Pistol Opera (ピストルオペラ)
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Film critic Mark Kermode once stated, in his review of David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), that the film mostly appeals to :
Hardcore Lynch fans’ (), as it was probably the least accessible film in Lynch’s filmography.
The same can be said about Seijun Suzuki’s late film career which, for reasons I will explain further in this review, make it far more pleasurable to watch his films with complete creative power. But, I do believe that (despite Suzuki’s films being narratively obscure) his films can appeal to a wider audience especially in terms of their seductive visuals. Before watching Pistol Opera, however, I highly recommend watching Branded to Kill (1967) which was its spiritual predecessor (which, if I may add, is also a fantastic double bill!).
Seijun Suzuki’s career is divided into two eras: his hired work with Nikkatsu and his later independent work. What is truly amusing about his early film career is that he was a cunning filmmaker, in the sense that he gradually slipped in his avant-garde visions within the films he was hired to direct. The result was incredible, very reminiscent of the Italian giallo of the late 60s through the 80s. Suzuki’s visual style is mostly visible through his unusual framing and colour combinations, a unique mixture of pop-art and surrealism that creates a strangely exuberant and wonderful atmosphere which is practically unheard of in the mainstream.
The key difference between Suzuki’s early career and his later independent one is the storytelling. When he was a hired filmmaker for Nikkatsu, Suzuki was only asked to film scripts that were given to him (mostly gangster [yakuza] flicks). Suzuki would take those fairly linear stories and add his avant-garde visuals to make the film much more challenging. Suzuki eventually pushed his non-mainstream ideas so far that his last film for Nikkatsu, Branded to Kill (now, ironically, seen as one of the greatest arthouse crime films and influenced many filmmakers from Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Tarantino), got him fired. In my opinion, Branded to Kill is my favourite Suzuki film (at least so far), but I think his latter films are much more personal and unrestrained as we get to see Suzuki performing with complete creative control (much like watching late Lynch or Goddard).
Pistol Opera (whose co-writer, Kazunori Itô, was responsible for the screenplay adaptation of Ghost in the Shell ) takes the similar premise seen in Branded to Kill but this time with female lead. Our protagonist is stuck in the middle of an invisible competition between assassins climbing up the hierarchy ladder when, suddenly, the assassins are set against each other to fight for the first place. Up to this point it is difficult to describe the remainder of the plot since most of what follows is closer to a visual storytelling than anything else. Here, Suzuki pushes his visual style to the extreme, creating a world within the film that stands on its own; surrealistic colours, characters vanishing and reappearing seamlessly, and nothing seems to conform with the laws of physics.
The true genius of Pistol Opera is that it is insanely entertaining despite it being the complete antithesis of mainstream cinema. It is as if Suzuki gathered all his ideas that didn’t make it in Branded to Kill and finally was able to use them without any restraint. We see chase scenes shot on very static cameras, handmade expressionistic sets, Suzuki’s signature use of colours that will make you want to reach for the screen, and not to mention Suzuki’s sick humour. One of my favourite scenes is one that is told like a dark fairytale; the protagonist has to face an assassin that does not feel pain, and her way of killing him was to deceptively convince him to stab himself in the heart (trust me, it’s funnier on screen).
Watching Pistol Opera brought back the same feeling of enchantment I felt when I first saw Branded to Kill (the first film I saw for Suzuki), his framing, camerawork, and colours are so psychedelic and surreal, it is the purest example of a filmmaker singlehandedly inviting you to his own mind. This is a film the requires more than one viewing, but it never feels overwhelming in any way. It is sad to see Suzuki go, but I’m glad that there are many films in his back catalogue that I have yet to explore.