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Review: ‘Bunraku’ Spruces Up a Bland Story With Creativity and Style

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2011

The world has descended into chaos. An artsy, color coordinated chaos to be sure, but still, society has taken a turn for the worse. To combat it the world’s government bans all firearms in an effort to quell the escalating violence. The result is a fusion of the Old West and the Far East as disagreements and feuds are handled solely through fisticuffs, swordplay, and a strict code of honor.

Two strangers ride into town, not on a horse, but on a train. The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) is looking for a card game and Yoshi (Gackt) is here at his dead father’s request, but both men also have a secret purpose involving the town’s big boss, Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman). Their dueling quests will bring them in contact with each other, but it also finds them crossing paths with The Bartender (Woody Harrelson), Yoshi’s hot cousin Momoko (Emily Kaiho), the mysterious Alexandra (Demi Moore), and Nicola’s red-suited army led by Killer #2 (Kevin McKidd).

What follows is a storybook tale with an arresting visual style that brings comic book pages to life on a stage-like setting. It’s theater for a new age that works as often as it doesn’t depending on who and/or what is onscreen, but even when it fails as an engaging narrative it often manages to delight the senses with a barrage of imagery both broad and specific. It’s a genre movie in cotton candy trappings, and while it runs a bit too long it’s a fun exercise in creativity overload.

“Things never go well before first going wrong and then getting worse.”

Bunraku is a form of Japanese puppetry that forgoes the hand-up-the-ass style perfected by Jim Henson and friends for something more visually dramatic. The puppeteers are visible to the audience but dressed entirely in black as they manipulate large, often human-sized puppets around the stage.

Writer/director Guy Moshe’s film, Bunraku, utilizes the art form both literally and metaphorically, and while the results are highly inconsistent they’re rarely less than interesting. Segments of the tale, including the intro, are told with these puppets and various forms of animation, and they add an additional visual element to a narrative already filled with comic book style. Subtitles appear in the form of comic word bubbles, drawings morph into live action, and camera shots are framed with intention and care to highlight color schemes and shadows.

Your eyes will never be bored, but your mind may wander here and there.

The film states pretty clearly that the story is one that’s been told before and will be again only with different names and faces. A stranger arrives in a town where the people live in fear of a big, bad guy, and he works his way up to the top out of some soon to be revealed plan for vengeance. We’ve seen it before a thousand times (and will again a thousand more), and aside from some in-world details Bunraku offers little new to the mix.

But if you can accept the rather mundane plot there’s more than enough eye candy and action to keep your attention throughout. The film looks like a bastard child of Dick Tracy and Sin City with primary colors and exaggerated visuals leaping from the pages of a comic book. Scenery fades away as if on tracks, dangling placards introduce characters before being yanked up and out of view, and not a single frame is shot in the open air.

Dialogue serves to introduce characters and offer background on the world, but the best parts of the film are evident in the multiple action sequences ranging from one on one fights to crowded brawls. Some of the choreography feels overly structured and dance-like, with McKidd in particular appearing more dramatic than believable, but several of the fight scenes entertain with their speed and visual flair.

Speaking of McKidd, dance fighting aside he’s one of the standouts here amidst the cast. The rest seem to fall into their traditional comfort zones including Harrelson as the comedian, Hartnett as the squinty-eyed man of few words, and Perlman as the aggressor. Moore’s role is of the blink and you’ll miss it variety, but no one’s complaining.

Bunraku is an interesting film that was never destined to find a wide audience. None of the names involved are marquee material, and the cartoon-like visuals will turn off as many viewers as it attracts. But film fans looking for something fresh and creative should give it a chance. Think of it as the best college-level stage production you’ve ever seen, and you’re bound to walk away impressed and happy.

The Upside: Fun and eclectic cast; impressive visual style; really commits to the comic-book style; fantastic dueling fight scenes; why hello Emily Kaiho.

The Downside: Twenty plus minutes too long for its premise and format; fights often feel more choreographed than exciting; characters aren’t really all that interesting.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.