Pistol Opera (2001) Movie Review

Abstract – adj.

Having an intellectual and affective artistic content that depends solely on intrinsic form rather than on narrative content or pictorial representation.

Artwork that falls into the category of ‘you either get it or you don’t’ is often classified as abstract. To the untrained eye it may appear formless or lacking in focus, but these types of works are usually bold, and the viewer is hard pressed to discern the meaning of the piece without some leading. However, all too often artwork, which truly does lack form and focus, is labeled as abstract in an attempt to lend it some greater grandeur by the artist’s supporters. When film directors try to make a bold visual statement, they generally go in one of two directions: visual excess or visual minimalism. Truth be told, neither method works too often and the end product is somewhere between sensory overload and sensory somnambulance.

“Pistol Opera,” Seijun Suzuki’s long belated sequel to his Yakuza B-movie classic “Branded to Kill,” falls into both extremes. “Opera” is put together not as a film, but rather as an almost random sequence of often visually stunning set pieces. But therein lies the problem: pretty pictures don’t make for an interesting movie if there is no narrative foundation behind them (see “Casshern” for a recent example of this type of artistic hubris). The story, such as it is, appears to be a half-hearted rehash of “Branded” rather than an actual sequel, similar to what Robert Rodriguez did with “Desperado” after “El Mariachi”.

The film opens with rumblings within the Assassins Guild, where young Assassin #3, ‘Stray Cat’ Minazuki (the statuesque Makiko Esumi, perhaps best known for her role in Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Mabarosi”), is itching to move up. However, those rumblings have boiled over into an all-out civil war within The Guild as the surviving assassins start gunning each other down for the coveted #1 spot. Advised by the gimpy Assassin #0, The Champ (Mikijiro Hira, “Rampo”), and by her vamp of an agent Uekyo (fashion model Sayoko Yamaguchi), Stray Cat primps and poses her way through a barrage of hitmen known by appropriately off the wall monikers like ‘The Teacher,’ ‘Painless Surgeon’ and ‘Hundred Eyes’.

But just because “Pistol Opera” is about a war between assassins, don’t mistaken it for an action film. No, sir. In fact, Suzuki doesn’t seem too terribly concerned with who gets killed, only how good Stray Cat and Uekyo look as they exchange dramatic lines of dialogue. As mentioned above, the movie is a bunch of elaborate set pieces strung together. And when I say ‘set pieces’, I mean stage sets like you’d find in a theatrical play. Most of the sequences involve Stray Cat and Uekyo draping themselves sensuously over one or two props (or each other) against a starkly colored screen while exchanging faux philosophical musings on the spirituality of being an assassin.

Yes, it’s all as silly as it sounds, but it also looks really good, and Esumi and Yamaguchi generate a palpable erotic tension when onscreen together. Yamaguchi in particular seems to be wise to the conceit, and struts around like she’s still on a catwalk. She may as well be, since she and Esumi seem to be having a side competition to see who can wear the most elaborate kimono. Unfortunately, these set pieces are weighed down by the monotonous monologues and the film quickly becomes tiresome. “Pistol Opera” progresses in a vibrantly disjointed and incoherent style reminiscent of Suzuki’s own Technicolor mind trip “Tokyo Drifter.” But while “Drifter” had a wacky, offbeat flair that made its apparent lack of structure humorous, “Opera” takes itself too seriously, and as a result comes off as a dirge.

There are a few sequences, such as Stray Cat’s shootout at a shipyard with the wheelchair-bound Teacher, that displays a manic energy that makes you throw up your hands in amused disbelief. But by and large, there is a distinct lack of energy to “Pistol Opera”, as if Suzuki’s 78 years of age was finally slowing him down. As each set piece comes and goes, you try to piece together what it is that Suzuki is trying to say (something about gender and age politics would be my guess), but it’s all presented so obtusely that you soon give up trying. About the only thing “Opera” has going for it is a few stunning images and Yamaguchi’s elegance. And for you pedophiles, there are a couple of scenes involving a very young Yeong-he Han prancing around naked.

Suzuki could perhaps be called the Sam Fuller of Japanese cinema for having taken a blue-collar sledgehammer to the blue-blooded studio system aristocracy. And just as Fuller gave rise to mixed blessings like Jim Jarmusch, Suzuki can be seen as the anchor point for the rise of the likes of Takashi Miike (“Ichi the Killer”). Whether this legacy is good or bad is a matter of debate, but regardless, Suzuki carved a niche for himself as a trailblazer in expanding what movies could be. Unfortunately, that niche was established in the `60s and has long since worn out its welcome. To that end, “Pistol Opera” works well enough as a throwback to Suzuki’s golden years of avant-garde cinema, but as a modern film, it fails spectacularly.

Seijun Suzuki (director) / Kazunori Ito, Takeo Kimura (screenplay)
CAST: Makiko Esumi …. Miyuki Minazuki
Sayoko Yamaguchi …. Sayoko Uekyo
Hanae Kan
Masatoshi Nagase …. Man dressed in black
Mikijiro Hira …. Goro Hanada

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