Perhaps the most stylishly cool, deliciously colorful and creatively crazy movie of the year, Bunraku is a western/samurai/gangland head trip that’s as bold as it is beautiful. The film’s look is a stir-fry fusion of 1960s bam-pow Batman camp, Robert Rodriguez Sin City artifice and cheekily detached Kubrick futurism, spiced up with lots of elaborate Kung Fu Hustle-esque choreographed mega-mayhem.
Bunraku refers to a form of life-size Japanese puppetry, but only a little of that art form is actually seen here (in a clever pre-title sequence that sets up the story). The rest of the movie is hyper-theatrical live-action and occasional animation, with narrator Mike Patton providing a sardonic running commentary.
Woody Harrelson plays a nameless know-it-all bartender in a neon day-glo future where turf wars look like Broadway musical numbers and car chases come with videogame sound effects. He sums up Bunraku‘s premise when he describes a pop-up book he wants to create based on the movie’s iconic main characters: “A cowboy in a world without guns and a samurai without a sword team up to defeat a common evil.”
The cowboy, known only as The Drifter (Josh Hartnett), has come to town looking for a showdown with gang boss Nicola (a growlingly grim Ron Perlman). Nicknamed the Woodcutter thanks to his felonious fondness for axes and hatchets, Nicola lets his band of nine numerically ranked killers do his dirty work these days. The most lethal is the cane-wielding, pince-nez wearing and stone cold Killer No. 2 (the excellent Kevin McKidd, looking so much like a young James Woods he could be that actor’s clone).
The samurai Yoshi, played by Japanese actor/musician Gackt, seeks the return of a stolen gold medallion. After his restrained “compassionate warrior” bushido tactics prove ineffective, he and The Drifter join forces for some less spiritually enlightened ass-kicking. Their increasingly violent encounters with Nicola’s forces range from comically cartoonish to savagely bloody.
Demi Moore appears as Nicola’s reluctant pregnant concubine, an absinthe-sipping geisha who notes that “there’s evil inside me, and it’s kicking.” Her secret connection to another cast member gives the movie’s revenge, retribution and redemption riffs a shot of melancholy melodrama.
In this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink visual extravaganza, even something as simple as a whiskey bottle label becomes more than it seems. Every minute of this two-hours-plus candyland express goes above and beyond when it comes to over-stimulating the senses. A continuous multi-level jailbreak plays like a Donkey Kong arcade game, subtitles in short Japanese scenes appear as comic-book panel captions, landscapes unfold like children’s books and admission to the Russian Roulette bar is through an entrance that turns like the cylinder of a revolver. Background details include gramophones, telegraphs, Soviet-style campaign posters and a whole lot of fluorescent pastel lighting.
Deliriously otherworldly in every way, Bunraku features so many insanely imaginative sets and dazzling CGI backgrounds that production designer Chris Farmer would get an Oscar nod in a perfect world. Ditto director/writer Guy Moshe, who has created a wild, weird and genuinely one-of-a-kind wonder.