Japanese critics voted Seijun Suzuki’s elusive ghost drama Zigeunerweisen (aka Tsigoineruwaizen, 1980) as the key movie of that entire decade, yet few Westerners saw this indelibly haunting film at its scattered festival showings. With no theatrical or video distribution (it has only recently become available in Japan, but without English-language translation), still fewer have seen it in the decades since then. Yet this cryptic work, which posits a permeable border between the living and the dead, stealthily lodged in the brains of those who did see it, and critical approval verified that Suzuki had raised himself out of the exploitation-film swamp in which he had started, transmuting the base elements of lurid yakuza plots into the relative gold of the cult film.
In the more than twenty years since Zigeunerweisen, Suzuki kept busy as a TV panelist in Japan’s equivalent of “Hollywood Squares”, and as an actor in TV commercials, pop sitcoms, and an occasional film, most recently Sabu’s Blessing Bell (Kofuku no Kane, 2002). While producing a few more titles (including some contributions to anime), Suzuki basically remained silent as a film artist. Hence, news of Pistol Opera, the first new Suzuki film in a generation to win distribution in the west, stirred considerable excitement.
When the long-awaited Pistol Opera appeared, with its unexplained ellipses and baffling images, it was a pinnacle of abstraction, a reductio ad absurdum of the yakuza hit man narrative. While the action seems linear and transparent—Suzuki shows clearly what happens—what happens seems arbitrary and sometimes nearly impenetrable. According to a news story in The Asahi Shimbun, when a man in the audience repeatedly complained that “I can’t make heads or tails out of this”, the mischievous director feigned amazement that Pistol Opera could be regarded as anything more than “action-packed entertainment”. (1)
Perhaps the grumbling spectator was reacting to this purported thriller finding room for a vaudeville turn by a Hello Kitty-type nymphet, herself an inexplicable addition to this yakuza assassin plot, who proceeds to recite “Humpty-Dumpty” (in English), while a follow spot leads her around the stage. Or perhaps it was the Fellini-esque children’s tea party where the same moppet gets slapped, but then licks whipped cream off her guardian’s finger?
It’s not every day that even the sharpest cinema observers throw up their hands at decoding such an accomplished film. Jonathan Rosenbaum, for one, wrote: “Can I call a film a masterpiece without being sure I understand it?…I couldn’t give a fully coherent synopsis of Pistol Opera if my life depended on it…Having recently seen the movie again with subtitles and read a few rundowns of the plot, I’m only more confused about its meaning.” (2)
Attempting to describe Suzuki’s method, Eric Campos wrote: ”To tell this simple, but decidedly convoluted story, the characters use body language more than actual dialogue to convey their thoughts and feelings, creating even more confusion,” (3) while Ken Fox points out that the “audacious finale, which plays out in a wholly symbolic realm, will leave even the most adventurous moviegoers scratching their heads. See it with a friend; you'll appreciate the second opinion.” (4)
By the end, when one player says “I had a dream of Mishima”, it’s no surprise that she recounts her attempts to stitch the writer’s decapitated head back on (alas, without success). In fact, it is the theatricality of Paul Schrader’s poetic biographical film Mishima that Pistol Opera reproduces, not least in the dance-like finale, which looks like a shoot-out at Harper’s Bazaar and seems to throw sense to the winds. Among a dizzying clutch of elements, this involves a revolving stage, a guillotine, and four bald “slaves”, writhing in loincloths and chains, on a whirligig spinning out of control, much like the carousel careening off its axis in Strangers On a Train. And who would not be confounded by the carnivalesque International Terror Expo that features bottles of pickled embryos?
How to connect these images to meaning? Always unpretentious, Suzuki himself never indulges in self-important symbol-mongering; on the other hand, he makes few concessions to our desire for narrative logic and hardly encourages vicarious identification with the characters. Michael Atkinson, for one, advises that Pistol Opera “is the work of a cantankerous, self-pleasing coot, dismissing narrative conveniences in favor of gumball-colored vogue-noir, goofy digressions, bulldozing sight gaggery, and an inexhaustible tank of style…Expect the unexpectable, and it may be your movie of the year.” (5) Note the fine point: Suzuki produces not just the unexpected but the “unexpectable”.
