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DVD Review: Goemon

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Goemon is a Japanese production from writer/director Kazuaki Kiriya. It takes fact, fiction, and legend and combines them with some crazy, over the top CG effects to produce a thoroughly enjoyable film.

It tells the epic story of what the cover dubs Japan’s answer to Robin Hood. Goemon is feudal Japan’s 'Master Thief' operating in the powder keg period after Lord Nobunaga has been assassinated and Lord Hideyoshi, his former second in command, has ascended to the position of ruler. While Hideyoshi’s rule has unified the nation, extreme poverty grips the country and Goemon’s exploits, stealing from corrupt officials, have won him the hearts of the people. As the story begins to unravel it appears there’s more than meets the eye to Goemon and more to the assassination of Lord Nobunaga than first believed. What transpires is an epic story of revenge and a nation's quest for peace and freedom.

"Epic" is a term that gets thrown around a lot in regard to film but Goemon certainly comes under that banner. The story develops from one man’s quest for revenge to a story that becomes bigger than him and his revenge as the fate of the nation is now at stake.

Kiriya’s story and directing are both top notch. Not a moment is wasted as so many little plot points spring up and while some elements seem odd at first, Kiriya manages to tie them in well when all is said and done. He creates great interconnections between the past and present and between the actions of one and its effect on the whole. He also uses a lot of cuts partway through a sentence and while I thought that would be annoying it actually serves the film well. The cuts add some tension and mystery to proceedings as the cut usually leads into a scene involving the prior discussion and there is a sense that actions speak louder than words.

Kiriya also achieves something that doesn’t happen a lot for me when I watch Asian films. I actually felt for and connected with the characters in the film. I loved Yosuke Eguchis as Goemon. He has a little bit of Jack Sparrow to him, the lovable rogue, which makes him instantly likable. Similarly I thought the ninja Saizo (Takao Osawa) would be a mindless killer, but after been given a chance to get to know the character and realize his motivations I also become emotionally invested in him and his journey. Meanwhile Eiji Okuda plays the villain Hideyoshi with sadistic glee forcing you to instantly despise him, the perfect outcome of his performance. It's a refreshing experience to appreciate the characters and not just the stunning martial arts.

Speaking of martial arts the film has plenty of it, and it's top notch as well. The ninja skills of Goemon and Saizo, ramped up to 300, Crouching Tiger or anime standards, are really exciting to watch. Like the rest of the film there’s a mix between the real and the legendary in the presentation of the martial arts. It results in a fresh visual experience, which is often seen in anime but not in live action. Kiriya also does a good job of holding off on the major action till the end of the film. He almost teases you with brief encounters throughout until the last half hour when he almost unleashes a no holds barred action tornado with some brilliant action set pieces.

The production apparently had a budget of $15,000,000 and they’ve used it well. The world Kiriya and his crew have created, which is presented in 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen, is outlandish, over the top, highly stylized, and truly amazing. There’s a lot of CGI used to create the backgrounds, which consist of imposing castles, vibrant city streets, dirty desolate slums, and gorgeous gardens and it results in a feeling that this is a living breathing world. The CGI is at times obvious — even horses are CGI — but in this case it doesn’t look cheap, it just adds to the legendary nature of the story and is generally well implemented.

While the CGI gives it an outlandish look it’s aided by the costume design, which is equally outlandish and highly stylized. One memorable outfit is Hideyoshi’s robes the first time you see him. You wonder how he can even move in such a monstrous outfit but it serves its purpose well as a distinction between the haves and the have-nots. Imagine Queen Amidala’s extravagant outfits in The Phantom Menace given to a majority of the cast, and you’ll start to get a feel for what Goemon has achieved. Similarly the design of the armor of the soldiers, especially in the battle at the end, is really cool as it isn’t the typical samurai armor you are accustomed to. There is almost a mix between East and West in the design and it helps set Kiriya’s work apart as something unique.

Finally the dialogue is good, with some memorable speeches given throughout the film and the audio on the whole is really well done. It’s presented in Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 and it means Hideyoshi’s newly acquired gunpowder-based weaponry really envelops you by utilizing the surround sound and the sub. Proceedings are accompanied by a grand orchestral soundtrack that really hammers home the epic and legendary nature of the story.

Goemon is a highly stylized, hugely over the top film that rewrites a legendary time in Japan’s history. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable film that delivers an interesting story, some good performances, and some great martial arts action.

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