I am a sucker for Japanese Samurai movies, but lately I’ve been disappointed by what I’ve seen. “Red Shadow” was lacking in any serious credibility, and as a result I loathe calling it a Samurai movie. “Gojoe” is a Samurai movie through and through, and it’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long while. It achieves near greatness for having guts, style, and substance at the same time.
“Gojoe” is set in ancient Japan, and the opening narration informs us that it’s a “dark time” for the country. In the aftermath of a bloody civil war for control of a local countryside, a “demon” entity has appeared to slaughter the soldiers of the winning side. Into the fray walks Benkei (Daisuke Ryu), a monk who was once a murderer of some renown. Benkei is intent on stopping the demon, believing that this action may, once and for all, cleanse his tortured soul of his murderous past.
As Benkei sets about hunting the demon with the help of Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), a former swordsmith who has given up the craft to steal swords of dead men killed by the demon, the film begins to shift gears. When Benkei encounters the demon for the first time, it becomes readily apparent that the “demon” is actually 3 swordsmen with terrifying, but awesome, killing abilities. The trio is led by Shanao (Tadanobu Asano), a Prince who survived the bloody civil war that saw most of his family dead; Shanao is originally intent on vengeance, but that quickly gives way to something else — something much more seductive…
“Gojoe” uses the word, and the meaning of, “demon” in many forms. Benkei himself is called a demon, not because he has monstrous features, but because of his monstrous past. Shanao, by the same token, has become such a relentless killing machine that his soul no longer resembles that of a man’s. Although compared to the brutish Benkei, the effeminate and regal Shanao seems like a mere pretender to the throne. When the two first meet, the intensity boils to unbearable proportions even though they never attack each other.
“Gojoe” works because it seamlessly blends its superstitious elements with its gritty realism. Director Sogo Ishii easily switches between Benkei and Shanao’s individual pasts and merges them with the present in the form of supernatural scenarios. The film at once decries the whole notion of otherworldly powers while at the same time bathing itself in the mysticism of the East. There is no conflict because we always know that the supernatural elements are nothing more than conventions used to explain the unbearable.
The action in “Gojoe” is quite intense. The action sequences are staged with chaotic confusion and swift bloodletting, all helped by the use of manic handheld cameras. Sometimes the night scenes, when the “demon” usually attacks, are hard to make out from the constantly moving background, but strangely I didn’t find this to be much of a problem. It makes sense in the midst of a constantly moving battle where a millisecond of hesitation or action separates life and death.
Even though the action is spectacular, “Gojoe” is most intriguing when it dissects the soul of its leading man. The emphasis is constantly on Benkei’s transformation from killer to holy man, and the authenticity of said transformation in the eyes of everyone, including Benkei himself. First-billed Tadanobu Asano (“Ichi the Killer”) gives a well-defined performance as the seemingly emotionless Shanao, who provides a nice counterbalance to the passionate and fury Benkei.
Shanao is a man masquerading as a demon, while Benkei is a demon masquerading as a man. The two’s final battle, on the Gojoe bridge, is a tremendous display of perfect camera setups and brutal medieval combat.
Sogo Ishii (director) / Sogo Ishii, Goro Nakajima (screenplay)
CAST: Tadanobu Asano …. Shanao
Masatoshi Nagase …. Tetsukichi
Daisuke Ryu …. Benkei
Masakatsu Funaki …. Tankai