Bunraku is one of the strangest films I’ve seen in 2011. Highly stylized and set in a post-apocalyptic world constructed out of constantly folding origami (!), it tells the story of a Drifter (Josh Hartnett) who teams with a samurai named Yoshi (Japanese pop star Gackt) to bring down the personification of evil, an oppressive Woodcutter named Nicola (Ron Perlman). The movie combines elements of samurai films, westerns, film noir, martial arts movies, and more, and the production design blends with those genres to create one of the most interesting cinematic worlds I’ve ever seen.
To be clear: this is an interesting world, but not necessarily an interesting movie. Bunraku suffers from a case of style overload, attempting to blend far too many things; unfortunately, this results in every aspect of the film feeling not quite deep enough to matter. It’s a purely visual experience, but in that regard alone, it’s fascinating. The movie is shot entirely on sound stages with CG backgrounds, so comparisons to Sin City are sure to arise, but I feel like it’s doing Bunraku a disservice to try to hold that visual comparison to just one movie. You can get the sense from the trailer that this origami world is unique, with a mixture of influences ranging from the canted angles of German expressionism to the paper mache whimsy of Michel Gondry.
There is a ton of action in this movie, but, like the film itself, it’s all flash and no substance. The fight choreography is terrible, clearly trying to make the heroes seem like epic warriors who can beat their way through a hundred men without a scratch, but by relying on the typical “one guy attacks at a time” and “one punch knockout” cliches, it appears as if anyone with functioning limbs could fight just as effectively. (For multiple examples of how this can be done correctly, see Tony Jaa’s The Protector.) There was one really excellent side-scrolling scene that shows The Drifter fighting loads of men down continuing levels of stairs in one long continuous shot, but it was essentially a vertical version of the same shot from 2003’s Oldboy with video game sound effects pumped in. I’ll give this movie one thing, though: it had an extended fight sequence in an abandoned circus before that takes place on a trapeze and the trampoline below it, something I’ve never seen before. (It would have been right at home in the gymnastics-based karate movie Gymkata.)
Josh Hartnett is no stranger to film noir (The Black Dahlia, Lucky Number Slevin, Sin City), and he does his standard thing here with a little more fighting than usual. Late in the movie, Hartnett battles a roving band of parkour jesters who dance around in the background as they attack him one at a time. Sigh. Woody Harrelson plays a bartender (remember “Cheers,” anyone?) who is ostensibly there to guide Yoshi and The Drifter to the evil Woodcutter (Ron Perlman, playing basically any bad guy he’s ever played, but one who actually has a scene in which he chops wood), but mainly Woody just sits in the shadows and creepily watches everyone fight in the rain. Oh yeah – and he also tells the origin story of Spider-Man through origami. Yep, that’s all I need to say about that. Demi Moore also shows up for a few minutes as Ron Perlman’s whore, looking so disinterested in everything that she must have been doing someone a favor by appearing in this film at all.
Another issue with Bunraku is length, clocking in at an absurdly long two hours and four minutes, far too long for a film like this. If the run time was closer to 90 minutes – even 100 minutes, like last year’s similarly stylized The Warrior’s Way – it would have been much easier to digest. But putting us through plodding action scenes, killing off Perlman’s henchmen one by one, and adding a totally unnecessary subplot about a people’s army forming near the end of the movie makes Bunraku more of a chore than a little piece of pop culture fun. The predictable ending is totally not worth the two hour wait, and at the point which we realize that almost none of the action scenes have any consequences, they actually become pretty boring and we just wait for the filmmakers to finish their masturbatory exercise and eventually finish telling the story.
Bunraku is filled with stock characters, bizarre editing choices, and a captivating backdrop. But because it blends so many different elements together into a massive hodgepodge of a movie, nothing stands out or seems truly important. I was never able to engage with any of the characters, and that may be fine for some people (especially in a film like this). As for me, I’d like to actually feel something about the people I’m watching on screen – whether that be rooting for them, hating them, something, anything – and this movie failed to provide me with a reason to do that. It’s unique, but only you can decide if that’s enough to be worth your time. Bunraku is available now on VOD and hits theaters on September 30, 2011. Until next time…