Story: The monk Benkei (Daisuke Ryu) has a vision. He believes that he is the one destined to kill the demons
which are responsible for several slaughters at the Gojoe-Bridge. When Benkei arrives at the bridge the Heike clan is
already doing their best against the demons. However, it seems that they stand no chance against the monster. Furthermore
the beast actually gets closer and closer to its goal to assemble 1000 souls. Nobody is a match for the demon and so
the night at the bridge becomes a nightmare. Only Benkei is left alive.
Together with grave robber and former weaponsmith Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), Benkei makes his way through an execrated forest, where the demon is supposed to be hiding. Yet, there Benkei has to face his own inner demons first, because he was a ruthless murderer until he tried to search for salvation by becoming a monk.
Soon it becomes apparent why the Heike Clan is so eager to get rid of the demon, because in reality the demon is a mere mortal human with extraordinary sword fighting skills. Prince Shanao (Tadanobu Asano) is the one behind the demon mask, who is a descendant of the almost wiped out Genji-Clan. Since it's his legal right to pretend to the throne the Heike Clan fears him and does everything in its power to eliminate him. Still, Shanao at the moment has his mind set on destroying all false gods and every single religion. This way his path inevitably has to cross Benkei's and so they get into a decisive showdown, eventually...
Review: Expectations were pretty high, that is because there were quite some positive opinions on
Sogo Ishii's movie before it really even hit the screen. Since Ishii ranks among the best directors of Japan,
mainly because of his oustanding style, the joy was not a small one when finally the start button on the remote was
pushed. However, disappointment wasn't a long time in the coming...
The movie begins not that bad, but with a slow pacing. If you expect your typical samurai-movie you surely will be disappointed, because here the focus lies more on the supernatural being an allegory of reality. It's all about demons, spirits and religion, but not in the conventional way, rather in a metaphorical sense. "Gojoe" is overloaded with parables and allegories. This being said, you might think that this is a good thing. Well, it should be, but it is wrapped up with such a confusing and abstract story, that it all doesn't matter anymore. At its best, the movie is a decent work of art. Still, the movie has nearly no entertainment value. Considering the reviews of other critics one might think that this bottom line is a bit too harsh and almost unjustifiably. Nonetheless, it is a fact that "Gojoe" behind all of its finesse is very tedious to watch. To put it bluntly: It's a boring movie. If you aren't already outrageous because of this reviewer's words about an otherwise "highly acclaimed masterpiece", then you might find it helpful to read on to get some arguments which sustain the words said above.
You can think whatever you want about the way and style Ishii makes movies. Nonetheless, you can't deny that with his fast cuts and wild camera movements he deprives his film of the necessary clarity of what's happening on the screen. This mainly applies on the various battle scenes. What's the sense in working out a choreography, because apparently this is actually to be found in "Gojoe" at some points, if in the end the audience doesn't get anything to see of it because of all the frantic camera movements and close-ups. For the viewer this becomes frustrating, as you don't see much of the 10-minutes battle at the bridge, except from lots of blood, spinning swords and soldiers going down. It's also not very helpful that this scene was shot at night with only minimal lighting.
Let's continue talking about the fights. Concerning the body count Ishii's film surely overshadows most other works. Blood sprays in every direction, heads are chopped off and you surely can say that this is a very brutal movie. Nevertheless, the film denies to be a conventional samurai flick, but instead heads for a more spiritual direction.
The characters that are most easily to be grasped are Benkei and Shanao, who both are no real demons, of course, but still do their best to get as close as possible to becoming one. Benkei, however, tries to leave his "demoniac" past behind him and hopes to get salvation by his good deeds, while Shanao more and more resembles a real demon. Eventually, he even denies all "false" goods and goes on a crusade against religion itself.
So far so good. But there are also several more subtle messages, which are sometimes interspersed throughout the movie by the use of finely composed pictures, but in the the end they all feel out of place. They are inserted into the main plot way too confusing and scatterbrained. Furthermore, there is something incredibly repetitive about the movie. This doesn't only apply to the fights, but also to the scenes when Shanao cuts statues of Buddha/God into pieces.
Even though the characters seem to be written pretty nicely, it's almost impossible for the viewer to weave a bond to them. Daisuke Ryu has some few emotional outbursts, at least compared with emotionless Shanao, portrayed by Tadanobu Asano, and all in all they both do a neat job, still it's easier for us to sympathize with the blacksmith Tetsukichi. Even if his background story isn't as profound as the ones from the other characters.
Apart from the experimental camera style, which counts among the few really positive aspects of the film, as far as the events are caught in a not so hectic way, the music is really something to get used to. Aside from the ritually sounding pieces, in which there is a strong use of drums, there is also some heavy e-guitar stuff. It certainly takes getting used to, but at least it fits into the confuse/frantic style of the film.
Something else that has to be mentioned is, that "Gojoe" can be very tedious, because of its running time of over 2 hours, in which sometimes there isn't much happening at all, having even lots of slowdowns, especially throughout the middle.
Being based on historic facts, the story really isn't that bad and thanks to some featured flashbacks it's also easy to comprehend, but the rest of the confusing sidestory pieces resp. parables make at least the western audiences wonder what the hell's going on.
The often used annoying shaky hand camera style, the pointless close-up shots and the overall confusion the film evokes, make watching an ordeal. Even the ending, supposed to be a highlight, can't change anything for the better since there are again numerous fast cuts and close-up shots used. So what's the deal in implementing a final battle if it isn't presented in a proper way?!
"Gojoe" had potential, that's for sure, and you can clearly see that on a lot of occasions, but still the filmmakers didn't make something worthwhile out of it. We don't care about the characters and their fate doesn't interest us. The fight scenes are disappointing, the great number of allegories serve no real purpose, since they are implemented into the movie way too confusing.
However, you have to give director Ishii credit that he tries to approach the old samurai genre in a new way, bringing lots of spiritualism into the movie. If it would have been wrapped-up better and less mazy, maybe this one could have gotten what it takes to be a good movie.
Sogo Ishii is a reputed cult-director and still, his style of making movies, at least concerning "Gojoe", leaves a lot to be criticized. Who is he supposed to convey a message to, if he almost puts his audience to sleep?
This one is really just for hardcore-fans of the director or if you can't get enough of movies of this genre...