So rarefied is Pistol Opera that watching it feels like landing on the very summit of a mountain, without benefit of the context gained from ascending the lower slopes. Can the director’s earlier works reveal his embedded themes, encrypted meanings, or even a consistent use of symbols? Can the critical pickaxe chip away at solid themes of politics and gender?
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“Living is difficult. Dying is cowardly.”
That’s the human dilemma in the films of Seijun Suzuki, as spoken by a despairing whore in The Story of a Prostitute, his complex and darkly compelling 1965 spectacle-melodrama about Chinese “comfort women” forced to service the Japanese army. All of Suzuki’s output of fifty-plus films (depending on whether or not TV works count), from his earliest pulp titles down to Pistol Opera, end with the implication that there’s no choice but to muddle through.
Suzuki’s unique career arc began in 1956: the year of his first feature film was also the year of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Bigger Than Life, and Eléna et les hommes. In Japan, Suzuki emerged alongside leaders of the radical cinema like the more consciously intellectual Nagisa Oshima (Cruel Story of Youth/Seishun Zankoku monogatari, 1958), as well as a generation of lesser-known provocateurs like Yasuzo Masumura (Red Angel/Akai Tenshil, 1966), the renowned poet Shuji Terayama (Throw Away Your Books, Go Out In the Streets/Sho o suteyo machi e deyou, 1971), and the still controversial Kinji Fukasuku (Battle Royale/Batoru rowaiaru, 2000). (6) Their polemical passion and stylistic experimentation directly challenged the traditional masters, in opposition to the restraint and indirection of films like Naruse‘s A Wife’s Heart and Ozu’s Early Spring (though Suzuki’s work would correspond with Mizoguchi’s).
From his heyday at Nikkatsu Studios, riding the wave of financial expansion in the surge of capitalist Japan, Suzuki’s first works were frank exploitation products, often nakedly designed to showcase pop singers and models. Popularly dismissed as hackwork, though full of quirky visual strategies and kinky details, they utilized the structures of gangster dramas and the soft-core “pinku-eiga” genre. (7)
In fact, Nikkatsu was a veritable hotbed of directors who were explicitly linking sexuality and politics, including colleagues and rivals like Yoshishige Yoshida (Eros Plus Massacre/Erasu purasu Gyakusatsu, 1969), Koji Wakamatsu (Go, Go Second Time Virgin/Yuke yuke nidome no shojo, 1969),and the Marxist Tatsumi Kumashiro (A Man and a Woman Behind the Fusuma Screen/Yohojan Fusuma no urabari, 1973). (8) Not aspiring to political analysis, Suzuki was pushing the same boundaries as the earthy and ribald Shohei Imamura (The Insect Woman/Nippon konchuki, 1963), who shared his penchant for audacity and strong women characters.
Although Suzuki predates the Nouvelle Vague, his opposition to militarism, his espousal of frankly depicting sexual behavior, and his critique of women’s exploitation in society all served to associate him with the movements led by 1960s rebels like Godard and Fassbinder and Pasolini. This association with European models helped to stimulate interest in Suzuki’s works during the decades of eclipse when he was denied work in the studio system, leading to international retrospectives that have now circled the globe and raised him to cult stardom.
The distinctively inventive stream of visual imagery of these films, rivaled in fertility only by the more nature-oriented lyricism of Sergei Paradjanov (in films such as The Color of Pomegranates, 1969), was achieved by six cinematographers but only three production designers, suggesting that the latter were the more significant collaborators. If Suzuki tends to keep his camera distant, letting angular compositions in medium and wide shots predominate, relating his characters to their settings and spaces, he equally takes adventurous visual risks: one sequence can unexpectedly turn into a series of freeze-frames, while another expresses a character’s turbulent emotions by tearing a filmic image into shreds before our eyes.
Suzuki even hearkens back to silent film conventions with the cameo insert. To suggest that one character is thinking about another (or to reflect a character’s influence on the action), an image of the absent player materializes for a few moments at one side of the wide screen. This is not any conscious reaching for picturesque retro effects (as in practically any Guy Maddin film), but just a chance to employ an archaic tool of film rhetoric.
