Funny is subjective. So much so that I'm always reluctant to recommend comedy on the premise that it made me laugh, because other people are not me and they may not laugh but only wince. Kō Machida's Punk Samurai Slash Down is comedy of such a peculiar, specific sort that I wonder if there's an audience for it larger than yours truly, but that's the exact reason I read it with such cockeyed fascination. I don't like to use the following formulation to describe something, because it reeks of namedropping, but I'm turning to it anyway: one part Yojimbo, one part Quentin Tarantino (or even Nisioisin, come to think of it), one part Office Space, and equal parts of Terry Gilliam and Terry Pratchett. The resulting mix is just that: mixed.
The punk meets the godfathers (and the Bellyshakers)
The setup for Punk Samurai echoes the rest of the book: it's a mix of classic chanbara/jidai-geki plotting and more cynical, modern-day, comedies of errors and long-cons. Lone swordsman Jūnoshin kills a harmless old man in broad daylight, right in front of his helpless daughter and an onlooker, samurai retainer Nagaoka Shume. Shume wants to know what prompted this; Jūnoshin reveals the old man was a member of the infamous "Belly-Shakers" cult, a nonsensical religious movement that's sweeping the land and poses a menace to public order. And since Jūnoshin claims to know so much about how these people operate, he's more than willing to lend his services and expertise, for a nominal fee of course, to those who need aid.
Is there, in fact, a Bellyshaker movement at all? Yes, but according to the reports of a spy (who has massive self-confidence issues, but that's another story), they died off. Jūnoshin is full of hot air. But Shume's boss, Naitō, gets it into his head that a grift like this might be a good way to get even with one of his rivals, or even to further cement his own power. And so Jūnoshin is sent to track down one of the former Bellyshakers, along with a hapless dimwit who just happens to have powers of telekinesis and could be a handy way to conjure up the kind of miracles people need to believe in a new religion ... or a fast way to trigger off a mess that spirals hopelessly out of control.
Duck soup, with a side order of animal crackers
Laid out that baldly, it all sounds like it ought to be a terrible mess. In truth, it is messy, but not because the story has no structural discipline. All of the elements Machida introduces are tied back into each other, and even a few loose ends we never noticed are braided forcibly shut by the time the book slams to a halt. Even the stuff that seems most improbable or pointless — like the way one character is demoted to the status of monkey trainer as an act of revenge — turns out to have some significance. Let's just say talking monkeys show up later in the story, and the way things have unfolded, that's one of the less bizarre things trotted across the page.
The real issue with the story comes down to a matter of taste. Machida's sense of humor revolves around protracted embarrassment and misunderstanding — the kind of joke where someone realizes they've stuck their neck out too far and desperately tries to backtrack but can't, and so has to dance so fiercely around what they said they become not only Fred Astaire but Ginger Rogers (because, after all, she did everything he did backwards and in high heels). To wit: Jūnoshin trying (and trying, and trying) to convince everyone above him that he does in fact know something about the Bellyshakers, and squirming (and squirming, and squirming) on the hook when he's caught.
Many times while reading all this, I did laugh. But there were at least as many times when I just slid my eye down the middle of the page looking for the next thing that actually happens. The wittiest parts are not when Machida tries to make a joke last as long as possible, one of the best ways to make any joke unfunny (see: most any film marketed as comedy in the last couple of decades). It's when he makes snide jabs at corporate culture or the Organization Man by way of samurai society. With no wars left to fight, the samurai either sink to the level of murderous freelancers (Jūnoshin) or climb the ladder by sawing at the rungs of the guys above them (Naitō).
Accidents of history
One part of Punk Samurai drawn directly from Japanese history, and one that wouldn't seem to have been, is the Bellyshaker cult itself. Some of it seems like a not-so-satirical version of the "new religions" that have popped up throughout Japan for centuries now, which run the gamut from harmless to contentious (Sōka Gakkai) to outright malevolent (Aum Shinrikyo). But it seems at least as much inspired by the spontaneous outburst of the Eijanakia movement. That movement died out of its own accord much as the original Bellyshaker movement did, and so I think the key mistake Naitō and the others make is not in resurrecting it for the sake of appropriating it (although that's bad enough), but in resurrecting it at all.
Japan's history is rife with tensions between the spontaneous and the bottom-up colliding with the deliberate and the top-down. For about two decades after WWII, samurai films — even the relatively unsophisticated ones — were indictments of the feudal culture of cruelty that imperial Japan's war machine eventually raided for justifications. At first I thought a story like this wouldn't feel terribly out of place alongside such projects, given how many barbs it has to sling at samurai culture. But its postmodern sense of humor puts it in a different category, one where most any kind of arrogance or absurdity is fair game, and where taking a side is less important than demonstrating the absurdity of taking sides. That said, Machida does in the end side with someone who is at the same time the one we least expect to receive it and the most deserving of it. (No, I won't say who.)
Much of what I track down for Ganriki these days is projects that aren't widely discussed in J-pop-culture circuits, but worth looking into for just that reason. Punk Samurai fit the bill perfectly: an English translation of a cult novel from am author with counter-culture credentials (Machida was himself a punk musician for a time). I liked the idea, and many of the individual bits of it, more than the total execution, but the whole package is still enough of a good kind of bizarre to take note of.
Personal note: Punk Samurai Slash Down was translated by Wayne P. Lammers, one of the editors of the magazine Mangajin in the 1990s. Mangajin was arguably the single best resource for English speakers who wanted to learn Japanese as it was actually spoken and written in Japan in the moment. As the name implied, it used manga as a teaching tool — not just stuff we all know like Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura, but also titles well-known to Japanese audiences if utterly unknown outside of the country (San-chōme no Yūhi). I wrote very briefly for Mangajin, contributing a couple of articles about Japanese text processing in English operating systems, but my contributions were cut short when the magazine folded. After that, I made sure to keep an eye out for translation projects with Lammers's name on it. It's been worth it.