To hear about a new Gakuryu Ishii film is always exciting, but when you have to wait three years before you can even watch the thing, it does take the edge off a little. Truth be told, Punk Samurai Slash Down didn't really look like the most thrilling Ishii project, but that's probably because I'm not the biggest jidaigeki fan. While I liked Gojoe (Ishii's previous attempt at the samurai genre), it's far from his best work. Well, it serves me right for doubting Ishii, as this turned out to be an absolute blast, one of those films that should appeal to everyone with a taste for the weirder side of Japanese cinema.
Even though it's been more than 10 years, Ishii's name change is finally starting to make sense to me. At the time it looked as if Ishii was turning his back on his punk past, but taking his output of the past decade into account, his reasons seem to be a bit more nuanced. It appears Ishii was mostly resetting people's expectations, allowing him to expand his aesthetic once more. Ishii was never a dedicated punk director, but his exposure to the West pegged him as one of the godfathers of Japanese punk cinema. While not incorrect, Ishii is much more than that, something he has been demonstrating vigorously under his Gakuryu moniker.
Punk Samurai Slash Down is not an easy film to coin. Sure enough, it's a samurai flick presented as a comedy, but the tone of the film changes constantly throughout. The beginning is more toned down and cheeky (reminding me of Koki Mitani's The Kiyosu Conference), halfway through the comedy becomes a lot more explicit (think Yuichi Fukuda's Gintama), then moving into a finale that is as far out as Hitoshi Matsumoto's Symbol. It's one of those films where your eyebrows keep rising while your mouth keeps dropping, which is my personal sweet spot.
The plot revolves around Junoshin, a wandering ronin who is looking for a new clan. He wants to join the Kurokaze Han and comes up with a nifty plan, but he is quickly outwitted by Naito, one of the clan's leaders. Naito likes Junoshin's ploy though (which is to resurrect a cult of religious nuts and have them threaten the clan), as it would allow him to rise through the ranks. Junoshin assembles a crew to seek out their leader and within no time, the cult is reaching unseen popularity. Junoshin quickly loses control over them, and it doesn't take long before the clan is effectively being threatened by the cult.
Visually, samurai flicks are pretty traditional and classic in nature. Ishii of course isn't, but don't go in expecting a full-on punk film either. The cinematography is a lot more dynamic, with a very agile camera and some sharply edited action scenes, but it's not quite the assault on the senses that Ishii is known for. Instead, he seems to be matching the vibe of the comedy pretty well, sprinkling some of his trademark flair on top. The styling deserves a special mention too, Asano's character in particular looks completely bonkers. As for the CG, it suffices, but it's more functional than it is aesthetic.
The soundtrack chases a similar balance. This being a Gakuryu Ishii film, it's really no surprise that we're not getting a classic jidaigeki score, but it's no roaring punk soundtrack either. The music is pretty animated and combines well with the visuals, but rarely stands on its own. Ishii picks mostly rock-based tracks (even some famous ones, like Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the U.K.), not exactly my personal preference, but they work pretty well within the film, so no complaints there. It's always nice having a director with a musical background, this film is just more proof of that.
Though Ishii may be something of a niche director, he always managed to attract a decent set of actors. The cast of Punk Samurai Slash Down takes it one step further. Ishii landed both Tadanobu Asano and Masatoshi Nagase, there's Shôta Sometani and Kiyohiko Shibukawa representing the younger generation, more commercial favorites like Gô Ayano and Keiko Kitagawa are present, and there's even room for absolute legends like Jun Kunimura. Best of all is that the cast is clearly having the time of their lives, most notably Asano, who gives his best performance in years.
The nicest thing about Gakuryu Ishii's metamorphosis is that he hasn't completely reinvented himself, he's only applying his skills and talents to other genres and niches. By doing that, he's not just repeating past successes while growing old and irrelevant. Instead, each new film he releases feels like something fresh and exciting. Many other directors have tried something similar, only most of them failed. Punk Samurai Slash Down is very Japanese, it's also recognizably Ishii, but most importantly, it's quite unlike anything I've seen before. It's the kind of comedy that keeps surpassing itself, leaving me with a very broad and content smile at the end.
Punk Samurai Slash Down was a lot better than I expected, which makes me feel somewhat silly for underestimating Gakuryu Ishii. It's not like I was unaware of his track record, but here we are. Ishii's latest isn't just a classic samurai flick, instead, it's a celebration of the comedy genre, flipping seamlessly between different niches, carried by its tremendous cast and relying on Ishii's directorial talent to make it a truly unique experience. The film's only downside is its availability, fingers crossed there's someone out there brave enough to grant this film its moment in the spotlights. If not, people will no doubt be facepalming themselves 20 or 30 years from now.