Though always asserting the auteur’s subjectivity, Suzuki himself describes his seeming detachment from his protagonists: “…in foreign films the camera stays on the principal character. When he stands up and goes somewhere the camera follows him. Wherever he goes, the camera is waiting. But we do it differently here [in Japan]. In Kabuki they show everything at once. The interest is in seeing where and how the actors enter and exit. They appear right in front of you and go off somewhere in the distance. The continuity comes from the unity of atmosphere. On the other hand, in American films the continuity comes from the movements of the individual characters. That’s the big difference. What we make here is a series of pictures, so the movement of any one character is secondary”. (9)
Although he worked in the margins of mainstream cinema, moving in a world of thugs, prostitutes, and gangsters, Suzuki’s work is not junk cinema elevated to camp. Although fourteen different screenwriters are credited on the ten films discussed below, there’s no question of one consistent and serious authorial voice. Peppering a basic philosophical detachment with some of the tabloid insolence of Samuel Fuller, Suzuki constructs a recognizable universe— predictably violent, especially for the exploited, including women and the underclass who must labor for others—that is also historically informed. The militarism of Japan’s prewar society, the humiliation of its defeat in World War 2, and the subsequent American occupation all imprinted themselves on Suzuki’s films, either directly in the settings or indirectly in the mindsets of his people.
Already his tenth film, but the earliest still seen, Underworld Beauty (Ankokugai no Bijo, 1958) immediately reveals the director’s instinctive identification with the bottom rungs of the social ladder—ex-cons, criminals, and smalltime artisans. This modest action thriller also gives an early glimpse of how Suzuki’s stylistic ambition informs a relatively routine crime plot as he stirs up excitement with imaginative locations, economical visual effects, and extreme behavior of his characters.
Released from prison, the hero (with slick black hair like George Raft at Warner Brothers) retrieves a cache of diamonds hidden in a sewer, then conceals them again, this time in the clay breast of a mannequin. When one of his young helpers leaps to his death from a rooftop, the boy’s singularly unrefined sister decides to join the ex-con to fight the gang responsible. Picking up an American sailor before the funeral, she is not above getting raucously drunk and then pouring whiskey into her brother’s coffin.
A stuffed crocodile on the wall presides over a Turkish bath where much of the action takes place. Among the high-1950s Tiki furnishings, the primary peril for the busty heroine is possibly being steamed to death in her lingerie. However, the men who are drawn to her by desire are condemned to frustration: when she presses her wet body against a window, a gangster can only lasciviously stroke the steamed-up glass barrier that keeps them apart.
Moving from rooftop to sewer, from a mannequin factory to a basement coal bin, the action features a masochist who gets beaten into a state alternating between whimpering and hysteria, and then culminates in a delirious final shootout-cum-electrocution. A nightclub—a huge tri-level set that could pass as the lobby in Grand Hotel—hosts wild jitterbug parties where yakuza villains hang out with cross-dressers. It’s here that the hero shoots out one light after another, each shattered bulb rendering the image darker and darker.
It’s never dull visually, or aurally either, thanks to a very amusing score that incorporates Hawaiian steel guitar, sci-fi-like theremin themes, dramatic mambo music, what sounds like a Hanns Eisler foxtrot, employing 1950s xylophone, bluesy saxophones, and possibly a kazoo. Still, the film does ultimately succumb to routine motivation and sketchy characterization, while Suzuki lets continuity skips and unmatched shots stand. Strict narrative logic is also ignored when an evil artist locks the heroine in a room, yet she soon reappears with no explanation of how she escaped.
Sixteen films later, Youth of the Beast (Yaju no Seishun) drew attention in 1963 for introducing the laconic and intense Jo Shishido as the existentially tortured hit man, modeled on Jean-Pierre Melville’s similar hypercool figures in Bob le Flambeur (1955) and Le Doulos (1962). Though Shishido made only three films with Suzuki, his impact was such that they are forever connected in the popular mind. As a disgraced cop seeking to avenge the sordid death of his mentor, he interacts with a dizzying array of mobsters, rival criminals, and counter-gangsters in pachinko parlors and call-girl clubs.
Suzuki’s signature concentration on bodily insult leads to razorblade fights, a creative use of flaming hair spray, an interlude of impromptu surgery, then wedges a knife up one of Shishido’s fingernails, and finally contrives to hang him upside down, helplessly swinging from the chandelier of a smoldering burnt-out house. Elsewhere, a drug addict, dragging herself across the floor to beg for a fix, claws open the upholstery of a chair, while the most striking sequence depicts a sadist frenziedly whipping a woman while outside an expressionist storm rages with clouds of orange dust.
