Gojoe - Samurai films are as much a staple of Japanese cinema as Westerns are to Hollywood. Like Westerns, despite their popularity peaking decades ago, the samurai pics never went away, with modern examples including When the Last Sword is Drawn, Gohatto, Kitano's Zatoichi remake and the Oscar nominated Twilight Samurai. Although Gojoe verges into fantasy territory with its more mystical elements, Gojoe is as much of a period piece as these recent releases, but it doesn't quite hit the high notes that these others do.
In the Middle Ages the Genji and Heike clans are at war, resulting in the losing Genji clan retreating to the East while the Heike try to rule Japan from Kyoto. Mysterious beheadings of Heike guards near the Gojoe bridge result in rumours of a demon out to collect 1000 Heike souls. This is followed by the warrior monk Benkei returning after seven years trying to escape his past as a murderer and rapist, accompanied by the cynical swordsmith Tetsukichi who now strips the weapons from the demon's victims. Benkei has had a vision that his route to enlightenment is through the slaying of the Gojoe demon, but what will happen when he realises the demon is in fact a Genji prince, Shanao, seeking revenge for the murder of his family?
Gojoe is an odd film. With lots of period detail from the Samurai armour and to the gritty, mud-caked peasant village and woven sandals, this is nevertheless a meld of horror and fantasy swordplay. A mixture of Buddhist mythology and 12th century superstition bring us a world of magic that is subtler than the fantasy slashers from Hong Kong. However, we also get a dull film with action scenes that reach monotonous levels of violence as samurai after samurai is dispatched with seemingly little skill, as the actors wave their swords frantically in the face of jerky hand-held cameras and rapid editing. Despite the odd jet of arterial blood the sword fights aren't convincing, with little feel for contact. For an action film, this is not a good sign, especially when it is quoted as having been "choreographed by Peking Opera alumnus Zhang Chun Xiang". Needless to say, it doesn't improve later on; with even the final duel a tad pedestrian despite Daisuke Ryu (playing Benkei) finally showing us his face can do something other than 'stony'.
There is more to Gojoe than steel however, with a strong religious element running through the plot and motivating the characters, but it is often let down by the script - for instance opting to show that Shanao has abandoned Buddhism altogether by giving us a tedious montage of his slashing his way through various priests and idols, rather than requiring any actual acting to convey feeling. Indeed everyone walks around with such dour faces you almost hope for some jarring comic relief just to give a bit of life to proceedings. There are beautiful moments, mainly of the untouched landscapes that serve as some of the locations, but these do little to bolster the main action or drive the plot and ultimately Gojoe just ends up being boring. Whether aiming for period samurai piece, action/horror flick or modern samurai update (along the lines of Azumi, for example), the film is not a success.
The option to choose from stereo or Dolby 5.1 is a nice thought but unlikely to sway your enjoyment of the film, and for only six years old there are moments with visible grain in darker scenes, which also seem to vary within the scenes themselves as if they have been zoomed-in in part. Otherwise the more colourful moments fare well, with the greens of a forest and blues of an immense moon hanging in the sky nicely delineated. Extras are limited to a few trailers, significantly less than the region 1 release.
Not a treat for action fans and little to satisfy the appetite of those used to the more accomplished drama of Twilight Samurai (not to mention Kurosawa), Gojoe really has little going for it. With so many other samurai films worthy of your attention, you would need to be a rabid fan to have nothing better to watch. Avoid!