A sequel of sorts to 1967's Branded to Kill, Pistol Opera stretches the hired-killer genre to bizarre lengths. With a gorgeous mise-en-sc'ne and impenetrable plotting, the film simultaneously mocks and glorifies assassins and their milieu. Anyone looking for blazing action or the guilty pleasures of camp midnight movies will be disappointed. But fans of Seijun Suzuki's intricate, demanding style may be delighted by the 78-year-old director's latest feature.
Seijun has been directing for almost 50 years, and by now has honed his films of all extraneous elements. He has also whittled away most of the standard techniques for telling a story, leaving behind only those moments and incidents he finds interesting. Without transitions, reaction shots, or at times even master shots, it can be extremely difficult to decipher what is happening, especially when Seijun chooses to dispense with sound entirely. Shots might not match at all, and sometimes seem edited together by whim, not by narrative necessity. Chases become bullet-like trajectories across frames of abstract geometric shapes.
Pistol Opera proceeds almost as if by free association, with the plot darting off on inexplicable tangents or folding back in on itself. Seijun is helped enormously by Makiko Esumi, a dazzling beauty who delivers a flinty, self-assured performance as Stray Cat, the number-three killer in the mysterious Guild of hired assassins. Bearing an implacable grace, and dressed in flowing kimonos of either black or raincoat-yellow, she is absolutely riveting whenever she is on screen. Uekyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi) orders Stray Cat to kill Hundred Eyes, ranked number one in the Guild. With other assassins dropping like flies, finding the killer is harder than it looks. Stray Cat comes under attack in abandoned factories or industrial waterfronts or bamboo forests, often under the gaze of a schoolgirl named Sayoko (Yeong-he-Han).
Making sense out of the story is the least of Pistol Opera's pleasures, especially given what is either Seijun's limited attention span or bracing shorthand of film grammar. In fact, the circular plotting and other post-narrative tricks start to pall right around the time Butoh dancers fondle a guillotine in a sideshow attraction at an International Terrorism Expo. Does Stray Cat defeat enemies like the sadistic Painless Surgeon (Jan Woudstra) or the sniffling Dark Horse (Masatoshi Nagase)? When the retired Champ (Mikijiro Hira) proclaims that he is an idiot, is he speaking for Seijun or the audience? Pistol Opera raises more questions than it answers, a fitting valedictory for a notoriously cantankerous director.