[19 June 2014]
Bushido Man is a strange movie, and not necessarily in a good way. On paper the premise sounds fantastic, in a guilty-pleasure, shut-off-your-brain kind of way: samurai Toramaru returns to his dojo to report to his master about his travels and recent combats, each with the master of a different discipline and each preceded by a meal of the opponent’s favorite food.
“To understand your opponent, you must eat what he eats” intones Toramaru’s master. So there is food, and fighting, and martial arts aplenty. What could possibly go wrong?
For a while, nothing does. Interestingly, this film is set in the present day, something that’s not immediately apparent, as the filmmakers initially give it a familiar gloss of wilderness and rough-spun clothing, lulling the viewer into expecting another period-piece martial arts film. Then come the skyscrapers and car traffic, and the viewer is hit with a brief jolt of disorientation. It’s a clever moment.
The initial battles are engaging enough, too. When hero Toramaru faces off against kung fu master Yuan Juan, the fight is fast-paced and engaging without relying on silly special effects or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-type suspension of disbelief.
In a similar fashion, blind sword master Muso puts up an entertaining fight, and the face-off with Mokunen, master of stick fighting, or bojutsu, is probably the most entertaining battle here. Each master is characterized through his movements, his manner of speech, and of course his fighting abilities, and the movie does a good job of changing these up from one encounter to the next.
Then there is the food. This is an element which could have been very cleverly incorporated into the storyline, but instead is played for dumb laughs and puns. Any notion that a fighter should understand his opponent by behaving like his opponent (in this case, eating like him) is dismissed as soon as it is mentioned. The lunches Toramaru eats are simply puzzles he sets for his master, whose attempts to solve them are played for comic effect. Oh well.
More important, the film falls to pieces in its second half. The nunchucks are a terrifically frightening weapon, but this fight is, again, strictly a comedic moment, and is so anticlimactic that even one of the characters in the movie says as much. Then there’s the battle against the gunslinger – say what? – which utterly derails whatever martial-arts mojo this story had going for it.
Whatever the filmmakers might want us to believe, there’s no way that the six-shooter is a martial arts weapon. The master of this discipline, a grinning, cowboy-obsessed Cheshire cat of a man done up in chaps and a hat, is annoying beyond words.
This gunslinger leads to the next, the only woman combatant in the movie, who takes gun violence to a new level by combining it with kung fu moves. Unlike, say, Christian Bale’s “gun fu” in lowbrow cheese-fest Equilibrium, this firearm-reinforced hand-to-hand combat is confusing to watch and, worse yet, not even visually interesting. Not to be dogmatic (well, I guess I am being dogmatic), but it’s tough to see the logic of guns in a martial arts film.
So, the trajectory of the movie has gone from “silly good times” to “man, this is lame” in roughly an hour, but it’s the final act’s big twist that will have viewers rolling their eyes, or possibly scratching their heads. Given that the characterization in Bushido Man is just about nil, it should perhaps not be so disturbing that characters suddenly and without reason reverse themselves altogether for the purposes of an “OMG!” moment, but this is exactly what happens.
Not wishing to spoil the big surprise, I won’t dwell on it here, other than to say that it makes no sense but you’ll know it when you see it.
Bonus features are limited to a rather dull featurette filmed at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, which focuses on the audience reaction to the movie and an after-screening question and answer session with director Takanori Tsujimoto and leading man Mitsuki Koga. This rather chaotic feature is unlikely to convince anyone to buy the movie who was not already planning on doing so.
I like mindless martial-arts mayhem as much as the next guy, but Bushido Man: Seven Deadly Battles fails on multiple levels: in terms of character, plot, and (perhaps most excruciatingly) humor. This is not recommended for anyone except, perhaps, fans of bad Japanese camp. If that’s you, step right up! You just found your new favorite movie.