The classic tale is re-imagined in a world that mixes skewed reality with shadow-play fantasy. Its themes draw heavily on samurai and Western films.
In the aftermath of a global war, guns have been outlawed but people still fight, using blades and fists.
Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman) is the most powerful man east of the Atlantic, a shadowy crime boss who rules with an iron fist and nine assassins called the Killers. His right-hand man is Killer No. 2 (Kevin McKidd), a cold-hearted, smooth-talking murderer with a red hat and a deadly blade. Along with his killers is Nicola's love, Alexandra (Demi Moore), a femme fatale with a secret past. The citizens live in fear of Nicola's gang and wait for the hero who can overthrow them.
One night, a mysterious Drifter (Josh Hartnett) enters the Horseless Horseman Saloon and talks to the Bartender (Woody Harrelson). He wants two things: a shot of whisky and a game of cards, but the only place in town, the russian roulette, controlled by Nicola, only accepts very rich players. Later, another stranger enters; a samurai named Yoshi (Gackt). Yoshi wants to fulfill his dying father's wish by recovering a medallion that was stolen from their village. Armed with crossed destinies and incredible fighting skills and guided by the Bartender's wisdom, the two eventually join forces to bring down the corrupt reign of Nicola.
After a string of altercations leading the Drifter and Yoshi to injure police officers and Nicola's goons, Killer No. 2 slays Yoshi's uncle (Shun Sugata) and kidnaps his cousin Momoko (Emily Kaiho) to send her to Nicola's brothel. In retaliation, the Drifter, Yoshi, the Bartender and an army of freedom fighters invade Nicola's palace. As the Bartender rescues Momoko, he sees his long-lost love Alexandra, but she disappears amidst the debris of the burning brothel. Meanwhile, after defeating Nicola's top killers, Yoshi faces Killer No. 2 and fatally stabs him while the Drifter advances toward Nicola, who injures him in the chest with a thrown axehead. Despite his injury, the Drifter slashes Nicola's throat with an arrowhead taken from Yoshi while revealing his true motive of avenging his father's death. With Nicola's reign brought to an end and Yoshi recovering his clan's medallion, the heroes part ways, hoping to meet each other again.Josh Hartnett as The Drifter
Woody Harrelson as The Bartender
Gackt as Yoshi, a swordsman from Japan
Kevin McKidd as Killer No. 2, lieutenant to Nicola
Ron Perlman as Nicola "the Woodcutter", crime boss and the most powerful man "east of the Atlantic"
Demi Moore as Alexandra, a courtesan and Nicola's lover
Jordi Molla as Valentine
Shun Sugata as Uncle, Yoshi's Uncle
Mike Patton as The Narrator
Following the completion of his first feature film, Holly, Moshe started working on the initial concept art for Bunraku in 2006. The first drafts of the screenplay were largely inspired by Westerns and martial arts movies, of which Moshe is a huge fan. In a 2010 interview, Moshe revealed that he first "sold the script for Bunraku to a production company... When it became clear that they would not film it, I bought it back." Moshe was asked in a 2007 interview on the subject of his future projects. "My next film is called Bunraku and it is an action-fantasy circus ride into man's fascination with violence. It has a sort of a Spaghetti Western, samurai movie feel and it's going to be built and shot entirely on a stage so it couldn't be more different than Holly, maybe 180 degrees from it actually. Like Holly, it also aspires to go a little beyond the pure entertainment factor, but I think that, all in all, I would like to be the kind of filmmaker who can tell and make more than one story or one type of genre. I feel like in the past an auteur was a person who constantly challenged himself, where, today, because of the fierce competition and growing difficulty of making different and unique films, filmmakers can get stuck in a certain style and movie genre and keep recreating the same films. It takes two years of your life to make a movie, and to me that's priceless. If I am gonna spend that kind of time pouring my blood and tears into it, then I wanna make sure I learn something on the way. That is what life is all about anyhow, I guess, growing and learning and then realizing you know nothing at all."
