc Besson’s much loved Leon: The Professional in terms of how the narrative handles Miyuki’s growing relationship with the young Sayoko. A bond is quickly forged, with Sayoko subsequently bugging Miyuki about teaching her in the ways of killing. It’s one of the few times that Suzuki allows himself to become embroiled in a relationship exploring such ethical boundaries, but he rarely digs deep into this side of things and prefers to stick more closely to the surrogate mother ideal, which builds up tremendously toward the final act. What we end up with are two female characters from separate worlds that become linked by an unusual turn of events. Hanae Kan in her motion picture debut, like Natalie Portman’s Matilda, imbues her character with a zesty and immature nature, which is befitting of her tender age, from which Suzuki explores the young girl entering into puberty in a place where she has no one else of similar years to relate to.
But let’s not forget that Pistol Opera is pure unadulterated, unfiltered fun. Say what you will, muse all you want, ponder its existence if you like; everyone will gauge different responses and come away with what they feel is significant to the overall experience. Seijun Suzuki is the same man he always was, but with Pistol Opera he seems to be freer than ever, so if he wants to muck about with his camera some more and continue to churn out loopy-arsed imagery then so be it. Suzuki is one of a kind, and a director who has never bordered on being pretentious in his life. As someone who just wishes to entertain people his intents couldn’t be any more sincere with Pistol Opera: he creates yet another major talking point thanks to a deluge of inventive tricks, and shows that despite his age he can still give the rest of the film making world a good run for its money.
Yume Pictures release Pistol Opera as part of their Seijun Suzuki Collection.
Of all of Yume’s Suzuki titles on DVD Pistol Opera is undoubtedly the best looking. Curiously the film was originally shot in 1.33:1, which has been replicated here as such. Frankly the film needs a transfer as complimentary as this; while it is unfortunately an NTSC-PAL conversion it more than cuts it in terms of solid visual clarity, boasting a gorgeous colour scheme which never wavers under pressure. Primary colours are dominant throughout and they’re well replicated, with no bleed out or unnatural saturation. Skin tones are also spot on, while blacks and contrast remain stable. There is a little issue with edge enhancement, but otherwise detail is good anyway. Yume has done a great job here, with a transfer that shows nothing in the way of compression artefacts.
Likewise, the DD2.0 Japanese track presents no problems. The rear channels get a look in and beef up Kazufumi Kodama’s lively score, while there’s a little ambient noise here and there. But mainly the centre and forward speakers carry the weight of the film’s sound design, presenting clear dialogue, with no noticeable distortion.
Optional English subtitles are included, and while they read fine and present no grammatical or timing errors, they sadly lack an optional stream for translating English dialogue. There are quite a few moments in which characters speak in English and obviously the assumption here is that it therefore doesn’t need bothering with. But I’d like to point out that there are also Asian cinema fans who are hard of hearing, and as such there is a necessity to cater for everyone. This is a problem that affects most distributors still, and perhaps that needs to be seriously looked at in future.
The Making of Pistol Opera runs for thirty minutes and covers all the bases it needs to. The cast discuss their reasoning for wanting to partake in a Seijun Suzuki picture, while plenty of behind the scenes footage sees Suzuki hard at work and always smiling and laughing. There’s input from close friends and crew members Yonezo Maeda (Cinematographer), Takeo Kimura (Production Design) and also Shinji Higuchi (Visual FX) who discuss the director’s working style and the demands that need to be met for success. There’s a few neat revelations, such as Suzuki working on The Grotesque World Fair set, which was constructed at Nikkatsu and plenty of words from the man himself about getting through his latest feature.
Seijun Suzuki and His Staff runs for just three minutes and takes place during the 2002 recording session for the Japanese DVD audio commentary. Production designer Takeo Kimura, Cinematographer Yonezo Maeda, Producers Satoru Ogura and Kazutaka Katashima and Director Seijun Suzuki engage in a lively discussion with food and drinks about the film, but they mainly rib each other and ponder upon various shots and meanings. It’s really funny and a great shame that Yume never licensed the full commentary, but oddly decided to include this excerpt.
Running for little under five minutes The Venice Film Festival takes us to the 58th annual presentation, where Suzuki discusses the film’s meaning, in that it doesn’t have much of one, but allows the visuals to carry it. There are various clips of him wining and dining, and a couple of speeches, but given the length there’s not a great deal here. Audition of Kan-Hanae is a one and a half minute look the ten year-old’s November 2000 audition, while Interviews is an equally brief three minutes worth of questions pitted to Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Masatoshi Nagase and Seijun Suzuki. If ever there was a sign that Suzuki hates being so revered in terms of what his films signify then none is more evident here as an unidentified reporter at the Venice Film Festival is pretty much embarrassed by the sharp fellow after asking what Pistol Opera means to him as a director, to which he replies “Such a stupid question, indeed. I have to make a living here.” Cue the camera cut. The film’s trailer and a three minute promo reel rounds of the bonus content.
Has a sequel ever taken so long to surface? Remarkably it took Seijun Suzuki almost 35 years to revisit his fiercely reputed Branded to Kill, and it’s somewhat ironic that after all that time the 78 year-old director would then return to Nikkatsu studios to film the heavy climax of his big come back feature. Or would that be poetic justice? Pistol Opera is a remarkable and sensual piece of art, no doubt about it. Its style is much in the same manner as Suzuki’s later features of the sixties, creating a canvas of bold and vivid imagery to carry it through a relatively simple plot. Yes it’s mad, it’s surreal and totally off the wall, but it’s also incredibly fun, and in the end that’s the whole point.