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
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
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.