Yoji TanakaMasatoshi NagaseRyo KaseDaisuke Ryu
Gojoe: Spirit War Chronicle
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Gakuryu Ishii
Writer: Gakuryu Ishii, Goro Nakajima
Keywords: historical, samurai
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Actor: Tadanobu Asano, Masatoshi Nagase, Daisuke Ryu, Masakatsu Funaki, Jun Kunimura, Urara Awata, Wui Sin Chong, Takato Hosoyamada, Ryo Kase, Naruki Matsukawa, Yoji Tanaka
Format: 138 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0260054/
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 21 September 2011
I won't call it boring rubbish, but I will point out that it's about men with swords.
It's set in samurai times, although one mercy is that most of our main characters aren't themselves samurai. What's more, they're loosely based on real people, as seen in many other books and films. Daisuke Ryu is playing Benkei (aka. Saito no Musashibo Benkei, 1155-1189), a Japanese warrior monk. Seven years before this he was a violent thug who did terrible things, but then he got religion and turned to Buddha. Meanwhile Tadanobu Asano is playing Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), possibly the most popular warrior of his era and the main character of the third section of Heike Monogatari. He was born during the Heiji Rebellion during which his father and two oldest brothers were killed, lived his early life under the care of Kurama Temple, became a famous general and ended up being forced to commit seppuku (along with his wife and daughter).
The normal version of the story has it that Benkei became Yoshitsune's right-hand man. They fought a duel which Benkei lost, much like Robin Hood and Little John. You'd be advised not to worry too much about the historical record with this film, though.
Judged purely as a movie, it faces the same challenge as all samurai films.
(a) these swordsmen are boring
(b) why should we care if they die?
In fairness Benkei is a bit different. He's samurai-like in his stoic single-mindedness and lack of personality, but he's also a religious man who's hunting a demon. One of his best scenes involves some political twats kidnapping him, beating him up and ordering him on pain of death to do what he's trying to do anyway. He refuses. He serves Buddha, not men. There are plenty of reminders of the kind of man he used to be, such as old enemies with a mind to settle scores, but he's become devout and there's one scene in particular where he symbolically rights an old wrong.
Incidentally Daisuke Ryu, the actor playing him, is a renowned name, having previously played warriors for Akira Kurosawa in Kagemusha and Ran. He's big.
Meanwhile Tadanobu Asano is his usual self. He's an evocative block of wood, if that makes sense. He's an actor of stillness. An unsympathetic description of him would be "stands there doing nothing", but he's got a bearing and presence that arguably manages to convey depth anyway. I also think he's playing a surprising character note, in that the script contains a hint that Benkei might have fathered Asano as a result of long ago raping his mother. I'm sure that historically this is bunk, but this film seemed to be suggesting it anyway and if you look at Asano's performance at the end, I suspect he was thinking along those lines.
So that's the set-up and you'd better hope you find it interesting, because there's 138 minutes of it. I was mildly interested by the characters, especially Benkei, and I thought the film was watchable, but it was sometimes a struggle to keep going. There's no humour at all. There's an everyman perspective courtesy of the Masatoshi Nagase character, but adding social awareness to a film isn't the same thing as being likeable. It's just really long and contains very little that could be called charming or even sympathetic.
Bizarrely, it's directed by Sogo/Gakuryu Ishii. He's a punk director, releasing his first film in 1976 while still at university. His graduation project was Crazy Thunder Road, directed with his friends from biker gangs. He made Burst City about quasi-mutant bikers and nuclear protests. He made The Crazy Family (to choose a mild translation), an acid-spraying satire of Japanese family values. This is one of his later, calmer films, although they're certainly not all this commercially oriented. It's more digestible to a mass audience and more thoughtful about things like the meaning of violence and our place in the universe, but it continues his fondness for lots of death in a rather dull storyline that's getting most of its energy from the editing and camerawork.
It's also beautifully shot and a huge film in every way. The sword fighting was choreographed by Zhang Chun Xiang from the Peking Opera, strangely.
I liked the supernatural resonances. People believe each other to be demons and at the start of the film we even think this might be the case too. Samurai's heads are being lopped off. (This is always good, just on principle.)
If nothing else, this is an honest-to-goodness samurai film made in 2000. I'd come to believe there weren't any of those. It's impressive for its pedigree and for the fact that it's a classy historical epic that's in no way trying to romanticise the old sword-wielding days. On the contrary, our hero would sooner die than act as another man's sword and is happy to demonstrate this fact. It's crushing the historical record like a bug, but if that's all you want there are plenty of other places to go for that. It's a beautiful movie to look at. You could even say it has soul. However personally I found it long and not particularly interesting. (That's in no way an endorsement of the foreign cut, though, which I hear has had 47 minutes of motivation and background hacked out to turn it into 91 minutes of empty action. I'm not crazy about the film I watched, but I'd sooner watch it twenty times running than such a hollowed-out version.)
Random anecdote: some of the incidental music was made with scrap metal. That's a director who hasn't abandoned his punk roots. I'm going to be watching more Gakuryu Ishii.