Martial arts films are often minimalist affairs when it comes to storytelling, with simple plots and simple characterizations to leave plenty of room for elaborate action sequences. Less attentive viewers often dismiss the genre as being light on story but that’s a fundamental misreading of the genre’s minimalist style. The best martial arts films exemplify the idea of “action as character,” using their displays of phyiscal prowess to express characterization and themes along with the excitement.
Bushido Man begins as a pleasing example of this minimalism. The framing device has gifted fighter Toramaru (Mitsuki Koga) returning from a long journey to visit with his master, Gensai (Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi). The master asks his student to tell him the details of his journey, which sets up a series of flashbacks illustrating Toramaru’s quest. It is revealed that he traveled from town to town, taking on fighters of different styles in one-on-one bouts. His training in the “Cosmic Way” martial arts philosophy is illustrated by how he eats the food his foe before each bout to adapt to his opponent’s lifestyle and landscape.
Much of Bushido Man chronicles these bouts and it makes for fun viewing. Writer/director Takanori Tsujimoto comes up with variations in character and situation to match the fighting styles and gives the tale a brisk pace. Koga does a solid variation on the “quiet hero” archetype and the action choreographer from Kensuke Soramura is both fast and hard-hitting.
Unfortunately, Bushido Man slips off the rails as it moves towards its third act. Strangely placed adolescent humor slips into the proceedings – like a jarringly sophomoric bit where Toramaru is so shocked by a foe’s prowess that he urinates on himself – and the action sidesteps martial arts for gimmicky comic-book devices like a fist gun that shoots when you throw a punch. Admittedly, the latter gimmick is novel but it feels like it wandered into the wrong film, as Bushido Man had previously been about martial arts and its philosophical/intellectual elements.
That said, the final fifteen minutes is where Bushido Man truly goes awry. It suddenly becomes interested in tricky plotting and hits the viewer with a one-two punch of plot twists. Without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say that the first twist is utterly predictable to any action film fan and the second twist, while genuinely unpredictable, is so utterly left-field that it undoes the storytelling and characterizations that preceded it. It achieves a shock but does so in a way that makes its characters look dumb.
In short, Bushido Man is a mixed bag. It’s a shame that Tsujimoto didn’t have confidence in the timeless nature of his archetypes and resorted to cluttering up the second half of the story with tonally jarring humor and misguided plot twists. That said, the action is consistently well choreographed and the first half has an undeniable charm for martial arts film fans. The appeal of the schizoid final product will probably depend on your level of patience for self-conscious cult filmmaking.
Blu-Ray Notes: Shout! Factory just released this title to blu-ray in the U.S. The transfer does well by the film’s sometimes soft visual look, bringing nice detail to closeups and an appropriately vivid color palette. Japanese 2.0 PCM and English 5.1 lossless soundtracks are included: the Japanese track was used for this review and it’s a solid, basic stereo track. The one extra is a featurette that depicts a trio of the filmmakers traveling to the FantAsia Film Festival in Montreal before sitting down for a brief Q&A about the film.