Genre: Quasi-historical Samurai par Excellence
review in one breath
I was trying to think of a comparable Western genre to that of Gojoe and realized that there really isn't one. On the one hand, Japanese samurai movies are alot like our "cowboy" films (and there has been alot of historical dependence of Western films on Japanese films in this regard). But there are very few (if any) good or convincing cowboy movies involving the ghostly or demonic. There are, however, many good examples of Japanese samurai movies involving the supernatural. Recent films like this would include Onmyoji and Red Shadow, and more historical examples include the classics Throne of Blood, Ugetsu Monogatari, and OniBaba.
Gojoe is an excellent example of this intertwining of historical piece, samurai action, and ghost story. It is not over-the-top and humorous like Red Shadow, and it is much more serious and realistic than Onmyoji. Unlike these two, the swordsmanship displayed in Gojoe is formidable, fearsome, and yes, exhilarating to watch.
Here's a little true history:
Throughout the Heian Era (794-1185) the Genji (aka Minamoto) Dynasty had grown to great prominence and power (see Onmyoji). During the 12th century, however, skirmishes and rebellions, led especially by the Heike (aka Taira) clan significantly weakened the Genji, leading to the Genji leaders' execution under the Heike and the Heike rise to dominance. Rather than execute all of the Genji clan, the Heike spared the lives of two young Genji boys, Yoritomo and Yoshitsune from the fate of their leaders. As it turns out, throughout the following twenty years of Heike rule, Yoritomo was skillfully planning to avenge the defeat of the Genji. In 1180 Yoritomo commenced his revolt, resulting in a series of key battles collectively known as the Genpei War (1181-85) orchestrated primarily by Yoshitsune, the other young boy who was spared execution (and a relative of Yoritomo). Under Yoshitsune's leadership, the revolting Genji allies gained decisive victories at the battles of Ichi-no-tani (Feb 2, 1184) and Yashima (Feb 18, 1185), and the Heike finally fell after the defeat at Dan-no-Ura on March 24, 1185. Yoritomo subsequently served as the first Shogun following the Heike from his Daimyo in Kamakura.
This history is strikingly similar to the stage set in Gojoe. The name of the film derives from "Gojoe Bridge", the scene of a decisive victory by the Heike, resulting in the execution of the Genji leadership. All that remains of the Genji's former glory are the charred remains of the Genji outposts next to "Gojoe Bridge". Well, that's not really all, since we learn that the Heike spared the lives of two young boys of the Genji family. After the Heike firmly established their dominance in the region, ruled from palaces once belonging to the Genji, very strange things begin to occur around the Gojoe Bridge. Soldiers posted around the bridge are being slaughtered in the dead of night. No matter how many soldiers the Heike place there, all inevitably end up beheaded. Soon, rumors of a formidable demon ("Oni") spread, and a sense of fear slowly begins to build among the Heike leadership and soldiers.
Word of the demon reaches the ears of the film's main character, Musashibo Benkei, who is at once both warrior and priest. In his youth, Benkei hailed from the Gojoe region and there gained a notorious reputation for apparently raucous, violent behavior. By the time we catch up with him, however, he has renounced this lifestyle and become a monk, under the tutelage of Ajari, a relatively young yet spiritually profound teacher. Benkei suddenly returns from his extended pilgrimage and visits Ajari, announcing that he is destined to slay the demon. It is clear that Benkei does not foresee a battle limited to prayer, as he has stolen (to the displeasure of the royal guards aggressively pursuing him) a sacred sword renowned for its demon killing abilities. Little does he know that the demon also has a sword or two and is shockingly skilled at wielding them.
The fight scenes in this movie are superb. The swordsmanship is realistic and yet so flawless that I felt I was watching a demonstration of what Japanese swordmanship had always dreamed of becoming. In other words, the demon is a swordsman par excellence and needs not rely on either special effects or camera tricks to defeat his many opponents. In short, Gojoe contained the best sword fighting I have seen. (Second best was Mifune's desperate flailing in Rashomon.)
The original version of this film runs at 137 minutes. This time is used well, developing the historical background and various relations among the characters. The primary relationship developed is between Benkei and the swordscraftsman/thief Tetsukichi. Though these two men are vastly different in their outlook and approach to life, their alliance of necessity is gradually forged throughout the film. The relation of the demon and the Heike leadership is a second relation requiring historical explanation and development. And finally the relation between Benkei and his spiritually superior Araji proves crucial when Benkei's own efforts in defeating the demon prove near fatal. Although these relationships (especially between the demon and Heike) are crucial to a full understanding and enjoyment of this story, the international version edits out nearly all of this, resulting in a 97 minute version consisting nearly exclusively of a string of fight scenes with little contextual explanation. This is unfortunate, to say the least, since so much of the value in movies like this stems from the fact that they correspond to some degree to historical realities.
This movie is as much about war and revenge as about demons and spiritual battle. Interestingly, Gojoe never strictly differentiates between these two. In fact, by the story's end, you will be unsure whether this is in fact a story of demonic battle or political revenge. Perhaps unlike Western sensibilities, this story does not require a truly demonic demon, though if this demon is merely human, there are undoubtedly some sort of spiritual powers at play. This ambiguity between the natural and spiritual nature of our characters results in forcing the viewer to focus on the cause of the perceived spirituality. We catch ourselves asking whether a human, when under the worst of circumstance, can be driven to a demonic state, a state in which demonic reality is manifested. Such a demonic manifestation could then, not only heighten the hateful abilities of the individual to enact his fury, but would also cloud the mind and spirit of those he comes into contact with. It is this possibility which Gojoe seems to suggest, a possibility of the human becoming demon. (This possibility is also suggested, though in more primitive terms, by the very interesting OniBaba.)
|The entire backdrop of this story involves the dynamics of the historic Genpei War and the extended clash between the Genji and Heike clans. This taps into the bleakness and bloodiness of a well-known period of fuedal warfare and dynastic clash.||Sword swinging and beheading extraordinaire. Amazingly convincing invincible swordsmanship.||Absolutely no room for babes in this world of warrior priests, beheaded samurai, and demonic swordsman.||This is a very cool movie. Follow our ass-kickin' Priest as he steals the sacred sword and battles an invincible demonic blade master in a fight to the fiery end. And who could ask for a more action-packed conclusion?|