I came at Bunraku with only one preconception: that anything that starred Ron fucking Perlman has got to be worth an hour and a half of my time. The posters promised a mishmash of western, samurai, sword and sorcery and action genres. I’d never heard of this director, Guy Moshe, but if he’d put together this cast, it had to be for something good.
The name of the movie came from a traditional form of puppet theatre in Japan which inspired the highly stylized sets, which were meant to resemble paper cutouts. While I agree that they look highly stylized, and that they resembled cutouts, I wouldn’t say that the cinematic experiment was successful. All I could think about was where are the shadows? Where’s the texture? Kung Fu Panda 2 used simulated paper puppet animation for its flashback scenes and that shit was awesome. Nothing about this movie comes close to that description.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Bunraku is described as a story about a no-name Drifter, and his friends out for revenge against a crime boss and his various underlings. Josh Harnett plays a gunslinger without any guns while Gackt Camui (the Japanese rock star) plays a swordsman without a sword. The beginning of the movie has several minutes dedicated to some pretentious exposition about the fantasy world that the director and cast are putting together for us, but really “A long time ago in a (place) far, far away” would have been just as useful since none of the words have any bearing on the story.
The progression of the story doesn’t really help either as it’s rather haphazard. It opens on a fight between rival gangs. The crime boss, who is named “The Woodcutter” (no, seriously), lets his second in command, named Killer #2 (I am not kidding) loose against the head of the upstarts. Some jazzy swing music starts playing and in the end, the rivals lose. Then The Drifter comes into town. He wrecks a bar. Then Samurai Guy comes to town. He wrecks a sushi bar.
There’s also a poker tournament. The Drifter needs money to enter said tournament. After Samurai Guy wrecks another bar (the same one The Drifter wrecked about 15 minutes ago), The Drifter asks if Samurai Guy can loan him some money. Samurai Guy (probably having lost all his money reimbursing bar owners for damages) refuses and then gets arrested for beating on some cops. The Drifter breaks him out (to music that seems like it's straight outta Super Mario Brothers) and then steals the money while Samurai Guy's unconscious. The Drifter enters the tournament, but it turns out, The Woodcutter’s a prick and has decided to telecommute. Oh, shit! Now what?!
Oh, and somewhere in there, Demi Moore shows up to take a bath.
Now admittedly, I may have fast forwarded through a lot of this movie, but it really is that incoherent. None of the protagonists’ motivations are clear, nor are their relationships to one another. Why do The Dirfter and Samurai Guy want The Woodcutter dead? Fuck if I know. Who the hell is Demi Moore and why the hell should I care about her? Don’t ask me. Why the hell doesn’t anyone in this movie own a hairbrush? It’s an unknowable mystery.
And have I mentioned the writing yet? No? Here are some of the choice samples:
“Shh! Did you hear that...? My bed is calling me”
“I'm the product of a fucked up generation.”
"Life, every man holds dear. But the dear man holds honor far more precious than dear life. Especially if that man happens to be Japanese."
“I could have been someone’s woman, but instead I chose to be someone’s whore"
I feel that this movie might have been something pretty great if the director had threshed out his story a bit longer before pushing into production, and maybe given a few other script doctors a chance to polish up his clunky dialogue. The film feels like an unedited stream of mental diarrhea from Moshe's brain. Aside from the continuity and the silly lines, there was the narration which never stops and adds nothing to the story.
The cinematography also left me flat. Movies adapted from stage plays aren't anything new. Most of the classic musicals are sourced from the stage, anything by Shakespeare, and in recent memory Chicago and Rent. I'll throw in Moulin Rouge here as well just because it was so obviously inspired by the stage. Neither is there a shortage of the fantasy/western or samurai/western mash-ups. Serenity is a personal favorite. If you want something within the last few years, check out The Warrior's Way. In that company, Bunraku just doesn't feel like it's trying hard enough. There shots are too plain, the frames too boring. There are a lot of colors in it, but not much to see.
And in the end, that's the feeling the film left me with. It's all just empty style. It might have been fun to make for the cast and crew, but it sure isn't any fun to watch.