Editor’s note: This review originally ran October 5, 2010. We are republishing it to coincide with the film’s release on VOD today.
Bunraku is one of the strangest films you’re likely to see. The movie is a weird amalgam of comic book sensibilities, kung fu melodrama and western trappings — all pushed into the visual pedigree of Bunraku (the Japanese tradition of puppet theater). Guy Moshe wrote and directed this futuristic tale of revenge. Set in a world that has long outlawed guns, order is now carried out by the point of a sword. Ruling above all is Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Pearlman), a murderous crime lord and the most powerful man east of the Atlantic.
Enforcing his rule are a team of assassins and their mob of henchmen, the Red Gang. Killer # 2 (Kevin McKidd) is Nicola’s right-hand man and potentially the most dangerous man alive. Smooth as a snake and with a dapper sense of style, Killer # 2’s dangerous as he is stylish. McKidd is amazing in the role. He dresses like a White Stripes band member and dances like Fred Astaire but don’t be fooled: he’s also really deadly with a sword and might just be mentally unstable.
Josh Hartnett stars as The Drifter, a cowboy in a world without guns. Rolling into town in search of Nicola and the vengeance he plans to wrought upon the crime lord, The Drifter quickly befriends a group of fellow heroes in wait including Yoshi (Japanese popstar Gackt), a samurai warrior who has refused to take lives, and The Bartender (Woody Harrelson), a source of drink and information who just happens to be a pop-up book enthusiast. There’s a great scene in which The Bartender shows off his latest pop-up book creation — a weirdly translated-through-the-ages tale of Spider-Man.
The real star of the movie, though, is the film’s unique visual style. Produced in much the same way Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow were filmed, Bunraku creates an almost entirely artificial world around its characters. Instead of hyper-realistic computer animation, though, the world of Bunraku is made-up of towering paper landscapes and origami buildings. Bunraku is a film that continuously breaks the fourth-wall — wearing its influence (the Japanese theater style where the puppeteers would be on stage alongside their show) on its sleeve. Strings will drop down into a frame showing captions or infographics. Weird transitions bring to mind Michel Gondry’s Björk music videos. Much like the bunraku style of puppet theater, Bunraku utilizes the wry, over-the-top narration of an unseen commentator (Faith No More’s Mike Patton).
Unfortunately, Bunraku is a film that easily lets its visual style overwhelm its story and characters to the point where the film is pretty to look at but its plot is ultimately unsatisfying.
No number of amazingly choreographed fight sequences that mix martial arts alongside contemporary dance can change the fact that the film’s story is as flat as a sheet of paper used to build an origami swan. That’s what the director was shooting for, though. Bunraku theater is known for its timeless stories told in unique ways. Director Moshe was so dedicated to presenting an accurate representation of Bunraku theater that he went out of his way to find as clichéd and well-worn of a story as possible. Drifters avenging slain loved ones and samurais seeking peace may seem old hat but that’s because it purposefully is. Bunraku is more about the experience than the movie. The film literally throws in everything but the kitchen sink — animated sequences, musical numbers, flash cut editing, killer acrobatic clowns. Bunraku even has Demi Moore in the role of Nicola’s despondent lover.
Bunraku is a film definitely worth seeing — if only for the fact that there are few films like it that exist in the world. There’s something for everyone in Bunraku — if only just a taste. The plot may be shallow and the visual style may wear thin by the end but you can’t be a lover of film and not find something to enjoy in the weird stew that is Bunraku.
Director: Guy Moshe Notable Voice Cast: Josh Hartnett, Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ron Pearlman, Kevin McKidd, Gackt Camui Writer: Guy Moshe
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.