Sunday, 30 May 2010

Review movie - Goemon (Kiriya Kazuaki, 2009)

This review is x-posted to Ancient Worlds

Japan, 1582. One night, as the people celebrate a fragile return to peace in the streets, thief extraordinaire (à la Robin Hood) Goemon (Eguchi Yosuke) is breaking into the treasure room of nobleman Kinokuniya Bunzaemon. At the same time, the dangerous Mitsunari (Kaname Jun), a provost under Japan's current regent, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Okuda Eiji), arrives at Kinokuniya's mansion, looking for an item which would have been entrusted to him by warlord and reputed traitor Mitsuhide (Kiriya Kazuaki). As they reach the treasure room, they spot the door's broken seal: all of Kinokuniya's men run after Goemon, who escapes in style from the rooftop, but not before throwing the gold, jewels and an apparently empty box covered in foreign-looking designs into the crowd which ultimately lands in the hands of a young street rat. The following day, Mitsunari visits Toyotomi: their discussion turns sour but is interrupted by the arrival of Lady Chacha (Hirosue Riyoko), niece of the late Oda Nobunaga (Nakamura Hashinosuke) whom Toyotomi had succeeded upon his death. The latter makes abundantly clear that he wants her as his concubine. Meanwhile, Sasuke (Gori) joins Goemon and tells him more about Mitsunari's visit's purpose. Goemon is intrigued and goes out looking for the boy and the box, despite Sasuke's warning that Mitsunari is assisted in his quest by the formidable ninja Saizo (Osawa Takao)....

The least that can be said about director Kiriya Kazuaki is that he knows how to divide an audience. Casshern (2004), his first movie, was generally panned by the critics and by a good half (at least) of the spectators, but had also generated a small following, to which I must admit I was (and still am) part. It was a good four years though before we heard about his sophomore effort, titled Goemon, based on the popular 16th century folk hero Ishikawa Goemon, whose real life is shrouded in mystery. There was a sigh of relief by fans at the news, followed by exclamations of awe before the breathtakingly gorgeous trailers, which were everybit as stunning as those made for Casshern, at which point the anticipation began to build up both with the fans and the press. But that's when the honeymoon ended. After the inital projections in Japan, the word of mouth was, at best, lukewarm. Worse, it appeared that the very thing that had made Casshern so interesting to some, its scenaristic and thematic intricacies, had been sacrificed to be replaced by a straightforward, swashbuckling epic, something that the director admited in an interview to have done deliberately, to prove that "he could do linear". That turned away a lot of Casshern fans, and I was left wondering if I had been wrong to hope that Kiriya would bring something different to cinema, both on the local and international scene

That was in May last year. Because it hasn't been released so far on the big screen outside Asia, we had to wait until last autumn for the Japanese dvd and early this year for a dvd/blu-ray release elsewhere (this review - and the accompanying screencaps - is based on the French Blu-ray) and I've managed to see it twice since. Straightforward? Well, the story is, in that it doesn't require multiple viewings to be understood, unlike Casshern's, so I guess in that regard, Kiriya has achieved what he had set out to do. But apart from that, it was interesting to see how despite following a different structure, Goemon mostly shed further light both on the strengths and weaknesses that had been already revealed in Casshern, be it in terms of visuals, story and characters or themes developed throughout the movie

If there's one thing that immediately stands out, whether you watch the trailers or jump straight into the movie, it must be the visuals. The actors shoot all their scenes surrounded by green screens and everything around them has been created digitally, with the exception of a few elements and props. That's not unique in itself (Sky Captain anyone?) but what's rather unique is the director's relation with digital effects. He doesn't try to replicate reality to a "T" and loves to insert different types of colors and textures in a single movie - in Goemon's case, sobering scenes in black&white succeed the most outrageous, saturated colors and grainy monochrone is followed by the slick red of flames. This lack of visual unity might be jarring to some, but it almost always has a purpose in terms of storytelling: more often than not, it will tell you something about the scene that hasn't been expressed in words, or announces what kind of event will take place, immediately setting the mood

Creating backgrounds digitally also allows Kiriya to fully express his vision. While the movie is clearly set in 1581 and the historical background, that of the Momoyama period, as well as the characters anchor the movie in Japanese history, he certainly has no intention to show Japan the way it was supposed to look, but instead wanted to express through architecture, clothing style and other artworks what the times were about, and in particular the urbanisation and openness to the outside world, in contrast with the subsequent Tokugawa period. To that effect, the decors are a mix of Japanese and Asian, with some very impressive touches of European; Chacha's costumes, in particular, even when they are European, include details so uniquely Japanese. All in all, it creates a world that is unique but also can only belong to that particular point in time: in this regard, I think the production design is one of the most undeniably successful and interesting aspects of the movie, made all the more effective by being tied into the storyline (the inclusion of the Pandora's box tale that runs like a motif through the story)

