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Based on a Japanese folk legend that echoes the tale of Robin Hood, this ninja thriller follows the exploits of Goemon Ishikawa (Yôsuke Eguchi), who leaves his fighting clan after its chief is murdered and uses his skills as a thief to help the poor. But after learning the identity of his leader's killer - the traitorous Hideyoshi (Eiji Okuda) - Goemon sets out on a bloody path of vengeance, joined by his loyal friend, Saizo (Takao Ôsawa). Written by
Mention Kazuaki Kiriya, and Casshern inevitably comes to mind. After all, that's the only feature film he had done since, and it comes with plenty of CG used to create backdrops which no longer existed, and effects used to overload the senses, making what's on screen seem very much like a computer generated comic book, with characters possessing superhuman prowess that are of course second nature since nothing is impossible in the virtual world. I had the opportunity to view this film on board an airplane, but it's a good thing I held out in the hopes that it'll make it to the big screen here, since Kiriya brings back the same technical formula for the telling of his tale of legendary ninja bandit Goemon Ishikawa.
Played by Yosuke Eguchi in the titular role, the folklore of Goemon is just like that of Robin Hood, where a man of nobility becomes the bandit of the land, robbing the rich and distributing the wealth obtained to the poor to ensure the narrowing of the rich-poor divide. With each retelling the legend just grows, so much that there's no more a definitive version of the story, but stories which build upon one another to bring out the flavour and characterization of a known hero in 16th century Japan, where feuding warlords ensure that peace is but a buzzword of a promise yet to be fulfilled to their people. This of course allows Kiriya to heap on loads of artistic license in his tale, which is relatively complete with an origin story, political intrigue, a romance and plenty of fight sequences which will make the action junkie in you whoop for joy.
Which of course is the mainstay for anyone who's watching this. Almost all the battle sequences here are far out and CG enhanced with steroids, ranging from huge armies squaring off, or individual one on one battles with out of this world weapons and moves, reliant on dizzying camera work to bring out the dexterity of the combatants, that you're left gasping for air sometimes as it loops all around the action. If there's a minor gripe, then it'll be moments where such powers get forgotten, which of course helps the narrative at its convenience, otherwise we'll be faced with an indestructible superman that will make it rather boring.
Themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and vengeance become staple in this period fantasy film, especially when we learn of Goemon's allies, which include his ninjitsu peer Saizo, played by Takao Osawa whom I thought resonated more with the story given the plight he got put through. Also, the episode with Saizo highlights how Kiriya focused a little more on the emotional aspects of the characters involved in its more dramatic moments, and the writer-director's knack of fusing together historical events (such as the Battle of Sekigahara and the ascension of the Ieyasu Tokugawa) and personnel into the narrative, making it a richer experience for the audience, and lending itself some grandeur in terms of epicness
Despite clocking slightly over two hours, there are enough twists and turns here given changing loyalties, and supporting role appearances by other legendary characters such as Hattori Hanzo (Susumu Terajima) the famed swordsman. Ryoko Hirosue has a flower vase role here as the love interest of Goemon who decided to do a noble thing of being sacrificed as a concubine of the deranged warlord, but does little else other than to continue reminding Goemon how infatuated he is with her.
The initial moments do require some getting used to as the visuals are built upon CG created landscapes, but it'll soon build on you that without which a film like this could probably not be easily made. It's Kazuaki Kiriya's signature visual style, and I had enjoyed Goemon very much so when it found some balance between its action scenes, and its dramatic moments. Just so you know if I have to choose my favourite fight sequence, it'll have to be Goemon and Hattori's duel in the last act, which showed why one is master over the other.
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