Judge Paul Pritchard: Ninja. Thief. Cross-dresser?
Our review of Goemon (Blu-ray), published June 2nd, 2011, is also available.
His Crimes Will Save A Nation.
"Become stronger, boy. Then nothing can be taken from you."
Facts of the Case
The year is 1582. Following the murder of Oda Nobunaga (Hashinosuke Nakamura), the tyrannical Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Eiji Okuda) has assumed control of Japan. One of those fighting Toyotomi's rule is Ishikawa Goemon (Yosuke Eguchi), who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. When Goemon steals—and subsequently gives away—an ornamental box belonging to Toyotomi, he unwittingly sets of a chain of events that threaten to destabilize the countries power structure. The box contains a number of secrets that could bring down Toyotomi's reign. Upon being made aware of this, Goemon sets out to find the box, but must race to beat Toyotomi's forces, which include his boyhood friend, Saizo (Takao Ohsawa). They have been tasked with finding the artifact at all costs.
The climax of Goemon is spectacular. Samurai, ninjas, and heavily armed infantry engage in a titanic battle with the fate of Japan at stake. It is thirty minutes of almost nonstop carnage, with arterial sprays, severed limbs, and insane fight choreography. Hell, a man gets split right down the middle, and that's not even the best bit as we see the titular hero plough through unending hordes of enemy soldiers, slicing and dicing his way toward a confrontation with his nemesis. It all plays out like the best videogame you ever did see; indeed, those familiar with the Xbox 360 release Ninety-Nine Nights will appreciate the endless slaughter, while some old-school Captain Commando style grappling hook action will also raise a few smiles. However, to get to that near-perfect half-hour, the viewer must sit through 90 minutes of deeply flawed storytelling.
One's acceptance of Goemon's flaws is going to vary wildly from one viewer to the next, and your take on director Kazuaki Kiriya's previous film, Casshern, is a decent barometer of where you're likely to stand on Goemon. I doubt Goemon will divide audiences quite as much as Casshern—which was a glorious mess of ideas that I absolutely lapped up—as it is ultimately just not as crazy as Kiriya's directorial debut, and as such unlikely to provoke such strong reactions. Casshern—though it confused as much as it thrilled—dealt with some interesting themes, with existentialism being amongst them. Goemon, on the other hand, is a fairly standard action-adventure movie adorned in fancy clothes. That said: the two films share similar concerns with regards to Kiriya abilities as a storyteller.
The plot is fairly straightforward, even if it's telling becomes rather convoluted at times. There's a distinct lack of focus as extended flashbacks interrupt the flow of the film. Too often the emphasis shifts from one character to another, while Kiriya steadfastly refuses to develop any of them in a significant way. This is especially disappointing as Goemon features some interesting historical figures. Saizo is a good indication of what could have been had Kiriya spent more time working on his characters than his visuals. Given the most interesting arc, Saizo is afforded more depth, and as a result feels more rounded. Initially we see Saizo as a hired gun, and nothing more. As the film develops, and we are made privy to more of his personal life, the character begins to win our sympathies. At the other end of the spectrum is Hattori Hanzo. There's very little to this legendary badass, thanks to a poorly written part. Were it not for Susumu Terajima's (Ichi the Killer) performance—which exudes cool—this important role could very easily have slipped into the background. It's also a shame then that the character of Ishikawa Goemon is so uninspiring. Yosuke Eguchi plays the role as well as can be expected; the problem is that this Japanese Robin Hood is all quips and knowing winks, but rarely stands up as a convincing lead character.
With a running time of two hours Goemon is simply too long. There are several scenes that could easily have been excised without the story suffering. As it is, it often feels like Kiriya is in need of a strong presence in the editing suite, as too often he is found guilty of rambling. There's a distinct lack of emotion in Kiriya's work, and like Casshern, Goemon rarely engages on anything other than a visceral level. Small moments touch on something resembling an emotional center, but these moments are fleeting and are never fully explored.
Like Casshern, Goemon is heavily reliant on CGI, so much so that the film retains an (intentionally) unnatural appearance. It's absolutely lovely to look at, and frequently puts big Hollywood pictures to shame with scene after scene of striking imagery. Action scenes in particular standout with the film appearing like a live-action anime as ninjas perform death defying stunts that would otherwise be impossible to capture on screen. This dependence on CGI leaves Kiriya open to two criticisms. The first of these is that, with little of real substance to cling to, Goemon could be considered an empty vessel. The second problem is that there are several shots that simply don't work, with an early encounter between Goemon and Saizo in a grassy field being a prime example of this. Individual elements, such as the grass and the mountains in the background, are rendered beautifully. Unfortunately they don't come together as a whole, leaving the image looking almost amateurish and reminiscent of the cut scenes from Wing Commander III. This perhaps best summarizes Goemon: Everything looks the part, but never gels together entirely convincingly; there's just too little here for the audience to actually feel. It's a lot like ice cream: it looks lovely and is fun while it lasts, but on its own not substantial enough to truly satisfy.
Presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, Goemon makes for an excellent-looking DVD. This can be to the film's detriment when the occasional subpar CGI effect is on screen, but otherwise it's hard to knock. The picture is razor sharp throughout, and small details are evident, regardless of the level of lighting. Blacks are also rich, while colors are unbelievably vibrant. Audio comes in two flavors, with a 6.1 Japanese track complemented by a 5.1 English mix. As is usual, the Japanese track is preferable, and offers a dynamic mix that contains crisp dialogue and plenty of bass heavy explosions. Along with two trailers for the film, the DVD also contains a 'Making Of' featurette, which goes someway to exploring the work put into the film's visuals while also taking time to discuss the project with members of the cast and crew.
Two films in, and Kiriya still needs to develop his storytelling; too often his narratives become tangled in knots of his own making. It would seem that, for this director at least, plot and character are very much a secondary concern.
Much like Casshern, Goemon confirms Kiriya as an exciting director—visually at least—as he fills each frame with small details and flourishes that will dazzle audiences, and often help to hide his more serious shortcomings. In terms of visuals Goemon is a success. Judging it as a whole, the film is a little too uneven and lacking in real content to be worthy of full praise. Perhaps an accomplished writing partner would see Kiriya overcome these narrative problems. As it is, Goemon entertains with its combination of imaginative visuals and exciting action sequences, but leaves you wanting for more.
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