Kō Machida's cult novel Punk Samurai Slash Down was an experiment in hallucinatory black humor for which no middle-of-the-road response seemed possible. I could think of only two directors working now suited to make a live-action adaptation of such a project: Takashi Miike, who has never shied away from a difficult project in his life; and Gakuryū Ishii, not as prolific as Miike but equally fearless and visionary . Ishii's movie is meticulously faithful to the source — impressive enough given how deranged the source is — but it also manages to stay just this side of watchable all the way through instead of flying completely apart at the seams. Whether or not you'll like it is another story. If you enjoy cinematic cosmic shaggy-dog stories of the Coen Brothers variety, this is your film. If not, don't say you weren't warned.
One thing leads to another (and another, and another)
So, the plot. (Again, don't say you weren't warned.) While stopping to rest in a little roadside town, lone-wolf ronin Jūnoshin (Gō Ayano) takes a moment to kill what seems like a harmless old man right in front of his blind daughter. Samurai underling Nagaoka Shume (Kōen Kōndo), witness to the goings-on, wants to know what prompted this, and Jūnoshin whips out a suitably b.s. response to cover for his cowardice. The dead man, you see, was a member of the infamous "Bellyshaker" cult (shades of the Eijanaika movement), and Jūnoshin is only too happy to lend his (nonexistent) expertise to help stamp out the cult's resurgence.
Jūnoshin's fabrication becomes the nexus of one out-of-control happening after another. First, a power struggle between rival advisors to the local lord, where one of them (Jun Kunimura) ends up demoted to a position in the boonies. Then an attempt to find the now-retired leader of the original cult (an absolutely unrecognizable Tadanobu Asano) and bring him back to business as usual, the better to cut him down at the height of his renewed power. And then, when the cult's return becomes impossible to stop, some assistance in the form of an army of monkeys.
I've left out a fair amount of detail here, if only because there are so many candidates for details to be left out in the name of brevity. For a two-hour movie, there's a stupefying amount of plot. I haven't said anything, for instance, about the village idiot who harbors powers of telekinesis, or the samurai spy with deep-seated feelings of inadequacy that keep him from doing his job properly, or the assassin who realizes Jūnoshin is his long-lost childhood friend because of the unmistakable smell of his ... well, I won't give away that joke.
Punk you very much
But is a movie like this even about the plot? Not really; it's about the nutty energy conjured up through its cast and by its director, with the plot just the clothesline on which all that is pinned. The book wasn't even really about its plot, either; it was a framework to deliver one absurd, deadpan farcical black-humored gag after another in a world where the avoidance of embarrassment becomes a biological imperative. Same with the film, which also streamlines somewhat the book's worst redundancies and excesses (a joke told four times over is not four times as funny). It also adds visual texture and energy that couldn't be conveyed through the text, so that even the messy, overlong climax isn't the total wreck it could have been. It's still something of a mess, though, if only because the original story's ending didn't make much sense either.
This is only the second period piece Ishii has directed, the other being the superlative Gojoe (2000), and it's as unlike that movie as you can get. But one can see some of the same forces at work: the almost-handmade production design (yes, even for a movie that clearly had a sizeable budget as Japanese films go), the bursts of uninhibited visuals, the willingness to tear up the playbook at the end. And also the unwillingness to make a period film that flatters regressive sensibilities — something doubly important as Japan's film industry retreats ever further into safe, predictable projects that rattle no cages.
After Gojoe, Ishii directed almost no feature films for many years, but in 2012 came back with Isn't Anyone Alive? and has been directing more or less steadily ever since. He has always been erratic, but stimulating: even when he wasn't entirely "on", he was still more interesting than the vast majority of the competition. Annoying and inconsistent as Punk Samurai can be, I would sooner take a middling Ishii movie than the majority of what passes for greatness elsewhere.