Director - Kazuaki Kiriya
Cast - Yosuke Eguchi, Eiji Okuda
Country of Origin - Japan
Distributor - Funimation
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 12/6/12
The Film: 4/5
Goemon Ishikawa (Yosuke Eguchi) is the greatest thief in all of feudal Japan. Once he was one of its finest shinobi (ninja) warriors but he walked away from his duty when his lord Nobunaga (Hashinosuke Nakamura) was assassinated by the treacherous Lord Hideyoshi (Eiji Okuda), who in turn assumed Nobunaga’s throne and control of his kingdom. While raiding a mansion on a routine job Goemon comes across a mysterious blue lacquered box that holds nothing of value to the famous thief, so he discards it into a crowd of his admirers. The box comes into the possession of a village boy named Koheita (Arashi Fukasawa). Goemon is told of the true value of the box by his duplicitous sidekick Sasuke (Gori) and tracks it down just in time to save Koheita from bandits who have just slaughtered his mother. Taking the boy into their care Goemon and Sasuke go on the run and discover the box contains the location of a scroll that has been long hidden and reveals the terrible truth behind Hideyoshi’s plot and the murder of the noble Lord Nobunaga. Now Lord Hideyoshi, who has become a decadent lunatic since taking over Nobunaga’s throne, is plotting to launch an attack on China and Korea and wants to make the young Lady Chacha (Ryoko Hirosue), who once loved only Goemon when he served under Lord Nobunaga - the man who had raised Chacha since the deaths of her own parents - his concubine. Meanwhile Hideyoshi’s traitorous deputy commissioner Mitsunari (Jun Kaname) is also preparing to execute his own plot to seize power from the grasps of the insane Hideyoshi. With Japan on the brink of a potentially devastating war Goemon must stay one step ahead of Mitsunari’s enforcer Saizo (Takao Osawa), Goemon’s former friend and fellow ninja warrior - and become the great warrior he was destined to be if he is to stop his country from falling completely into darkness.
Goemon really did a number on me. When I first started watching the film my expectations were barely being met; the visuals were suitable extravagant and the action a bit too frenetic but I enjoyed it for the most part. Then, after a first half packed with crazy chases and predictable intrigue, the story went through a sudden tonal shift into a darker and emotionally-driven epic adventure with complex characterizations. From there on I was hooked into the escalating narrative. Although you need a flowchart at times to keep track of the many different characters and plots and plots within plots director Kazuaki Kiriya (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Tetsuro Takita) manages to keep the story and action moving at a steady pace and does not leave a single plot thread unresolved by the end. The big draw for this movie is the massive amount of green-screen visual effects work used to transport the audience into the colorful and chaotic world of Goemon, a land of great beauty and mystery on the cusp of total annihilation. Japan as it is presented in this film is not quite the nation as it was during this tumultuous period in its history. Kiriya stages the action set pieces with a magnificent, balls-out flamboyance that most times veer straight into the realm of superhero comic books - characters run and leap with great speed and agility, soldiers of the villain wear armor in battle that make them resemble the Stormtroopers of the Star Wars universe, and digital blood and gore are splashed across the screen with the eye-popping fury of Sin City.
Filmmaker Walter Hill (one of my cinematic heroes), in the words of writer Harlan Ellison, codified the esthetic for fantastic film in an interview that appeared in the September 1984 issue of Cinemafantastique, around the time of the release of his feature Streets of Fire: “I’ve always been struck by the morality fables of the Middle Ages, which take place in a framework that looks very real, but in which the events could be outside of reality. Our fantasies, however, tend to be extrapolated into another type of technology, usually futuristic. But if you tell people the film is ‘on an interior landscape,’ they look at you with question marks. In an unfamiliar setting people pay attention to the background, trying to orient themselves, instead of just glancing over the familiarity of a here-and-now backdrop.” Goemon comes closer than most films made in this day and age to living up to those principles, though it barely misses the mark of instant classic status. The central story is heavily lifted from the myth of Robin Hood - respected warrior becomes disenfranchised, takes on the identity of a dashing gentleman thief who gives most of his ill-gotten gains to the impoverished masses - and Goemon’s character arc owes a lot to the mythological writings of Joseph Campbell. He embarks on a variation of the hero’s journey and by the end his story has come full circle. The supporting characters are rich and memorable and the villains wonderfully vile and corrupt, never crossing into full-on cackling evil but looking like they would not mind at all giving it a go. At first I though the character of Saizo would be a mere one-note badass subordinate to the main baddies, but as the film progressed and his backstory revealed Saizo took on a surprising complexity, as did the Lady Chacha, no mere damsel in distress this killer kitten. Bringing in the little boy Koheita later in the movie threatens to derail the main drive of the narrative with cutesy kid shenanigans but thankfully Kiriya dodges that bullet by giving the boy a minor character arc of his own, one that mirrors Goemon’s in a sense.
The action scenes and multiple sword fights run the gamut from measured and coherent to downright uncontrolled and haphazardly edited. The visual effects can be distracting as well when they figure too much into the on-screen excitement, coming off resembling a VFX house's demo reel. The effects clearly owe a debt to American films like 300 and Speed Racer and at times they employ the occasionally irritating "speed ramping" that Zack Snyder gave rise to in the former feature. At least Kiriya has cooked up some barn-burning set pieces that take the story into a otherworldly realm of the possible, including a first act rooftop foot chase where Goemon must outrun ninjas throwing grenades, a literally explosive attack on Hideyoshi's ships during his wedding to Chacha, and an extended final battle that takes us from an all-out assault on the villain's decadent monolith of a pagoda to the bloody fields of combat. The blood and gore are digital but they flow like nothing rarely seen since the Stateside release of Shogun Assassin. Regardless of your tastes in global action cinema, I guarantee that Goemon absolutely delivers the goods, and then some.
Goemon has been presented by Funimation in its original anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and this transfer was enhanced for 16 x 9 television screens. The picture quality is a bit soft at times but is otherwise a solid transfer with dazzling colors and sharp detail. Japanese 6.1 and English 5.1 audio tracks are both ideally balanced in dialogue, music, and effects and are highly listenable. When swords clash you can feel it in your bones. Unfortunately the English dubbing job comes off as strange and awkward at times, with certain voices being complete inappropriate for their characters. Stick with the Japanese track. English subtitles are also provided.
The only extras on disc 1 are an upfront preview for Ichi and trailers for other Funimation releases under the Coming Soon sub-menu: Mushi-Shi, Hong Kong Connection, Shinobi, Genghis Khan, Love and Honor, Daytime Drinking, and Hana.
Disc 2 contains the bulk of the supplements, starting off with another upfront preview, this time for Kamui Gaiden. We also get a very detailed documentary about the film’s production (36 minutes) that covers the extensive green screen work and fight choreography required, as well as a shorter documentary about the creation of the elaborate visual effects (18 minutes). Closing out the package are teaser and theatrical trailers for Goemon.
Goemon accomplished what few films I have seen this year have been able to do, even the ones that I loved, and that is surprise me. Packed to the brim with great characters, dazzling visual effects, and memorable action sequences, this is a marvelous ode to the heroic myths of every culture that have been passed down throughout the generations. This disc comes highly recommended.