Gojoe was the film that awakened me to the full possibilities of modern Japanese cinema, an epic with both eye-filling spectacle and a thoughtful story. The first time I saw Gojoe I was a little too overwhelmed, and had to sort out my feelings over a second viewing. Then I remembered I had been similarly stunned by Blade Runner, which has such sights to spare that the first time you see it, it's almost impossible to assimilate the story anyway. Gojoe works as a lavish adventure fantasy, but also breaks from many samurai movie traditions to posit a revisionist twist on a by-now-shopworn legend.
Gojoe is set in 12th-century medieval Japan, just after the warring factions of the Heike and Genji clans decimated each other. "Gojoe" itself is not the name of a person, but is actually a bridge not far from the capital, Kyoto, where a number of Heike soldiers are murdered by what seems to be an otherworldly force. At the same time, a Buddhist monk, Benkei (Daisuke Ryu) and his superior, Ajari, are concerned about an oracular prophecy predicting the arrival of a terrible evil (as confirmed by a comet streaking through the heavens).
Benkei was once a warrior, but put aside violence to be a monk — although in an early scene where he clashes with a rival caste of mountain monks (from whom he has "borrowed" a sacred demon-slayer sword), it's clear he still hasn't forgotten how to fight. He simply puts other things ahead of violence, even when he knows that the world around us works to make violence inevitable. He is also convinced he has been chosen to fight the coming evil, thanks to a Sanskrit inscription that has appeared on his chest. His superior refuses to accept this as true; when Benkei shows him his chest, the other man weeps.
Both Benkei and another man, Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), a sword scavenger, meet at the scene of one of the battles at Gojoe. The two could not be more dissimilar: Tetsukichi filches armors and swords from corpses, not caring a whit for the afterlife or for Benkei's Buddhist predilections. But both of them are disturbed by the devastation, and they wind up becoming a team out of necessity. Tetsukichi is skeptical about their opponent being truly supernatural, and his hunches turn out to have a grain of truth to them. They are not, in fact, fighting a demon, but a fallen prince of the Genji, Shanao (Tadanobu Asano), who has mercilessly perfected his fighting skills and uses the demon rumors to his advantage.
Benkei and his demonic quarry are soon nose-to-nose, with Benkei's own murderous desires rapidly returning. Shanao claims the "spiritual energy" of his opponent transfixed him, but I suspect the truth is simpler. Each sees in the other a quasi-kindred spirit — two halves of the same whole. But Benkei's own resolve is never completely solid: even when he finally does work up the courage to fight Shanao, his sword breaks. Just before Shanao slaughters Benkei, the young prince is driven off by Ajari — apparently, he can slaughter Heike soldiers by the dozens, but not Buddhist monks. Frustrated, Shanao revisits Ajari later and kills him, breaking the last taboo of the warrior. "I have attained enlightenment," he says, "and I have seen that all your gods are false.... I alone am capable of unifying this land. The only god I worship is power itself." With no one left to stop him, Benkei finally turns to Tetsukichi to help him equip himself for one last battle. The finale, a sword duel on a burning bridge jolted by lightning, is so loud and violent it jars one's teeth out of their sockets.
Gojoe could have been a mere slash-fest, but Ishii's direction and immensely intelligent script propel it far beyond its more conventional and reverential brethren. Benkei is deeply conflicted: the part of him that took vows of peace is, quite ironically, not the part that the world around him needs the most now. It makes no sense to lie down and be destroyed, but the only way to stop the enemy appears to lead to self-destruction as well. In another filmmaker's hands, the philosophy would seem irresponsibly nihilistic, but Ishii is able to make everything stick. The original legend was apparently very different — Benkei and Shanao became allies — but Ishii takes his own turn with the material and makes it apocalyptic and cynical, rather than heroic. The movie also makes use, in a subtle way, of the Buddhist concept of mappo (essentially the Buddhist version of the End Times) — which in the mythology was numerically determined to take place around the same time as the events in the film.
Gojoe was apparently a dream project for Ishii, a wunderkind who broke sideways into filmmaking with his college film Panic in High School. His graduation project, Crazy Thunder Road, was an astonishing mix of speed-tribe violence and Mad Max-style nihilism — doubly astonishing for the fact that Ishii shot the whole thing while he was still a student. Toei bought the distribution rights to it, blew it up from 16 to 35mm, and it turned into a cult classic. Ishii's later movies mixed visual anarchy with stinging comments on Japan in general. Burst City was another revisiting of the Mad Max/biker-punk fetish, but with a different set of social overtones. The Crazy Family, his most famous movie outside Japan, featured a household of Japanese everymen and -women slowly going stir crazy when their half-mad grandfather moves in. Eventually the warfare implicit between the characters becomes explicit, and the final third is an all-out brawl featuring weapons like the family dog strapped to a baseball bat.
Then came a long period of silence, during which Ishii made few movies except for the splashy but not-terribly-insightful Einstuerzende Neubauten doco Halber Mensch. He returned to feature films with the disorienting Angel Dust — another visually engaging movie, but with a serial-killer plot that in retrospect was nothing more than a giant red herring. Following that was August in the Water and Lake of Dreams, sedate and dreamy films that seemed to show the director's new preference for inner space and personal quests rather than flashy exuberance. Then, in 2000, he staged a return (in part) to his earlier form with Gojoe, which he had been polishing for about ten years before the Japanese cable-TV outfit WOWOW finally gave him the money to film it. One can sense a great deal of Ishii's repressed energy surging through this movie and making it more than just a period-piece exercise.
Most of the jidai-geki, or period films, made in Japan today are amazingly tame and reticient compared to the violent, taboo-breaking and socially critical samurai movies of the Sixties. The best of such films tend to be gentle, nostalgic productions like Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai, or passably mindless entertainments like the recent remake of Makai Tenshō. Gojoe is one of the very few recent such productions that not only invites comparison with vigorous, angry films like Harakiri or Sword of Doom, but suggests a way forward towards even more groundbreaking works. Unfortunately, the movie didn't do the kind of blockbuster business in Japan that its distributors had hoped, and Yamada-style sentiment seems to be more popular than ever.cd. copyright=WOWOW / Suncent CinemaWorks