Japan 2009 Directed by: Kazuaki Kiriya Story: Kazuaki Kiriya Script: Kazuaki Kiriya & Tetsuro Takita Production: Kazuaki Kiriya, Takashige Ichise Cinematography: Kazuaki Kiriya Editing: Kazuaki Kiriya, Chisako Yokoyama Music: Akihiko Matsumoto Cast: Yosuke Eguchi, Takao Osawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Jun Kaname, Gori, Mikijiro Hira, Masato Ibu, Susumo Terajima, Hashinosuke Nakamura, Tetsuji Tamayama, Eiji Okuda, Choi Hong Man
Before Zack Snyder was CASSHERN (and before CASSHERN naturally someone else). What goes around comes around. Nevertheless has Kazuaki Kiriya managed to create his own kind of genuinely modern, surreal aestheticism (despite all the obvious influences), and he continues to celebrate his trademark approach to filmmaking once again with GOEMON.
Style with Substance, not over or under: GOEMON is about the historical Japanese Robin Hood called Goemon (played brilliantly by Yosuke Eguchi, one of Japan’s most underrated actors; it is really nice to see him getting the role he deserves) who is brought up and trained to become a Shinobi by the legendary Hattori Hanzo after his parents had been killed. At the end of his education however he decides not to follow the path of his master, but instead begin a career as master thief who takes from the rich and gives to the poor.
But there’s more to it than meets the eye: Goemon wants to be free, free from obligations, duties and other people’s influence. The new career goes pretty well until Goemon literally opens Pandora’s box by mistake – from now on he must face his past as well as more than just one archenemy. And “by the way” he must save, can save, should save, should better quickly save his country as Japan is on the brink of war. Or should he save his one and only love from becoming a concubine instead? Or simply do everything at the same time?
Most people will probably underestimate GOEMON as much as CASSHERN before. Too seductive are its style and aesthetics, too overwhelming the visual ideas, too obvious its class. A film with such outstanding form can’t be more than skin-deep, or can it? Conventional thinking is hard to outmaneuver: large and light, fast and economical? Impossible.
GOEMON is, just like CASSHERN, an excellent film indeed. A film about values, ideals and faith. A film about how everything is connected. How our actions affect the future, for better or worse. How our decisions become the storm caused by butterfly wings.
Last but not least is GOEMON religion: rooted in (Zen)Buddhism and its philosophy of sufficiency, common desires like fame, money or status are all meaningless. GOEMON is a metaphor for the greed for power and how people are corrupted by its pursuit, perfectly expressed by the last dialogue between Goemon and Hideyoshi.
At the micro level GOEMON deals with the personal fate of an (anti)-hero who has mistaken irresponsibility for freedom and at the end discovers that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Whereas at the macro level it is a film about society and what actually constitutes society in the first place.
Everything makes sense when Goemon comes to realize what true strength really is. We have to applaud Kiriya for his nonchalance, this just looks so easy, like child’s play, and everything’s so clear and obvious. It is wonderful to see how the recurring theme and question for what strength really is makes for the most beautiful, small twist at the end that skillfully shows how our individual fate and the fate of everyone else are related.
It may be hard to believe for some, but GOEMON is as much visual art as it has profound substance. A little bit ASSASSINS CREED, a slice of RASHOMON, or sometimes SHINOBI NO MONO, GOEMON is always a feast for the senses. You’ll either love it or hate it, so keep an open mind and enjoy it for what it is. For GOEMON most of all is a triumph: clearly more commercial than CASSHERN does GOEMON display the same sheer energy and maybe even more sophistication as far as attention to detail is concerned. The apparent concessions to a mainstream audience correspond perfectly with Goemon’s character and fit actually really well amid all the visual excess and the movie’s appetite for destruction.
In Japan GOEMON was criticized for the fact that it relies too much on popular characters and for playing it too safe by never really putting the hero in harms way. But is Kiriya the one to blame? In recent years Japanese cinema has fed the public almost exclusively with well-known stories and has conditioned local movie goers to expect cross-promotions all along the way: manga becomes film becomes video game becomes film becomes manga, and so forth. Kiriyas strategy is legitimate: popular figures and legends stir the interest, and once the audience is sitting comfortably in the theatre seat you take them to the edge without warning.
Why not? Don’t we all know that the hero’s gonna make it in the end anyway? Didn’t we come to see it? It isn’t justified to say that GOEMON per se ignores the basic rule of putting the hero in potentially lethal situations, but “potentially lethal” is also a matter of definition. Goemon is exposed to multiple dangers and he fights various battles throughout the film; so boredom isn’t exactly what comes to my mind.
As far as direction, script writing, camera, editing, music and cast go does GOEMON deserves the high score. Perhaps this doesn’t reflect well on imdb.com, but whoever’s familiar with statistics will also know why that is. GOEMON is film as it should be: epic, honest, universally relevant and detailed. We can watch it for the artistic showcase that it is, enjoy it as a history lesson, see it as a serious work about society, watch it as a love movie or just as a martial arts flick.
There is one thing that GOEMON specifically pays attention to and gets perfectly right, and that’s the quintessence of every great film: a great story. And life simply still tells the best stories: whoever dismisses GOEMON as “video game” or primarily perceives it as an MTV-era relic has apparently never ever once left his apartment. Time to get a life, dude.
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