Suzuki himself appears as one of the mobsters, another is openly identified as gay (yet not caricatured, except for his pink limousine), yet another tenderly cradles his fluffy cat like a James Bond villain, and a fan dancer swirls pink feathers about, while figures pass back and forth laterally across the expanse of the widescreen, moving in different directions and on multiple planes of action.
“After the war, Tokyo became a city of beasts”, says the beginning of Gate of Flesh (Nikutai no Mon, 1964). This nightmare vision of the American Occupation period is continuously surprising, set half outside in the tumult of the open market, where crime and assault await around every corner, and half inside a cavernous interior, a microcosm of entrapment where sexual tensions cannot be contained.
The four women at the center of Gate of Flesh channel the postwar exuberance of survivors into aggressive prostitution. How else can they survive the peace, with its new economic order? Without families to serve as backup, they are left to their own devices, sisters of Mizoguchi’s bickering brothel-workers in Street of Shame. It’s a dog-eat-dog world of people locked into their own ambitions and desires, a world of the powerless reaching for an edge. Like Mizoguchi following the trials and struggles of females, Suzuki gives compassionate attention to his women, but withholds sentimental identification, implying rather than analyzing the cycle of exploitation.
Above ground, the camera tracks through crowds in the bustling open markets, the venues of the desperate postwar economy. Suzuki’s people are completely outside the comfort zone of the bourgeoisie: a carnival of brawling, lust-driven, amoral proletarians, all crowding and jostling together like social molecules. It’s a dangerous world where anything can happen, from arrest and robbery to kidnapping and stabbing. In films like Stray Dog (Nora Inu, 1949), Kurosawa depicted transgressive behavior in the urban underworld, but even he never showed thugs energetically cheating, mugging, and even stabbing clueless American GIs, although Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships (Buta to Gunkan, 1961) would cross-fertilize Yankee sailors, local prostitutes, and low-life gangsters.
Suzuki’s insolent humor allows a scene where a young Japanese man in the background starts to eat “American stew” and then quizzically fishes a condom out of his soup bowl. The director lets this pass so quickly, as a momentary foregrounding of action, that it seems like information scanned in our peripheral vision. Paradoxically, this only forces us to reflect on it, if only to reconcile the moment’s place in the portrait of society he is painting.
With its ensemble of rowdy hookers, all presented without a shred of victimhood, Gate of Flesh flirts with the “pinku-eiga” subgenre, but working up such hypnotic intensity that flogging and crucifixion begin to seem inevitable rather than absurdly extreme responses to the situation. Here there are no abstractions like evil, no dreams, only ruthless reality determined by instinctual drives, including bare survival.
Suzuki’s blackest vision, the most dramatic and most emotionally direct, comes in Story of a Prostitute (Shunpu-den, 1965). Appropriately, the film seems to occur during an endless dusk, lit with no direct sunlight, and even the expansive widescreen compositions seem restricting. Tackling the scandal of the “comfort women” forced to service the sexual needs of the Imperial Japanese army in 1930s Manchuria, Suzuki reliably chooses the most controversial possible stance with a heroine who actually welcomes the job. Instead of painting her as an abused victim, he illustrates her response to betrayal by a lover (she bites his tongue in revenge). She reasons that “I want to meet many different men”, and finding herself amidst an entire thousand-man battalion in a brutal existence on a northern Chinese desert outpost, she certainly achieves her wish.
Unlike the nymphomaniac of male fantasy that might be expected in an exploitation film, Suzuki’s heroine is a creature of single-minded focus. When one officer explains the brothel’s function by saying, “This is a soldier’s washing place. They wash their minds and bodies”, she represents all the women when she asks, “Where is our washing place?” Nevertheless, she cannot resist fixating on another singularly inappropriate man, a walking time-bomb of repressions and misdirected slavery to official conceptions of duty. He is unworthy of her devotion, and she endures romantic torment, but who can judge the validity of another’s obsession?
Suzuki’s own voice seems to speak in another character, a practical renegade, a soldier who tries to fulfill the military duties assigned to him, yet who finally deserts in disgust and joins the Chinese enemy. Himself a draftee into the Japanese army in 1943, at the very height of World War 2, Suzuki was shipwrecked and adrift for days in the seas around the Philippines, with ample time to reflect on how repressed male appetites link with the military mind, whether controlled by fascist machismo or dominated by hopeless idealism.
