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Japanese samurai drama from director Sogo Ishii. In 12th century Japan, master samurai Benkei (Daisuke Ryu) converts to Buddhism and vows never to take another life. But his religious vows are put to the test when he hears about the death of several warriors of the Heike clan, beheaded by a mysterious force at the distant Gojoe bridge. Benkei sets off to investigate, and discovers that the evil force is actually a young warrior called Shanao (Tadanobu Asano), out for revenge after the Heike clan ordered his family's death. Benkei is forced to struggle with his vows and his own inner demons as he confronts the bereaved warrior.
Top customer reviews
This is all exemplified in the final finale, which is one of those sequences of true breathlessness, and which somehow happens so fast that it is only barely possible to process the revelations which preceded it... but to spill these beans would be to spoil them, so worth a watch, and one to own.
The fight scenes are a disappointment, you don't get to see many martial skills - the shaky camera and tendency to close-up focus on peoples faces sees to that.
If you like crazy action flicks like Versus or Kurosawa's films, be warned that this may not be for you.
Gojoe returns somewhat to the style of Ishii's earlier, bold and energetic work; combing grand spectacle with clearly defined storytelling with roots in actual Japanese folklore. However, the way in which the narrative unfolds is really quite interesting, with the story beginning with a scene of murder and the notion that the killing could have been supernatural as opposed to political; with Ishii's subtle use of cinematography, editing and sound design creating a staggering sense of tension from the very first frame. Added to this, there are definitely shades of Masaki Kobayashi's classic anthology-film Kwaidan (1964) and Kaneto Shindô's masterpiece Onibaba (1964) being developed here, with that great atmosphere of supernatural intrigue, murder, violence and dread being continually juxtaposed against an expressionistic period setting, which seems somewhat nightmarish and vaguely ethereal. The violence of Gojoe is occasionally fairly explicit and definitely over-the-top, but there is a distinct balletic grace to the way in which Ishii captures the action; creating something that falls halfway between the over-the-top fountains of gore seen in the majority of Japanese Anime (or the more extreme films of Takashi Miike), with something that is perhaps closer to the heavily choreographed kabuki theatre or interpretive dance.
As the story progresses the supernatural elements give way to political intrigue and elements of actual historical fact, but the whole arc of this notion seems designed to add some sense to the story of warring rivals, as opposed to giving us a full-blown history lesson. Dialog is sparse and character development tends to emerge slowly from the quiet scenes of silent brooding and the more sombre moments that stress a philosophical aspect to the boundless scenes of violence and swordplay. Though ultimately the plot is slight and simplified to the point of near abstraction, the film manages to keep us motivated through the continual combination of Ishii's imaginative direction and the fine performances of lead actors Daisuke Ryu who portrays the warrior monk Benkei, and the always surprising Tadanobu Asano as the mysterious and deadly Shanao.
As an actor, Ryu is probably most familiar from Akira Kurosawa's historical masterpieces Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985), as well as Takashi Miike's more recent remake of Graveyard of Honour (2002), while Asano has worked with a number of highly esteemed Japanese filmmakers, including Shinya Tsukamoto on Gemini (1999) and Vital (2004), Nagisa Oshima on Taboo (1998), Takeshi Kitano on Zatoichi (2003), the aforementioned Miike on Ichi the Killer (2001) and Sogo Ishii again on subsequent films Electric Dragon 80, 000 V (2001) and Dead End Run (2004). Though essentially playing antagonists, the two actors complement each other exceedingly well, creating bold characters that manage to instil a sense of purpose and authority from a film that tends to rely heavily on action and excess. In terms of martial arts, swordplay and a greatly choreographed sense of movement, the film has certain similarities to director Zhang Yimou's trilogy of historical set martial arts films, Hero (2002), The House of Flying Daggers (2004) and The Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), with Gojoe's reliance on historical content, culture and subtle shades of politics probably stressing a similarity with Hero in particular.
Certainly, I wouldn't go as far as to call Gojoe a masterpiece. It has its flaws, most of which are in the plotting, the heavy reliance on historical context, the awareness of the Japanese folklore that inspired it, and the over abundance of lengthy fight sequences, but still; this something that is definitely worth checking out. Ishii's direction is filled with an eerie sense of atmosphere, energy and imagination, masking the limitation of the budget until a few sadly fake looking FX shots towards the end, and offering us some of the most vibrant and violent scenes of action and combat you're ever likely to see.
Still not bad, but not the greatest.
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