The film borrows its title from the name of a traditional Japanese puppet show featuring large puppets that are operated by onstage puppeteers with an unseen narrator. Bunraku uses this as a basis for some of the style and design of it as well as the narration but infuses it with comic book noir. The story exists in a world where there are no guns and this world is dominated by a super tough crime lord nicknamed the Woodcutter, played by the brilliant Ron Perlman, who has his own army and nine deadly assassins. We follow a new guy in town, The Drifter (Josh Hartnett), who is on a mission to bring down the Woodcutter. However, it transpires that he is not the only one seeking revenge, a young samurai Yoshi (Gackt) would like to get back his father’s medallion that the Woodcutter stole, and so with the help of a bartender (Woody Harrelson) and almost superhuman fighting powers, the two attempt to bring down the Woodcutter and his men.
The film’s opening credits are creatively animated depicting shadow puppets and marionettes and determine the stylish and experimental tone of the film. The set design has a German Expressionist feel to it and is designed like a theatre set, looking two dimensional and cut out a lot of the time. The obviously fake sets, use of oranges and pinks and the choreographed fight scenes give the film a highly stylised original feel. Visually this film is very impressive and if you buy into the exaggerated comic book world you will not be disappointed. The combination of Japanese martial arts, noir and comic book actually works very well and the heavy reliance on sound effects is fun. There is not really any gore and the fighting looks more like a dance performance than fighting a lot of the time with sound used to great effect.
Josh Hartnett is great as The Drifter, playing an amalgamation of previous characters he has been in films such as Sin City (2005) and The Black Dahlia (2006). Ron Perlman, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson all have small but perfectly formed roles although I would have liked to have seen a lot more of Perlman as Nicola the Woodcutter. The story is rather predictable and treats itself as if it is far more complicated than it actually is but the look of the film is stunning. The use of screens and shadows is beautiful and the use of stage techniques within a film actually works really well. There is almost a fairy tale feel to it particularly when you see the exaggerated two dimensional moon hanging in the sky with a silhouetted Woodcutter. If you suspend your disbelief then Bunraku is enjoyable and fun.
The comic book subtitles may not be agreeable to some people and the mixture of genres and styles are a concoction that may not be to everyone’s liking but I enjoyed the references to many other films. At nearly two hours the film could have been tightened up a little and perhaps would have benefitted from reducing minor characters and focussing a little more on the main ones. Visually this film is very interesting but unfortunately this does not prevent the fact that the story is rather weak and the ending is an anti-climax. Bunraku is an enjoyable enough film with a distinctive style but it feels like it never really gets going and doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to do.
Bunraku is out on DVD and Blu-ray on 10th October 2011
Director: Guy Moshe
Stars: Josh Hartnett, Woody Harrelson, Ron Perlman, Demi Moore
Runtime: 118 mins