Director Karuaki Kiriya has first made his mark in the world of music videos in Japan until he made his first full-length film “Casshern” in 2004. His first film was both a domestic and international success even though American studios butchered its release by editing out more than 20 minutes of footage that it became very messy. In 2009, Kiriya goes for another film that carries that same style and yet blends history into a fantasy-alternate world based on the real life story of Ishikawa Goemon, an outlaw thief who gave whatever he had stolen to the poor. This film is called “Goemon” is a fictionalized account of his exploits and role during the Japanese civil war that led to the decisive battle of Sekigahara.
Ishikawa Goemon (Yosuke Eguchi) is a Shinobi ninja turned thief and he gives whatever he steals to the less fortunate. After he had invaded a minister’s stronghold, he unknowingly steals a box that holds a sinister secret that may upset Lord Hideyoshi’s (Eiji Okuda) hold to absolute power. This box unleashes a search that endanger innocents and also puts Goemon at odds with his former fellow Shinobi, Saizo (Takao Osawa, Aragami) who is sworn to do the bidding of Mitsunari (Jun Kaname). Things get from bad to worst as Goemon may have set into motion things that may put Japan back into war and strife, as he digs even deeper into his family’s history and his links to the murdered Lord Nobunaga (Nakamura Hashinosuke) and his niece Lady Chacha (Ryoko Hirosue) may force him to face his true destiny….
Those who are looking for a history lesson will be disappointed with Kiriya’s film. “Goemon” may be based on the life of the historical figure, but this is all fantasy throughout. The usual themes of honor, loyalty and betrayal come alive in this film. Kiriya as with his first film “Casshern” makes a powerful commentary about the horrors and futility of war. The writing by Kiriya and Tetsuro Takita has strong anti-war themes and how the greed for power had seemingly fueled the need for war. The script makes such a strong statement about the corruption and greed of authority figures; that most leaders of the past tend to go into war due to their own personal interests. The film does succeed in touching upon some real historical facts, but it does not make it the central focus as much as the stylish atmosphere, beautiful CGI images and fight scenes.
The first half of the film felt somewhat fragmented as we get to know the story of Goemon as he is now and how he all began. There is a subtle story about unrequited love around it, as much of the film is filled with flashbacks. Kiriya did well in developing the characters, albeit some supporting characters felt like minor fillers in the case of Sasuke (Gori) and the boy Koheita, while others like Hattori Hanzo (Susumu Terajima) and Saizo’s ninjas feel rather underdeveloped. I do wonder if the Funimation release was edited since it was shorter by 3 minutes to the Asian release. There is a lot to be told in the first half, and it is easy to get a little frustrated, since there is just so much going on. I felt that it was rushing its sequences at times. Still, the direction maintained its footing as I did begin to care about the title character and how his past does play a part in what he does next.
One thing quite different from the classic Chambara historical films I’ve been used to is the way Kiriya seemed to rely on visuals and grand elaborate designs in backgrounds and costumes. “Goemon” feels more like an anime film come to life than actually feeling like those classic samurai films I’ve really grown to love. The palaces, the ghettos, the colors of this alternate world are beautiful; they do appear to be aimed for international audiences in an attempt to ‘modernize’ Goemon’s tale. I did feel that the backgrounds wanted to express a feeling of a 'painting' around them, and the figures are mere expressions of the action that occurs in such a shot. There are medieval influences in the set designs with strong inspirations of anime around them. I know some may be turned off, but remember, this is Kiriya’s story and not a history lesson. If you are looking for awesome spectacle, then Kiriya’s creation is spot on. This film rivals the most elaborate Chinese epics I’ve ever seen.
What truly made this film is its awesome action sequences. In this fantasy world, the Shinobi are ninjas with special skills and powers that is almost superhuman much in the film “Shinobi Heart Under Blade”. Goemon and Saizo are especially skilled with a sword with a history, their duels are good but a little too short. The battles were CGI enhanced to make them feel more intense and fantastic. The scenes are bloody and carries the arterial spray that has become the traditional effect of samurai movies. I suppose if the film had one special highlight is when Goemon and three other ninjas took on more than 10,000 soldiers all by themselves. It was all made for fun and realism is thrown out the window. The direction embraces all the anime spectacle inherent in the film’s tone as the hero fights against swords, spears, arrows and even guns to fulfill his destiny.
There really isn’t much to complain about “Goemon”. It is a film meant to do what it was supposed to do and it does the deed very well. The film is immensely entertaining and while the direction could’ve been more polished, there is enough dramatic intricacies to the plot that I was engaged in the screenplay. The film is also competently acted, that the performers did become their characters. “Goemon” is a visual and aural feast for the senses; it will appeal to fans of a certain genre but even non-fans will find it worth seeing once. The film is dazzling and just spectacular from a technical standpoint that I just have to recommend it.
Recommended! [4- Out of 5 Stars]
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Goemon is a 2009 Japanese historical fantasy film written and directed by Kazuaki Kiriya. It is loosely based on the story of Ishikawa Goemon, a legendary outlaw hero who stole valuables from the rich and gave them to the poor. The film is a fictional account of Goemon's exploits and his role during the final phase of Japanese civil war, especially the conflict leading to its decisive Battle of Sekigahara. With the use of over 2,500 visual effects, the director of Casshern mixes action with Japanese history and folklore into a film evocative of the classic Robin Hood-style tale. Goemon was released on DVD and Blu-ray by FUNimation Entertainment on April 19, 2011. FUNimation has also included an English dubbing audio track towards this film in its North American release.