AFED #14: Pistol Opera (Japan, 2001); Dir. Seijun Suzuki

During a short interview that's included as an extra on the dvd of Pistol Opera, director Seijun Suzuki is asked what the film means to him as a director. "Such a stupid question," he retorts. "What does making this interview mean to you?"

It was the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema that first popularised the notion a film's director should be credited as its primary creative influence in the mid fifties. Although applicable to all cinema, some of the most enthusiastic writing on the auteur theory concerned directors who had worked within an integrated studio system, in particular that of classical Hollywood.

While Francois Truffaut and his Cahiers cohorts were extolling the virtues of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, at the Nikkatsu Company in Japan a young director was just beginning his career. Within a decade Seijun Suzuki had taken the helm of more than thirty B-movies for the studio, demonstrating a particular aptitude for gangster yarns. Critics and cinephiles had started to note his visually bold, visceral style and with his two best known films, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, he had taken it to its most fantastic and abstracted. He too, they decided, was an auteur.

Suzuki's bosses at the studio were less impressed and promptly sacked him, pointing to the increasingly absurd and incoherent nature of his films. The director argued he was making the best work possible under tight deadlines and limited budgets, eventually being awarded compensation following a legal battle, but it curtailed his career. It would be a decade before Suzuki's directing job and not until 2001 that he finally returned to the genre with which he made his name...

Pistol Opera is a sequel of sorts to Branded to Kill, although if you haven't seen the original you're not at any disadvantage. Makiko Esumi plays Miyuki Minazuki, a.k.a. Stray Cat, a kimono-attired assassin who's ranked No.3 in the Assassin's Guild. When she's offered a contract to take out the No.1 ranked killer, the mysterious Hundred Eyes, it sets off a vicious competition with other assassins for the coveted top spot.

It's a flimsy, elliptical plot interrupted by various absurd encounters and dream sequences. Along the way to her final confrontation with No.1, Stray Cat tussles with a wheelchair-bound assassin, is lumbered with a ten-year-old girl who wishes to be her protege and encounters Goro Hanada, the 'Champ' hit man from Branded to Kill who's now regarded as something of a joke by his fellow assassins. Throughout her progress she's regularly briefed by Sayoko Uekyo, an enigmatic intermediary with whom she shares some homoerotic frisson.

For Suzuki's admirers the real appeal of his work lies as much in his audacious technique and visual sensibility. Art director and longtime Suzuki collaborator Takeo Kimura does an exemplary job with the set design, which invokes and perhaps improves upon the poppy audacity of Tokyo Drifter. It's a kaleidoscopic feast that holds the attention even when you can't fathom what's supposed to be happening in the story.

Taken on this level - allowing the sumptuous imagery to wash over you with seeking any deeper meaning - Pistol Opera successfully recaptures the flavour of his best sixties work. But one suspects that Suzuki is rather bemused by the acclaim foisted upon those films and his auteur status. He was simply trying to produce some diverting ephemera with a little flair and originality, anything more is purely in the eye of the beholder.


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