There are a set of films that are so enigmatic that they almost defy analysis or explanation. In this grouping are Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, as well as a more recent Japanese film called Pistol Opera which was directed by the perplexing studio outsider Seijun Suzuki. Well into his seventies by the time he directed this film, Suzuki’s work is something to be witnessed. A narrative exists within an incredibly complex experimental film that is something between absurist nihilism and magical realism. A clear influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Pistol Opera is clearly a response to America’s beloved director and to be honest I found his work to be far more rewarding than almost any of Tarantino’s work. Pistol Opera has a large cast of characters that are all seemingly interconnected, yet uniquely their own characters. Each moment of the film serves as its own segment, all of which seem to work as a series of experimental shorts were it not for the tying together of the protagonist to each scene. An incredibly cinematic film, laden with every possible editing method, Pistol Opera is quotable memorable and a down right fun viewing experience, even if you are not quite sure what the film is ultimately about.
Pistol Opera, is to some extent a sequel to Suzuki’s 1967 film Branded To Kill, in that it focuses on the advancement of a assassin from the rank of No. 3 to No. 1, however, the character in this film is not the male of the original, but instead a woman named Miyuki Minazuki (Makiko Esumi) who goes by the code name Stray Cat. Throughout the film she is attempting to overtake the highest ranking assassin who goes by the name of Hundred Eyes given his various spies throughout the city, many of which are other spies. While Stray Cat wanders the city looking for Hundred Eyes she is forced into bouts with other assassins, including some rather hilarious encounters, most notably the wheelchair bound Champ (Mikijiro Hira), who has been given an honorary ranking of No. 0, despite believing that he is still an expert assassin. Similarly, Stray Cat must fight an assassin who goes by the name of Painless Surgeon (Jan Woudstra), a white man donning a trench coat who seems immune to being in physical pain. While engaging in these various bouts, Stray Cat must also deal with her own personal issues, which include an unusual relationship with what appears to be an estranged daughter, as well as a rather intensely sexual relationship with her female manager. Ultimately, Stray Cat encounters Hundred Eyes in a climactic and psychedelic bout, one that Stray Cat eventually wins placing her in the place of No. 1 assassin, but as the film makes terribly clear her status in such a position can disappear at the briefest of moments.
Pistol Opera is open for a variety of interpretations, whether they be theoretical or formalist in their approach it is incredibly difficult to single out a right answer to what the film is about. While this is not necessarily a problem as mystery is one of the greatest parts of cinema, I would be remised not to attempt to tackle at least one of the clear themes within the film. To me Pistol Opera is very much a film about feminist advancement in a Japan that is continually evolving away from a world of tradition and conservative Western influence. Stray Cat is a stoic and independent woman who could very well be engaged in a lesbian relationship. If a viewer reads this as such, she is clearly promoting women’s empowerment in the greatest way possible, one that completely separates men from the equation. Similarly, she helps a young girl in her attempts to become an assassin, a clear continuation of keeping women involved in a profession that the film, and the broader scope of assassin cinema history, suggests to be male dominated. Furthermore, when considering the assassins that Stray Cat meets throughout the film it is clear that they are to be mocked and ridiculed as helpless and weak. The Champ is likely a representation of an archaic tradition of male dominance in Japan that has now lost its grounding, literally depicted in the film with the placement of a wheelchair. Similarly, Painless Surgeon, played by what we can assume to be a Western-born actor, could imply that Japan has finally overcome the oppressive forces of the post-WW2 oppression of The United States. Suzuki who has always been one for the off-handed social critique, blows the top off with Pistol Opera and completely deconstructs notions of power in contemporary Japan and in doing so makes a completely bizarre, yet absolutely watchable film.
Pistol Opera is an experiential film and while I intend to obtain my own copy in the future, you can easily rent this film for a much more reasonable price than trying to purchase a copy. However, if you really love Japanese films this is certainly worth buying.