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Friday, April 15, 2011

GOEMON -- DVD review by porfle


A sweeping, densely-packed saga of 16th-century Japan, GOEMON (2009) is a triumphant mix of live-action and CGI whose epic story never gets lost in the visuals.

Goemon (Yôsuke Eguchi), the self-proclaimed "greatest thief in the world", is a Robin Hood-like hero of the poor and downtrodden whose latest daring caper nets him a box containing a terrible secret which could bring the downfall of supreme ruler Lord Hideyoshi (Eiji Okuda).  Hideyoshi's ruthless young underling Mitsunari (Jun Kaname) dispatches his most fearsome assassin Saizo (Takao Ohsawa) to kill Goemon, but the two martial arts masters have a shared history that keeps getting in the way--both were apprentices of the beloved Lord Nobunaga Oda (Hashinosuké Nakamura), whose assassination placed the warlike and power-mad Hideyoshi into power.

As Hideyoshi schemes to conquer China and Korea, he also plans to force Nobunaga's beautiful niece Chacha to become his concubine.  While she and Hideyoshi's general Ieyasu Tokugawa plan to kill him, Goemon and Saizo join forces against him as well.  Tragic consequences ensue, with Goemon torn between his love for Chacha and hatred of violence, and his burning desire to end Hideyoshi's terrible reign once and for all.



A lighthearted, swashbuckling tale in the beginning, GOEMON runs the gamut from colorful adventure to high drama and bitter tragedy, building in intensity and emotional impact until its stirring conclusion.  A number of thrilling action setpieces alternate with scenes of great power, gaining in resonance as the story unfolds.  Having left his apprenticeship with Nobunaga to pursue a life of freedom while Saizo stayed on in his quest to become a samurai, Goemon finds himself drawn into a maelstrom of violence and intrigue that transforms him from an irreverent folk hero into a passionate crusader and potential martyr. 

Much of the film's early humor comes from Goemon's prickly relationship with his fretful sidekick Sasuke (Gori) and an orphaned boy named Koheita (Arashi Fukasawa) whom he adopts after his mother is murdered by Hideyoshi's men.  Goemon sees his childhood self in the boy and teaches him, in Nobunaga's words, to "become stronger" so that he can no longer be oppressed by others.  When the boy seeks revenge against his mother's killer, Goemon is reminded of his own conflicts between peace and violence.  Whether by natural talent or skillful direction, or both, Arashi Fukasawa is so effective as Koheita that he reminds me of a seasoned character actor. 

The entire cast is excellent, with Ryôko Hirosue luminous as the lovely Chacha and Takao Ohsawa a strong and ultimately admirable presence as Saizo.  Eiji Okuda makes the preening, sadistic Hideyoshi a realistically vile character without becoming cartoonish--we even come to understand his motives, kind of, when he explains them to Goemon in an interesting lull during battle as they share some sake on the palace balcony.
 


As Mitsunari, Jun Kaname is the model of sneering, cold-blooded ambition, while Susumu Terajima brings the necessary gravitas to his portrayal of the legendary Hattori Hanzo.  Best of all, however, is Yôsuke Eguchi as Goemon.  Whether playing the carefree master thief basking in the adoration of his fans as he showers them with stolen gold, or thundering on horseback toward certain death against an entire army of soldiers as the resurrected embodiment of Lord Nobunaga, he passionately expresses every nuance of Goemon's spiritual journey during the film.

Much like SIN CITY, GOEMON has the dynamism of a graphic novel come to life but with a rich and consistently dazzling color palette.  Shot on a soundstage with minimal sets against a green-screen backdrop, the film boasts a sumptuous combination of live-action and beautifully rendered CGI that creates its own fantasy world brimming with visual delights.  Without the jarring changeover from live actors to CGI figures that mars such films as SPIDERMAN and BLADE II, these characters remain consistent even when performing impossible moves via motion capture and interacting within wholly fabricated surroundings. 

This allows the filmmakers to convincingly depict the most grandiose setpieces imaginable, from a fiery confrontation aboard exploding warships to a furious battle sequence involving thousands of soldiers, all of which director Kazuaki Kiriya brings off with remarkable skill.  The sadistic execution of a major character in front of a massive crowd of stunned onlookers, who then stage an impromptu revolt against the gloating Hideyoshi, is an emotional highpoint.  Goemon's one-man siege on Hideyoshi's palace is a dizzying array of sweeping camera moves and breathtaking action complete with such "modern" elements as pistols, cannons, and a primitive machine gun.  On a smaller scale but no less effective are the romantic moments between Goemon and Chacha in their dreamlike, firefly-bedecked Garden of Eden.



The 2-disc DVD from Funimation Entertainment is in 16:9 widescreen with Japanese 6.1 and English 5.1 Dolby surround sound.  Subtitles are in English.  Disc two contains a lengthy "making of" documentary, a profile of director Kiriya, and the film's original teaser and trailer, along with trailers for other Funimation releases. 

Upon first viewing, I was dazzled by the visuals but appreciated the film mainly on a superficial level.  Watching it a second time, however, I was better able to digest all the plot details and fully absorb the deep emotional impact of the story.  From laughter to tears and everywhere in between, GOEMON is an exhilarating cinematic journey through a world of wonders.


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