Set in a retro-forties origami city that literally folds into different shapes, Bunraku follows the exploits of two enigmatic heroes newly arrived in town: a nameless drifter (Josh Hartnett) with amazing martial arts and gambling skills and a redoubtable samurai named Yoshi (Gackt). Both men share a burning desire to kill the city’s reigning crime boss and “most powerful man east of the Atlantic”, Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman). But first they must fight their way through the ranks of Nicola’s top henchmen led by lethally psychotic tap-dancing dandy Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd).
Drawing its title from a four-hundred year old form of Japanese puppet theatre, Bunraku fuses elements from westerns and chanbara films, incorporating puppetry and computer animation into one of the most intriguingly idiosyncratic action movies in recent times. Its polished artifice has drawn some comparisons with Sin City (2005), which also featured Josh Hartnett, but writer-director Guy Moshe and his cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia ditch the tired, over-familiar noir shadowy style in favour of vibrant comic book colours reminiscent of Vittorio Storaro’s work on Dick Tracy (1990).
On close inspection, the film owes its major stylistic debt to the work of Japanese maverick Seijun Suzuki. The jazzy ethos, tongue-in-cheek humour at once parodic yet celebratory, the colour coded costumes and avant-garde storytelling incorporating an array of theatrical techniques, even the numerically-monickered hitmen evoke such Suzuki classics as Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Pistol Opera (2001). The film would make an interesting double-bill with Sngmoo Lee’s underrated The Warrior’s Way, another wild west meets martial arts fusion headlined by an Asian superstar, released around the same time but featuring a more compelling storyline with more relatable characters.
Moshe dawdles detailing his densely layered mythology and fumbles several promising sub-plots that fail to bring sufficient levels of human drama to draw viewers through this oddball world. His numerous, indulgent though undeniably audacious visual flourishes may not always propel the plot forward but prove arresting enough to paper over any longeurs. For all its surreal set-pieces and super-stylized action, Bunraku spins a disarmingly melancholy tale where heroes bemoan past mistakes, lost loves and missed opportunities. Moshe may recycle a few stale clichés about the bushido code and necessity of revenge, but the film sports a pleasingly poetic and philosophical edge and remains free of the sadism and misogyny that mar many western pastiches of the martial arts film.
While the script may be patchy, the entire cast enters into the spirit of the piece with great gusto. Hartnett and J-pop superstar Gackt spark very well off each other in a charismatic pairing that recalls past east-meets-westerns such as Red Sun (1971) and The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1975). Beautiful newcomer Emily Kaiho makes a notable impression as Yoshi’s plucky young cousin and Kevin McKidd acquits himself surprisingly well as a sinister badass equal parts Fred Astaire and Frank Gorshin. Most surprisingly perhaps, Demi Moore gives a spirited performance as Nicola’s dejected whore girlfriend and is reunited with Woody Harrelson as part of a vague sub-plot that seems like a jokey nod to Indecent Proposal (1993). Fans of Asian fantasy cinema will have few problems with Bunraku’s whimsical tone than those with staunchly mainstream tastes, but if the film is not always coherent on a story level it remains fascinating for fans of offbeat and ambitious action fare.