Based on the legend of a Japanese bandit who stole from the rich to help the poor, Goemon takes a Robin Hood-esque story and infuses it with wild special effects. Director Kazuaki Kiriya stages action amid fully CGI backgrounds and breathtaking, Manga-style visuals, but the story is formulaic and occasionally confusing. The visuals alone, however, are enough to distract and entertain.
Orphaned at a young age, Ishikawa Goemon (Yōsuke Eguchi) is mentored by Nobunaga Oda (Hashinosuké Nakamura), trains under samurai Hattori Hanzō to become a shinobi, and later protects and falls in love with Princess Chacha (Ryōko Hirosue). After General Hideyoshi (Eiji Okuda) has Goemon's mentor killed in order to rule Japan, Goemon abandons his samurai aspirations and the princess to become a thief. When Goemon later discovers Hideyoshi's treachery, he decides to save Princess Chacha and kill Hideyoshi. However, this could lead to another power struggle and more violence in Japan.
From the opening scene in a Japanese city lit by cacophonous fireworks, it's apparent that Goemon is an extremely stylized film. Using an amalgam of 300 and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow's visual styles, Goemon is never boring to look at. Director Kiriya stretches the film's reported $9-million budget to cover extensive digital backgrounds and lavish sets, which, despite the added CGI flair, are not totally anachronistic.
As if often the case with such stylized films, the effects overshadow the story. Though the basic plot of Goemon is quite simple, the film muddles its unspooling. Shifts in time and setting and a constant influx of new characters make Goemon hard to follow at times, and the film lacks the narrative weight and focus of more successful historical fantasies. Fight scenes are similarly unimpressive and consist mostly of characters running toward one another on CGI battlefields. And Goemon, as a central character, is hardly fleshed out. The film is content portraying him as a limber prankster who survives on little meaningful human interaction.
Clocking in at just over two hours, Goemon feels like three. Had Kiriya cut some of the extended flashbacks, the film's pacing would have improved. This mid-film drag lessens the impact of the extravagant finale, which is the most impressive sequence in the film. This extended battle is bloody, chaotic and exciting. It's too bad the majority of Goemon is not.
FUNimation presents Goemon on DVD in a two-disc set. The film is on the first disc, and the extras are on disc two. Goemon features striking reversible cover artwork and a clear DVD case. A glossy slipcover replicates one side of the main artwork.
I was not impressed by Goemon's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. As the director intended, the whole film has a soft, bright appearance to better incorporate the many visual effects, but the transfer is an erratic mess. Its chief offense is an inherent softness that goes far beyond the film's intended appearance. Detail ranges from decent to downright awful, and at times the transfer looks no better than a bootleg cam. Although some scenes exhibit a light sheen of grain, others are completely scrubbed of detail. I suspect digital noise reduction is the reason many faces appear waxy and unnatural. Colors remain fairly vibrant and blacks inky, but crush is rampant in several night scenes. Also present are compression noise, shimmering and edge enhancement, and some highlights seem blown out beyond their intended contrast. I realize Goemon has a unique visual appearance, but, when compared to the film's Blu-ray, the DVD transfer's weaknesses are readily apparent.
The film's soundtrack fares far better than its transfer. The Japanese 6.1 surround track is boisterous and immersive. Dialogue is crisp and at the appropriate sound level, and effects spin outward from the surround speakers. The score is deep and balanced, and ambient effects are equally impressive. Overall, this is a pleasing surround track for an action film. An English 5.1 dub also is available, and English subtitles are the only option.
FUNimation includes some nice extras for Goemon on the second disc. Making Goemon (36:10) is a fairly in-depth behind-the-scenes piece that features on-set footage, and Making Goemon Kiriya World (18:16) explores the film's extensive visual effects. Both pieces are in Japanese with forced English subtitles. The film's teaser and theatrical trailers also are included.
Goemon is a visually stunning imagining of Japanese folklore that lacks an immersive narrative. The effects overshadow the story, which is underdeveloped and occasionally confusing, and the film's hero lacks personality. FUNimation's DVD includes strong audio and some nice extras, but the transfer is disappointing. Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.