Seijun Suzukis far
more famous compatriots Kenji Mizoguchi and
Yasujiro Ozu were dying out and Akira Kurosawa
down his most fertile period with classics
and Low when Suzuki
came on the scene. Before him, primo Japanese cinema was a Rolls Royce.
After him, it was a 68 Camaro Z28, and it would never be the same
again. He did for B-genre pics in Japan what Sam Fuller and Russ Meyer
had in the U.S. invigorate them with
a sense of never-before-seen rambunctious absurdity.
Suzuki, with the playfulness and audacity of
early Jean-Luc Godard, paved the way for the
likes of the even more exploitation-minded
Koji Wakamatsu (Go,
Go Second Time Virgin) and Shunya Ito
Scorpion Jailhouse 41), not to
mention Jim Jarmusch and even later, Takashi
Miike. In the late 50s through the mid-60s,
was making three to five movies a year with
titles like Nude
Girl with a Gun (alas, there is no nudity
in that one), Young
Breasts, and High-Teen
Yakuza. He only really hit his stride though with 1963s
23: Go to Hell Bastards and Youth
of the Beast, which matched him with plastic-surgery-altered chipmunk-cheeked
Jo Shishido. Shishido would become Toshiro Mifune to Suzukis
Kurosawa. Their collaborations culminated first
with the dazzling Tokyo
Drifter in 1966, then their masterpiece,
Branded to Kill, in 1967. The latter was a movie so brilliantly bizarre,
it led Suzukis studio, Nikkatsu Corp., to tear up his contract.
Afterwards, the once immensely prolific Suzuki was blacklisted for suing
his company and could only find the intermittent project and even those
slowly dwindled out.
After a decade of near inactivity, Suzuki has returned with Pistol Opera, and it shows that Suzuki has lost none of his imagination and, well, his insanity. Pistol Opera (which is more aptly the title of a John Woo movie) can be considered a loose remake of Branded to Kill or perhaps a sequel. Either way, Shisidos assassin has been substituted with a beautiful hit-woman named Miyuki Minazuki, whose nickname is Stray Cat. Cat is played by Makiko Esumi, best known in the States for Hirokazu Kore-edas Mabarosi, and the two roles couldnt be more different. In Pistol, shes fierce, elegant, calculating. In Maborosi, shes mousy, quiet, folded into herself. Sporting about as many vibrant kimonos as Maggie Cheung had cheongsams in In the Mood for Love, Esumis visage lights up the screen.
Pistol Opera shows that Suzuki
has lost none of his imagination and, well, his insanity.
As in Branded
to Kill, her assassin is ranked #3 in the guild behind #1 Hundred
Eyes and #2 Useless Man. From inside a swimming pool, Cat completes an
assignment using her sniper skills on a politicians wife in mid-dive.
Suzuki depicts this with a single iconic image, Cats arm rising
from beneath the water like the Lady of the Lake, her sword replaced with
a firing pistol. But right after, Cat finds herself being pursued by the
crippled 4th-ranked hitman called Teacher. Cat dashes across a pier followed
by the huffing-and-puffing wheelchair-bound, green jumpsuit-clad Teacher
while a cute, young teen wearing rainbow colors and holding a lantern
wanders around in the periphery. Its as delightfully absurd and
playful as movies get. The young girl turns out to be named Sayoko (Yeong-he-Han),
and she wants Cat to teach her how to be an assassin. As
Pistol Opera progresses, Cat faces other opponents like Painless
Surgeon (Jan Woudstra), a psychotic American really into Japanese theater,
and Dark Horse (Masatoshi Nagase), a masterful killer who keeps having
to use a nose spray. Eventually Cat encounters the mysterious Hundred
Eyes in a hall of mirrors-like setup with half-naked men writhing about.
However, by this point the movie has become so surreal and obtuse, it
is nearly incomprehensible, at least on a single viewing.
Still, Pistol Opera is nothing if not some kind of unique experience, even if it makes no sense. It burns images into the brain - Cat masturbating before a gun, Sayoko doing a dance to Humpty Dumpty, Cat exploring a skyscraper rooftop with all of Tokyo hovering below, guild agent Uekyo in her white lace and face-hiding maroon scarf, and Cat, always Cat, with her pistol, striking poses sexier than anything James Bond could ever muster. Suzukis discarded his customary wide screen look for a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, but his visual composition has lost none of its deliriousness. Every frame screams his vividly colorful style and indulgent provocation. Underneath the style though, as is usual for a Suzuki film, is a world where one takes love and tenderness wherever one can and trust is the rarest of commodities.