Die Bad (죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2000)

die bad posterRyoo Seung-wan is now one of Korea’s top directors with such high profile box office hits as Berlin File, Veteran, and Battleship Island to his name. Back in 2000, he was just a young punk trying to make his mark in the film industry. Die Bad (죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나, Jukgeona Hokeun Nabbeugeona), Ryoo’s feature debut is, in reality, a series of four connected shorts (some of which were screened individually) telling an all too familiar story of a life ruined in adolescence giving way to a gangland nightmare and a nihilistic struggle for survival. Shot on grainy, low budget 16mm, Ryoo’s aesthetic is clearly influenced by the cinema of Sogo Ishii and perhaps Shinya Tsukamoto in its intensely kinetic, punk rock rhythms but he brings to it a youthful, angry fatalism so often seen in Korean youth drama.

Told in four chapters each of which is filmed with a different conceit, Die Bad is the story of Sung-bin (Park Sung-bin), a young man whose future is derailed after he kills a boy by accident in a pool room scuffle. When he gets out of jail, his father doesn’t want to know him and his friends have moved on but his brother gets him a job in a garage and it seems as if he’s finding his feet. When he comes across a guy getting beaten up in the street, he’s hesitant to get involved – literally seeing the ghost of the boy he killed in amongst the aggressors. Eventually he intercedes and rescues the guy who turns out to be a well connected mobster.

Meanwhile, while Sung-bin was inside, his friend who started the fight that fateful night, Seok-hwan (Ryoo Seung-wan), has become a policeman. Seok-hwan’s little brother, Sang-hwan, is getting involved in the same typically teenage punk violence which defined the adolescence of Sung-bin and Seok-hwan. A police round up engineers a fateful reunion between Seok-hwan and Sung-bin who discovers a way of getting back at the “friend” he feels destroyed his life though targeting the impressionable little brother with big time gangster dreams.

Given the unusual production circumstances behind Die Bad – the decision to incorporate two existing short films and combine them with two new ones to create a single feature, it’s no surprise that it can feel disjointed. The first segment, The Rumble, is pure punk spectacle. Set to a ferocious beat, the camera becomes a protagonist as Ryoo mixes frequent POV shots careering down narrow streets with more abstract sequences of the boys fighting the camera, extreme close-ups and artful contemplations of the awful beauty of violence.

Nightmare continues in more or less the same vein but “grows up” along with Sung-bin, dropping the frenetic, testosterone fuelled pace for a slower kind of melancholy as Sung-bin tries to find his feet as an ex-con in an unforgiving society. The Rumble was an indictment on the hopeless situation of young men without prospects – unlikely to escape through academic success, Sung-bin and Seok-hwan exorcised their feelings of impotence and impossibility through violence, but The Nightmare is its inescapable aftermath in which Sung-bin, having paid for his crimes, is unable to come to terms with his guilt and is haunted by the face of the boy he killed by accident. Given no real hope for a positive future, Sung-bin gives in to the lure of violence and eventually pursues gangland success rather than a life on the straight and narrow.

The ironically titled Modern Men rams this point home in its deliberate contrasting of Sung-bin and Seok-hwan – the gangster and the cop. Ryu moves away from the naturalism of the earlier scenes for a docudrama conceit as both Seok-hwan and Sung-bin’s mentor Tae-hoon give direct to camera interviews talking about their respective careers. Tae-hoon wound up a gangster for similar reasons to Sung-bin, he was a regular punk teen with no prospects who was handy with his fists so he joined a gang where his talents could be of the most use. Seok-hwan joined the police but his job involves a lot of tussling with thugs and there are times he’s not even sure if he’s a policeman or state sponsored gangster. He no longer has hopes or dreams and his only desire is to work hard without encountering any hassle. Both men define themselves through violence, they dress for the fight and chart their success through defeats and conquests. Yet both also claim that their violence is in the name of “maintaining order” even as they create chaos in facing each other.