With the windswept desolation of the setting eloquently captured in the somberly handsome black-and-white ‘Scope compositions, Suzuki seems inspired to visual invention. He manipulates fantasy slow-motion, alters lighting to express emotional shifts, devises phosphorus explosions and flaming paper lanterns, and adds shock cuts and unexpected changes in scale of performance (ranging from compacted silence to primal scream), making this one of his boldest and most compelling films.
Tattooed Life (Irezumi Ichidai, 1965), a widescreen and resplendently colored adventure set at the turn of the century, plays out in golden-leafed landscapes (like The Naked Spur). Taking a yakuza plot of two brothers on the run in the countryside, Suzuki treats it like John Ford might, with the outdoor brawling of The Quiet Man and a community of broadly painted characters, though Suzuki’s collection of cheats, grifters, crackpots, and blowhards seems a much more transgressive bunch than Ford’s. After the yakuza kills a rival gang boss, his own gang turns against him, but his brother, a sensitive artist, saves him from assassination. Both flee to a frontier-style mining town to escape the triad of dangers— the old gang, the rival gang, and the police. In this less inhibited community, an aggressive village girl courts the yakuza brother, telling him “Take off your clothes. We’re taking bets on who could see you first without your clothes.” The artist, meanwhile, ends in tragedy, besotted with the mine-owner’s cautious but neglected wife (“I want to capture your beauty. Please let me see your body. Just once is enough.”).
Along with some red herrings (never-explained shots of a mysterious pair of red shoes) and a street brawl intercut with inexplicable fireworks, Suzuki produces his most innovative series of images yet: in lightning-fast succession, a gunshot comes through a window, a mountainside collapses, a wave dashes on the seashore, and a prostitute looks in the mirror. Blood spreads in water, and when the artist is hit mortally across the face, a red light sweeps across the widescreen, then cuts to a storm raging in red. For the final yakuza combat, as the lights go down, a lateral track along a row of screens yields to bold geometric compositions, with figures silhouetted first in yellow, then blue, as the camera looks up through a glass floor for the fighting to begin (some of this is quoted in the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume I).
Adding musical numbers to the customary tropes of the hit man narrative, Tokyo Drifter (Tokyo Nagaremono, 1966) keeps circling back to its abstract nightclub set, when it’s not mocking its mobsters’ efforts to reform in money-lending and real estate (“We’re not a bunch of gangsters now”). (10) After a shootout in a paper house with swords and guns, Suzuki stages a classic all-out fistfight, a melée inexplicably set in a wild west saloon, involving black American sailors and a redheaded dancehall girl fluttering pink feather fans. Transparently striving to evoke the classic Hollywood studio brawls directed by Tay Garnett (Seven Sinners, 1940) and John Ford (Donovan’s Reef, 1963), Suzuki revels in demolishing breakaway tables and chairs, in splintering balconies, and does not neglect the iconic moment when the heroes pause, share a laugh and a knowing look, then return to knocking heads.
With stylish resourcefulness, Suzuki affects horizontal wipes and deploys primary colors, from a prologue in monochrome (except for a red gun), to sets designed with gold walls and blood red backgrounds, the latter reflecting his recurrent image of blood diffusing in water. Nikkatsu Studios—invariably demonized for firing Suzuki after his surrealist flights of fancy in Branded to Kill—here seems, if anything, extraordinarily tolerant in accepting this hefty dose of rural horseplay in a crime thriller it doubtless intended to exploit urban excitement, all the more considering the director was a Tokyo-born native.
Kaneto Shindo, dedicated leftist writer and director of Onibaba (1964), devised the inventive script for the exhilarating and humorous Fighting Elegy (Kenka Erejii, 1966), which looks back to Japan at the brink of martial law in 1935. Beneath the cheerful surface of knockabout farce, grim conclusions lurk in the portrait of young men as uneducated louts brimming with testosterone, and thus ripe for exploitation by fascist elements. Focusing on a youthful military cadet being groomed for the coming imperial conflict, the film specifically links the macho posturing of make-believe war games to the hormonal surges of the hero, who actually cries, “I don’t masturbate. I fight!”
While his military academy puts him through various forms of mortifying the flesh, such as walking on tacks and pointed sticks, Suzuki makes the youth’s attempts to hide his ever-present erection the film’s running joke. When he fixates on a girl who plays music for a church, the boy sits beside her for a piano lesson, but then must endure remarks like, “Your fingers are stiff as legs!” In the film’s most audacious joke, the frustrated teen is left alone with the piano, but we watch the dawning surprise in his face as he happily realizes that he can use his near permanent erection to bounce out a tune on the keys.
