A perfect example of the no-holds-barred well of creativity bubbling overseas is Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera. A sequel to the Japanese director's 1967 cult piece Branded to Kill, the film sets the stage for a wondrous tale of violence, betrayal, vengeance, and death. But while the film is gorgeous to behold, it winds up being strange without being interesting.
Suzuki's rainbow-tinged visuals hide his lack of story. Not that Opera doesn't have an excellent synopsis. Even typing it makes me wish this movie played out better than it does. Stray Cat (Makiko Esumi) belongs to an assassin's guild. How she joined, we're never told. Currently, she's ranked No. 3 in the community, but with each kill, she climbs the ever-changing ranking system that fluctuates as the participants continue infighting. Her nemesis remains Hundred Eyes, though she's suspicious of a masked messenger who provides targets for execution but few answers to motive.
Ah, execution. It's crucial to Opera's failure. For despite its addictive premise, something gets lost in Suzuki's overall execution of the idea. Told in non-linear fashion, Opera strays as often from the story at hand as an actual stray cat would. Suzuki drops in shots that make absolutely no sense in context, from a dog wading in a river to a motorcyclist buzzing through a small village. The overall tone is artsy, not artistic, and the director's gaudy approach to his individual frames begs for a deeper meaning that you're going to have to bring to the table yourself.
You can't fault Suzuki's staging. Stray Cat's fight with the No. 5-ranked killer, Painless Surgeon (Jan Woudstra), appears to take place on a theatrical stage that we're viewing from choice front-row seats. And the screenplay, from the writing tag-team of Kazunori Itô and Takeo Kimura, adequately explores Stray Cat's relationship with an aged and former guild assassin who retains his taste for battle.
Just when Opera starts to click, though, it wanders off the path of enlightenment, which may work for some but won't settle for others. Stray Cat's interactions with the Sayoko, an inquisitive young girl, come from left-field and offer little insight into either character. And when Hundred Eyes actually sits across from Stray Cat, tension should mount, but we laugh as this "warrior" pretends to eat a meal and drink sake. Their inevitable physical confrontation - when it finally comes - may look amazing shrouded in a deep yellow fog, but a languid pace and non-linear method of storytelling turn us off to caring who lives, who loves, or who dies.
Suzuki's finale must be seen to be believed. It's best described as Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" as imagined by James Bond creator Ian Fleming and filtered through a crack pipe. The last lines, spoken by Stray Cat's mysterious mentor, are "I'm an idiot. Idiot!" I'm guessing it's because he stayed with this movie until the bitter end.
Run time: 112 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 27th October 2001
Distributed by: Shochiku
Production compaines: DENTSU Music And Entertainment, Eisei Gekijo, Ogura Jimusyo Co., Shôchiku Eiga, TV Tokyo, Victor Company of Japan (JVC)
Contactmusic.com: 1.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 15 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Screenwriter: Kazunori Itô, Takeo Kimura
Starring: Makiko Esumi as Miyuki Minazuki, Sayoko Yamaguchi as Sayoko Uekyo, Hanae Kan as Sayoko Uekyo, Masatoshi Nagase as Man dressed in black, Mikijiro Hira as Goro Hanada, Kirin Kiki as Rin, Kenji Sawada as Man at Tokyo Station, Haruko Kato as Shizuka Orikuchi, Yôji Tanaka as Koroshi-ya No. 7, Yoshiyuki Morishita as Killer no.9, Jan Woudstra as Painless Surgeon