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gunplay in Pistol Opera

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Pistol Opera
cast: Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanac Kan, and Kirin Kiki

director: Seijun Suzuki

112 minutes (18) 2001
Yume DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
I still remember the first time that I came across a Seijun Suzuki film. I was working in a comic store at the time that had a small video section selling the usual cult paraphernalia. One day a customer returned a copy of Tokyo Drifter that he'd bought from us a few days earlier. "There's something wrong with this - it won't play properly in my video recorder. It's not my recorder that's broken; my other videos play okay in it." The shop owner - a dyed-in-the-wool Trekker - tossed me the video and said it was mine to keep if I could get it working.

There was nothing wrong with my video player either. The first part of the film was so heavily solarised that it looked as if it was over-exposed. One is tempted to wonder if Quentin Tarantino also had the same experience when he was in retail. He's certainly seen it - the first part of Reservoir Dogs is a straight lift (minus the effects). Seijun Suzuki - king of the psychedelic gangster movie.

Apparently Pistol Opera (aka: Pisutoru opera) is a sequel or a remake of Sukuzi's 1967 film Branded To Kill. Don't worry if you haven't seen it, as it probably wouldn't make too much difference. As far as plotting goes, Suzuki tends to make Dario Argento look like Alfred Hitchcock. Stray Cat (Makiko Esumi) is ranked number three in the assassin's guide. She is ambitious to become number one. This involves various set piece fights with highly stylised killers who each have their own shtick. The creepy Painless Surgeon (number nine), for example, is the token occidental, who has the ability to stick knives into his body without suffering pain, and he's played by Jan Woudstra (who comes across like a sadistic Alan Moore).

Then there is another dockside battle with The Teacher, an assassin in a wheelchair. During this one, Stray Cat ends up looking after a girl who witnessed the battle. The girl's totally unfazed by everything and has ambitions to become an assassin herself. The girl may possibly symbolise death, as she turns up in Stray Cat's dreams. The set piece battles (and the bizarre dream sequences where Stray Cat meets up with her victims, dressed in white, on a jetty in a golden landscape) are too often reminiscent of 1980s' pop videos. The same three pieces of music are played over them, which adds to the similarity. There's Miles Davis type stuff, some synth-laden dub reggae, and a piece that sounds like Serbian folk music scored for a rock band. Kodama Kzufumi is held responsible for the music in the credits. There are some beautiful little scenes as Stray Cat searches for Hundred Eyes (number one), and Esumi herself has a great screen presence, but it all starts to get a bit wearying as it goes on.

Then, in the last half hour, Pistol Opera goes really left field. There is a scene involving a dog running past a wall with western philosophers painted on it: John Stuart Mills, Karl Marx, Ghandi (western is a relative term) and stacks more, and then we have two characters delivering Godardesque direct-to-camera monologues. One (Sayoko Yamaguchi) is draped in a Union Jack and, quite frankly, seems to be talking gibberish, while the next delivers a speech on Mishima. Then there is the final showdown that is just about the freakiest gunfight to ever grace the screen. Imagine Tarantino doing Buñuel and you're about halfway there.

It's very much a curate's egg of a production, and I don't doubt that there is a lot of symbolism that is lost on many western viewers. There is much that annoys, but there are also things that you'll see in no other film. The original trailer is included as a bonus feature.

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