After the visionary (if ponderous) future-robopocalypse Casshern, Kazuaki Kiriya drops back several hundred years and punts with Goemon, a fantasia that is oh so very loosely based on Japanese history but so much fun to watch that historical accuracy or fidelity to the word of legend can just go take a walk. The heroic thief of the title was a figure of legend in Japan, even if no two of the legends can agree on who he was or what he actually did; Kiriya's approach is to use his infamy as a springboard for the sort of visual-synthesis-by-greenscreen that seems to have become all the rage for mid-budget SF and fantasy epics after 300 left its mark.
The plot's no groundbreaker, but you won't mind. Goemon loots the corrupt aristocrats of 17th-century Japan and spreads the wealth from the rooftops, but his dark past as a ninja for the Shogunate looms up once again when he discovers the truth behind the death of his former master — which also separated him from the princess he loved from afar. It's all little more than a setup for two basic kinds of scenes: lush tableaux that frames the actors as they fire impassioned emotional countercharges at each other, and action sequences that are as cheerfully fake-looking as they are insanely kinetic. (Goemon's standard attack is to charge up the middle of his enemy's ranks and scatter them to both sides by slashing hither and thither.)
Come to think of it, there isn't a realistic-looking moment in the film — even the grass underfoot is a CGI fake — but it all works because the illusion is so consistently maintained. Even wilder are the scenes inside the Shogun's castle, where his fetish for all things European runs not only to furniture and clothes but a bit of self-portraiture that shows him off in the style of a conquistador. Historically accurate? No. A daring re-invention of how a period Japanese film can look? Absolutely. The film may be all style over substance, but it has the saving grace of being a style that's been invented from scratch for this production and not just recycled wholesale from a dozen others. Bonus points are awarded for the always-excellent Kitano-gumi Susumu Terajima in a crucial supporting role.
In my book, Shinya Tsukamoto can never completely stink. This is the man who gave us the original Tetsuo: The Iron Man, a film so deranged the first time I watched it I thought it was gonna melt inside my VCR all on its spontaneous own. But this is the third time he's been over this particular territory, which makes that ... what? First time tragedy, second time farce, third time sheer redundancy? I don't object to Tsukamoto remaking Tetsuo; what I object to is how in the process he somehow reduced the primal scream of the original into a mere cat's yowl.
The plot this time around borrows from pieces of Tetsuos 1 and 2: a half-American, half-Japanese man (Eric Bossick) with a Japanese wife and kid leads a happy life until the day a stranger (Tsukamoto, once again credited as "The Guy") runs over his son with his car. Dad's rage fuels his mutation into a giant walking metal scrapheap, and there are complications involving his own dad, his wife, a possible future baby on the way, his own genetic heritage, etc. The amazing experimental cinematography of the first film is now reduced to a mindless blur that looks like Tsukamoto pounding nails with the camera, and the visual callbacks to the original films — including a redux of the title sequence — play less like homage and more like someone who's just plain run out of ideas.
The biggest mistake is how Tsukamoto tries to assign an explanation or motive to everything. The whole charm of the original Tetsuo was its very raggedness and inexplicability. It wasn't supposed to make a lot of sense; it was just supposed to bite your face off and scream in your ear. Tetsuo: The Bullet Man is so mercilessly explicable it even has a happy ending. Even in the face of all this, I aver that Shinya Tsukamoto can still crowbar more sheer neurological overload into 75 minutes than most people manage in an entire trilogy.