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Pistol Opera
  |     review    |     notes     |     availability     |    

Pistol-packing weirdness from Pistol Opera.
Year: 2001  
Director: Seijun Suzuki  
  Producer: Satoru Ogura, Ikki Katashima
  Cast: Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, Haruko Kato, Mikijiro Hira, Kenji Sawada
  The Skinny: Avant-garde filmmaker Seijun Suzuki remakes his own Branded to Kill with this promising, but ultimately disappointing 2001 update.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      I'm probably not the best guy to critique Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera—at least, in the opinion of those out there expecting a favorable review. The last film of his that I watched was the 1966 cult favorite Tokyo Drifter, which seemed to have all the ingredients for a surefire winner. Sadly, I found that Tokyo Drifter's unique sense of style couldn't compensate for its obvious lack of substance. But though I had a negative opinion about that particular Suzuki film, I honestly went into Pistol Opera with high hopes and an open mind. And to Suzuki's credit, his visual flair has actually improved with age instead of dimming over the years. Unfortunately, his regard for even the basic requirements of movie realism has not.
     Pistol Opera is at once a sequel and a remake of Suzuki's 1967 film Branded to Kill, a box office dud that got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu studios, but subsequently earned him a cult following. In this contemporary update, we meet the beautiful "Number Three Killer" known as Stray Cat (Makiko Esumi) who covets the top spot held by the mysterious killer, 100 Eyes. In her quest to eliminate the top-ranked assassin, Stray Cat takes orders from a mysterious masked female, meets a preternaturally creepy young fan, and gets advice from an elderly assassin named Number Zero (Mikijiro Hira) along the way. Oh, and double-crosses ensue, and people die. Sounds intriguing, right?
     One adjective that could be used in describing Pistol Opera is "experimental." However, that isn't necessarily a good thing since many an experiment has been known to backfire, and Pistol Opera is prime evidence of that. The film certainly looks fantastic, with vibrant colors, spectacular set design, an eye-catching wardrobe, and more than a couple breathtaking vistas. Even better, nearly all of the major characters possess such a distinctive look, that under the right circumstances, any one of them could carry a film—so strong is Suzuki's attention to creating remarkable characters. He manages to create a truly unique, if eccentric, vision of the world. But all this focus on the visuals so amplifies the expectation level that the film can't even begin to match them.
     What is absolutely infuriating about Pistol Opera is Suzuki's blatant (and presumably intentional) disregard for such little niceties as logic, continuity, and plot. For example, in one scene early in the film, a couch suddenly appears, disappears, and then reappears in a matter of seconds. Even worse, the acting and the action is far too formalized to take seriously as the actors do things that are, quite honestly, just plain weird. Suzuki fans may claim that I am missing the point of the entire movie—that all this craziness is Suzuki's bold attempt to break free from the constraints of reality and therefore, it is the very absurdity of the film that makes Pistol Opera so much fun. To put it mildly (and without the use of expletives), that's ridiculous. While I will concede that many great films are guilty of the same things that I criticize Pistol Opera for, in all those cases, the movies offered something for compensation. Zany comedies like Naked Gun and Airplane aren't tied in the least to any semblance of reality, but that's part of the joke. Pistol Opera, on the other hand, is just too damn pretentious to be funny. Well, I will admit that the gun-toting, wheelchair-bound, green track-suited assassin in the first act did make me crack a smile, but that's about it.
    Sure, my opinion of the film might improve based on a second viewing, but at this point, I can't go along with the popular perception that Pistol Opera is a great film. Despite its art house credentials and stylish facade, the movie is just about as meaningful as the latest mindless action flick churned out by the Hollywood machine. Ultimately, Pistol Opera ranks as a definite artistic work, but as a good movie? Not by a long shot. (Calvin McMillin, 2003)
Notes: • Number Zero (played by Mikijiro Hira) is actually the "Number Three Killer" from the first film, Goro Hanada. In Branded to Kill, Jo Shishido portrayed the character, but for reasons that have never been made clear, he was not asked to reprise his famous role.
Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
Tokyo Shock
Full Screen
Japanese Language Track
English Subtitles

image courtesy of Tokyo Shock Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen