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In 1582 Oda Nobunaga was on the verge of conquering all of Japan, but was forced to commit suicide at Honno-ji Temple by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Nobunaga’s top general, overthrew Akechi a few days later and completed Nobunaga’s dream of unifying Japan under one ruler. The world was at peace for a time, but soon a ninja bandit named Ishikawa Goemon appeared, using his super-human abilities to steal from the rich and give to the poor—a habit which cemented his reputation as a hero to commoners everywhere.
For more about Goemon and the Goemon Blu-ray release, see Goemon Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on April 7, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Yosuke Eguchi, Takao Ôsawa, Ryôko Hirosue, Takeru Sato
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya
» See full cast & crew
Goemon Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, April 7, 2011
We've had good Robin Hoods (1938 with Errol Flynn), bad Robin Hoods (1991 with Kevin Costner), middling Robin Hoods (2010 with Russell Crowe) and even animated Disney Robin Hoods. And in fact we've even had Japanese animated Robin Hoods (Robin Hood no Daiböken), but chances are you've never seen anything quite like the live action CGI-fest of Goemon, a visually stunning film which recasts a real life 16th century Japanese Robin Hood ninja cum thief into a tragic romantic figure, replete with tons of wire work, thrilling action sequences, mind blowing imagery and a decidedly New Wave sensibility, at least with regard to the often funny and at times outrageous dialogue. Deliberately complex and even labyrinthine in its opening hour or so, Goemon is a film which doesn't give up its characters' interrelationships quickly or easily, and that may at least potentially put off some viewers who might not have the patience to stick with the feature long enough to finally figure out how everyone connects to everyone else. The good news is that even if you are one of those who doesn't like to have to wait for answers, there is so much going on visually in Goemon that it's relatively easy not to let impatience get the upper hand. You may in fact not really understand a lot of what's going on in Goemon's opening gambit, but you'll probably be so largely distracted it shouldn't matter very much.
Goemon is a film which gives up its secrets slowly and deliberately, and so it may strike some action and adventure lovers, specifically those who come to the film thinking it's a more or less traditional martial arts feature, wondering when the fists and feet are going to start flying. Make no mistake, there are some viscerally exciting action sequences scattered throughout the film, but this is really more of a character study, encased in some of the most visually striking imagery to come out of Japanese cinema over the past several years, if not decades. It wouldn't be fair to spoil how the main characters are interrelated, but suffice it to say actual historical character Ishikawa Goemon (Yösuke Eguchi) is here reimagined by writer-director Kazuaki Kiriya (Casshern) as a sort of feudal Japanese Robin Hood who is seen in the opening segment stealing some valuables from the royal palace, one of which is an ornate blue jeweled box which is soon described as a sort of Asian analog to Pandora's storied container. Goemon's theft of the box does indeed open a doorway of sorts to a series of disasters, ones which bring him face to face not only with his troubled past, but with decisions he has made more relatively recently with regard to his erstwhile career as a ninja.
Playing into this study of the heroic loner are subplots involving Goemon's once best friend and ninja cohort Saizö (Takao Osawa) and a Princess, semi-hilariously named Lady Chacha (Ryöko Hirosue), whom Goemon protected when she was a child but for whom he still retains some romantic feelings now that both have grown up. Against this trio of characters who have known each other since their youth, we get a historical panoply, partly based in fact, in which a series of assassinations and political maneuverings sets Japan at the brink of civil war. It's Goemon's task to sort out who is both figuratively and literally backstabbing whom, in a perhaps futile attempt to bring peace to his country.
Goemon is frankly not always easy to follow, especially in its first hour or so, when relationships are being established and we get snippets of backstories introduced via flashbacks. Once the pieces are put in place by Kiriya, however, the second half of the film unfolds in a series of striking set pieces and action elements which reveal the director to be that most overused of adjectives, "visionary." This is a film with one breathtaking image after another cascading around both the characters and the exciting fight sequences. Kiriya's camera glides, pivots, tracks and dollies through an insane amount of amazing framings, all within largely CGI-based green screen environments which are, as weird as it may sound, a sort of Asian melding of 300 with Speed Racer.
Kiriya makes no filmic bones about the fact that he's basically crafting a live action manga, one which has decidedly cartoonish elements along the way (note the laugh out loud funny horse riding and running sequences which dot the film). But perhaps unexpectedly there's some actual emotional resonance to this film, aided by Eguchi's vigorous performance as the title hero. This Goemon is sort of an ancient proto-punk, one prone to swearing and grammatical liberties, but also one whose countercultural leanings are decidedly well intentioned. While the twin tragic elements of the love story between Goemon and Chacha and the doomed friendship between Goemon and Saizö certainly have their clichéd elements, there's a refreshingly natural interplay between the actors which helps acquit the film of some its more stereotyped tendencies. Kiriya also very inventively reinterprets what happened to the real Goemon within the context of the friendship between Goemon and Saizö. In fact it's one of this film's nicely handled achievements that it so successfully reimagines actual historical incidents within the confines of a decidedly fantasy-laden cinematic expression.
Goemon continues to establish Kiriya as one of the most inventive and awesomely visual directors working in contemporary cinema. Even better, while there are most definitely some hackneyed elements to Goemon, the film is rather surprisingly emotionally nuanced and able to peer beneath the shiny surface of the environments and more importantly the characters themselves. While it can't be argued that the film is so labyrinthine as to defy easy comprehension on first viewing, it's also inarguable that film is so visually sumptuous that most people aren't going to mind returning to it again and again.
Goemon Blu-ray, Video Quality
Imagine 300 playing out in feudal Japan, with occasionally bright bursts of Speed Racer-esque color dotting the landscape, and you'll at least have some idea of how inventive and sleek Goemon's AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1 looks. The film has the same smooth, slightly diffuse, intentionally soft quality that 300 featured, albeit without that film's omnipresent sepia toned desaturation. While there are certainly some desaturated elements in Goemon (notably some of the flashbacks), what's more arresting are the unusually filtered sequences, which see repeated use of certain color palettes for different elements of the storyline. Therefore we get a lot of red-oranges in the sequences with Goemon's hapless assistant and the little boy they take under their collective wing, and a nice violet-purple hue to several of the love scenes between Goemon and Chacha. The CGI work here is spectacular, but, again, it's that slightly unreal, smooth and not overly defined look that made 300 so interesting. The non-CGI elements look spectacular here, with a wealth of fine detail, nice clarity and sharpness and always extremely robust color. This is one of the nicest looking Blu-rays, albeit one with an admittedly very distinctive "look" culled from an aggressively processed image, to come down the pike in quite a while.
Goemon Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Two lossless tracks are offered on this new Blu-ray, the original Japanese soundtrack delivered with an excellent Dolby TrueHD 6.1 mix, and an okay if sometimes laughable (as usual) English dub, oddly "only" in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. I spot checked the English dub and it's fine for those of you who can't stand subtitles, but I still highly recommend sticking with the original Japanese track, which is incredibly well detailed, featuring an awesome display of immersive sound effects, and clear, precise dialogue, despite some evidence of copious looping. From the first exciting sequence where Goemon breaks into the palace to raid the vault, we get a beautifully rendered display of both large and small sound effects which are placed extremely smartly around the soundfield. The film has a wealth of big sonic moments, but strangely there isn't the usual overkill of LFE, which actually works to the film's benefit. Fidelity is excellent, delivering superb reproduction throughout all frequency ranges, and the balance between dialogue, effects and underscore is also extremely well handled.
Goemon Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Goemon Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
I'm a sucker for visually arresting films even when their dramatic elements may be found lacking, so my reaction to Goemon may be skewed a bit toward the positive. Even so, I can't imagine anyone who loves huge historical action films not being impressed with the sheer visual virtuosity Kiriya brings to this project, and Goemon is certainly no more hackneyed than any number of both Western and Eastern historical dramas which have dotted the cinematic landscape through the decades. This Blu-ray features awesome visuals and a brilliantly defined sonic landscape as well, and it comes Highly recommended.
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