Bunraku is a centuries-old form of Japanese puppet theater, that employs all kinds of puppets, wherein the characters are all typically ancient archetypes of Japanese folklore. It shares its roots with Kabuki, as the performances are all highly affected, and the stories are all familiar ancient tales.
Guy Moshe‘s feature film “Bunraku,” uses real actors, but is sucha gloriously over-the-top style exercise, that they may as well have been puppets.
“Bunraku” is an explosively colorful, and limitlessly inventive action thriller that looks like the cross between a chintzy, over-the-top kung-fu flick from the 1970s, and Warren Beatty’s film version of “Dick Tracy.” It takes place in a colorful alternate universe, where guns have been outlawed, and thugs, clad in bright read coats and bowler hats, regularly get into swordfights with cartoonish challengers. When characters appear on screen, small wooden signs appear by their heads, explaining, briefly, who they are. The characters all overact, and chew the scenery with such a joyous aplomb, that it becomes part of the film’s overall aesthetic. What’s more, while the skies were all created in CGI to make them look like miniature paper creation, the bulk of the film was shot on real sets, and in real rooms, with real lighting. The visual effect of “Bunraku” is like a superhero version of Julie Taymor. A dollhouse come to life. A kid-friendly version of “Sin City.” An ’80s exploitation film pushed to a logical extreme. It looks fantastic.
And, for the first 30-45 minutes, “Bunraku” may be one of the best action films you’ve seen this year. Josh Hartnett plays a nameless drifter in a snazzy hat and vest, who has come to The City to seek revenge on the local crime lord (Ron Perlman). The drifter is so over-the-top and angry that when he grabs for a bottle of whiskey, he accidentally nabs the entire neck off of the bottle. Also out for revenge is Yoshi (Gackt) a soulful samurai who, early in the film fights off an army of thugs while his mouth is full of wasabi. The two hunters are brought together by a whimsical bartender (Woody Harrelson), who, once a fighter himself, decides to train the two would-be enemies, and make sure they get along. There is also a chief thug, credited as Killer 2 (Kevin McKidd), who wanders about down killing people, and cleaning off his blade with a handkerchief. His blade-cleaning gesture is awesome.
And as we see the steampunk, post-apocalypse weirdness unfolding, we begin to jibe with the creativity of the universe. It’s so unusual. And the characters are so over-the-top fun, that, well, you can’t help but like it.
Sadly, as the film goes on, more and more plot is introduced, and “Bunraku” begins to lose its way. For one, there’s an entire sub-story devoted to Alexandra (Demi Moore), Perlman’s chief concubine, which is awkwardly set up-, and then doesn’t pay off in any sort of meaningful fashion. We know that the Drifter wants revenge, but we’re not given any hints as to why until the very end of the film, making us feel strung along. What’s more, the characters, as they contemplate revenge, and plan for it, and talk about it, plan some more, begin to take on an insufferably broody quality that drags down the tone of the film, and slows the promise of the mayhem action given in the first 30 minutes. Occasionally the film will pick up again (as when there’s a car chase, or when there’s a fight on a trapeze safety net (and how I wish it had been on the actual trapezes), only to bog down again in tiresome exposition, and inappropriate broodiness.
The film is 118 minutes long, and there’s an awesome 90 minute film in it somewhere. I implore people to see it, even though it’s not perfect. It’s so rare that this much energy and creativity goes into a film’s look and tone. It has a totally original style, and in this day of remakes, homages, and sequels, it’s refreshing to see someone try to pull off something so striking, even if it’s not entirely successful. Kudos to Moshe. Now let’s see if he can do something even crazier next time.