The second of Third Window’s March double hitter of films by Sogo (now Gakuryu) Ishii is of course his more recent Punk Samurai (2018), or Punk Samurai Slash Down, based on an apparently unfilmable novel. Got to love an unfilmable novel, sometimes it works and sometimes not - the great David Cronenberg (who started as a filmmaker a few years before Ishii) both succeeded (Naked Lunch) and failed (Cosmopolis); what would Ishii do? Guess you’ll find my view – admittedly minus any actual knowledge of the source material but hey when has that ever stopped me?
Ronin Kake kills a travelling beggar, claiming the beggar is the vanguard of the Belly Shaker cult that has been terrorising nearby areas. Posing as an expert on the rather unusual stomach gyrating cult, Kake hopes to become a retainer of the Kuroae clan. Inveigled into clan politics, Kake becomes part of a plan to reforge the Belly Shaker cult with terrible results, but so what - when last did you see an army of monkeys taking on a crew of raging belly shaking fanatics?
Personally, not since a week last Thursday. Give or take a day.
You may have guessed that Punk Samurai is not a film that is to be taken too seriously. Exactly what the film is I struggle to say because it manages to cover a lot of ground in its two-hours ten-minutes running time. Part social commentary, some pastiche of a samurai epic, add a large dose of absurdism, balance that with explosions of crude humour and reflections on how the simple things can bring us joy in life; yet for all of this it’s consistent in its absurdist tone; even when apparently serious, it mocks itself at the same time so that you are not brought out of the film world that Ishii creates.
The unfilmable nature of Punk Samurai is perhaps made clear by the use of the voiceover throughout, though it is perhaps one of the more unusual ones you are likely to come across. It can be both the omniscient third person and also suddenly subjective, moving directly into the mind of the character we're following, often at the same time. As such it can feel like it is subverting the use of voiceovers in films and yet at the same time the film is reliant on them to make sense of parts of the narrative, to bridge spaces in the story, which in a novel format might have been easier to traverse.
As the film opens the voiceover is more overtly normal in the introduction of both the characters and the political situation, though visually the style is very much of the "in-your-face" variety, aiming to undermine the more conventional narrative exposition. You get hit with the usual "this is so and so of this clan and so and so dynamics are going on". Here you suspect Ishii is both trying to lay the groundwork yet also undermine this style of filmmaking, but he has a fine line to tread because it’s easy for the audience to feel like we’re being spoon-fed information rather than trusting the audience. However, the story and the number of characters is kept to a sane, traceable amount and moreover Ishii is straight into the action and the humour. He breaks up the exposition so that it never gets in the way of the tone of the film. He also switches backwards and forwards in time so that some apparently crazier aspects that our characters display, which might otherwise leave us a little bewildered, are explained, but it’s done with panache so never feels lazy; Ishii uses the ‘let’s go back a moment’ as a stylistic motif.
So, yes, Punk Samurai is definitely of the absurdist, crazed variety. Like Electric Dragon 80000v this is not the subtlest of films (then it’s not trying to be), but it is a very different kind of film; whereas Electric Dragon was over the top, Punk Samurai is a very different excessive: including fighting with moves that are shouted, such as the fantastic "balls on balls attack!" It’s a subversion of the traditional samurai fighting, or perhaps an extension of it, the desperation we sometimes see expanded into ruder, cruder explorations and here it is intentionally so. Crude humour isn’t always my thing, including later when a monkey decides to shit on someone because... [spoilers], so I have to own up to some of these moments doing less for me than they will for others. But for those of my disposition fear not, as the film never gets lost in crudity for the sake of it and even I could recognise what Ishii is aiming at; and these uses of more crude humour are balanced by the more thoughtful moments, which are - throughout the film - infused with humour.
I mean the Belly Shaker cult exist because they believe we all live in the great tapeworm and need to gyrate their stomachs in order to be spewed out and find... Who knows? Does it matter? As the film recognises cults like this are no more than youngsters losing it at gigs, or someone looking to lose themselves in some larger cause – whatever that experience is. Speaking of gigs, this is purposeful as the film often references anachronisms: messages written in blood include hashtags, while the voiceover references rock concerts. And why not, after all the soundtrack often riffs on music by Pink Floyd and The Animals version of House of the Rising Sun, to the point where I was almost wondering why the film wasn’t called Psychedelic Samurai.
Regardless of how the audience react to it,one of the principle question for me with films like this is just how do the cast seem to be taking to it? Do they look bemused? Confused? Bored? If anything, what comes across here is that they look as though they are all having an absolute blast, whether that’s stalwarts like Jun Kunimura as the retainer-cum-monkey trainer or Go Ayano as the lead, Kike; or of course Tadanubo Asano as the crazed ex-Belly Shaker brought out of cult-retirement. They seem to be as one in enjoying the chance to play twists on roles they might otherwise act straight. It’s a joy too for Ishii to undermine the usual apparently serious Lord and Retainer scenario, whether that’s retainers really telling it like it is, or the feudal lord being such a dunce that he happily sits through being pelted with rocks.
If there is perhaps an issue with the film, it is that Ishii has too much. There’s a shedload of CGI and - don’t get me wrong - it’s done well but maybe the beauty of Crazy Thunder Road or Electric Dragon where more is done more with less is affecting my appreciation here, where he seems to have a large, decent cast and a suitable CGI budget, it feels perhaps as though it has actually stifled some of the directors dynamism and invention. Towards the end he makes some excellent use of the effects, but I did also feel Ishii perhaps over-relied on them. To an extent this is absolutely necessary – watch the film you’ll know why – but nothing quite has the visual impact of Electric Dragon.
Yet the absurdist vibes always shine through even if sometimes you sit there wondering if you are actually dreaming instead of watching a film (in a good way) and Punk Samurai is never guilty of being dull for a moment, a sin that could have finished the film's tight pacing. The overall tone does not allow for distraction, and the pacing is key here.
It’s not unfair to say that Punk Samurai doesn’t hit the same level of achievement as Electric Dragon. Part of this may be the difficulty of trying to find a way to visually tell an apparently unfilmable story – the only way to do it is to experiment, knowing some aspects will likely be less successful than others, but you cannot take away that this is a coherent, tonally consistent film from Ishii, despite all the madness on screen.
Nevertheless, I had a damn good time with Punk Samurai and I think you will, too. It’s a film that tries to do a lot, and some of this may be lost on its first viewing (let alone trying to describe it in a review) and maybe it’s like David Lynch’s Dune: it’s imperfect but better for it, because it grabs at elements you might not expect and does them very well, while other moments make not resonate as richly but still work to make the unfilmable elements gel well enough - better to do as Ishii has done and strive to make the unfilmable a reality then to aim low and miss.
Check out the trailer here.
Beware the spew...