The samurai genre is a staple of Japanese cinema. Often compared to the western for its use of mythic protagonists, themes of honour, masculinity, and betrayal, making the films a transcendent cultural product. Its iconography is uniquely Japanese, yet its execution is globally recognised. Even newer samurai films evoke a sense of classical cinema because one cannot help but think of the great auteurs like, Kurosawa, Kobayashi, and Okamoto when watching these films. So, what happens when you add a director that defies any sense of classicism to the mix? An artist that brings a punk mentality, a modern mind that pushes formal experimentation, anarchy, and irregular storytelling? Well, you get Gakuryu Ishii’s “Punk Samurai Slash Down” of course.
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The film is an adaptation of Ko Machida’s “Panku Zamurai Kirarete Soro” novel released in 2004. The narrative revolves around Junoshin Kake (Gou Ayano), a ronin with ambitions to be a part of the Kurokaze clan. To do this, Junoshin fabricates the lie that an old religious cult is out to kill the group so that he must assist them and become a member. Slowly, his lie begins to unravel, as he attempts anything to uphold his constructed scenario, resulting in pure anomie as the cult resurfaces out of Junoshin’s own failed plan.
At first glance, “Punk Samurai Slash Down” seems like a change of pace for Ishii. This is the first time he has produced a period piece, yet it closely resembles the early punk films that established him. In many ways, this is the spiritual successor to “Burst City” and “Crazy Thunder Road”, a masculine world that erupts into pure chaos. Despite this, the film seems to lack a clear and present theme or idea. The diachronic language of the samurai genre seems to oppose the punk sensibilities here, but what could be a beautiful collage of ideologies is instead a diluted issue of style-over-substance.
The performances are all fantastic, especially Shota Sometani’s portrayal of the radicalised cult member, Makobee Makubo. All the characters are over-the-top, giving a splash of comedy to the piece. Yoshiyuki Matsumoto’s cinematography is also great, adding flares of colour and vibrancy that feels tonally reminiscent of anime. The two elements together give the film a caricaturist atmosphere that works aesthetically but not thematically. It seems the piece lacked a clear idea of what it wanted to tell, and instead acts as a colourful pallet that is ultimately shallow.
“Punk Samurai Slash Down” is obviously Ishii’s attempt to compare this national genre with his punk roots. It is a post-modern portrayal of a well told setting, and it works to some degree. Sadly, the narrative becomes lost in the crazy style, since, while this worked for his early punk films, here it compromises the simplicity that makes the samurai genre so universal.