Gakuryu Ishii began his career under the name Sogo as a representative of the youth voice, in fact still a college student when invited by Nikkatsu to film a feature-length version of his Panic High School short though they paradoxically saddled him with the more experienced Yukihiro Sawada as a co-director in case his voice turned out to be more youthful than anticipated. In any case, he went on to make his name with a series of anarchic punk films such as Burst City and The Crazy Family before retreating from filmmaking in the early 2000s. When he returned in 2012 with Isn’t Anyone Alive?, he did so under a new name, Gakuryu, as if signalling a new phase in his artistic career that seemed to have left punk behind.
Like 2015’s That’s it, Punk Samurai is billed as a kind of return to Ishii’s anarchic roots while also harking back to surreal samurai movie Gojoe. Even so, Punk Samurai isn’t really a punk samurai film even in its irreverence towards the genre so much as an ironic jidaigeki comedy which eventually positions its hero’s nihilistic outsider status as his saving grace in a “fake” world where nothing has true meaning. “This world might be fake, but I’m alive” he insists, claiming not to ask anything of it, simply stating that he is “different” because he belongs to no group and has been a lonely a wanderer.
Nevertheless, Kake (Go Ayano) had wanted to join a clan so desperately that he spun a tale of dangerous cult rebellion to a naive retainer of a useless lord whose inability to rule has ruined his fiefdom. After killing a pilgrim he believed to be a member of the Bellyshaker Party, Kake is taken in by the Kuroae where he is enlisted by duplicitous councillor Naito (Etsushi Toyokawa) who seizes on the idea of the Bellyshaker threat as a means of undermining his rival, Ohura (Jun Kunimura), to seize the reins from overly serious lord Kuroae (Masahiro Higashide).
The Bellyshaker cult believes that this “fake” world exists within a giant tapeworm and seeks escape though being excreted by it into the “real” world as a means of achieving some kind of spiritual enlightenment. Their furious belly shaking is deliberately meaningless in an effort to antagonise he tapeworm to such a degree that it gives it spasms to “spew” the believer into a more authentic existence. Not even the cult leader believed this to be true, and as Kake later suggests the appeal lies in a kind of Manichaeanism that allows the believer to believe nothing is their fault it’s just that this “fake” world is wrong. In the end, the conflict comes down to a battle between “monkeys and idiots”, while even an enlightened ape (Masatoshi Nagase) finds his revolution failing and is left with no option other than to retreat to the Heavens.
The world is indeed in disarray, Kuroae is constantly plagued by his own poor decision making, or failure to make decisions at all, while there are constant allusions to the decline of his clan from persistent famine to military weakness after having made most of his foot soldiers redundant as part of an austerity programme. Many of the recruits to the “fake” Bellyshaker cult resurrected by Naito with the assistance of former devotee Chayama (Tadanobu Asano), who has two telepathic servants who speak for him, are in fact refugees from Kuroae who fled its disorder. Kake prides himself on being an outsider but in reality had wanted to join the clan, and there is perhaps something in the sudden collapse of the world around him along with a return to blue skies the moment his rebellion is ended.
Yet for all its weirdness and incomprehensibility, for much of is running time Punk Samurai is a typical jidaigeki comedy about a useless lord, his clever underlings, and a chaotic ronin if one that also hints at the absurdist meaninglessness of the hierarchical samurai society. Only in its closing moments does the film truly embrace its punk spirit with psychedelic kaleidoscope backgrounds, electric swords, and the true slash down of the social order as Kake’s life comes full circle proving that even in this “fake” and meaningless world there are some things from which there is no escape.
Punk Samurai is released on blu-ray in the UK on 13th March courtesy of Third Window Films.
Original trailer (English subtitles)