Women fare no better in traversing adolescence, for the virginal ingenue spurns his declaration of love and offer of marriage, opting instead to enter a nunnery, but finding time for a naively romantic and melodramatic farewell, where her fingers break through a paper screen to grasp his. In another typical Suzuki physical gag, the hero is expected to sit in a classroom where mischievous classmates (“red-assed monkeys!”) have removed the seat, so he simply pretends one is there and squats as if sitting.
Applying an exceptionally zoom-heavy style, Suzuki experiments with scale and direction, eccentrically cutting in sudden close-ups, having characters drop into the frame from above, then selectively fills the frame with nature-centered effects as leaves rain down on the lovers at the exact right moment while a windstorm blows up clouds of dust. Eventually, after the hero wields a mace in a fight, after ears are bitten off and cheeks gouged, he is expelled and exiled to the provinces but ends up lashed to a wheel. The boyish zest with which Suzuki illustrates the stupidity of teen male chest-thumping markedly contrasts with the chilly cerebral detachment in the portrait of the military found in Kiju Yoshida’s Coup d’Etat (1973) also set in the late 1930s. (11)
When a butterfly alights on his rifle’s target-sight, the hit man hero of Branded To Kill (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967) misses his shot, precipitating a chain of disasters that doom him to pursuit by various killers. It is chance entering the equation of his life, determining a new, unwelcome direction, much the way Branded To Kill started a series of rippling consequences that halted the momentum of Suzuki’s career, beginning with the studio firing him for producing an “incomprehensible” film. It was certainly a thumb in the eye of action fans’ desire for simple coherence, though Donald Richie has speculated that conservative social forces also pressured the studio to distance itself from its own exploitation excesses.
As delirium takes over the plot, which could be described as pulp as if directed by an alien—or in the words of Scott Tobias, a “nonsensical story of dueling assassins, relayed in a fractured and willfully abstract cinematic grammar reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard, [that] could freeze the brain…” (12) —the high-strung protagonist comes to fully embody the double-bind of existence: living and dying are equally impossible. While he deludedly aspires to the heights of the murder heirarchy, nightmarish poetic visuals mix with fetishistic details, such as the hero’s sensual enjoyment of the smell of boiled rice. With ellipses and jump cut fractures, the comedy of desire that drives toward death proceeds with sexual episodes more feverish than erotic, involving a nude Jo Shishido and a mysterious woman on a bed of butterflies in an empty apartment.
When the studio locked away prints of his films and refused to cooperate for a public retrospective, Suzuki dared to sue, ensuring that the scandal would stay alive but also effectively blackballing himself from the studio system (he ultimately won a settlement, although it took almost ten years).
Suzuki’s sardonic appreciation of misguided human endeavors looks not simply at how the strong exploit the weak, but also how twisted hungers bring us to seek out our own self-destruction. It’s not so much that the world is a prison, but that each of us is a prisoner of our own desires and ambitions. The hit man, for example, lives a life of constant anxiety, watching his back while moving forward, trapped in a dance of defense and offense.
Sex is not freedom in Suzuki’s films. Whether for gangster or cadet, ingenue or matron, the blind play of lust makes everyone vulnerable and child’s play to manipulate. What’s more, it’s a reciprocal exchange as women seek their own exploitation, whether from obsessive torment or financial necessity (“No sex without money!” is the code of Gate of Flesh’s heroines), while men are emasculated by the social system without being aware of it. When the erotic drive, dramatized remorselessly by Suzuki as more feverish than pleasurable, breaks through conventions, it erupts in expressionist spasms of sadistic action that punctuate the cycle of pursuit and frustration.
However debased or sleazy his characters, at least this vision is delivered without the moralistic finger-wagging of Hollywood convention and is couched in such luxuriant visual invention and playful humor that even the most despairing works seem rich with the satisfactions of art. The impression is that Suzuki cannot help but laugh at our self-dramatizing and blind groping to satisfy our instinctual drives: it’s all performance, it’s all so much reciting of Humpty-Dumpty The unrealistic, highly stylized colors, the hyper aesthetic depiction of life, the experimentation with different cinematic styles, all these are the theater of existence, culminating in the radical theatricality of Pistol Opera.