For the final segment, Die Bad, Ryoo shifts to black and white as the stories of Seok-hwan and Sung-bin reunite. Times have changed, but not all that much. Sang-hwan, Seok-hwan’s little brother, hangs around in arcades with his buddies but Streetfighter soon gives way to Streefighting as the boys determine to work out their youthful frustrations through violence. Sang-hwan, brought up on an image of violence as masculinity is eager to prove himself, and dreams of the glamorous gangster life. Sung-bin, the jaded, reluctant veteran, makes cynical use of Sang-hwan’s desperation to get revenge on his brother for ruining his life by engineering the fight that cost both Sung-bin and his victim their lives. Cop or thug, there are no winners in Ryoo’s violent world in which the disenfranchised masses are encouraged to scrap to the death for the mere crumbs thrown to them. Fiercely kinetic and filled with the fire of youth Ryoo’s debut is an extraordinary meditation on the fatalism of violence as the most intimate, or perhaps the only, means of communication between men.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Love/Juice (Kaze Shindo, 2000)

vlcsnap-2017-07-08-23h24m47s422Some situations are destined to end in tears. Kaze Shindo’s Love Juice adopts the popular theme of unrequited love but complicates it with the peculiar circumstances of Tokyo at the turn of the century which requires two young women to be not just housemates but bedmates and workmates too. One is straight, one is gay and in love with her friend who seems to get off on manipulating her emotions and is overly dependent on her more responsible approach to life, but both are trapped in a low rent world of grungy nightclubs and sleazy hostess bars.

Chinatsu (Mika Okuno) and Kyoko (Chika Fujimura) are roommates sharing not just a house but a bed and almost everything else too. Best friends, their relationship is necessarily close and broadly supportive save for a persistent level of tension when it comes to romance. Chinatsu, openly gay, is in love with Kyoko who isn’t interested but somehow keeps stringing her along and makes a point of flirting with every guy she meets. The back and fore continues until the girls are forced to take degrading work as bunny suited hostesses and Kyoko becomes obsessed with the boy working in the local tropical fish shop (Hidetoshi Nishijima).

Though living openly as a gay woman, Chinatsu is far from happy with her life as her constant complaints of “why was I born a girl” bear out. Attending clubs with her live-in non-lover, Chinatsu picks up dates but it never gets anywhere. Her heart belongs to Kyoko and so she tortures herself by continuing to pine after her emotionally manipulative roommate before adopting an unpleasant forcefulness as she tries to persuade her friend to acquiesce. Snapping away at her with her camera (which she refuses to be turned on herself), Chinatsu becomes jealous and possessive, irritated by Kyoko’s various suitors and wishing she and Kyoko could remain cooped up alone together like the two goldfish sitting in their makeshift bowl.

Where Chinatsu is down to earth and restrained, Kyoko is a lively free spirit adrift for reasons of aimlessness rather than the anxious wandering her friend. Living on the fringes of mainstream society, the women are forced into their inconvenient living arrangements thanks to ongoing poverty. This same poverty eventually forces them both into taking a humiliating job as waitresses at a bunny girl themed hostess bar. Much to Chinatsu’s consternation, Kyoko revels in the constant male attention, flirting awkwardly with the owner who seems to prefer her friend. Uncomfortable with the job and more particularly with the uniform, Chinatsu experiences yet more degrading treatment when she’s brutally assaulted by a colleague after work and can’t even turn to her friend and roommate for help and comfort.

Eventually matters come to a head, the situation can’t endure, suicide is considered, choices are made, sadness and regret litter the scene. Shindo creates a claustrophobic world for two into which the outside occasionally pokes its unwelcome nose. The whimsical score lends a quirky, romantic air to the less destructive side of the two women’s relationship even as it progresses further and further towards its inevitable conclusion. Painting an authentic picture of Tokyo as seen by the disillusioned and desperate turn of the century youth, Shindo’s tale of ordinary heartbreak in unusually difficult circumstances is a nuanced look at a toxic (non)relationship in all of its destructive glory.


 

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Takashi Miike, 2000)

dead-or-alive-2-birds

How do you make a sequel to a film which ended with the apocalypse? Takashi Miike is no stranger to strange logic, but he gets around this obvious problem by neatly sidestepping it. Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha) is, in many ways, entirely unconnected with its predecessor, sharing only its title and lead actors yet there’s something in its sensibility which ties it in very strongly with the overarching universe of the trilogy. If Dead or Alive was the story of humanity gradually eroded by internecine vendetta, Dead or Alive 2 is one of humanity restored through a return to childhood innocence though its prognosis for its pair of altruistic hitmen is just as bleak as it was for the policeman who’d crossed the line and the petty Triad who came to meet him.

