There’s something about low-budget action movies that’s full of real fighting spirit. With so many budget constraints, the films are usually infused with added energy and creativity. (Lacking that, there’s always gratuitous gore and gratuitous nudity.) In some cases you wind up with total junk that’s nonetheless enjoyable, like the 1987 Rambo/First Blood rip-off Deadly Prey. Other times you wind up with something that’s oddly inspired, like Lance Mungia’s Six-String Samurai or Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus.
Bushido Man is a movie that’s low budget and oddly inspired. It might have more currency with martial arts movie fans than the casual action filmgoer since it’s a bit of a spoof/parody of the genre. And yet I think the strange, madcap comedy of the film might be able to win over converts, or maybe just smack them in the face hard enough until they give up and submit to the movie’s scrappy charm.
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Bushido Man (：ブシドーマン)
Director: Takanori Tsujimoto
Release Date: June 8th, 2013 (Japan)
Some martial arts movies have a few choice fights and lots of filler in between. In the case of Bushido Man, the film is mostly fights with brief breaks for the goofy story that ties them all together. Our hero is Toramaru (Mitsuki Koga), a stoic martial artist on a quest to become a great fighter. To do this, he must best various champions who are skilled at different sorts of combat. The film starts at the end of his quest as he returns to his master (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi) and recounts his battles throughout the country.
Bushido Man doesn’t really mess around. Writer/director Takanori Tsujimoto knows that people go to action movies for the action, and maybe realizes how unforgiving some people can be of low-budget action movies. And so the film does its best to deliver with as much energy and variation as it can. There’s hand-to-hand combat, a fight with katanas against a blind swordsman, one scene with staffs, a nunchaku duel, a knife fight, and so on. Each of these fights is given its own personality and is built on its own sets of genre cliches.
There’s a spirit of subversion and inversion throughout Bushido Man, and its first signs come around the three-minute mark. We start out with august music and in a setting that appears to be feudal Japan. Turns out Bushido Man is actually set in a madcap version of modern-day Japan, with Toramaru wandering city streets in traditional samurai garb. Later, we learn that it’s not quite the modern-day Japan we expect, keeping everything just a bit off balance and wackier as a result. This is a cartoon world, or maybe a world of genre conventions meant to be sent up.
Another major inversion comes from Toramaru’s fight prep. Rather than observe his opponents from afar or watch video of them in action, he gets to know who they are and how they fight by eating their favorite meals. As he tells his master what he ate, his master tries to guess who that person is and what the food says about them personally. It sets up a strange pattern of flashbacks, meals, and fights.
Tsujimoto’s careful not to rely solely on repetition, however. Like a string of good jokes told in succession, the comedy comes from surprises and riffs on the familiar with callbacks to previous gags. The nunchuck fight is the third duel in Bushido Man, and I thought I knew where it was going. Tsujimoto even seems to telegraph the scene’s punchline in an obvious way. The scene ends totally unexpectedly, which makes the whole fight funnier and the unrealized-yet-telegraphed punchline hilarious. As with the shifts in setting, the shifts in humor keep the film fresh, and the variation was enough to keep me laughing. By the final battle or so, Bushido Man lets loose into low-budget action anarchy and intentionally funny schlock.
The fight choreography was handled by Kensuke Sonomura, whose previous credits as action director include Noboru Iguchi’s insane revenge tale The Machine Girl and an anthology film called The Women of Fast Food (Shin onna tachiguishi retsuden). (I haven’t seen the latter, but I think I need to based on the title alone.) Sonomura’s choreography isn’t overdone and plays well with the weapons, performers, and the different moods/rhythms of each scene. The opening two fights (hand-to-hand and staffs) have an old school Hong Kong feel to them, though the katana fight feels like something out of a modern-day take on the chambara film, and the knife fight like something out of a yakuza movie. Each of the styles could have probably carried their own films, but they’re all shoved together well in this film.
Bushido Man is slim at 88 minutes, so it never overstays its welcome. It’s a strange and constantly adapting little animal, which actually suggests the underlying pattern beneath all of this subversion. While genre cliches get goofed on for their comedic potential, Bushido Man maintains something that’s inherent in many classic martial arts films: the hero learns lessons from each fight and must combine what he’s learned in order to win in the end.
Given, Toramaru’s ascent into potential mastery is a bizarre one, and at a certain point during the last fight of the film I couldn’t stop laughing because of the glorious excess. This path to greatness is full of food and screwball antics, and it may be lost on those who weren’t raised on a steady diet of Shaw Brothers movies and samurai flicks, but this is a movie with surprising rewards. Even when it seems to close like a spoof, there’s a coda to Bushido Man with a philosophical note that many serious martial arts movies aspire to and sometimes miss, maybe because they take themselves too seriously.