REVIEW: DVD Release: Goemon

Film: Goemon
Release date: 16th August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 124 mins
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya
Starring: Yosuke Eguchi, Takao Osawa, Jun Kaname, Tetsuji Tamayama, Susumu Terajima
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Studio: Momentum
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

Goemon proved an Asian box office hit on its cinematic release. Helmed with a bold fresh eye for visuals by Casshern director Kiriya Kazuaki, Goemon is a multi-layered historic action epic tinged with fantasy and impressive swordplay. With elements of Western legends such as Robin Hood and the mythical Pandora’s Box thrown in, Goemon is ultimately the story of one man’s battle with his need to be free and his destiny.

The year is 1582 and Lord Nobunaga has died, leaving the country in the despotic hands of his head General Lord Hideyoshi. Goemon (Eguchi Yosuki), a self-proclaimed master thief and “ally of the poor” steals an artefact of great value and is hotly pursued by Lord Hideyoshi’s commissioner, Mitsunari. Saiko, former childhood friend and ninja training partner is also in the hunt for Goemon.

Goemon, however, aided by his own ‘merry man’ Sasuke, has given the blue box to an orphaned urchin. In taking the box back and taking charge of the boy, they uncover a fragmented map that leads to the metaphorical ‘Pandora’s box’, a letter stating Lord Nobunaga was murdered by a close consul. With this information, it is up to Goemon, an adopted son of the late Lord, to decide if to continue the Lord’s dream of uniting the country, or simply return to his humble life as a man of the poor.

Sprinkles of sub-plots concerning a lost love interest of Lord Nobunaga’s niece Lady Chacha, the personal ambitions of Hideyoshi’s right hand man Lord Leyasu, and the orphaned street urchin adds up to a heavily laden piece. Goemon bluffs and weaves through plots and schemes and double-crosses and even an appearance by legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo…

The first thing that strikes about Goemon is the visuals. The live action is fused with anime and, at times, over-stylised CGI. The rendering of colour is baroque in scenes - gaudy. These scenes are interspersed with washed out bleak landscapes, in near black-and-white and sepia for flashback sequences and back story exposition. The shift in styles is jolting, but undeniably effective. It just falls short of sumptuous, however. Also a mix of traditional Japanese architecture plays strangely against the Western cathedral-like gothic stone windows of the palatial home of Lord Nobunaga seen in cold flashback.

The visuals, as wonderful as they are, seemed stretched and over-rendered, the film unsure if it wants to be anime or simply a CGI fantasy. The mix of both appears too heavy on the eye, ruining any honest attempts at realism - the calling card of fake CGI blood spatter taints fight and battle scenes, as does the astonishing speed Goemon runs and how high he’s able to jump - and the quality of some images are mixed from high quality to borderline cheap.

Once the visuals and extravagant European influenced costumes have been sighed over, the story comes to the fore. Convoluted and hard to decipher in places, the many different aspirations of characters like Sasuke, Saiko and Lord Leyusa become hard to follow. Are they on the verge of backstabbing the despotic Hideyoshi or are they loyal? And Goemon's internal emotional battle, the core of the piece, is hard to understand as he bemoans revenge yet ardently wants it himself. He wants a world without war, yet carries twin blades that proclaim “rule the force”. Eguchi Yosuki wanders round in places unsure of his goal and purpose in the narrative. No acting performance therefore is outstanding, but no character is unessential either.

The female support in the shape of the lovely Lady Chacha, Lord Nobunaga’s niece, is nothing more than pretty fluff. The representation of women is as soft delicate creatures - the one female fighter in Saiko’s ninja squad is the first one despatched in the final reel. The men bear the weight of the world and power, and the will for peace if they so desire it.

This is also an era of Christian missionaries, and Lord Hideyoshi fortifies his army with guns and cannons smuggled from the West by these European visitors. However, as the film reaches its denouement, this battle between the traditional samurai sword and gunpowder revolution falls short. Swords can take out entire palatial stone support columns but a cannon bullet can’t find a single target.

The film perhaps would’ve been better in two parts, or even as a trilogy, to allow time to completely unlock each integral character’s own story and ambitions. Or, simply the sub-plot list could’ve been slimmed down and the emotional struggles of Goemon clarified. Each actor looks as though they know they’re carrying a huge film on their talents, and are slightly overwhelmed by the challenge rather than buoyed by it.

Goemon is a stunning visual treat, but too convoluted in essential plot points. Undoubtedly watchable, it falls short of the epic it wants to be by simply trying much too hard. JM

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