When did Woody Harrelson become one of those actors that adds instant gravitas to any scene they’re in? As he gets older and craggier he seems to have solidified into this wall of character, with every line he reads sounding more meaningful than it has any right to. In Bunraku he happily takes on the “philosophical barman” trope, the linchpin in a film with so many stylistic influences that it’s a wonder everything holds together.
Bunraku is an interesting one. I stumbled upon it via The Art of the Title, featured there thanks to its beautiful opening credits that explain the film’s premise via the Japanese puppetry art of the same name. Going in entirely on that, I wasn’t disappointed. Though the puppetry doesn’t last beyond the introduction, the visual style of the film alone kept me transfixed.
Keeping my attention with looks alone isn’t usually a trick that works on me; other films that sold themselves largely on their looks lately include 300, The Spirit and Sucker Punch and all turned out to have no substance underneath the glaze. It seems rare to find a film that’s both visually heavily stylised and also any good.
Bunraku isn’t like those others, all awkwardly-placed actors jiving before a green screen like they mean it. With its real sets, theatrical tricks and kinetic style, Bunraku has a physicality and weight that the others lack; watching the film is more like watching a play, without the tedium of going to an actual theatre.
But that isn’t to say the film is stagey; Bunraku is fast and frenetic, its kung-fu fight scenes playing out more like dances than fights. Mixed in with this mixture of stage and cinema is a strong videogame tone, as this homage to ’80s side-scrollers shows. Anyone who played and enjoyed the recent game Bastion should be comfortable with this film as the dystopian, Western feel to that is very similar to the world set up in Bunraku.
The range of influences could be messy, but it all hangs together on top of some decent noir-ish performances (and nice to see Josh Hartnett finally becoming credible in this sort of role after a career spent being too young for them), a slightly tongue-in-cheek script and a classy soundtrack. Perhaps the story is a little hackneyed, and the elaborate set-up of a world in which guns are banned and the city divided into oppressive factions is never fully realised, but if you can get over that and enjoy the ride, you’ll hopefully find something unique.