Unleashed from bondage after five long years, the planet finally has access to director Gakuryu Ishii’s Punk Samurai. Kankuro Kudo adapted the screenplay from Kou Machida’s unfilmable novel Punk Samurai Slash Back. The story follows Rogue Ronin Junoshin Kake (Go Ayano), who shows his prowess as a warrior by slaying an old man out begging with this blind daughter. He claims to the ruling Black Wave Clan that the slain man was a member of the forbidden Belly Shaker cult, a banned religion whose followers believe the world is lodged inside the bowels of a giant intergalactic worm. It is soon proved that the old man wasn’t part of anything and that the cult has been out of commission for some time.
Kake finds he has been sentenced to death, but to save his hide, he agrees to participate in a secret plot to revive the Belly Shaker cult. Doing so will allow a rival faction to gain political power. He recruits Chayama Hanro (Tadanobu Asano), a heavily tattooed Belly Shaker fanatic, and true believer Ron (Keiko Kitagawa) to start recruiting for a revived version of the cult. However, the pop-up cult turns out to be incredibly popular, and soon the Black Wave Clan finds themselves overwhelmed. What the hell is Kake going to do now?
So the burning question on the tips of everyone’s steel-toed boots is just how punk is Punk Samurai? It is set in the Edo period of Ancient Japan, which is even before The Lurkers released Fulham Fallout. So the samurai cannot literally be punk. It isn’t even mentioned until the final scene, where Ayano declares he is the “punk samurai.” Then, giant stone letters spelling it out (in Japanese) fall from the sky. Then Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K.” plays, in its entirety, over the credits. It is simple, blunt, and works beautifully.
“…agrees to participate in a secret plot to revive the Belly Shaker cult.”
Some more of the punk to be found comes from the attitude of Ayano’s surly ronin. In a world filled with rituals and protocol, the hero’s curled upper lip at commands might as well have a safety pin in it. His matter-of-fact attitude toward the rapidly escalating cult craze is unshockable, with an existentialist acceptance of encroaching doom, which is punk as f**k.
Also, punk as f**k is all the sections devoted to the Belly Shaker cult. You will find wonders previously unimagined onscreen, laced with hallucinogenic animation and savage puppetry. You can feel the air shimmering around the fun that sparkles when Punk Samurai gets down and culty. The artistic decision to use an old-time wooden puppet to represent the cult founder is brilliant in its insanity. The cosmic worm intestinal tract animation explaining the cult’s philosophy is delicious past the point of reason. The Zaniness of the Belly Shakers is the driving reason this is finally being seen outside of Japan since its original release in 2018. However, hold on to your hollandaise because the sequences between the fun ones are borderline excruciating.
The interactions outside of cult business employ broad physical comedic exaggerations similar to 1960s beach party movies. Any humor evaporates in the air during such scenes. These parts of the film are painful, and whatever over-the-counter painkillers are available should be smoked during these stretches. But is it f*****g worth it? Yes, it is! There are enough hardcore diamonds in all that spiral-sliced ham to satisfy the adventurous viewers of weird cinema. Also, how fun is it that a cult movie is also about a cult? Punk Samurai is the kind of international oddity whose unearthing keeps the horizon gleaming with weird promise.
"…keeps the horizon gleaming with weird promise."