Suzuki Seijun - Pistol Opera (2001)

[pistol opera] Almost a decade after directing his sequence for Kekkon (1993) Suzuki Seijun, the renegade of the Japanese studio-system whom Nikkatsu infamously fired for "making films that didn't make any sense and didn't make any money," returns with Pistol Opera: Killing With Style, a remake/sequel of his own Branded to Kill (1967), the modern classic that all but ended his career.

Both films follow an internal yakuza meltdown in which the deaths of the no.2 and no.4 assassins pits the no.3 assassin against the anonymous but deadly no.1 assassin (in Pistol Opera rankings are actually published on a quarterly basis; yep, on paper). The no.1 assassin reveals his/her hand/identity only slowly, playing cat and mouse games to psychologically weaken his/her opponent. But in Branded to Kill nos. 1 and 3 are men; in Pistol Opera, they're women.

Suzuki's Yakuza films of the 1960s, chief among them Branded and Tokyo Drifter (1966), were more interested in the character of the Yakuza than in the crime or action genres themselves. Suzuki, drawn to the idea that the low life expectancy of the low life inspired in him an intensity of emotion and action unseen in normal human beings, latched on to the role of the gangster as an expedient for hyperbolism and anti-mimetic cinema more concerned with emotional impact and the entertainment value of the moment, the prerogative of the moment eschewing build-up and thereby (conventional) plot.

Of prime importance was the look, the "hip" factor that has ever since drawn comparisons to the Bond films of the day. Branded's protagonist, the no. 3 (in a post-Y2K rollover world, no. 003) assassin Hanada Goro, matches Bond tit-for-tat, both in terms of his aura o cool and streamlined style (Western suits in lieu of Bond's tuxedos), and in his sexual appetite and the unapologetic misogyny with which he feeds it.

Like Bond in Goldfinger three years before, the middle third of Branded revolves around Hanada having lost his touch, one suspects not from a sequence of cruel twists of fate, but rather from the inability to successfully mount a sexual conquest. Bond's atypical blundering that seems to typify Goldfinger begins with the death of the Masterson sisters and ends with Pussy Galore's betrayal of Goldfinger and romp-in-the-hay with Bond James Bond. Hanada's troubles begin when he sees Misako (a cross between Pussy Galore and Anna Falchi's widow incarnation in Cemetery Man, with a gun) walking arm-in-arm with another man, albeit one she's hired him to kill, and end, in two phases, after viewing film of a dying confession of her love for him, and receiving the promise made of the no.1 hitman that she is alive and waiting to be (re)united with him, so long as Hanada can best him in single combat.

Ultimately Bond embodied two parallel desires inherent in his male adherents: the desire to have and the desire to be, libidinal and egotistical within the Freudian taxonomies. Bond's aura, Bond's attraction for men, stems both from the desire to be Bond, to know how to order a martini, to know kung fu, to know how to drive a BMW with built-in rocket launchers, as well as from the desire to get the women Bond gets. Bond's breakdown in Goldfinger suggests an inseparability of the two; Bond without the women is just another know-it-all egghead pom, albeit one with a red belt; Bond without the know-how and the martial capacity is just another guy beautiful women aren't smart enough to dump. Neither plays well to the 007 target demo.

In the mid-90s various adult video production companies stumbled on to a seemingly counter-intuitive strategy for success: instead of chiseled, waxed, beefcake male co-stars, they hired "average" workaday guys like you and me, if you and me are both workaday guys who dish out $50 bucks a week on new additions to our burgeoning porno libraries. That is, the kind of guys who hear STD and think Software Test Description. The rationale, after if not before, was that men with bad self-image didn't want to watch physically attractive men have sex. The men were just props, anyway, so it hardly mattered what they looked like.

Luc Besson's [La Femme] Nikita (1990) offered a Bond alternative that acknowledged that men were ultimately props, Red Shirts and Storm Troopers to be gun downed by someone, not necessarily another man. Coupled with Eidos' Indiana Jones to Lara Croft adaptation in the mid-90s (Eidos had originally intended a Schwarzenegger-esque lead for its Tomb Raider series) Besson's Nikita ushered in a new tendency in cinema (and to even greater extent in video games) to merge the agent of the "fantasy of mastery," the ability to do any and everything really damn well, with the object of good old-fashioned half-dressed (or fully-dressed if in vinyl) sexual desire. While the trend, if viewed as an integral, has as its upper limit a purer political ideal of showing empowered women who can out-fight, out-think, out-race etc. any man they go up against, at the lower limit it is simply a "guys like wu shu, guys like hot chicks" two birds with one... bird strategy of pandering.

(The clearest example of a body of work flirting with the two birds with one bird asymptote would have to be a giant pan-generic constellation of manga/anime, e.g. the Neuromancer knock-off Ghost in the Shell, scripted, not surprisingly, by one of Pistol Opera's own writers, Ito Kazunori.)

But aside from the occasional fit of lesbianism-from-leftfield, Pistol Opera manages to steer well clear of the lowest common denominator of the lower limit. Sayoko's naked leap into Miyuki's arms more a visual homage to Ogawa Mariko's similar leaps in Branded to Kill then a sincere attempt at eroticism. The masturbation scene is more a disavowal of sex, a foil to Michelle Reis's masturbation sequences in Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels; Reis's occur in Leon Lai's killer's abandoned safehouse, Esumi's, more ascetic than voyeuristic, occurs in a temple (well, a shrine). The pistoru to mizugi swimming pool hit is more a subsumation of identities, Esumi's assassin effectively replacing the kept woman she's just killed.

That's not to say Pistol Opera isn't essentially the lower limit, guys-like-guns guys-like-hot-chicks motive for writing in an action heroine to whom male counterparts pale in comparison, but rather that it chooses not to employ the TNA, college-girl-in-a-high-school-uniform approach and the Midnight Blue that will invariably ensue. Pistol Opera is instead a fashion show, the kimono carrying as much weight as the guns and the actions, the settings, no matter how breathtaking themselves, being just so many catwalks for Stray Cat to stray from. The result is an aesthetisized representation of sexual empowerment, a rather anticipated approach from a director who'd once claimed he had no real interest in sex, the whole ordeal being too much of a hassle.

While it's hard not to view the former fashion model Esumi as being on display for male viewers (critics claim it's Suzuki's directorial style that's jaw-dropping; critics claim a lot of things), Pistol Opera's view of its men is almost cynical enough to make one wonder. No. 2, Useless Man, is precisely that; his screen time consists of getting shot in the head and falling off the top of Tokyo Station. No.5 Painless Surgeon won't kill Stray Cat because he wants to sleep with her, a reservation she fails to reciprocate. No. 99 Dark Horse is talked into posing as No.1 Hundred Eyes by Hundred Eyes herself, to buy her time while she concocts a plot to take out the only other female assassin in the guild. The bulk of the assassins are shown in a brief montage, killed by Hundred Eyes, every one of them smiling wide.

Hanada's reappearance as no.0, The Champ, while ultimately a (more or less) positive role, breaks down into a wretched ball of futility when we learn he's been faking his injury all these years, and plans to kill Miyuki to reclaim the no.1 spot for himself; a breakdown made all the more pathetic when his attempt to kill her goes all but unnoticed; Miyuki registers the act of betrayal but not the threat it's supposed to pose. One can only surmise that while the images are still made for the men, they refuse to make more of the men than they really are.