If ever a sequel could be called belated, Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera would fit the bill. More than three decades after the fact, the legendary filmmaker returns to what is widely regarded as his masterpiece: Branded To Kill. A rush job it certainly wasn't then, but can the film live up to the towering legacy of its illustrious predecessor, especially with a now 78-year old director who hasn't been at the helm of a film in almost ten years?
Echoing Branded's plot, Pistol Opera revolves around number 3 killer Miyuki Minazuki, nicknamed "Stray Cat", and her attempts at attaining the top rank in the hierarchy of assassins. She is thwarted at every turn by a procession of exotic rivals with names like The Teacher (a wheelchair-bound, tracksuit-wearing killer), Painless Surgeon (a bearded Westerner with a liking for Japanese women, who literally feels no pain) and Dark Horse (Masatoshi Nagase in a blond wig and black cloak).
Pistol Opera is filled with references to Branded To Kill, many of which employed rather playfully. The shot of an assassin (played by Kenji Sawada) falling from the roof of Tokyo station is nearly identical to the fall made by one of Jo Shishido's targets in Branded, for example. Even the sumptuous colour scheme of the film could be interpreted as a reference, a deliberate contrast with the original's stark black & white photography (additionally, Pistol Opera is shot in 1.33:1 ratio as opposed to Branded's cinemascope). But most notable of all references is of course the return of Goro Hanada, the former number 3 killer and boiled rice aficionado.
In spite of rumours abounding that Jo Shishido would return to one of his most memorable roles, the Hanada part went to Shishido's contemporary Mikijiro Hira, (whose most recent role of note was as the sadistic count in the two versions of Rampo (1994 - Rintaro Mayazumi / Kazuyoshi Okuyama)). The exact reason for this bypass remains obscure, with Suzuki himself claiming it to be the decision of producer Satoru Ogura, the project's originator. Laments over a missed opportunity aside, it must be said that Hira acquits himself of the task quite well, giving the aged Hanada just the right combination of pathos, anger and faded glory as he wobbles around in crutches and muses about the good old days.
Suzuki's original intention had been to have the plot revolve around a love affair between Hanada and Miyuki, but in the end he decided against it. Only fleeting moments of reproach between the two remain, which are too half-hearted to work as a romantic subplot, but fit rather well as part of the undetermined professional relationship between the two characters throughout the film. Hanada functions as Miyuki's counsellor, turning up at various intervals with cryptic clues and advice. His role as an active assassin is played out, though he's not quite ready to accept it himself. His position in the guild is number 0 and his nickname The Champ, representing exactly the ambivalence of his character, who is relegated into a supporting role by his young female colleague.
Suzuki has never been a stranger to putting female characters in the spotlight, his 'Flesh' trilogy - consisting of Gates of Flesh (Nikutai No Mon, 1964), Story of a Prostitute (Shunpuden, 1965) and Carmen from Kawachi (Kawachi Karumen, 1965) - springing most readily to mind. For the most part however, women in his films have been prostitutes, gangster's molls and cabaret performers. His 1977 box-office flop Tales of Sorrow and Sadness (Hishu Monogatari) broke this cycle by depicting the exploits of a female professional golfer, but with Pistol Opera women are finally the men's equals if not more. The cast is made up accordingly. With her tall stature, high-heeled boots and kimono, Makiko Esumi makes a strong physical impression as Miyuki the Stray Cat, moving in a stylised, choreographed and almost ritualised manner many times removed from her breakthrough performance in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi (Maboroshi No Hikari, 1996). She is complemented by the intriguing cross-generational presences of Yamaguchi, Kirin and the young newcomer Hanae - a quartet that forms the soul of the film.
The director's casting choices fit in rather well with composed unity of the film. In true Suzuki fashion, the film is driven stylistically rather than narratively. Music, visuals and even dialogue are parts of a big composition rather than serving to provide narrative verisimilitude. Striking use of colour (particularly in the rapturously beautiful duel between Esumi and Nagase), formal compositions and set-bound locales heighten the artificiality into which the director's first work with CGI effects blend rather well. It's tempting to classify the almost formalised result as theatrical, but Pistol Opera is in fact thoroughly cinematic. The film is an exploration of the possibilities of cinema rather than an approach of the art form as a mere storytelling vehicle. It's an exploration which has characterised Suzuki's work for decades and despite approaching the ripe old age of 80, the hope is that he can continue exploring for just a little bit longer.