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Tatsuya Nakadai plays a samurai overcome with guilt over his unwitting part in a massacre of a small village. Now a ronin, he learns of a scheme by his old clan to repeat the same crime. determined to stop them, he endures great hardships in an attempt to atone for his earlier mistakes. Written by
Goyokin is one of those movies that I wanna scream from the rooftops just how incredibly awesome they are. The kind of film I wanna grab every person I know by the neck and force them to watch it with eyes wide open, Clockwork Orange style. It's really a cinematic crime that Goyokin is not as widely seen and regarded as the works of more famous Japanese directors, like Kurosawa. It might be a genre movie and as such attract mostly chambara fans, but this really deserves to reach more mainstream audiences. Put simply, if you like beautiful movies, you have to see this one.
The plot concerns a clan that is struggling financially who schemes to steal a shipment of the Shogun's gold and silence the nearby villagers who witness the crime and the ronin Magobei (played by the unparalleled Tatsuya Nakadai) who makes a moral stand and decides to go against his former clan. I won't go too far into plot details, but let's just say Goyokin is an anti-samurai film at heart. Like the best work of that other great jidai-geki director, Masai Kobayashi, Hideo Gosha doesn't try to pass moral judgement on his characters and treats them with compassion and affection. We're in 1830 and these are hard times for samurais as Japan finds herself on the brink of change. As one character realises in the end, "We sit here and die in the cold, and what does the Shogunate do? They get fatter in the heat". Gosha doesn't condemn the samurais for their soon to be obsolete code, rather puts things into perspective and shows us that desperate people will do desperate things. Innocent people die but who is really responsible for these crimes? It plays out like a good ancient Greek tradegy, minus the melodrama. Every emotion is incredibly nuanced here, every glance, move and frame. Gosha wisely lets the visuals tell the story.
And that brings me to the next point. The visuals. I am not exaggerating when I say that Goyokin is one of the most beautiful movies ever conceived. Yes better than most Kurosawa films, if the comparison has any merit. The colours are like small strokes of a brush on a white canvas as most of the film was shot outdoors in snowy landscapes. The rugged terrain is a pivotal character here, from the stormy sea to the blizzards to the open vistas. The cinematography and the way Gosha treats the locations as an integral part of every scene, reminded me of the spaghetti westerns of the great Sergio Corbucci (Django, The Great Silence). The muddy streets of a small town (as in Django). The snow blizzards and the cold, hostile terrain (as in The Great Silence). Samurais trying to prevent frostbite from setting in before a duel, unable to pick up their swords and fight. That nature is so tightly interwoven to the plot is another testament to Gosha's attention to detail. His cinematography is truly outstanding. I simply can't stress how visually awe-inspiring this movie is. Every frame is a painting. In a way it brought to mind the maestro Sergio Leone. After all the jidai-geki and the spaghetti western are very similar in the ways they depict their scarred heroes, the duel and the terrain.
I don't know what else to say about Goyokin. The performances are great all around with Ruriko Asaoka stealing every scene she's in, not least thanks to her drop dead gorgeous looks. Tatsuya Nakadai is once again outstanding in the lead role. The swordplay is fantastic, quick and brutal thrusts of the sword with an emphasis on the ritualistic aspect of the duel. The silence before and after. Although not as bloody and action-oriented as something like Lone Wolf and Cub, Goyokin left me more than satisfied in that department.
There's not much else to add, except that Goyokin is criminally underseen (judging by the amount of votes here). Maybe in the years to come western audiences will open up their horizons and realize what they've been missing. In the meantime if you're reading this, seek this movie out. You won't regret it.
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