“Bunraku” is my favorite avant-garde, post-apocalyptic, kung fu, Western, noir, Socialist propaganda film I have ever seen. To put it in a word: awesome.
Now, I don’t know if I’d necessarily call it good, but it certainly was a visual treat from frame one, and it never lets up. “Bunraku” is the Japanese art of Puppet Theater, and the film uses this aesthetic in every aspect of its production design — from overly angular buildings and sets, to a sky that looks like crumpled paper, creating a unique film world that’s part Tim Burton, part “Sin City” and part what-the-fuck.
This world is also populated by villains dressed like gangsters from a 1940s crime film, citizens who each look like a Soviet painting for “worker,” a badass samurai that stepped right out of a Kurosawa period piece and a cowboy. The rest of the movie is nothing but fight scene after fight scene, but you won’t care because of all the pretty colors and crazy cinematography.
The story, in all honesty, is not the main attraction. The movie is about a kung-fu cowboy, played surprisingly cool by Josh Hartnett (credited only as The Drifter), trying to avenge his father’s death from a barbarian-looking Ron Perlman named “Nicola.” Ron Perlman (which is a cooler name than Nicola) controls an unnamed city with a band of 12 killers who all know kung fu (headed by the ruthless Killer No.2 played by an eccentric Kevin McKidd with a creepy pale face and Dick Tracy-esque red gangter suit). There are no guns because of a pre-credit sequence (involving dinosaur puppets at one point. Don’t ask.) which explains that it’s the future after a nuclear war happened, and guns are a thing of the past (but cars still exist. Did I mention this movie doesn’t make much sense?) However, we only find out why The Drifter wants to kill Ron Perlman two seconds before he fights him at the very end, and the movie is over two hours long. Not only that, but there’s a samurai for some reason, played by Gackt, a bartender played by Woody Harrelson (credited as “The Bartender,” proving the film’s not very good at naming characters either) who, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have much bearing on the plot and a femme fatale, I think, played by Demi Moore, who used to be in love with Harrelson’s bartender, sort of, and is pregnant, killed and unmourned at the end. There’s also a Communist revolution in there somewhere. To reiterate, storytelling is not this film’s strong suit.
However, this is still a very enjoyable film, and worth seeing for the spectacle and “what-the-fuck-ness” alone. It celebrates filmmaking with its mash of genres, styles, and filmmaking techniques. While everything feels artificial in a way — from the overly designed sets, to the purposely stagey acting, to the over-the-top action — it feels like all it wants to do is have fun and revel in its unique fantasy. Even the clichéd storytelling seems purposeful, trying not to overcomplicate the film so as to let you just soak in the visuals and spectacle. Classic tropes like revenge, sacrifice, heroism, martyrdom, etc. are espoused in fittingly melodramatic prose and vigor, which fits the film’s larger-than-life aesthetic.
Now, I know I might be over-crediting the filmmakers in some regards (the plot is actually very convoluted), but the film makes up for it in sheer style. I don’t want to advocate style over substance, but film as an art-form is one that, in its purest form, deals solely with movement and light, with everything else adding on to embellish that. You don’t need story, sounds or music to make a film, or even a compelling one. Such examples include the experiments of Dulac and other surrealist filmmakers in the 1920s. I mention that to just say that this film, in its purest form, feels like a love-letter to genre filmmaking. Its homages may not be as subtle as Tarantino or Scorsese, but it is obviously made with care. There’s even some stylish, old school techniques sprinkled throughout, like a character talking to another one on a phone, with a thin, translucent screen to create a primitive “split-screen” — harking back to how Tarantino purposely gave the cars shaky rear-projection to give the feel of the movies he grew up with.
In the end, I feel people should seek this film out. It’s balls-to-the-walls insane awesomeness. It’s got everything you could want: cowboys, samurai, kung fu, blood, car chases, explosions, etc. But it does it all with style. And dinosaur puppets.