Signalling the continuous notions of unreality, we’re introduced to this strange world by a magician (Shinya Tsukamoto) who uses packets of cigarettes to explain the true purpose of a hit ordered on a local gangster which just happens to be not so different from the plot of the first film. Because the gangster world has its own kind of proportional representation, neither the yakuza nor the Triads can rule the roost alone – they need to enter a “coalition” with a smaller outfit no doubt desperate to carve out a little more power for themselves. The free agents, however, have decided on a way to even the power share – hire a hitman to knock off a high ranking Chinese gangster and engineer a turf war in which a proportion of either side will die, leaving the third gang a much more credible player.

Mizuki (Sho Aikawa), bleach blond and fond of Hawaiian shirts, is an odd choice for a secret mission but his sniper rifle is rendered redundant when a man in a dark suit does the job for him – loudly and publicly. So much the better, thinks Mizuki, but the memory of the strangely familiar figure haunts him. Finding himself needing to get out of town, Mizuki has a sudden urge to go home where he encounters the suited man again and confirms that he is indeed who he thinks he is – childhood friend, Shuichi (Riki Takeuchi).

Revisiting an old theme, Mizuki and Shuichi are orphans but rather than being taken directly into the yakuza world they each spent a part of their childhood in a village orphanage on an idyllic island. Miike frequently cuts back between the violent, nihilistic lives of the grown men and the innocent boyhood of long hot summers spent at the beach. The island almost represents childhood in its perpetual safety, bathed in a warm and golden light at once unchanging and eternal. Reconnecting with fellow orphan Kohei (Kenichi Endo) who has married another childhood friend, Chi (Noriko Aota), the three men regress to their pre-adolescent states playing on the climbing bars and kicking a football around just like old times.

Returning to this more innocent age, Mizuki hatches on an ingenious idea – reclaim their dark trade by knocking off those the world would be better off without and use their ill gotten gains to buy vaccines for the impoverished children of the world. In their innocent naivety, neither Mizuki nor Shuichi has considered the effect of their decision on local gangland politics (not to mention Big Pharma) and their desire to kill two “birds” with one stone will ultimately boomerang right back at them.

Innocence is the film’s biggest casualty as Miike juxtaposes a children’s play in which Mizuki and Shuichi have ended up playing a prominent role, with violent rape and murder going on in the city. Whether suggesting that the posturing of a gang war is another kind of playacting, though one with far more destructive consequences, or merely contrasting the island’s pure hearted fantasy with the cold, hard, gangland reality, Miike indulges in a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of childhood with its straightforward goodness filled with friendship and brotherhood rather than the constant betrayals and changing alliances of the criminal fraternity.

The question “Where are you going?” appears several times throughout the film and perhaps occurred to Mizuki and Shuichi at several points during their journeys from abandoned children to outcast men. Neither had much choice in their eventual destination and if they asked themselves that same question the answer was probably that they did not know or chose not to think about it. All of these hopes and ruined dreams linger somewhere around the island’s shore. Kohei is about to become a father but the birth of a child now takes on a melancholy air, the shadow of despair already hanging over him. There is no way out, no path back to a time before the compromises of adulthood but for two angelic hitmen, the road ends with meeting themselves again and, in a sense, regaining lost innocence in shedding their city-based skins.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monday (マンデイ, SABU, 2000)

mondayWaking up in an unfamiliar hotel room can be a traumatic and confusing experience. The hero of SABU’s madcap amnesia sit in odyssey finds himself in just this position though he is, at least, fully clothed even if trying to think through the fog of a particularly opaque booze cloud. Monday (マンデイ) is film about Saturday night, not just literally but mentally – about a man meeting his internal Saturday night in which he suddenly lets loose with all that built up tension in an unexpected, and very unwelcome, way.

Mild mannered salaryman Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi) wakes up in his cheap hotel room dressed in a pitch black suit and with no recollection of how he got there. A packet of purification salt reminds him he was going to a funeral, but what happened after that? Takagi, it seems, enjoys a drink or two to ease that ever present sense of dread and impotence which dominates his life and so the events of the previous two days are lost in that pale space obscured by a booze drenched curtain of brain fog. Spotting various reminders hidden in his room Takagi begins to piece his strange adventure together from a bad date with the girlfriend whose birthday he blew off to go to the funeral, to a weird fortune teller, a beautiful woman, guns, gangsters and a homicidal killing spree. All in all, perhaps it was better when he couldn’t remember.

