A whirling dervish of guns and pumped-up lunatics, Seijun Suzuki’s Pistol Opera follows a female assassin code-named “Stray Cat” around Japan as she attempts to carry out hits for her ‘Killer’s Guild.’ Though extraordinarily simplistic at its core, Suzuki’s directorial style is so chock-full of vigor and passion for his craft that it spills into Pistol Opera, allowing the flick to carve out its own niche in the genre that Suzuki himself started with his 1967 film Branded to Kill. Every shot is composed with tender care, creating a hypnotic atmosphere that at times puts the viewer in a trance. Envision Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time blended with Ang Lee’ Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, substitute pistols for swords, and you’ll begin to imagine what watching Pistol Opera feels like. Even the supporting characters like the little girl Sayoko evoke memories of CTHD (Zhang Ziyi’s ‘Jen’ there is remarkably similar). Making the sequel to Branded to Kill 36 years later was gutsy and would seem nearly impossible, yet Suzuki impressively recaptures the essence of Branded to Kill, filling Pistol Opera with the same energy while injecting it with sexy shots and colors that modernize the genre without betraying its roots.
To really enjoy Pistol Opera, you must accept that the realism factor is practically nil. As assassins run amok, the police are nearly non-existant (this was also the case in Branded to Kill). “Dr. Painless” can stick a knife into him without feeling pain; even if this were somehow possible, vital organs would likely be punctured anyway. The Yakuza (Japanese mafia) is certainly real, though, and Suzuki captures their ruthless, selfish spirit in both Branded to Kill and Pistol Opera, even if it’s intentionally overblown and the more negative aspects of the Killer’s Guild are curiously slighted. And at times, it’s difficult to decipher if a “killing” is actually occurring or it’s simply a game, what with the presence of toy guns and “Dr. Painless.” .
Confused? You likely are, and therein lies the major problem with Pistol Opera, though it does improve on Branded to Kill in that respect. The narrative starts off with promise but eventually caves in to an avalanche of action scenes and discussions about who’s who in the world of hired killers. Many of these moments are lovely, particularly the poignant talks between Stray Cat and her agent Ms. Uekyo, but they rarely lead to any sort of resolution. By the film’s end, the viewer could easily be asking themselves if there was any point to what they just saw. If looking for a tidy wrapup, that answer is likely to be a negative, but Pistol Opera never strives for the routine. See it for the visuals, gunfights, and strong performances, and prepare to leave the theatre with many questions and images floating around your head. For a film of this genre, that’s fulfilling enough to strongly recommend.