Punks are that bit of rough on the edges of clean society – the disruptors and agitators who, like the ancient Cynics, flout rules, defy convention and wave their arses in the face of respectability. Perhaps their closest analogue in the Edo period was the rōnin, or ‘masterless samurai’, whose very existence, given that samurai whose lords had died were expected to commit ritual suicide, was considered a shameful affront to the warrior’s code of honour known as bushido.
Adapted from Ko Machida’s 2014 novel Punk Samurai Slash Down, Punk Samurai (Pankiu-zamurai, kirarete sôrô) focuses on the rōnin Junoshin Kake (Gô Ayano), whose first act upon entering the northern domain of Kuroaei at the film’s beginning is to cut down, without provocation, a father travelling on a pilgrimage with his blind daughter. Confronted over this callous act by nervous local clansman Shume Nagaoke (Kôen Kondô), Kake warns that the man was a member of the Bellyshaker Party, a bizarre cult who have brought rioting and ruin wherever they go.
“This place is doomed,” declares Junoshin. Yet his accusations and admonitions are all a ruse. The man he murdered, far from being a Bellyshaker, was an innocent bystander in the opening gambit of Junoshin’s selfish, cynical ploy. For Junoshin plans to enter the favour of Lord Kuroae (Masahiro Higashide) – said by the narrator to be “the most inflexible, serious and eccentric, impulsive and straightforward troubling leader” – and to use his own supposed expertise in the Cult, as well as his skills as a super swordsman, to earn himself the coveted status of retainer. The irony is, this place really is doomed, with Junoshin’s own subterfuge and slaughter eventually bringing the whole place into chaotic disorder.
One of Kuroae’s chief retainers, Naito Tatewaki (Etsushi Toyokawa), immediately sees through Junoshin’s deceit, but decides to play along with it, seeing this as an opportunity to displace rival retainer Ohura Shuzen (Jun Kunimura), who, after expressing scepticism about the cult, finds himself surreally demoted to a small-town ‘monkey commissioner’. In fact, surrealism abounds in this film directed by Gakuryû (formerly Sogo) Ishii, and scripted by Kankurô Kudô, where characters’ lies mix with wayward irrationality to destabilise not only the Kuroae Domain, but the entire jidaegeki genre.
As Junoshin and Naito conspire to convince mad Bellyshaker-in-hiding Chayama Hanro (an unrecognisable Tadanobu Asano), his alluring acolyte Ron (Keiko Kitagawa) and the moronic messenger Osamu (Ryûya Wakaba) to resurrect the cult (“like making copies of a counterfeit”) so that they can build their own powerbase against it, the desperate, downtrodden populace is quick to turn to this sham religion’s false promises, becoming a genuine threat to the ruling order.
It is at this point that the film’s omniscient narrator (Masatoshi Nagase) – whose improbable identity will not be spoilt here – steps forward and offers his own immense army to help Kuroae’s small remaining force, in one of several arbitrary narrative turns that deftly dismantle any notion of realism in the film, and leave the viewer reeling in a wilderness of wtf?!.
“I don’t understand any of it,” Junoshin will complain near the end of Punk Samurai. For Ishii has created a colourful, jaunty world in which rogue ideas rule, the laws of physics do not apply and anything can happen. Amid all the snowballing lies, magical powers and divine interventions, the Bellyshakers’ outlandish belief that all of reality has been swallowed by a giant tapeworm no longer seems so implausible.
The deconstructive absurdism of Punk Samurai, gradually upending the very ground that the characters tread, sets these Tokugawa capers to Toshiyuki Mori’s anachronistic score of rockabilly, spaghetti western stylings and a House of the Rising Sun cover, with – of course – The Sex Pistols’ punk anthem Anarchy in the U.K. playing over the closing credits. It’s a bold, brassy, outrageous, often very funny story about humanity – and other animals – struggling to find their way in an unjust world of fakery and illusion, where the real punk is Ishii himself.
Punk Samurai is released on Blu-ray by Third Window Films, 13th March, 2023
Published 14 Mar 2023
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