The air is thin and rarefied at the pinnacle of Pistol Opera, but this film unites all the director’s themes in his purest statement. Purportedly starting out to remake Branded to Kill, Suzuki ultimately reproduces only the earlier film’s basic situation— the agony of the assassin—but reverses its particularities: black-and-white blooms to lurid color, ‘Scope reverts to academic 1.33:1 format, and the hit man transforms to a hit woman.
Previously seen as the stricken widow in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Maborosi (1995), Makiko Esumi here swaggers like a samurai as the lithe-bodied operative code-named “Stray Cat”. Like her prototype, Jo Shishido in Branded To Kill, she is obsessed with changing her ranking from Killer No.3 to Killer No. 1 (“Useless Man” and “Hundred Eyes” stand in the way), yet she remains blind to the paradox of her own behavior. If she achieves her goal of being number one, she will be in much greater danger of attack from ambitious pretenders to the top spot.
Suzuki provides not the slightest moral questioning of the heroine’s profession of killer. She is enthralled by her ambition and ritualistic codes, and pop morality has shriveled questions of right and wrong to separating cool from uncool. Rejecting any pretense to conventional moral responsibility, Pistol Opera’s bitter and despairing vision also remains free of Hollywood’s insistent moralizing. Above all, Suzuki persisted as a fierce champion of individualism in one of the planet’s most consensual societies, leveling a jaundiced countercultural eye at all.
Less a sister of the sex workers in Gate of Flesh and Story of a Prostitute, more an aggressive figure to prove that females can be just as tough and doomed as males, she cuts a fashionable figure in kimono and boots, yet she does not accumulate a physical reality. Suzuki carefully allots her some moments of vulnerability, resting her back against her grandmother, but she more typically dominates the surrounding décor, like Lucille Ball cracking the whip over her carousel ponies in Minnelli’s Ziegfeld Follies. Assassination has become theater: the elaborate codes and signs of hit man mythology serve as ballast for the extravagant visuals, a frame that Suzuki clothes with colorful tableaux and action sequences.
She meets her match in an allusive combat of wits with a preening and bemused lesbian figure. Swathed in white, but wearing an inexplicable purple veil (that she whips off not once but twice, revealing her face to the audience but not the heroine), she alternately teases and confronts Stray Cat. Elvis Mitchell comments: “Imagine if Howard Hawks had remade Rio Bravo—well, he did, actually, but imagine if he had done it with a female cast and stirred in a slowed, sexual tension between the characters. That is what happens in Pistol Opera.” (13) Their scenes play with heavy-breathing erotic innuendo, yet with so little narrative weight that it’s like a conflict of paper dolls.
For once, men are treated with a new tenderness, perhaps because their bodies have betrayed them. A veteran hit man now hobbles on a crutch, forced into retirement when his once powerful body no longer responds. Another operates from a wheelchair, and a third killer can hardly control his asthma (his angelic blond appearance recalls a similar character in Joss Whedon’s enduringly popular TV series. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”).
Toying with trompe-l’oeil, Suzuki plays games of perception by devising disorienting shifts in scale, as in a magnificent face-off scene where all the massive weight of Mt. Fuji dominates the frame. Pistol Opera equally ignores physical laws, as the dead are apt to pay a visit from their golden afterlife (in a retrospective bow to the ghostly dimension of Zigeunerweisen).
Mike D’Angelo wrote about Pistol Opera : “Organized around rhythmic rather than narrative principles, it isn’t so much operatic as jazzy, performing virtuosic staccato riffs that transform the familiar into something vibrant and strange.” (14)
Even stranger is the peeling away of connecting tissue in the screenplay of Kazunori Ito, screenwriter of Mamoru Oshii’s anime thriller, Ghost In the Shell (Kokaku Kidotai, 1995). By contrast, Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale, despite its tricky multi-layered plot and flashy visual complexities, still managed to convince as a heist narrative, however farfetched. When absolutely anything can happen, as in the anarchic Pistol Opera, then nothing carries much weight or narrative urgency, unpredictability itself becomes predictable, and storytelling gets devalued for the casual viewer.
