It would not be incorrect to state that Sogo Ishii changed his name to Gakuryu Ishii in 2012 to underline to the public that he graduated from his rough punk-period. It was a way to escape his legacy as the father of Japanese punk cinema (Crazy Thunder Road (1980), Burst City (1982), …etc.) and echo his commitment to deliver more films that would speak to Japanese audiences. One of these films is Punk Samurai Slash Down, based on Ko Machida’s novel of the same name.
Junoshin Kake (Go Ayano) is a ronin who desperately wants to officially join a samurai clan. To secure an invite to the Kuroaehan, he deceives one of the clan’s minor retainers, Shume Nagaoka (Koen Kondo), by convincing him that the clan is facing annihilation by the Harafuri religious cult that is secretly spreading in the region they control.
At the assembly with lord Noahito Kuroae (Masahiro Higashide) and all his retainers at the honmaru hall, deputy chief retainer Shuzen Oura (Jun Kunimura) expresses his doubt about the credibility of his Kake’s revelation. Clan head chief retainer Tatewaki Naito (Etsushi Toyokawa), Oura’s rival, already knows of the imminent danger and asked him to help him save the clan and help him, in the meantime, to oust Oura from the clan.
Punk Samurai Slash Down offers the spectator a wild lighthearted ride with many unexpected turns and twists and a lot of speech-related comedy, character-comedy, and elegantly delivered visual gags. Sogo’s narrative pleasantly mixes supernatural-elements, hordes of mindless followers surviving on the enjoyment of belly-shaking, crazy zombie-like warfare, and a form of divine intervention in the form of a monkey called Nobuzu Deusu (Masatoshi Nagase). Moreover, this crazy mix is further spiced up with a dash of romance and romantic conflict, and some injections of heartfelt drama. Yet, Punk Samurai Slash Down does suffer from having a bit too much fat – some scenes go on for too long and ask for more tight editing. With more thoughtful trimming, Sogo’s narrative would have been a snappier and more energetic experience without losing any of its comical charm or its craziness.
Punk Samurai Slash Down might be comical in nature, but that has not stop Ishii from delivering a narrative with some thematical depth. The first theme he touches upon is the dynamic of phallic deceit. This dynamic is most evident in Kake’s lie. His lie does not only intend to instigate fear in the retainers and the lord of the Kuroae clan, but also to praise his phallic status to them. In other words. he confronts them with their castration – i.e. with their weakness and blindness that will quickly lead to their own demise, and introduces himself, the superhuman swordsman, as the only way to avoid this disaster. He presents himself as not castrated because he holds the power to defeat this hidden threat (Narra-note 1).
This dynamic of phallic deceit is, as implied above, closely linked to the notion of ‘castration’. Spectators will notice that, even without this religious threat, the Kuroae clan is castrated. This clan is financially bankrupt and cannot materially corroborate its claim to power. Yet, the clan still functions, due to the fact that it is held together by a symbolic hierarchal structure and tries to hide its castration behind an imaginary façade of traditional formality and struggle for power – Naito, in this respect, knows very well the clan is an ailing animal, but tries to avoid to confront his lord too directly with this truth.
Kake succeeds to deceive Naito and is asked by him to lend the clan his superhuman skill to quell the religious threat and help him to settle the strife for power in his favour. Sadly, due to the impeccable work of Naito’s spy Egere no Konji (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), his lie is eventually uncovered – there is no threat. Rather than revealing to the Other that he got duped by this ronin and lose his position, Naito conspires with Kake to fabricate the religious threat and safe his face and position of power by deceiving the ailing Other.
Through this religious fabrication, Sogo underlines that religion feeds on suffering. Religion ensnares people because it offers a narrative to understand one’s state of suffering, creates a ritual to deal with this endless suffering, and promises a path to enlightment. The reason why this belly-shaking cult can thrive in Kuroae-han area is simple: because the kuroae-han, indulging in traditional formality, willfully remain blind to its own castration and the suffering it causes among the common folk (Narra-note 2).
Unsurprisingly, the cult grows quickly, causing violent uprises of joyful belly-shaking and rebellious acts of pleasure that radically complicate the day-to-day rhythm of the local society. Moreover, the attack of the ‘foolish’ Harafuri followers on the establishment, defiling places of power (e.g. graffiti on samurai castle), has no other function than confronting the lord with the castration he refuses to acknowledge. Yet, the lord, so poisoned by his hierarchical position, remains blind to the miserable truth of his clan. And Kake’s supposedly ‘superhuman’ fighting skills appear to be radically insufficient to deal with the coming conflict all by himself. Or are his skills not as inadequate as the spectator has come to assume?
Despite some unnecessary chunks of narrative fat that bloat certain scenes, Punk Samurai Slash Down does succeeds in maintaining a pace that compels the spectator into the narrative and keeps him engaged throughout (Music-note 1). The pace of the narrative is due to Sogo’s fluid and energetic dynamism – a fluidity function of Sogo’s reliance on camera-movement and a compositional energy mainly born from snappy cutting. Sogo’s energetic dynamism, moreover, plays an instrumental role in bringing the more action-oriented sequences to live in a satisfying way.
Yet, the visual pleasure of Punk Samurai Slash Down is not simply caused by Sogo’s visual games nor by his action sequences. The true elegance and power of Sogo’s composition lies in the fact that his visual rhythm serves the comical flavour of the narrative and enhances the lighthearted tone that marks the overly-dramatic interactions. For example, the encounter between Kake and Shume Nagaoka attains its lighthearted dramatism because Sogo lets the flow of their speech and the narrating voice structure the rhythm of his composition.
Moreover, Punk Samurai Slash Down is also littered with visually pleasing and stylish decorations and serviceable visual effects. The decorations are generally function by collage-effects – these either introduce new characters or special fighting moves during fighting sequences. The lighthearted flavour of the narrative is further ensured by fluid integration of unintrusive visual gags, gags that are generally of a sexual nature.
Ishii’s Punk Samurai Slash Down meanders a bit too much, but it luckily never outstays its welcome. Ishii pleases the spectator by giving his absurd narrative a pleasant dynamic pace, delivering finely composed lighthearted interactions, and by elegantly integrating visual gags. While this film does not break any new ground or does not best similar comical period drama’s, Ishii’s samurai comedy remains well worth a watch.
Narra-note 1: The punchline concerning such a phallic belief is delivered in the final moments of the narrative. Let’s us just remark that when one too easily believes one’s own phallic status for the other, one opens up the opportunity to be deceived.
Narra-note 2: The monkey performance allows us to highlight two different things. First, the attempt of those in power to appease the malcontent of the common folk is not to structurally improve their situation but to offer them games and laughter. Secondly, the fact that lord Naohito Kuroae fails to find pleasure in the power-structure reversal between man and monkey underlines his deep belief in hierarchy and his inability to accept the castration that marks his clan.
Music-note 1: The visual pace is also supported by its explicitly anachronistic musical accompaniment and its occasional use of traditional Japanese drums.