Reviewed By: Sean Patrick Dolan Director: Seijun Suzuki Cast: Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase, Kirin Kiki, Haruko Kato, Kenji Sawada Source: Tokyo Shock (Media Blasters)- Region 1 NTSC (2001)
"I want to die gloriously. The killersí runway . . . To die atop a stage like an actor, at the peak of aesthetics."
With PISTOL OPERA, director Seijun Suzuki (ELEGY TO VIOLENCE, 1966; TOKYO DRIFTER,1966) reworks one of his own classic films, BRANDED TO KILL (1967), over thirty years after its original release. PISTOL OPERA is the story of "Stray Cat (Makiko Esumi)", a beautiful female assassin who has risen in the "Guild" rankings to the No. 3 spot. However, competition is stiff- her colleagues are all "dying" to become number one. In this profession, no one is sure who is who- and who may have teamed up with another assassin or taken on a contract from the Guild itself to eliminate a rival. Stray Catís rivals are a colorful group indeed, including the likes of No. 4 "Teacher" (a crippled assassin in a souped-up wheelchair), No. 5 "Painless Surgeon" (an American assassin with a yen for Japanese women- as well as the completely inability to feel physical pain) and, of course, the leader, No. 1 "Hundred Eyes" (an assassin who seems to always know the movements and identities of the other Guild members, who kills by skillfully placing a bullet in the medulla oblongata in order to leave his victims smiling).
There seems to be no end to the strange and mysterious characters that inhabit this film. In addition to her fellow assassins, Stray Cat must deal with Ms. Uekyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi), an inscrutable masked creature who is the go-between that delivers the Guildís contracts to its members. Stray Cat is also tailed by a young girl named Sayoko, and she befriends her after the girl helps to save her life. Sayoko is an unusual child who begs Stray Cat to teach her how to kill- her dream is to become an assassin for the Guild. Finally, Stray Cat is constantly harassed by an older man carrying a crutch who hangs around the teahouse where Guild members socialize. He insists that he was once a top assassin, and tells her countless unsolicited war stories. Is there any truth to his outlandish tales, or is he merely an old fool indulging in fantasy?
Stylistically, Suzuki pays early homage to the spy thrillers of the í60ís, the era in which the original film BRANDED TO KILL (1967) was made. The psychedelic title sequence and rousing jazz theme song are reminiscent of an early Bond outing, as are two highly choreographed early assassinations. However, apart from this early nod to western influences, Suzukiís film is almost purely Japanese from that point on. Anyone expecting an action film will be infuriated by PISTOL OPERA. While the plot may suggest gunfights and car chases, there is very little actual violence in this film, and none of it graphic. Rather, as the title suggests, this is an artistic work, which unfolds like an opera or ballet, while also containing elements of Kabuki theatre. There is more dialogue than action, with the players spouting existentialist musings and delivering fatalistic soliloquies. They also sing songs, recite poetry, deliver spoken word performances and engage in interpretive dance. In the midst of deadly battles, characters act more like dancers, thespians, than fighters. They pose, they strut, they look into the camera and recite their lines. The only nods to westernized kung fu films are the overblown verbal confrontations between Stray Cat and her foes and the occasional silhouetted shadow fight. This film is filled with symbolism, from dream sequences in which Stray Cat sees fallen Guild assassins beckoning her to join them on a row boat to the afterlife to the decapitated head of Japanese author Yukio Mishima appearing during a fight sequence. The character of the Girl Sayoko seems to be nothing more than a symbol, a surreal character interjecting herself into situations in which a young child such as her has no place.
Despite all the qualities Iíve listed above, PISTOL OPERA should not be regarded solely as an "art" film. Neither does it deserve the often negative labels like "abstract", "absurdist", or "surreal"- despite possessing some of these elements. It is obvious that Suzuki places great value on each frame of the film, and considers each image he presents as an important work of art in its own right. However, he also tells a story in this film, one filled with suspense and emotion, and one which has much more of a narrative flow and a sense of pacing than you might expect. He balances the weight of his subject matter, a yearning for death as a release from the stress of life, with the beauty of the film he created and, especially, the charisma of his lead actress, Makiko Esumi. She is superb as Stray Cat who, as her moniker suggests, is a tall and graceful beauty who is both playful in nature as well as an efficiently cold and calculating killer. Last but not least, Kazufumi Kodama ("Dub Station") provides an excellent soundtrack that fits the atmosphere of the film perfectly- a jazz influenced score that somehow still manages to strike the listener as being distinctly Asian. The total package is an energetic film that is nonetheless more than sophisticated enough to please anyone looking for something more cerebral than the typical action film.
I reviewed the 2001 Tokyo Shock (Media Blasters) DVD release of Pistol Opera. It is a Region 1 NTSC release present in 4:3 aspect ratio and Dolby Digital Sound (Japanese Language/English Subtitles). The extras are a bit scarce, including only a chapter menu, an original theatrical trailer, and full-color interior sleeve art.
Story: 5.0 Bitch Slaps Extras: 2.0 Bitch Slaps Picture/Audio: 5.0 Bitch Slaps Overall DVD: 4.0 Bitch Slaps
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