Still gonzo after all these years, Nippon cinema cult idol Seijun Suzuki's first film since 1995 is a loose sequel to his most famous pulp-maximalist endeavor "Branded to Kill" (1967), the B&W 'Scope classic so cryptic and bizarre that enraged Nikkatsu Studio execs fired their longtime contractee.

Still gonzo after all these years, Nippon cinema cult idol Seijun Suzuki’s first film since 1995 is a loose sequel to his most famous pulp-maximalist endeavor “Branded to Kill” (1967), the B&W ‘Scope classic so cryptic and bizarre that enraged Nikkatsu Studio execs fired their longtime contractee. Less wide of frame but at least as eye-poppingly stylized (in flaming color this time), yakuza saga “Pistol Opera” is too abstract and self-referential for the average action fan’s comprehension. But buffs will be delighted by a package that finds the near-80-year-old helmer giddily tipping hat to the genre conventions, themes and over-the-top aesthetics that long since lent him mad-visionary status.

Characteristically senseless plot involves murderous dissention among the ranks at an agency of hired assassins whose hierarchy is determined by number. Nobody knows who #1, or “Hundred Eyes,” is. But either someone is trying to capture the top spot by eliminating lower-ranked competition, or Numero Uno him/herself is indulging in some sportive co-worker carnage.

Beauteous loner Stray Cat (Makiko Esumi, from “Maborosi”), #3, finds herself fending off attacks from a series of eccentric superhero-like rivals, among them wheelchair-hotrodding Teacher, hulking longhaired Westerner Painless Surgeon and allergy-sniffling Dark Horse (Masatoshi Nagase). Her apparent allies are a very young wannabe assassin (Kan Hanae), motherly older woman (Kiki Kirin) and crippled former agency topper Goro Hanada or “The Champ” (Mikijiro Hira, taking over the “Branded” lead played originally by Jo Shishido). Possibly controlling all their destinies is middle-aged femme fatale Sayoko Uekyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi).

Narrative cogency not being a priority here, pic consists of a lineup of outrageous set pieces, each more surreal than the last.

Highlights include a misty-forest faceoff between heroine and Dark Horse, with on-site organ accompaniment from the barely adolescent Hanae, and climactic battle between Stray Cat and Sayoko — a riot of visual abstraction that features Kazuo Yabe’s most hot-colored theatrical lighting, pop-art sets and a male butoh dance troupe.

About half the scenes are staged in the highest soundstage artificiality, with delirious contribs from d.p. Maeda Yonezo and production designer Takeo Kimura, plus some computerized FX. Even exterior sequences, however, are rendered bizarre by arresting location choices and helmer’s always-dynamic compositional sense. If the surreal silliness here sometimes approaches Ken Russell terrain, and occasional dry spots occur due to lack of any real narrative propulsion, there’s still never a doubt that Suzuki’s tongue rests firmly in cheek.

Pic is aesthetically stimulating and impudently funny enough to hold auds who only get some of its nonstop insider refs — which encompass myriad Nippon historical/cultural touchstones (Yukio Mishima, Hiroshima) as well as the director’s own almost half-century ouevre.

Perfs are stylized to a choreographic degree, with Esumi impressively handling lead char’s quicksilver, inorganic mood shifts. Amusingly eclectic soundtrack swerves from solo trumpet tracks to reggae and beyond.

Pistol Opera

Japan

Production

A Shockiku Co. presentation of a Victor Company of Japan, Shochiku, Eisei Gekijo, Television Tokyo Channel 12, Dentsu and Ogura Jimusyo production. Produced by Ogura Satoru, Katashima Ikki. Directed by Seijun Suzuki. Screenplay, Kazunari Ito, Takeo Kimura.

Crew

Camera (color), Maeda Yonezo; editor, Suzuki Akira; music, Kodama Kzufumi; production designer, Takeo Kimura; lighting designer, Kazuo Yabe; special effects supervisor, Shinji Higuchi. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 22, 2002. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Kan Hanae, Masatoshi Nagase, Mikijiro Hira, Kiki Kirin, Kenji Sawada, Tomio Aoki, Haruko Kato.

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