(director: Seijun Suzuki; screenwriter: Kazunori Ito; cinematographer: Yonezo Maeda; editor: Akira Suzuki; music: Kodama Kazufumi; cast: Makiko Esumi (Miyuki Minazuki/Stray Cat No. 3), Masatoshi Nagase(Man Dressed in Black/Dark Horse), Sayoko Yamaguchi (Sayoko Uekyo), Yeong-he Han ( Girl Sayoko), Jan Woudstra (Painless Surgeon), Mikijiro Hira (Goro Hanada); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Ikki Katshima/Satoru Ogura; Media Blasters and Tokyo Shock; 2001-Japan, in Japanese with English subtitles)
“The screen is artfully covered like the abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock and Man Ray.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
It’s very hard to like a film simply because the director might be some kind of a legendary genius and has been sympathetically known as an eccentric who was screwed by the Japanese film establishment, especially when I can’t get a good handle on what this bizarre pulp thriller is all about. Nevertheless, I was so overwhelmed by the stunning colorful visuals and the overall craft of the film and the tantalizing Dada like dialogue, that I suspended my judgment and yielded to the strong sensual feelings that ran through me. I can’t think of many films I liked after dismissing the story; but this one left me so agog that except, perhaps, for Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” (1971), I have never felt the same jarring psychedelic effect and been moved in the same strange way. Seijun Suzuki is now 80 but who made the film when he was 78, has come out of retirement since his 1991 “Yumeji” (shown in Japan, it has been 35 years since one of his film’s was shown in America). Suzuki had previously been grounded in 1967 for about a decade by the Japanese studio system for his incomprehensible ”Branded to Kill,” but in his return he directs “Pistol Opera” as a loose remake of that weird classic.
This highly stylized film advertises on its DVD jacket that it’s luridly about “Killing with Style.” It is this grand style and the director’s unique personal touches and the film’s boundless bursts of amorphous energy which may very well guarantee it an audience of only cult-film freaks. “Pistol” provides an arty mix of traditional and experimental cinema, but is so confusing it will probably only satisfy a limited audience who are willing to be taken in by the surreal rapture and let go of their need for a clear linear story.
In “Pistol Opera” the sexy Makiko Esumi plays Stray Cat, the No. 3 assassin on a list supposedly put out by a criminal underground organization called the Guild, an organization that might not even exist. The ambitious sexy young femme fatale wants to be number one. That calls for bumping off No. 2, the Useless Man, and No. 1, Hundred Eyes. At one point, Stray Cat mentions the most we ever get to know about her, as she purrs “Dogs follow masters, but I’m a stray cat.”
One of Stray Cat’s contacts is another assassin called Dark Horse (Masatoshi Nagase), but who is really Hundred Eyes. He is a young man dressed in black who has some severe sinus issues. Stray Cat calls him the “annoying one,” as he can’t resist boasting about his ability to be an escape artist and how he likes rice and women before and after work. In their competitive world, Dark Horse warns her ”Soon, I’ll relieve your anxiety with the relief of death.” Hundred Eyes likes to kill his targets in a certain part of the brain that leaves them in death with a smile on their face (there might be a theme hidden somewhere in that assassin technique). For Stray Cat, the catch is that Hundred Eyes has not been seen by the others and that chasing the mysterious man down leaves her in the dark. The others on the unseen hit list include Goro Hanada (a role taken from “Branded to Kill” but with a different actor), who’s middle-aged and walks with a crutch. He likes being called “The Champ” and used to be No. 1 for a short time, but was proven to be ineffective as a hit man and now has no ranking; the Teacher is No. 4, and the middle-aged man is confined to a wheelchair when he attacks Stray Cat–though he can walk; Painless Surgeon (Jan Woudstra), No. 5, is mocked as a Westerner who’s immune to pain but in his weakness has fallen in love with Stray Cat; and, the No. 2, Useless Man, seems to be a symbolic name for how little the director thinks of sex and mankind’s use of sex as a weapon, as he was killed off early to show how insignificant he was. To complicate matters further, many of these hitmen are killed by No. 3 but are reincarnated to fight again and some of them kill Stray Cat, who also has more than one life.
Stray Cat gets her assignments from the Guild through an older woman dressed in white and her face covered with a red veil, Sayoko Uekyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi), who appears in the gated country house where Stray Cat lives with her elderly mother (at least, I think it’s her mother). Stray Cat rejects Sayoko’s offer of an affair by saying, even though she’s a lesbian she’s still not interested in her. To make things more murky there’s a young girl also called Sayoko (Yeong-he Han), who sometimes helps Stray Cat fight off her assailants and calls her Sister.
The screen is artfully covered like the abstract paintings by Jackson Pollock and Man Ray. In all its nonsense the unique style alone seems to bring about its own mesmerizing story. As a pulp film it was entertaining and fun to see how Suzuki held it together when nothing made sense except as a series of magical movie moments or as an illogical dream or for all that it might suggest.
REVIEWED ON 9/4/2003 GRADE: B +