A Killer of an Opera
Reinventing 1920s Dada, films of Seijun Suzuki's forty-year career are geared to shock complacency out of its tradition-mode. Using "obvious" outlandish symbols that may as easily represent something profound as nothing at all, both styles rely on bold contrast, color juxtaposition, surreal dream sequence, disconnectedness and non sequitur, and the familiar turned topsy-turvy.
In Pistol Opera, the eighty-year-old maverick director reworks and extends Branded To Kill, his 1967 original that got him fired at Nikkatsu Studios for making "incomprehensible and unprofitable films" but has since influenced directors like Woo, Jarmusch and Tarantino.
Echoing as well the background in fact of the 1951 Windust/Walsh The Enforcer aka Murder, Inc., and Burt Balaban's 1960 Murder, Inc., this newest effort will elicit a wide spectrum of response. Individual reaction may vary between trying to interpret and to keep from sniggering, between fascination and boredom. At an unevenly paced 112 minutes, the movie requires staying power, but, approached on its own wild terms, it consciously provokes any, and all, emotions. Suzuki's vision of tension between nothingness, mu, and artifice, karen, is mirrored in goodly doses of cinematic and social satire, knowing triteness, mystery, intentional confusion, action and-perhaps-actual suggestiveness.
Subtitles and Western provinciality contribute to a certain helter-skelter quality, though this is arguably part of the plan in the first place in this tale of ranking war among professional assassins. Simple and complex at the same time, the plot centers around the search-and-destroy mission assumed by killer-for-hire Miyuki Minazuki (Makiko Esumi).
Known as "Stray Cat" and currently classified No. 3 by a Killers Bureau so amorphous as to be nonexistent, she receives instructions through contact-agent Ms. Uekyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi). Working on assignment out of her imperturbable mother's country house, Miyuki herself is attacked by No. 4, the wheelchaired "Teacher." Besting him and ingeniously submerging the body, she picks up, or is picked up by, a female child who will soon address her as "Sister." Along the way, "Champ" (Mikijiro Hira), a crippled ex-No. 1, now No. 0, warns her that things are in flux, so there is a scramble to attain his former exalted position and she must kill or be killed.
Revealing no emotions whatsoever, Stray Cat buys a new pistol, sets out to find top gun No. 1, "Hundred Eyes" (Masatoshi Nagase), and begins a trail that leads through an assortment of other, idiosyncratic, nicknamed bounty hunters. This path is strewn with strange talks in strange places with the agent; with symbolic or simply pretentious landscapes, a one-car train and snowfields or water; semi-visions of ghosts of past targets and assassins; and the child/young girl/sister who yearns to kill and becomes physically and psychically a most disturbing non-child.
All is resolved, or is it, in a long, wonderfully Grand Guignol finale in an outré fun house of reflections, bottled babies and dwarfs, writhing Egyptian slaves, impossible staircases and columns, and severed heads. The sought-for "Hundred Eyes" is not the fey, wistful, black-caped blond he claimed -- "a pretender" -- nor perhaps one single person nor a hundred, neither male nor female. The child/young girl/woman (Yeong-he Han and Kan Hanae) insists her name is Sayoko and no more, but the mysterious agent is also a Sayoko and she has her own agenda.
Do all these convolutions matter? Not at all. Whether one's answer is yes or no, whether more is pompously suggested than actually here and merely meets the eye, Pistol Opera is fun in the grand style.
Clearly not for children or childish grown-ups open to suggestion, it is at heart bloodless and sexless. Knife wounds that should be mortal, are not, guns are literally toys; pudgy insatiable duster-coated Westerners, lesbianism, a hint now and again of incest, all are unrealized, even played for humor.
Suggestion and meaning here, if any, are in the eye of the beholder. For the purely visual seeing eye, however, there is intriguing, tongue-in-cheek delight.
(Released with English subtitles by Media Blasting Releasing; not rated by MPAA.)