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.

BushidM-posBushido 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 BushidM-01like 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 dBushidM-bluoes 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 Montréal before sit­ting down for a brief Q&A about the film.