Big, original, visionary films are rare in today’s Japanese film industry, which overwhelmingly prefers sure bets developed from hit manga, anime, TV dramas, novels and other media properties.
Kazuaki Kiriya’s 2004 post-apocalyptic fantasy “Casshern” may have been based on a popular manga and anime, but it was madly ambitious in the style of silent-era folie de grandeurs, while borrowing much of its alternative-future look from early 20th-century art and design (and realizing it with early 21st-century computer graphics.)
True, the story was a hash, but Kiriya, a fashion photographer and music-video director who had made “Casshern,” his first feature, for the Hollywood equivalent of spare change, was definitely a talent to watch.
Five years on, he is back with “Goemon,” a big-budget period epic produced by Takashige Ichise — the J-Horror impresario responsible for both the Japanese originals and Hollywood remakes in the “Grudge” franchise, as well as many other shockers. The operatic, over-the-top aesthetic of “Casshern” is in evidence, but used in the service of a story that is the local equivalent of “Robin Hood,” filled with characters as familiar to Japanese viewers from hundreds of pop culture iterations as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Maid Marian are to Britons (and much of the rest of the world).
In domestic commercial terms, this is far to the right on the scale running from risky to sure bet. (The only surer bet is to churn out the 10,000th remake of “The 47 Ronin.”) Kiriya and his collaborators move heaven and earth (or rather, millions of pixels) to jazz this familiar material, creating a 16th-century Japan in which everything from costumes and castles to armies and weaponry have been blown up from kernels of fact to Brobdingnagian fantasies. Meanwhile, the heroes and villains are superhuman in everything from their appetites for power to the speed of their shuriken (fighting star) throws.
Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou did something similar in his period epics “Hero” (2002) and “House of Flying Daggers” (2004), but Kiriya goes further — about as far as one can go, in fact — without turning the film into a motion- captured animation or video game.
Visually, “Goemon” is blow-out-the- eyeballs spectacular, but watching the thief-hero Goemon (Yosuke Eguchi) soar into the sky, plunge down cliffs or decimate dozens of opponents in the numerous fight and battle scenes, I found my attention wandering.
The reason: In making his hero so effortlessly invincible and inhumanly indestructible, Kiriya reduces his exploits to CG-assisted dream sequences, in which everything is possible and nothing really matters because, in the pixilated world of “Goemon,” life-or-death danger has been effectively banished. In moving digital mountains to put his vision on the screen, Kiriya either forgot or ignored a maxim of screen action observed by everyone from Buster Keaton to Jackie Chan: No real (or rather real-seeming) threat to the hero, means no real thrill in the seats. Or as Keaton himself said, “Only things that one can imagine happening to real people, I guess, remain in a person’s memory.”
“Goemon” begins in 1582, with Japan’s stingiest warlord, Oda Nobunaga, falling victim to an assassin’s plot and being succeeded by his right-hand man, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Eiji Okuda). Times, however, are hard, and the gap between rich and poor is vast. Trying to bridge it is the master thief Goemon (Yosuke Eguchi), who shares his takings with the less fortunate, including a small, beautifully made box of foreign manufacture that he steals from the treasury of a rich merchant and tosses to a street urchin (Arashi Fukasawa).
The box, as it turns out, is of intense interest to Ishida Mitsunari (Jun Kaname), Hideyoshi’s saturnine bugyo (administrator), who puts his trusted ninja, Kirigakure Saizo (Takao Osawa), on Goemon’s trail. Goemon recovers the box while saving the urchin from the blade of a murderous swordsman (Tetsuji Tamayama).
He soon finds himself hotly pursued by not only Saizo, a former childhood friend who is now a formidable opponent, but also Hattori Hanzo (Susumu Terajima), the legendary ninja who worked for Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masato Ibu), the canny warlord who is plotting to succeed Hideyoshi. Goemon’s only ally in this struggle is his loyal and comically excitable sidekick, Sarutobi Sasuke (Gori).
What is it about this supposedly empty box that makes it so valuable? Only, our hero discovers, the fate of the country.
In his quest to unlock its puzzle, he rediscovers a lost love, the lovely Cha Cha (Ryoko Hirosue), whom Hideyoshi is pressuring to become his concubine. Before he can sort out his relationship with her, however, he must deal with the powerful forces out to kill him, with the help of hundreds of sword-wielding minions.
Goemon cuts through these guys like butter in scenes of stunning technical brilliance that make the old “The Adventures of Robin Hood” show I watched as a kid look primitive and crude. But Robin’s stirring skill with the quarterstaff inspired me to spend happy hours battling enemies (i.e, my younger brother) with a broomstick. What feats of derring-do, I wonder, will the young fans of “Goemon” be moved to imitate? Perhaps they’ll wait until the story finds its true home — on a game console.