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Punk Samurai Slash Down
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by Jay Seaver

"Sharp, silly, something else."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Well, this movie's something. Several somethings, in fact, starting out as a winking con-game movie set in samurai times and eventually becoming five kinds of absurd before a jaw-droppingly insane finale. Somewhere along the way, even the cheery parts get cynical and the biggest hucksters seem to have things right entirely by accident. Some may argue that this makes it a film perfect for modern times, and I don't know that I would disagree.

Junoshin Kake (Gou Ayano) is a samurai and would probably be considered a punk, by some, as the wandering ronin is not above pretending there is a crisis to make sure he gets a new job. In this case, that involves convincing Lord Naohito Kuroae (Masahiro Higashide) that the "belly shaker" cult is a threat to his rule rather than a small group of fairly harmless cranks. Several others, most notably chief retainer Tatewaki Naito (Etsushi Toyokawa), suspect this is malarkey and aim to undermine (or, if necessary, assassinate) Kake, but he's frustrating resilient. As are his lies - and once a disaffected populace knows about the cult, it actually starts to attract members, leading Kuroae to assign Kake to Hanro Chayama (Tadanobu Asano), one of the original founders, to see if he can actually do something about it. At least he's got a cute servant (Keiko Kitagawa), although Ron may be more than she seems.

How closely screenwriter Kankuro Kudo and director Gakuryu Ishii adapt Ko Machina's 2004 novel, I can't say, but if it's close, it speaks to universal the things being parodied are. A viewer determined to bend the film into a metaphor could probably find themselves deep down in a rabbit hole trying to make things that are just jokes fit, but the world is full of opportunists like Kake, trivial issues that take on the scale of real problems because people over-invest in them and the like. Japanese viewers may or may not be able to draw a line to specific targets, but the film works in large part by playing things big and broad enough to seem unmoored from reality, often seeming too ridiculous to have that sort of point until you're talking about it later.

Don't worry too much about all that, though; this movie works hard to be plenty crazy on the surface from the moment it opens with an anachronistic rock soundtrack to the trippy, dizzying finale. It never stays in one place too long, dispatching some characters to the Bureau of Monkey Affairs in a remote village and sending others on a quest, offering a little intrigue but not enough to get bogged down, getting laughs from the idea of palace intrigue and spies and grifters without needing to worry about the detailed machinations much. The film stretches out a ways, both in length and general weirdness, but manages to be pretty consistently funny, spreading things out between a bunch of characters, going for arch narration when things start to a get too straightforward, lingering when it's more bizarre than usual and the joke may take a moment or two to work.

That Gou Ayano's Kake is soon more anti than hero doesn't wind up providing as much difficulty as asking the audience to identify with a scoundrel and a killer sometimes can; Ayano is well-able to capture both the scruffy underdog and mercenary parts of the ronin, able to make a scene work whether it calls for Kake to be diabolical or caught flat-footed. There's a great ensemble around him, and it only gets boosted in the later going with Masatoshi Nagase as a very wise monkey, Tadanobu Asano as a burned-out former cult leader, and Keiko Kitagawa as the seemingly-credulous woman who has probably brushed off guys more charming than Kake.

I was admittedly ready for it to be done well before it actually finished - it sustains a frantic pace for a solid two hours - and I suspect that absolutely everybody in the audience saw the final "twist" coming, but there's a ton of inventive, silly material by that time and not a lot that seems like it could be discarded without regret. Like a lot of Japanese movies seen at festivals or in a living room far from their native land, a viewer may wonder whether it's cult material or a sign that weird gets into the mainstream there, but it doesn't much matter so long as it gets this many big laughs.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32451&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/09/19 14:44:34
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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