© 2010 Picturesque Films

Bunraku (2010)

Day five of the Tokyo International Film Festival. Bunraku is a special entry in the festival in that it is a major Hollywood film, but stars three Japanese performers—Shun Sugata and Emily Kaiho, who attended the screening, and Japanese musician Gackt, who was surprisingly nowhere to be seen.

It is hard to figure out how Bunraku could be so unfulfilling but also be so fun to watch. Maybe because it is two separate movies in one. One is an empty mish-mash of genres, and the other is dazzling tour de force of highly stylized art direction.  In one movie, a nameless drifter (Josh Hartnett) arrives to a nameless town, intent of settling a score with a mysterious crime boss Nicola (Ron Perlman), whom no one has seen and lived to tell the tale. He conniving bartender (Woody Harleson) teams him up with a samurai (Japanese musician Gackt) and they head off to take on their foe. It is an era in which all guns have been banned, and fighting is carried out by sword and balletic fighting. The samurai’s young cousin (Emily Kaiho) and the bartender’s old paramour (Demi Moore) get caught up with the bad guys. It is a thoroughly generic story populated by rather dull characters. In Star Wars, George Lucas combined elements of the Western, the ‘50s space adventure movie, and samurai films, with the effect of combining those genres without adding anything new. Of course there are legions of fans out there that would dispute my opinion at great length. If Bunraku gains a devoted cult following, which does not seem very likely, then even they could not deny that Bunraku is little more than a mixture of these genres, with a bit of manga and Russian Revolution propaganda thrown in—the film itself seems to be proud of its use of genre clichés and stock character types. The characters speak in hackneyed dialogue, and mercifully Gackt is not given any lines longer than three or four words, probably to hide the fact that his English isn’t so good.

In the other film, we finally have, in 2010, a satisfactory hybridization of live action and computer generated images. I was really disappointed in the blending of actors and CGI in Alice and Wonderland, which had ten times Bunraku’s $25 million budget, but still looked unconvincing and odd. Bunraku is named after a 17-century form of Japanese puppet theater in which human puppeteers clad in black operate highly stylized puppets, and like its namesake, it flaunts its own artificiality. The gun-less fight scene are not especially involving, but they sure look great, especially one between the drifter and a thug on a set of trapezes under an empty circus big top.

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