That is not to say that the all-digital comes without its problems. Casshern had already hinted at the fact that keeping things "natural-looking" in action scenes was an issue, but that was fairly well hidden behind stylistic flourishes. Not so in Goemon where action, in particular in the first half of the movie, inevitably detracts one's attention from the story. From the way Goemon jumps from beam to beam in the initial scene to his battle with Saizo, movements just don't look human in any way, form or shape, and not in a "superhuman" way either. Also, the way these scenes are shot makes the action barely intelligible (in particular during the pursuit between Goemon and Saizo in the forest) but unfortunately not enough to hide the movement issues. Some parts also evidence a problem when putting characters that are supposed to run (or ride) at high speed against digitally-created background: I don't know if it's a failure of the digital team or if we just don't have the technology yet but here again, things just don't look right

Whether any of this matters though depends on the content, on whether the story was worth telling or not. As already underlined above, one of the director's challenges was to create a linear story, and Goemon is just that. There are surprises (and history here doesn't help because while the movie alludes to historical events, it tends to turn them on their heads) but the resolution is satisfying and we can comprehend the characters' journey and where they are at at the end of the movie in a single viewing. That linearity comes both as a curse and as a blessing. A curse because as a result it is a slightly less rewarding experience: fewer themes are woven into the story's canvas which is why, for many fans of Casshern, Goemon came as a disappointment. The blessing though is that it allows the characters to breathe, it gives them space to develop: it places them on the centre stage this time

Not all characters can make the best of the situation though. The biggest casualty must be Chacha - it is evident that she's a strong-willed woman despite her diminutive figure and her child-like voice, but she's never really given a moment to shine, and her (chaste) relationship with Goemon, which is pivotal to the story, isn't completely convincing. But Casshern had already demonstrated that Kiriya was better at abstract and intellectual concepts than at emotional ones, so I was half-expecting that. More surprising is that Goemon himself is also slightly underwhelming, and totally upstaged by Saizo and, to a lesser extent, by the commanding presence of Tokugawa Ieyasu (Ibu Masato) and Hanzo Hattori (Terajima Susumu - always him!) as well as the frightening Toyotomi. Yosuke Eguchi is a decent enough actor but maybe, in hindsight, not the best choice for the role. According to interviews, it took him a good three weeks to adjust working in a "green screen" environment, which definitely shows, and he doesn't seem too comfortable in the physicality of his role, nor in the progression of his character from frivolous people's darling to a man finally accepting to face the consequences of his acts and to embrace his destiny (which isn't so much a progression than taking the character full circle, actually)

On the other hand, no character in either movie has ever come with as big a heart as Saizo, both in the way he was written and the way he was played, once again evidencing the talent of Osawa Takao. In lesser hands, such a character could have been crushed by the symbolism Kiriya loves to load onto his characters (don't get me started on his last scene....), but Osawa manages to keep everything very "human" and therefore easier for the audience to identify with, opening a door for emotional attachment to the story, whereas Casshern remained almost hermetically close in that regard. Ibu Masato and Okuda Eiji too are given enough space to lend some real weight to their respective characters all while supporting the director's unique take on these pillars of Japanese history

While I've insisted on the fact that Goemon wasn't as thematically rich as its forebearer, it doesn't mean that you can switch off the brain. In particular, one of Casshern's (many) subjects was destiny, man's fate being ultimately out of his hands; the movie that interests us here hints at this too, particularly in the last act, but first and foremost places us before the question of individual freedom, which may be gaining pertinence in contemporary Japan, but still talks to us in the Western world even more. On one hand, the hero, Goemon, has chosen for himself freedom: to walk away from the path that was set for him and serve no master. On the other hand, his alter ego, Saizo, chose to place his competences at the service of another, to serve a greater cause with the hope to obtain the title of samurai at the end of the road. The first takes his freedom as a due (just like we tend to take it for granted), the latter sees freedom as the ultimate reward, something that he must work towards. Neither is proven to be right: Saizo's aspiration is also his weakness, the very leach he allows his master to use against his own will. Of the two, Goemon, who has given priority to that value we have come to cherish more than any other in modern society, seems to have the better life and so he does, at least on the surface; he has the life we aspire to while we pity Saizo, who seems at first thoroughly misguided. However, the more the story progresses, the more we come to question that assessment. From that perspective, the final resolution is pretty thought-provoking, and I might detail it elsewhere in a separate essay (as doing so here would require that I spoil too much of the story)

Neither an action movie nor a classical drama, deceptively light-hearted at the beginning but slowly growing more somber as the tale progresses, Goemon clearly isn't successful at everything it sets up to do. But then again, it attempts to do so much, and differently, that I can't help but forgive its short-comings. It is always a bit tricky to recommend it though, because you might not find yourself ready to do the same, and you could hardly be blamed for that. But I believe this Goemon deserves at least to be given a fighting chance