Gojoe (2000) is a typically vibrant and vivid piece of film-making from Japanese firebrand Sogo Ishii, who remains perhaps one of the most radical and underrated Japanese filmmakers of the last twenty-five years. Ishii began his directing career in the late 1970's when he was still a student at the Nihon University, and his work of that particular period with films like Panic High School (1978), Crazy Thunder Road (1980) and Burst City (1982) reflected an interest in performance art and his involvement in the Tokyo punk scene. Though later films like Angel Dust (1994) and Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) saw a greater sense of maturity and more clearly defined emphasis on character and atmosphere, he remained a consistent and interesting talent with a truly original vision.
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 Shindō'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.
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