Bunraku (2010)

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-Review by Paul Ewbank-

 

Watching films you know nothing about is always an unpredictable, surprising activity, but I’ve rarely been as surprised, nay baffled, by a film the way Bunraku defied any expectations I might’ve had. Viewed only on the knowledge that it had quite an impressive cast- including Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, Woody Harelson and my man Ron Perlman- Bunraku nominally classes as both a dystopian and a post-apocalyptic revenge thriller, but in reality it is an exercise in pure style over substance along the lines of Sin City or 300 that just happens to have some end of the world mumbo jumbo as part of the backstory.

I’ll get the plot out of the way in the first few moments, just like the film does: in the future mankind almost destroys itself with war and so decides to forever ban the use of firearms, leading to a society ruled by sword-wielding gangs. The dominant gang is overseen by Hellboy, I mean Nicola the Woodcutter, played by a dreadlocked Ron Perlman, and his band of nine assassins. Two dudes meet in a bar and plan to overthrow the gang: a drifter with a cool hat and questionable facial hair played by Josh Hartnett and a samurai called Yoshi played by some dude called Gackt who looks like Mitsurugi from Soul Calibur II and who is apparently also a singer-songwriter and videogame music composer of some renown in Japan. Anyway, for most of the film there’s absolutely no explanation for why these two guys are off on a killing spree taking out red-suited gang members, and the explanation is pretty perfunctory when it finally arrives. Until then, we get to watch nearly two hours of Josh Hartnett walking into places, saying cool things and then beating everyone up, and Yoshi walking into places, saying honourable things about how he doesn’t want to fight, and then beating everyone up. Sounds boring, and it would be, were it not for the wry sense of humour and insanely stylised visuals.

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Bunraku has that same green-screened backdrop aesthetic of Sin City and aims for a similarly striking use of colour, gritty all-knowing narration and stylised over-the-top action. The CGI visuals are a mix of pop-up story book, comic book, a hefty dose of classic Kung Fu and even a dash of old-school western and retro video game, and it’s a potent mix that holds your attention even as the waste-of-space plot and clichéd dialogue do their best to put you off. The term Bunraku originally refers to a type of traditional Japanese puppet theatre, but aside from the opening montage there’s little that reminded me of puppets, so I guess the makers didn’t really accomplish what they aimed for, but they still made something that looks pretty cool. The closest comparison in style and feel is probably videogames like No More Heroes or Lollipop Chainsaw­­- not only is there a fight scene that looks like it was ripped straight out of some retro side-scrolling beat em up, right down to the 8-bit bleeps, but the extravagant violence and linear progression from beating up faceless mooks to each of the nine assassins to the final boss fight with Nicola would feel right at home in some gloriously stupid game made in a crackpot studio in Japan. And, yeah, it’s stupid and derivative and way too long, but for the most part in entertained me on the sheer thrill of so much style and action. The fight scenes are pretty well staged and varied, so even though I’d say at least 50% of the run time is fighting it stays fairly enjoyable. You may have noticed I keep saying things like “fairly” and “for the most part”, and that’s not by accident- the total lack of substance or plot or anything other than style really does limit how much you can enjoy this movie, which is a shame since a lot of effort clearly went in to making it look so cool. Everyone loves a mindless revenge flick along the lines of Kill Bill every now and then, but when the actual content is stretched this thin then you’re left with a spectacle that’s definitely impressive but difficult to really connect with. I’d recommend this more as a novelty than a genuinely good movie, but hardcore fans of martial arts movies, films based on Frank Miller comics, games by Suda51 or, um, traditional oriental puppets should definitely give it a look.

Above: some ACTUAL Bunraku-style puppetry. Note the lack of anything at all similar to anything described in the film.
Above: some ACTUAL Bunraku-style puppetry. Note the lack of anything at all similar to anything described in the film.

 

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