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‘Punk Samurai Slash Down’: An audacious adaptation that may look better on paper

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

One of the frequent complaints lodged against the Japanese film industry is that producers are reluctant to bankroll anything that isn’t based on an existing novel, manga or TV series. There’s a lot of truth in the criticism, but not every screen adaptation of an existing property is a product of bet-hedging.

For audacity alone, this movie version of Kou Machida’s “Punk Samurai Slash Down” is worth applauding. As books go, the musician-turned-author’s 2004 novel wasn’t exactly “Finnegans Wake,” but most producers would have concluded that the surrealistic period romp was unfilmable. If its verbose, wildly anachronistic dialogue and narrative nonsequiturs weren’t enough, there was also the climax, in which a samurai clan battles thousands of religious fanatics with help from an army of monkeys.

It’s not a safe bet, in other words, but Gakuryu Ishii’s film would seem to have plenty stacked in its favor. The director’s “Crazy Thunder Road” and “Burst City” — made back when he was still calling himself Sogo — are punk cinema classics, while 2000’s “Gojoe” proved he could handle the demands of a samurai epic. And if anyone was up to the task of adapting Machida’s novel, it would be screenwriter Kankuro Kudo, who took an equally anarchic approach to period conventions with his 2005 directorial debut, “Yaji and Kita: The Midnight Pilgrims.”

Punk Samurai Slash Down (Panku Samurai, Kirarete Soro)
Rating
Run Time 131 mins.
Language JAPANESE

Ishii also has an impressive ensemble to work with. The ever-watchable Go Ayano stars as Junoshin, the bad-boy rōnin (masterless samurai) of the title, and is supported by a cast including Tadanobu Asano, Masatoshi Nagase and Shota Sometani (plus Keiko Kitagawa, in a part that would’ve been better had they given it to almost anybody else).

At the start of the film, Junoshin gets himself in trouble with the local samurai lord (Mashiro Higashide) for killing an elderly beggar, but spins the situation to his advantage by telling him the victim was part of a religious cult that threatens his domain. Junoshin omits to mention that the cult — whose members are given to mass outbursts of belly-shaking, and think the world is stuck in the bowels of a giant cosmic tapeworm — no longer exists. As it turns out, they can always be resurrected.

The film’s opening sequence sets the tone, with freeze-frames, flashbacks and calligraphy text scrawled across the screen. It’s like Ishii has taken notes from Guy Ritchie, but there’s a laziness in the execution that stops it from developing a convincing rhythm, and the soundtrack of limp surf-rock doesn’t help — surely they could’ve licensed a few tracks by Machida’s old punk band, Inu?

This problem, alas, seeps through the whole film. Ishii has drawn some extremely ripe performances from his cast, but they’re often left dangling in scenes that would have benefitted from tighter direction and editing. Kudo’s narration-heavy script puts an added dampener on whatever energy individual scenes manage to muster.

Even in its most assured moments, including a couple of fight sequences reminiscent of wuxia martial-arts flicks, “Punk Samurai Slash Down” doesn’t seem to be offering much that Takashi Miike hasn’t already done better. And while it’s not really a fair comparison, the anime series “Samurai Champloo” — released the same year as Machida’s novel — spliced sword-fighting and contemporary swagger to far more convincing effect.

Still, to give credit where it’s due, at least Ishii kept the ending.