Review for Punk Samurai
The first Gakuryu Ishii (a.k.a. Sogo Ishii) film that I saw was Isn’t Anyone Alive?, released in the UK on DVD by Third Window Films back in 2012. I really enjoyed it too, a reflective dark comedy that was edgy and thoughtful. It’s also something of an outlier in Ishii’s oeuvre, which tends to the more anarchic and energetic, as I learned when I saw Crazy Thunder Road and most recently Electric Dragon 80000V. It’s a case of first impressions lasting, as while I could appreciate the anarchic movies, they haven’t quite clicked with me as yet. That doesn’t bode well for Punk Samurai, as it looks to be the most anarchic Gakuryu Ishii film yet.
Kake Junoshin is a ronin who would much rather have a master. Killing a beggar and claiming that he is one of the Bellyshaker Party cult is enough to get him in the door of Lord Kuroae’s clan, and seeing the two retainers, Naito and Ohura scheming and jostling for position gives him the opportunity to impress. Naito will do anything to achieve power, including getting Ohura demoted to monkey trainer and exiled. The problem is that the Bellyshaker Party has long been extinct. To create a foe for Kuroae that Naito can capitalise on, Naito orders Kake to bring the Bellyshaker Party back from the dead. The former deputy leader of the Bellyshakers is still around, and they quickly convince Chayama to revivify the cult. But it isn’t long before matters spiral out of control.
Punk Samurai gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer along with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround Japanese track with optional English subtitles. Punk Samurai dates from 2018, and the transfer it gets on this disc is nigh on flawless. The image is clear and sharp, colours are rich and consistent, and the detail is excellent. It makes the period imagery and the surreal punk imagination really pop on screen, while the action and effects are presented well. Punk infuses the imagery, and it infuses the audio as well, although it saves the big guns for the end credits. The incidental music has more of a Pulp Fiction vibe to it, which matches with the creative editing and fractured narrative. The dialogue is clear, and the film is wonderfully immersive, making excellent use of the surround soundstage, while the more strident action sequences really do have impact. The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of typos.
Any animated menu screen which plays out against “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols... is an animated menu screen that I will watch all the way through every time I put the disc into the player. It doesn’t hurt that it incorporates much of the wild surrealist imagery of the film. The following extras are on the disc.
Making Of (66:03)
Go Ayano Interview (5:46)
Stage Greetings (16:12)
After a week where I watched more than my fair share of Hollywood dross, Punk Samurai was just what the doctor ordered, a refreshing, energetic, and original blast from beginning to end, visually striking, smart, witty and irreverent. My first instinct was that this is an adaptation of a manga or anime; such is the style and feel of the movie. But there is no such source to refer to, although I could very well see an anime spinning off the film.
Punk Samurai was actually adapted from a novel written by Ko Machida, former punk rocker turned author. It was adapted to the screen by Kankuro Kudo, who wrote the screenplay to one of my favourite Japanese movies, Fumihiko Sori’s Ping Pong (Blu-ray gods please answer my prayers for this one!). Yet watching Punk Samurai, I couldn’t help but feel as if I was watching a cross between Samurai Champloo and Gintama, both animated re-imaginings of Edo period Japan.
It does that thing that Samurai Champloo did of infusing a historical period with a modern musical sensibility and style. With Champloo it was all about hip-hop, and with Punk Samurai it’s most obviously punk, although more so visually than musically, at least at first. There is a punchiness and irreverence to the storytelling which takes no prisoners, and the way the 4th wall shatters is done with originality and wit.
When it comes to the characters and story though, this feels much like Gintama. The characters have that sense of absurd gormlessness, while appearing larger than life and wonderfully idiosyncratic. The story could easily be a Gintama arc; two characters scheming against each other, with one unleashing a plan that spirals out of control, as a third party turns out to be much more than they first seemed to be. Just like Sakata Gintoki, Kake thinks he knows it all, but is quickly out of his depth in the middle of all this mayhem. The film even has its Jugem Jugem moment, as the monkey excrement flies.
Punk Samurai is audacious in its high powered silliness. The characters are delightfully daft, yet wholly memorable, while the story is astounding fun. I haven’t even mentioned Tadanobu Asano, and how he vanishes into the role of Hanro Chayama, the other-worldly cult leader who pronounces to the world through his Greek chorus. Third Window Films come up trumps again with an excellent Blu-ray presentation, and with plenty of extra features. All that’s missing is an audio commentary, but I don’t know who’d be brave enough to pick up that gauntlet in a film this bizarre.
Punk Samurai is available from Terracotta, Arrow Video, and mainstream e-tailers.
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