Pistol Opera

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“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?”

I don’t think I have ever been quite so flummoxed by a girls-with-guns film. To say it’s not quite what I expected is an understatement, but it’s also my first experience of Seijun Suzuki, who is one of the icons of Japanese cinema. The basic plot centers around Stray Cat (Esumi), the current #3-ranked assassin; there’s a guild who decide such things, but they are on the edge of anarchy and Cat gets the assignment from her manager (Yamaguchi) to target the #1, Hundred Eyes. However, there are a lot of people with their own agendas, not least Sayoko (Han), a young girl who wants Cat to teach her the ways of murder.

On the basis of this, I’d file Suzuki somewhere between David Lynch and Guy Maddin, for large chunks of this make no sense. Characters deliver long, rambling monologues of no real significance to the camera [one particularly vague one involves flags], in front of a surreal landscape that is as much self-consciously artificial as it is realistic. It is apparently a reworking of the director’s own Branded to Kill, except with a female protagonist. More than 30 years – plus, it would appear, a truckload of drugs and a severe case of Alzheimer’s – passed in the meantime, and it’s clear Suzuki did not spend it working on the plot.

Sure, it looks lovely, but the girls-with-guns experience is not founded upon Art with a capital A. It’s something that should head directly for the lizard-brain, to deliver a heady payload of taboo-breaking violence. I have no objection to the artistically surreal in cinema generally [Peter Greenaway is a personal favourite]. However, there still needs to be something coherent and interesting behind it, otherwise you might as well just eat a large pizza and go to sleep – the imagery will be just as good, and it’s a better use of your time. In 1968, Suzuki got fired by major studio Nikkatsu, who said that they “could not afford to cultivate a reputation for making films understood only by an exclusive audience,” and that his “incomprehensible and thus bad films would disgrace the company.” Frankly, I’m in full agreement with the studio.

Dir: Seijun Suzuki
Star: Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Mikijiro Hira, Yeong-he Han

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