The concept of “punk” is a rebellion against the mainstream. As it relates to music, the term was used to describe rock bands of the late-‘60s to early ‘70s that played rock tunes fast, hard, and, often, in brief. For the U.K. it was The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, and The Clash (each getting their start in the mid-‘70s), whereas in the U.S., it was bands like Bad Brains, Void, Minor Threat, The Slickee Boys (though these are primarily from the ‘80s). These artists represented a shift in music away from what was considered the standard, transforming into something new. Director Gakuryu Ishii (Bitter Honey) exemplifies the idea of “punk” in his 2018 film Punk Samurai (パンク侍、斬られて候), also known as Punk Samurai Slash Down, which plays on the ideas of a traditional Japanese period film through a rebellious lens. Adapted from the 2014 Kou Machida novel Punk Samurai Slash Down and now available outside of Japan for the first-time through Third Window Films, Punk Samurai provides those looking for a weird and wild time at the movies all that and more in an action comedy that’s little more than a series of middle fingers blasted at the establishment.
Swordsman, quick-thinker, stylish, clever, ronin: each of these terms describe wandering con-man Junoshin Kake (Go Ayano) who desires to put down roots via finding service with the chief retainer. His plan is relatively simple — establish himself as an expert in the ways of the cult known as the Bellyshakers that’s sweeping Japan so that he can be indispensable to the reigning Lord. The problem is that there are two chief retainers (who hate each other), a Lord who is pedantically serious, and a severe lack of Bellyshakers. The con is on but, what’s a con-man to do when he can’t stop it from spiraling out of control?
Even though this is a first-time review for Elements of Madness, the film is from 2018 and, as a home release, there’s less a need to avoid spoilers. Be mindful moving forward, though the majority of spoilers are in the final paragraph. Just an FYI.
When one thinks of feudal Japan, an image takes hold of stories of honor (13 Assassins), betrayal (Throne of Blood), the bizarre (Blade of the Immortal), and sex with a bit of bloodshed (Onibaba). Punk Samurai is a comedic mixture of them all as Kankuro Kudo’s (GO) script weaves together a narrative that slowly shifts from a traditional feudal story into an anachronistic and strangely positive exploration of nihilistic philosophy all while never truly losing its bite, even as a monkey army descends onto the battle field or when the beliefs of the Bellyshakers potentially come true. What does this all mean? Having not read Machida’s novel, I honestly can’t say, but the film left a strong impression that’s anti-big government, anti-religion, anti-arrogance, and anti-stupid. For instance, the core concept of the Bellyshakers is that the world as we know it is inside a tapeworm and the only way to get out into the real world is to upset the tapeworm by being as ridiculous as possible. From the outside, this is clearly anti-establishment, a rebellion against the feudal system that keeps Lords Lords and all the officers in their respective places. The Bellyshakers represent a threat to all of that as the membership don’t care about class, rules, or anything else other than being ridiculous and breaking free from this plane of existence. Throughout the entire film, any talk of what the Bellshakers do — specifically looting, rape, murder—– is told to us by the ruling class (those Kake wants to imbed himself with) but we don’t actually see anything happen other than folks getting scared off by the odd image of tens to hundreds of people shaking their bellies as they walk. One can’t help but consider how the leadership not only misrepresents threats simply because those who break from tradition are potential opposition to their rule versus actually being threats. So are the Bellyshakers as bad for the populace as they seem or is it just because the ruling class says so? In this, I think the answer is found in the big climatic confrontation in the third act as the mob of people are now so convinced that their lives are meaningless in their current state, so why shouldn’t they find comfort in the notion that there’s a life beyond this one that will be peaceful if they can just live a life in line with the rules of something new? (Enter the argument against organized religion and its Rules To A Better Afterlife ™.) And yet, when all is said and done and the bastards have had their due, there remains a bit of positivity as a message comes through that suggests that if if this really all is fake and we’re merely stuck inside a tapeworm, what we do here still matters and acting otherwise is not only irresponsible, it’s cruel. Additionally, a message comes down that suggests any system which services only itself and not the people it’s meant to protect is, by definition, corrupt and deserves its own destruction. Fucking punk rock.
All that said, and again I haven’t read the novel, there’s so much going on in the film that one starts to feel the weight of the narrative as it takes roughly 75 minutes before things start to get truly wild. It’s not that the portion that comes first doesn’t matter, it’s quite important in setting tone, introducing characters, and defining relationships, but it gets to a point where there’re so many characters with so many needs that the wildness of their actions starts to lose its luster as we long for the film to get on with it. When you’ve got one character with telekinesis, one who primarily speaks through two masked individuals, and another who’s quite literally an evolved monkey, there’s plenty to pull you back in, yet there’s also a growing sense that it’s taking a long while to get somewhere.
My thoughts on the home release itself are, sadly, brief. Though I was able to screen the film through the kindness of Third Window Films, as I don’t own a region-Free player (yet), I was required to screen via a link. This means that I don’t have a physical copy to review and therefore have no way to explore the package and any included materials. Additionally, of all the bonus features included with the release, the only one I had access to is the 66-minute “Making Of” feature. Granted, anyone who’s interested in the film should take a look at this in order to get the thoughts and impressions from the cast and crew, while also learning how they shot the film, I do wish I had the chance to watch the interview with lead actor Go Ayano. Getting more of his perspective on the shit-bag that is Kake would’ve been great.
Speaking of needing a region-specific player, be advised that Punk Samurai is only being released in Region B or Certification 15, limiting home viewing to players native to Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and New Zealand. So if you want to pick this up and don’t live in one of those countries, make sure your Blu-ray player is region-Free.
When it comes to being punk, being anti-establishment doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules. For one, you protect those who fall down in the mosh pit. For two, punch Nazis and give no quarter. For three, don’t be an asshole. Punk Samurai is riddled with characters who break rule three constantly, and at no point does the direction or script imply that the audience should think otherwise. Instead, through the lens of feudal stories, the audience is likely to expect this as we watch characters plot, scheme, and manipulate their way to victory with the righteous making it to the finish line. Within the moral through line of the film, the most punk thing you can do is kill off all the bastards regardless of status or audience focus — make it bloody, make it painful, make it the result of their lack of honor or respect to duty. So while the length doesn’t always feel entirely justified or the wildness on display is not as clear in its intention, that Punk Samurai can entertain while conveying a message of anti-conformity without rejecting self-respect and decency, without surrendering the good that one can do in life by just being kind, is damn impressive.
Punk Samurai Special Features:
- Making Of (66 mins)
- Go Ayano interview (6 mins)
- Premiere Stage Greetings (16 mins)
- Slipcase featuring artwork by Gokaiju
- Reversible Sleeve featuring original Japanese artwork
- Slipcase edition limited to 1000 copies
- Region B/Certification 15
Available on Blu-ray and digital March 13th, 2023.
For more information or to purchase, head to the official Punk Samurai Third Window Films webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.