The $25m action film is produced by Moshe's Los Angeles-based Picturesque Films and Ram Bergman Productions, and is fully financed by Keith Calder's Snoot Entertainment. Snoot Entertainment was founded in February 2004 to independently develop, finance and produce both commercial genre-oriented live-action films and CG animated features with broad audience appeal. In a 2008 interview, Calder said. "I've always loved movies in the 'no-name stranger' coming to town and ending up in a bigger struggle (genre)... I think [Bunraku] is an opportunity to take this genre and spin it on its head and bring a unique and strong visual style to it." Acclaimed production designer Alex McDowell is co-producing the film. Asked about his first production in a 2009 interview, McDowell said he "met with Moshe, the director of Bunraku, and his producer Nava Levin a couple of years ago, originally to consult with them. His project was such an interesting and provocative blend of genres and technique that I got hooked and helped them to set up an innovative approach to pre-production that integrated pre-visualization, storytelling and design into a new fluid and low budget workspace for the creative team. The story is set on a theatre stage in a folded paper world where Russian gangsters, cowboys and samurai warriors come together in inevitable and never-ending battle. It's an elegantly choreographed dance of revenge, honor and friendship...It's cool!" IM Global is handling worldwide sales.
Snoot FX, a division of Snoot Entertainment, and Origami Digital LLC are responsible for all the animation and visual effects work on Bunraku. The movie will mix CGI and practical sets to create the world of Bunraku. In a 2008 interview, Hartnett, who was instrumental in getting the film Sin City made, compared the look of Bunraku to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, in that it will play out (or at least appear to play out) in one long, unedited take. Hartnett explained "It's in the vein of Sin City or something like that, where the world doesn't look like reality at all...Some of the scenes are gonna be more Michel Gondry-like I guess but a lot of them will be green screen as well...It's not fantasy. Well, I mean, it's not Narnia. It's a film that, I don't know how to stick it into a genre, but I would say it's more a film like Sin City than anything else." In a 2010 interview, actor McKidd revealed that Bunraku "is a hybrid of a western and a martial arts film. The world it's set in is almost circus-like in the feel of it and it's all origami. The whole universe is constantly folding paper to create a cityscape or interiors of rooms or the sunrise." In a 2009 interview, McDowell, better known as the production designer of major Hollywood successes such as Minority Report, The Terminal or Fight Club, indicated that in Bunraku the production was using "the idea that the movement in the camera work should dictate the set, rather than the set design in any way limiting the action. So, if a character performed a kick which needed a physical context such as a wall, that wall would be provided in the design. In this way, the actors should have a total freedom of space in which to work and to give of their best." McDowell's special value to Bunraku as a salesman has been front-loaded. The pre-visual content that he made to show during the 2008 Festival de Cannes helped director Moshe to double the amount of anticipated investment in the production.
Hartnett confirmed his involvement as the lead character The Drifter in an interview at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival while promoting his film August. Hartnett stated "I'm going to Romania to shoot this film called Bunraku...All the cast isn't set yet, but it's going to be a lot of really interesting actors, in this weird kind of papier-mâché world...I've been trying to do as much artistic fare as I can and things that are compelling to watch as well...It's a story of revenge...My character is called 'The Drifter', and he comes into this world that doesn't look like anything like you've ever seen before...[The script] has a lot of fight sequences in it, but it's more about these crazy characters...Like my character, he's a gypsy and he's coming into town and he's got something to prove and no one really knows what he's about."
In April 2008, Moore was confirmed to be joining the cast as the courtesan Alexandra. Interviewed at the 2009 Middle East International Film Festival, Moore described Bunraku as a "big action adventure". "It has tremendous special effects," she enthused. In May 2008, Harrelson and Perlman were announced to be joining the cast. Harrelson is set to play The Bartender, one of the protagonists while Perlman was signed to the role of Nicola the Woodcutter, powerful warrior and crime boss, who is the central focus of vengeance for the film's protagonists. Bunraku marks the first time that Moore and Harrelson have worked together since the 1993 film Indecent Proposal. When asked in a 2010 interview how he had managed to sign two international stars like Harrelson and Moore onto an experimental film, Moshe explained "They really liked [Moshe's film] Holly and responded immediately to the Bunraku script."
