What’s in a name? Over the length of an intimidatingly monumental career, Seijun Suzuki gave us titles of great and peculiar beauty: Take Aim at the Police Van (1960), Man With a Shotgun (1961), Capone Cries a Lot (1985). Taken even without their accompanying visuals, these titles speak to a world of stylized and almost comic lyricism — where crime and violence are rendered as fizzy and cool as a summer beer. You want to get drunk on them. His métier was the yakuza film — a mass of B-movies produced for the Nikkatsu Company before his controversial departure in 1967. Deeply stylized (the familiar trifecta of sex, glamor, and violence), his baroque methodology makes him a kind of demiurge to the somewhat more easygoing style of Takeshi Kitano (who, alongside Wong Kar-wai, helped to bring Suzuki to international attention in the 1990s). A Stakhanovite of the Japanese studio system, Suzuki once remarked, “if I had an idea in the morning, it could be implemented in the afternoon.”
Released in 2001, Pistol Opera is Suzuki’s penultimate film — an “almost” coda that was also his first film since 1993, coming in from the cold after years of interruption (since 1967, he completed just seven projects, as opposed to the forty he shot between ‘56 and ‘67). Properly, Pistol Opera is a celebration of style and excess, a PoMo assemblage that jolts from one cultural reference to another, never quite stopping for more than a few brief moments in each of its deeply abstracted cul-de-sacs. It’s also of note that the film is a kind of remake of, or disjointed sequel to, his earlier Branded to Kill (1967), which derailed his studio career decades prior after its producers claimed that his films made “no sense and no money.”
Angular and stylized, Pistol Opera sees Suzuki draw on evocative chiaroscuro and a depth of focus that wouldn’t be out of place in Orson Welles’ filmography, as well as close-ups (of hands loading rifles, hands gripping pistols, bullets — gun stuff) that wink knowingly at the formal elegance of Bresson. It’s also very weird, almost impossible to follow, and so engorged on its own visual acrobatics that the narrative begins to erode under its own colossal weight. I’ve seen it described as “excruciating,” which is a bit extreme — though it’s no doubt far from taut. You can’t help but lose your way. Indulgent? Possibly. Visually exciting? Undoubtedly.
The plot follows No. 3 AKA “Stray Cat” (Makiko Esumi), an assassin employed by a shadowy organization known as The Guild. Through some briskly and almost indifferently described exposition, we learn that there is a war going on within this clique of callous killers; each of the top-billed among its ranks tries to off one another to claim the crown as the new No. 1 (currently held by the mysterious “Hundred Eyes”). Both ploddingly and electrically, Pistol Opera sets us up for a final confrontation. Throughout, No. 3 is joined by Sayoko Uekyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi) — her “agent” and fixer — along with her grandmother (the legendary Kirin Kiki), and another Sayoko (Hanae Kan), a young girl desperate to learn the art of the kill. Through the prism of this plot, it’s impossible not to think of Pistol Opera as a reflection on Suzuki’s entire cinematic project — a ransacking of the genre which he’d both helped shape and been spat out by. An older, now retired killer (limping from an injury that has taken him off the books) provides running commentary on No. 3’s performance, cackling and hobbling into frame. He remarks: “With all your wisdom, with all your technique, killing blooms into an artwork.” The old man could be a mouthpiece for Suzuki himself, reflecting on his own wisdom and technique, his transformation of brute violence into lyrical, alienating abstraction.
Fittingly, Pistol Opera eventually dissolves from its original premise into a prismatic, dreamlike combat more elusive than concrete, the gung-ho shooting of the first act replaced by a flowing choreography of murder that pushes into the territory of the mythological and performative. There are patient tracking shots reminiscent of Ozu (knee-height, gradual); leering crash pans; “dioramas” of people sprawled in forests alongside keyboards and mirrors. All this is accompanied by licks of jazz and synth-backed reggae. It’s a lot.
Suzuki also utilizes elements of Japanese Butoh theater, the performance practice that arose in 1959. In Butoh, dancers — their bodies naked and painted in white chalk — explore ideas of the tortured and the grotesque; the “squat, earthbound physique” (as one of its founders described it) of everyday life. It is the attempt to conceive of a new corporeal language (twisting, alienating, and abstract) that would better reflect the dark realities of modernity. These writhing figures accompany No. 3 and No. 1 in their protracted final battle, a kind of Greek chorus to the fatal violence that binds them together. It’s a lot.
With its jump cuts, non-linearity, and dream-logic configurations — where many scenes feel like total non-sequiturs — Pistol Opera functions as a surreal collage of other currents in Japanese post-war cinema: a blend of pinku (specifically, Atsushi Yamatoya’s 1967 Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands) and high modernism (calling to mind Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1966 The Face of Another), both of which were released around the time of Suzuki’s own ejection from the filmmaking establishment. For each roughly nested reference to these other landmarks in Japanese film, Suzuki has his own poppy twists and turns to introduce — calling to mind Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001) and anticipating that director’s Love Exposure (2008). We’re walking through the DVD closet and pulling titles left, right, and center.
Popping with color, exaggeratingly in its compositional sense, and almost collapsing under its burden of references, Suzuki primarily thrills us by unlocking the potential of his set pieces. A forest battle conducted under a veil of noxious green smoke; frequent visits to a shimmering, SfX afterlife landscape; a wobbling plastic tree stuck in the soil, framed by the white massif of Mount Fuji. Faces are doubled, characters appear and disappear more quickly than we can keep up with them; the sheer bloated exuberance of the vibrating design is felt everywhere, through smash zooms and stylized murders.
Later, Dark Horse (Masatoshi Nagase) — one of the film’s many, many assassins — touts his “sublime technique”: the ability to shoot somebody in just the right spot to cause them to smile, while grimacing, in death. Here’s another not unsubtle reference to what Suzuki is laying out for us: the forced smile in a hall of terrifying murder. We’re locked into this excessively outre journey with him, just as he abstracts the yakuza genre into a place of pure style and unfiltered form, with vivid texture, absurdist costume, and machines that roar into frame and douse the screen in floods of poppy petals. As the retired hitman No. Zero remarks earlier in the film: “We make the impossible possible, and turn it into art.” You can only grimace, or smile.
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