In writing about this film, I feel like a carnival barker: Yes, folks, step right up to witness the death throes of one of cinema's most idiosyncratic talents! Right here on this very stage, you will be amazed as Seijun Suzuki pisses away his critical reputation in a haze of color and incoherence! Thrill as the film seems to evaporate before your very eyes! Gasp at the total lack of any character development or emotional resonance whatsoever! Groan as you realize this thing goes on at least 45 minutes longer than the material and inspiration will allow! Yes, folks, come be a witness to a restless mind gone supernova!
That's not to say that the other Suzuki films I've seen have been models of restraint and narrative economy. But at least "Tokyo Drifter" and "Branded to Kill" (of which "Pistol Opera" is a loose remake) had a bare minimum of structure and sense attached, the vestigal remnants of assembly-line scripts from the Nikkatsu Studio mill. Here, out on his own and directing for the first time in nearly ten years, Suzuki has pitched headlong into total style at the expense of everything else that makes a film work. The result is a pile of gibberish, a "Lisztomania" for the Hong-Kong-action-movie crowd.
The plot -- or what remains of it, anyway -- involves the adventures of the No. 3 assassin for the Assassin's Guild, a young woman named Stray Cat. For the reason that there wouldn't be a movie otherwise, the Guild has started to collapse, and Stray Cat's latest assignment is to take out Hundred Eyes, the No. 1 assassin. But there's other killers in her way as well, which means that every fifteen minutes or so Suzuki can throw in an artfully composed death scene. And make no mistake, the film is often beautiful to look at. Early on, I thought I may have been watching the director's best film yet. The battle between Stray Cat and Teacher (a surly assassin in a wheelchair who goes out rolling into the ocean) is eye-popping and fantastic and funny as hell. But the longer the film goes and the more obvious it becomes that there's nobody driving this engine, Suzuki's constant visual gimmickry becomes tiresome. His earlier works seemed spawned out of a post-war disenfranchisement and disconnection with society at large; without these melancholy underpinnings, it's like watching the world's longest fashion-magazine photo shoot -- sure, it's gorgeous, but what's the point?
What's worse, Suzuki seems to have lost his sense of humor with age. "Branded" and "Drifter" were heavily stylized and oft-nonsensical, true, but they also had a absurd wit about them -- it felt like Suzuki was getting away with something and was flaunting it at every opportunity. "Pistol Opera", though, treats the latter word in that title as a mandate. Slow and strangely somber most of the time, this is Art Gone Bad. The final fifteen minutes in particular, which theoretically contain the showdown between Stray Cat and Hundred Eyes, is a banal barrage of stagy and pretentious imagery. People are dressed in kimonos and there's naked painted dancing people in the midst of it all and the colored-backdrop trick is used again and again (probably because it was so effective in "Tokyo Drifter") and it's all so fucking capital-A-artsy that you just want to choke. "Branded to Kill" ended with the haunting sight of a possibly insane Hanada screaming "I am the No. 1 killer!" over and over; this has naked painted dancing people. As much as it pains me, it appears that Suzuki has nothing left to say. Lacking substance, his film drowns in hollow formalism. Let us hope that he does not see fit to sully his name further.