McKidd plays Killer No. 2, the right-hand man of Nicola and a deadly assassin. Describing his character in a 2010 interview, McKidd said "I play a very effeminate, master killer who's almost like a Fred Astaire tap-dancing his way through the movie. It's so different than anything I've done." McKidd further revealed "It'll be a very interesting film. Moshe, who also directed, wrote what I thought was one of the strangest scripts I'd ever read, especially because the story takes place in an in-depth CGI universe. It's very allegorical – a mixture of a samurai film and a western in a virtual origami universe where everything is made of folding paper, and there's a lot of martial arts in it...I thought Bunraku was interesting enough to be in. I play the main killer of the movie who's hunting down Hartnett's character under the instruction of Ron Perlman's character, Nicola. They've been doing the effects for the last 19 months. But then this is an independent film, not Avatar. I'm really excited to see Bunraku."
On April 23, 2008, Japanese singer Gackt was confirmed for the role of Yoshi, a samurai warrior seeking vengeance against Nicola. Although he has starred in Japanese television drama and feature films, Bunraku was his first acting experience in an international-flavored movie. Gackt came to the attention of Moshe through his role in the 2007 television historic drama Fūrin Kazan, a year-long series produced by NHK. In this series, he portrayed the heroic warlord Uesugi Kenshin, winning him accolades, not only for his acting performance, but also for the music single "Returner ~Yami no Shūen~" and the video for the same that were inspired by his role. Moshe personally went to Japan to convince Gackt to join the project.
Filming for Bunraku began on April 17, 2008 on a budget of $25 million and continued over the course of 12 weeks at the MediaPro Studios in the town of Buftea in Romania. In a 2009 interview, producer Ram Bergman was asked about the choice of the shooting location, stating "we needed a lot of stages available because the whole movie is green-screen and we had to build 30-something sets. We needed to take control of a space for five months... [Romania] was probably 10%-20% cheaper than Prague. We did not want to pay top dollar, like you would pay in London or, to a lesser degree, in Prague or Hungary... Media Pro Studios had the most stages available [in Romania]. Bergman continued "we brought in heads of departments but the rest of the [film] crew was Romanian.
A wrap-up party was organised at the Terminus Club in Bucharest at the end of June 2008.
Brazilian-born filmmaker Guilherme Marcondes was hired to develop an animated opening sequence for the film, described as a "short [film] before the main feature". Marcondes described the project as "an interesting project with a lot of animation techniques, and the director of the feature Moshe is letting me do my own thing. A rare circumstance, so I'm glad to be doing it."
ARC Entertainment, the US distributor for the film, announced on July 5, 2011 that Bunraku will be available on Video on Demand on September 1, 2011 and in theaters on September 30, 2011. The official trailer for the film premiered on G4 TV's Attack of the Show! which aired on July 20, 2011.
Bunraku has been met with negative reviews, with a 19% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 21 reviews, with an average rating of 3.9 out of 10, and the consensus being: "Bunraku admirably strives for visual panache, but the staging, acting, and effects are dismal with a complete lack of excitement". On Metacritic, the film received a weighted average score of 28/100 based on 11 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable".
Mark Deming of the AllMovie gave the film 2.5/5 stars, saying, "Bunraku is a movie that's all about visual style, and narrative and character barely fit into the picture ... The movie looks like such a remarkable crazy quilt of themes and inspirations that you can't help but wish that writer and director Guy Moshe put half as much effort into his screenplay". Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News gave the film one out of five stars, saying, "It should surprise no one that visually quirky, graphic-novelish, pulp-noir action flicks rarely come through the sausage machine intact". Dennis Harvey of Variety also disliked the film, calling it "a pic that's akin to a terrarium of plastic flowers -- gaudily decorative, but airless and lifeless".
Scott Mendelson of The Huffington Post, however, pointed out that "The film is certainly a case of style over substance, and the utter lack of substance may be fatal for some viewers. But the picture boasts a unique visual palatte [sic] and some interesting ideas ... Bunraku is not quite a good film, but it is surely a bad one worth watching for those who know what they are getting into".