Japan’s most outre indie filmer, Sogo Ishii, tests his talent on the big stage in martial arts costumer “Gojoe” — and is found wanting. Despite an impressive opening and suitably titanic finale, yarn about various warriors battling one another during the “Dark Ages” is way overlong at almost 2-1/2 hours and soon palls with its endless succession of sylvan swordplay. Pic is set for nationwide release in Japan Oct. 7, backed by a major merchandising campaign, but in the West its main arena looks to be fantasy events and as a buff item on ancillary.
Ishii has partly succeeded in his desire to take a traditional genre and give it a fresh spin, largely by emphasizing the cosmic nature of the story — good vs. evil in “black times.” What’s missing, to carry the material past the two-hour mark, is any sense of overall structure or character building.
In the genre, martial artists largely define themselves through fighting and technique, but in “Gojoe” there’s a sameness to the battles, and a lack of distinction among the principals, that quickly becomes wearisome. All that’s left are some flashy effects.
Freely based on a well-known legend, story is set in late-12th-century Japan during the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of a warrior class — familiar Eastern iconography for a period of chaos. The Heike clan has triumphed over the Genji but, at Gojoe Bridge (aka Hell’s Bridge) on the outskirts of Kyoto, Heike warriors are being slaughtered nightly by a mysterious demon, Shanao.
Atmospheric opening, with spraying blood, celestial imagery and Hiroyuki Onogawa’s dark score, promises a truly Stygian drama, even as the film fans out to introduce its main players. Monk Benkei (Daisuke Ryu), a former warrior, steals the magical Demon Slayer sword and heads off to Kyoto to take on Shanao and thereby gain spiritual salvation.
Underneath his wolf’s mask, Shanao (hot star Tadanobu Asano, the Ekin Cheng of Japanese cinema) turns out to be very human — the last survivor of the Genji bent on restoring his clan to prominence. After several attempts at a face-off, Benkei finally pursues Shanao to Devil’s Wood but is blocked by his superior powers. Both sides retreat to prepare for a final confrontation on rickety Gojoe Bridge.
Underneath the often impressive visual trappings and special effects lies a traditional story of two combatants finding their true strength only by disavowing easy shortcuts. Rest of the multi-character plot is essentially window-dressing, including a subplot involving Benkei’s venerable master, Ajari, who tries to point his pupil in the right direction.
In this respect, Ishii holds fast to basic rules of the genre. But he fails to make the window dressing sufficiently interesting or give the pyramidal story a feeling of progression toward the final conflict.
Both Asano and Ryu are charismatic as the two leads, and some color is provided by Masatoshi Nagase as Benkei’s scavenger sidekick, Tetsukuchi. Production design — all thatched huts and wooden structures — is real enough to smell the resin.