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Five years after making his eyeball-searing debut with “Casshern”, former Japanese fashion photographer and music video director Kiriya Kazuaki returns with more visual splendour and epic action in the form of “Goemon”. Produced by the legendary Ichise Takashige (who worked on key modern Asian horrors such as “The Ring”, “Dark Water” and “The Grudge”), the film is a period set fantasy in the Robin Hood style, with Eguchi Yosuke (recently in “Shaolin Girl” and “Children of the Dark”) as the titular rogue ninja hero who has to face up to his destiny as he tries to save the country. The film boasts an illustrious supporting cast, including Osawa Takao (“Ichi”, “Sky High”), Hirosue Ryoko (“Villon’s Wife”), Kaname Jun (“Blood”, “K-20”), Okuda Eiji (“Be Sure to Share”), Terajima Susumu (“Ichi the Killer”), and Tamayama Tetsuji (“Casshern”) amongst others. A mixture of wild fiction and historical fact, the film was a box office hit in Asia, and now arrives on region 2 DVD via Momentum Pictures.
The film takes place in 1582, with the noble lord Nobunaga having been assassinated before achieving his aim of unifying the nation and saving it from war and with his top general Hideyoshi (Okuda Eiji) taking the throne. At the same time, a bandit called Goemon (Eguchi Yosuke) rises to fame after robbing the rich and giving to the poor, before running into complications after stealing a seemingly innocuous box. Soon enough, all manner of people are after him, including Hideyoshi’s calculating henchman Ishida (Kaname Jun), the famous Hattori Hanzo (Terajima Susumu) and his own childhood friend and fellow ninja Saizo (Osawa Takao). As he tries to figure out the box’s secret, Goemon is caught up in a battle to rule the country, and as the common people increasingly come to bear the bloody burden of their leaders’ ambitions, he is forced to take a difficult decision whether or not to take up arms himself in the name of the greater good.
It’s immediately obvious that “Goemon” is first and foremost a visual feast, with style, substance, and Kiriya Kazuaki’s bold imagination being allowed free and unfettered reign. Whilst in the hands of a lesser visionary this might not have been a good thing, here the result is one of the wildest and most glorious, breathtaking examples of cinematic eye candy of recent years. Simply put, the film is absolutely stunning, with gorgeous effects that dominate throughout. Although the film is at times almost entirely based around computer effects, Kazuaki’s creativity keeps things coherent, and whilst outlandish, its fantasy world is convincing and atmospheric. The film is equally stunning during its massive set pieces and its quieter moments, with ornate sets, production design and costumes that mix Japanese and European styles, fusing them with the gothic and baroque. Added to this is a pounding choral score, and the film is an assault on the senses from start to finish, and one that really has to be seen to be believed.
Thankfully Kazuaki, who also wrote the script, doesn’t neglect the other aspects of the film, and manages to give the proceedings a vaguely philosophical bent. In this respect it recalls “Casshern” quite closely, with the plot revolving mainly around anti-war themes of pacifism and personal responsibility. Goemon himself makes for a likable protagonist, with Eguchi turning in a charismatic performance that makes his character’s inevitable progression from outlaw to hero involving. His devil may care attitude similarly adds a welcome sense of fun to the story, and keeps its weightier themes from ever dragging it down into too much ponderousness.
“Goemon” does have its flaws, most of which are the same as with “Casshern” – mainly that its pacing is slightly off, and although never dull, it does suffer from a few lulls and overstretched scenes of flashbacks and exposition. For some viewers, the visual overload may be a bit too much to take, and though Kazuaki ramps up the action, even these scenes are undeniably excessive, being filled with characters leaping huge distances into the air before crashing down on their foes. This is really the only area in which the film’s special effects let it down somewhat, as most of its duels, fights and mass battle scenes are filled with quite obvious CGI blood, which never really convinces and which detracts from the overall visceral impact.
Still, in the grand scheme of things these are minor criticisms at best, and as a piece of glorious cinematic showmanship it really is hard to fault “Goemon”. Relentlessly thrilling and astounding, even on the small screen it makes for a wholly captivating and hugely entertaining viewing experience, and it must be hoped that it does not take Kiriya Kazuaki another five years to come up with something equally brave and ambitious.
Kazuaki Kiriya (director) / Kazuaki Kiriya, Tetsurô Takita (screenplay)
CAST: Yôsuke Eguchi … Goemon Ishikawa
Takao Ôsawa … Saizo Kirigakure
Ryoko Hirosue … Chacha Asai
Jun Kaname … Mitsunari Ishida
Gori … Sasuke Sarutobi
Mikijiro Hira … Rikyu Sen
Masatô Ibu … Ieyasu Tokugawa
Tetsuji Tamayama … Matahachi