When conflict explodes in violent expressionist colors, it includes a vibrant mustard yellow that previously lived only in Vincente Minnelli musicals. Red laser beams penetrate the sulfurous smoke in a bamboo forest pastoral, and at one point Stray Cat’s grandmother recites the colors of a sunset (or was that a goldfish, or a swarm of insects?). Even the heroine’s luger turns a lively shade of rose, no doubt blushing from embarrassment at being a prosaic black color.
After a rifle draws blood, the familiar red spreads in a swimming pool, yet the lurid colors in Suzuki’s paint-box seem shallow, lacking a tactile quality. Instead of the voluptuous light of Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus or Kurosawa’s Dod’es-ka-den that sculpts the figures, Pistol Opera suggests the flat comic strip color of ink bleeding into newsprint, the 21st century color of manga.
Throughout, Suzuki seems to smile ruefully at the splendors and miseries of the human condition, pulling aside the narrative to blow pastel smoke into our brains. It is remarkable that he rarely repeats a visual image (at least so it seems from viewing the ten movies here, which represent not even twenty percent of his feature work). A more authoritative appraisal must await the re-release of Zigeunerweisen and the other two titles in his historical trilogy, The Fang In the Hole (Ana no Kiba, 1979) and Kageroza Heat Shimmer Theater (1981).
Suzuki’s fractured narratives full of sudden reversals express a world of instability and distrust: keep one eye on the target but watch your back too. If beauty arises out of the violence and haphazard order of the world, that is our consolation. However, despite many cryptic aphorisms (“Hundred Eyes brings a smile to the dead”), despite Suzuki’s obsessive concentration on a culture of death, Pistol Opera is too playful to produce rank despair. Ultimately, it’s a question of philosophy whether one labels his vision as nihilistic, or nakedly cynical, or bracingly liberated from illusions about romantic love, macho heroics, and spiritual salvation.
In the noble range of Japanese cinema, Mt. Suzuki may not be the highest peak, but this is a crag of unmistakable power and individuality, characterized by unique paradoxes: the works are earthy yet aestheticized, egalitarian yet obsessed with hierarchy, practical yet abstract. Viewed through Suzuki’s kaleidoscope, the world fragments into so many absurdist images, flourishing in acid-bright colors. In fact, the unity of his work lies most in these condensed visuals: like Paradjanov’s, Suzuki’s images themselves become a positive statement because they keep cinema alive by affirming the power of the artist.
1. Kimie Itakura, The Asahi Shimbun, reprinted in 45. Caliber Samurai, a Seijun Suzuki tribute site with much priceless information (and more than a few dead links too) at: http://sweetbottom.tripod.com/articles.htm
2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader, 08.22.03.
3. Eric Campos, Film Threat, 2003-06-09.
4. Ken Fox, TV Guide/CineBooks Database, at http://www.tvguide.com/movies/database/showmovie.asp?MI=44750
5. Michael Atkinson, The Village Voice, June 11-17, 2003.
6. Many of the works of this so-called outlaw generation enjoyed a retrospective at the 2003 Viennale, collected and rescreened thanks to Roland Domenig. See Derek Malcolm, “A Viennese whirl with a ‘difficult’ flavour”, The Guardian, October 29, 2003.
7. See David Dresser, Eros plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988; discussion of more exploitation work in Patrick Macias, TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, San Francisco: Cadence Books, 2001.
8. William Johnson, “A New View of Porn: The Films of Tatsumi Kumashiro”, Film Quarterly, Fall 2003, Vol. 57, Number 1, pp.11-19.
9. Mark Schilling, The Yakuza Movie Book: A Guide to Japanese Gangster Films, Berkeley:Stone Bridge Press, 2003, p. 101.
10. Referencing the hero’s masculine assertion that “a drifter doesn’t need a woman”, Schilling knowingly comments: “This is the perfect line for the legions of dateless guys who have helped make Tokyo Nagaremono among Suzuki’s most popular films”. Schilling, ibid., p.295.
11. Yoshida’s more famous Eros Plus Massacre (1969)— which examines the relations of real life anarchist Sakae Osugi with several women, including a radical feminist who tries to assassinate him in 1916, intermingles past and present, proceeding with conscious theatricality—makes Suzuki look relatively conservative and traditional.
12. Scott Tobias, The Onion, June 9, 2003, Vol 29 Issue 22.
13. Elvis Mitchell, New York Times, 8-25-2003.
14. Mike D’Angelo, Time Out New York, Issue 402, June 12-19, 2003.