Japanese Samurai movies are a lot like American westerns. There are a lot of them, and most of them aren't that great. It is easy to watch a few and dismiss the whole genre based on a handful of mediocre movies. But then, just when you're ready to give up all together, along comes a movie that restores your confidence in the film. GoJoe is such a samurai movie. It's a fast action film that also has an interesting story behind it and some wonderful cinematography.
Taking place in ancient Japan, two clans have been warring over control of Kyoto. Eventually the Genji clan is vanquished and the Heiki tribe control the city. But every night at the GoJoe bridge members of the Heiki tribe are being slaughtered. Word gets out that there is a demon on the loose, and if the Heiki can't kill it, the will look weak and their control over the city will start to slip.
A wandering monk named Benkei, hears about the demon guarding the bridge and decided that it could be his salvation. Benkei is tormented by the things that he did in his past when he was a murderous thug. Though he has been a Buddhist for seven years and has renounced violence, he still doesn't know peace, an hopes that killing the demon will finally ease his troubled soul. But Benkei has a bad reputation in Kyoto from his early days, and when he gets to the city he finds that there are still young thugs who want to prove that they are better than he is, and the Heiki clan want his sword on their side in this fight. Even though he only wants to kill demons.
This is an exciting movie that works very well. The plot is intricate without being confusing. I only scratched the surface of what happens in my synopsis, since I didn't want to spoil any of the surprises. Suffice to say that there are many people populating this film, most of them with their own agenda. The characters are very real and three dimensional, not merely caricatures that many samurai movies use. Benkei was a particularly interesting character. He's someone who want to forget their violent past, but the only way he can see to do that is through more violence. Of course the contradiction is lost on him.
A big reason that the film functions so well is because of the cast. The actors did a great job across the board bringing their characters to life and filing them with human emotions, strengths and frailties.
While I really enjoyed the story and acting, the thing that moved this film from 'good' to 'excellent' was the wonderful cinematography and direction. The movie is filled with elegant camera movement. Often it is very smooth and sweeping, framing the forest or bridge like a photograph. But then it will change, becoming very kinetic during the fight scenes. The battles are jerky with a lot happening all at once, just like a real altercation. The director and fight choreographer didn't film this picture like a Kung-Fu movie were the movement of the human body is a thing of beauty. Here the aim is to create a hectic and confusing scene, where arrows come flying for unexpected directions and you are never sure who is attacking or being attacked. The sharp contrast to the way the rest of the movie is filmed makes this technique even more effective than it would have been otherwise.
I viewed this movie with the 5.1 Japanese sound track. There is also a 2.0 Japanese and a 2.0 English soundtrack available. The 5.1 channel was excellent, with a low rumbling when the demon attacks on the bridge at the beginning of the movie sounding ominous yet clear. The crackles of the fire near the end were likewise sharp and not buried in the background. The only minor complaint I have is that sometimes the subtitles would get a little ahead of the dialog. Other than that, this is a great sounding disc.
Unfortunately, the English dub wasn't that good. I checked this track in several spots, and the voice actors sounded really bad. They didn't put much emotion into their performance which was flat and lifeless. I don't generally dismiss the English dub track on these movies, but this one isn't worth listening to.
The anamorphic widescreen image was just beautiful. There was a lot of color in this film, from the lush green countryside and the deep blue rivers to the dark interior of huts and the brown inside of caves. The film used quite a wide color palate, and all of these varied colors were bright and vivid. The detail was very good too, with the leaves in the forest and the stubble on a samurai's chin both coming through with clarity. Digital defects were minor, which surprised me since they put so much on this disc. The is a great looking film.
This DVD is packed with extras. There is a really nice assortment of things on this disc:
GoJoe Reisinki Special: 50 minute special on the making of the film. There is a lot of fluff and scenes straight out of the movie, but there's also some quality there too. Some behind the scenes info and shot of the movie being filmed as well as interviews with the cast and crew. It would have been a lot better if they cut it down by 20 minutes, but still worth watching...just fast forward past the extended movie clips. This was in Japanese with subtitles, as all of the bonus material is.
The Making of GoJoe: This is a 25
minute series of behind the scenes shots. Without narration or a
framing sequence they string together several scenes being filmed.
If you are interesting in how movies are actually made, this would be if
interest to you.
Cast interviews: nearly 20 minutes of the cast talking about their characters and how they felt about the film. I enjoyed this featurette the most.
An interesting story with fleshed out characters, lovely scenery and
fantastic direction, GoJoe is a samurai movie that reminds viewers how
fun the genre can be. Tokyo Shock did a great job with the disc itself,
presenting a very good transfer and filling the DVD with bonus material.
They really made it easy to give this movie a Highly Recommended