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Although named for the ancient tradition of Japanese puppetry, the ambitious film, Bunraku, plays a lot more like the pages of a pop-up graphic novel come to life.  Using animation, theatrical staging and all sorts of martial arts action, director Guy Moshe gives his all to provide his audience with two hours of dazzling eye candy.

In a post-Apocalyptic world, a land of corruption is run by those strongest and most corrupt.  At the top of a long food chain is The Woodsman (Government name, Nicola), a shadowy figure whispered about in fearful tones by the common folk who manages to keep the local riff raff in line behind him.  Of course, when wielding such power, one is bound to make a few enemies, which is where a mysterious foreigner comes in.  Yoshi lives the life of a samurai, from his topknot right down to the tip of his katana.  The Woodsman has something that belongs to Yoshi, more specifically, Yoshi’s dad, and the samurai intends to get it back.  Lucky for him that in this cesspool of villainy, a shady stranger, more of the Sergio Leone school than Akira Kurosawa’s, makes himself known and also seems to have a grudge against Nicola.  The unlikely pair join forces with the help of a local barkeep, who coincidentally doesn’t really care for The Woodsman, either, and plot to take down the legion of bad guys, villain by villain until they reach their not-at-all helpless prey.

One can’t have a discussion about Bunraku without praising its visuals.  As I mentioned, director Guy Moshe was out to make a stunning-looking film and in that he’s succeeded.  It’s an intentionally artificial universe filmed in long, sweeping camera shots over and around the town he created, full of bizarre angles and perspectives, and candy-coloured washes of light.  There are obvious similarities to Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City in its comic-book framing, storyline and fantastical action sequences.  Unfortunately, the narrative of Bunraku isn’t quite as gripping as Frank Miller’s Sin City grist.  It’s a cross-cultural story of revenge -- a mash-up of the Spaghetti Western and the Samurai flick -- against a bad man isn’t particularly fleshed-in or intriguing outside of the device of there being no guns anywhere.  Everything must be settled with swords, knives or good ol’ hand-to-hand combat.  The action sequences are usually fun stuff.  A little too cutesy was the attempt to make a band of flipping, flying clowns that looked like rejects from the Batman Beyond Jokers auditions look deadly; it even tried my violence-loving patience.  Speaking of that superhero franchise, I actually thought there was often a closer resemblance to the 1960’s Batman TV show than to Sin City, with the film’s total embrace of its comic book-ness.  I wondered how some of the fight scenes would’ve looked with the occasional “Pow” or “Blam” balloons popping up?  The very slight, warmed-over narrative is elevated by a great cast, featuring Josh Hartnett as the stone-faced mystery man with no name, and Kevin McKidd {of Trainspotting and Rome} as a suave assassin with some smooth, cane-twirling, dance moves (cooler than it sounds).  Woody Harrelson tries to inject some life into the sang-froid delivery of the film’s heroes as the all-knowing, all-seeing bartender.  Once again, Woody’s behind a bar, we only needed Cliffy and Norm to make the picture complete.  Demi Moore is meant to be the Femme Fatale of the piece, but I don’t really know why she’s there except to be a remnant from another person’s past.  She looks great as The Woodsman’s reluctant moll, but had nothing at all to do.  The breakout of the film is the Japanese superstar, Gackt, making his Western film debut in Bunraku.  As the samurai in a strange world on a mission of revenge, Gackt nails it; whether it’s conveying the constant surprise of a relative innocent in a swamp of violence and crime, or selling the action sequences, many of which are done stuntman-free.  It’s also his first English-speaking role and he does very well against the cast of seasoned Western veterans.  Still, the combination of both Yoshi and the nameless Drifter is pretty low-key script-wise and Woody as the barkeep has to make his performance bigger in compensation.  Actually, low-key is the mood for many of the bigger roles, including Nicola The Woodsman and his woman; Ron Perlman is the soft-spoken Zen bad guy whose dreadlocks are really his most intimidating feature and Alexandra barely exists as a character.  I think as the dialog isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy, such soft tones might be a better thing.  Let’s face it; it’s a silly movie from its earnest narration to the Neal Hefti/Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse-sounding score.  Clearly, director Moshe chose style over substance and sometimes it was the right choice, because as an art exercise, the film is definitely enjoyable.  Bunraku is an audacious effort and deserves a look if nothing else for its ambitious production and shamelessly over-the-top comic book aesthetics.  My advice when watching Bunraku is to eat up the gorgeous visuals like the eye candy it is.

For a film this visually compelling, surprisingly, the DVD’s only special features are the theatrical trailer and commentary by director Moshe and actor Kevin McKidd.  McKidd is very amusing and comes up with some thoughtful insights. Judging from his delighted giggles and constant refrains of “I love this shot,” director Moshe seems genuinely impressed with the result of what was clearly a labour of love for him. To hear him express what he was going for with Bunraku is illuminating, considering it is a film that could easily be misunderstood.  Or not.  Moshe mentions how viewers thought he was making a “serious’ actioner and how people have failed to see the humour in the film, but later mentions how the humour was meant to give way to seriousness.  One wonders how many people will hang in through the campiness until then?  It’s also interesting to hear how much of the action was done in camera versus on green screen, without wires or in one continuous shot; like Josh Hartnett’s stunning multi-leveled fight through the bad guys’ lair.  There is one intriguing story regarding his casting of Gackt as Yoshi:  Previously there had been press that Moshe had written the role of Yoshi with Gackt in mind and went to Japan to convince him to appear in the film, yet on the commentary, Moshe says he had tryouts with about twenty different actors for that role.  He doesn’t have much to say about the acclaimed Japanese actor, Shun Sugata, who is also impressive in a small part as Yoshi’s worried uncle.  Moshe keeps mentioning cut scenes and it would have been nice to see some of what he’s talking about as extras on the disc.

The cinematic release of Bunraku was a small affair, only appearing in a few theatres in major cities over a weekend, so it’s good to have this DVD which does make me wish I had seen all its visual audacity on a big screen.  Maybe some midnight screenings, complete with palinka cocktails, might be in order?

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

October 31st, 2011

 

 

 

 

 

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Images:

(Courtesy of  Arc Entertainment)

 

 

 

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