As usual, SABU weaves his complex comedy into a complicated cycle of interconnected gags. Takagi remains within the purgatory of his hotel room, furiously trying to remember how he got there but this otherwise anodyne space seems to be a reflection of his everyday persona in its inoffensive blandness, littered as it is with indications of the deeper layers implied by the still unknown actions of the previous few days. Judging by his appearance, Takagi is a shy, nervous man hidden behind his unstylish glasses and neatly swept back hair. Fearing his adventures are about to signal the end of his existence, Takagi suddenly gets the inspiration to make a proper will/suicide note which largely consists of a number of apologies firstly to his parents and siblings and finally to the girlfriend who walked out on him in the bar owing to his failure to appear for her birthday celebration and subsequently bizarre behaviour. The second portion of the letter also includes some advice to his siblings about how to look after the family pets and some horticultural tips but as he takes a few more drinks to steady his nerves, those deeper layers start to bleed through and so he takes this opportunity to advise his girlfriend that she should work on her anger issues and also avoid finishing other people’s sentences for them.

In Takagi’s defense, he has had a strange few days. The funeral of a close friend, especially one so young, might be enough to tip anyone into a spot of drunken introspection but the send off for former hair model Mitsuo (Masanobu Ando) is hardly a typical one given that it ends with the corpse exploding after Takagi is asked and then fails to “defuse” it. When he should probably take the opportunity to talk to someone about the things which are bothering him, Takagi has another drink, does his strange little laugh, and internalises his irritation with the very people who might be able to help him. Retreating to the bathroom carrying the memory of a stunning woman spotted at the bar with him, he returns to find a gloomy yakuza sitting in the adjacent seat intent on drinking and talking. Rather than saying a flat no and going home like a sensible person, Takagi keeps drinking until he feels like partying with the most dangerous guys in the room, even going so far as a raunchy dance with the gangster’s girl. The gangster, strangely, doesn’t mind and even seems to think he’s found a cool new friend but when everyone’s this drunk and there are guns around nothing is going to end well.

The finale finds SABU at his most sarcastic as the imprisoned Takagi indulges in a hero fantasy of taking the cops hostage and heading outside to meet the forces of authority head on only to give them a lecture about the danger of firearms and the necessity of love and kindness in a strange world. Needless to say, his message of peace is not universally well received. Takagi might have a point when he says that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the shotgun – such a powerful and easy to use weapon in the hands of those who previously felt so powerless can indeed be a dangerous thing, but the fact remains that he harboured all of this fear and resentment inside himself, attempting to drown it with booze but continually failing. We leave Takagi trapped inside the hotel room, as he’s always been trapped inside his mind, holding a possibly empty shotgun at a flimsy hotel room door with all of that pressure pushing down outside it. The gun is one thing, and guns are bad, but the enemy will always be Monday – the modern world is driving people crazy and could use some of that love and kindness Takagi was so keen on during his hostage crisis but it probably won’t work until he puts the gun (and the booze) down and opens that hotel room door.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000)

mysterious-object-at-noonApichatpong Weerasethakul started as he meant to go on with his debut feature, straddling the borders between art film and surrealist exercise. A cinematic riff on the classic “exquisite corpse” game, Mysterious Object at Noon (ดอกฟ้าในมือมาร, Dokfa Nai Meuman) is equal parts neorealist odyssey and commentary on the human need for constructed narrative (something which the film itself consistently rejects). Shot in a grainy black and white, Apitchatpong’s first effort was filmed over three years travelling the length of the country from North to South inviting everyone from all walks of life to contribute something to the ongoing and increasingly strange brand new oral history.

Beginning with a travelling shot from inside a van peddling fish sauce, Apitchatpong fills the air with naturalistic background noise including our very first story – a sappy sounding radio drama called “I’ll Love You Tomorrow” about a guy who loses touch with the love of his life only to find her engaged to another man. The genesis for the ongoing narrative comes from the woman working on the truck who first recounts her own true story of having been sold by her father for nothing more than the money for his train fare home. She then tells us about a disabled boy and his home teacher who will become the central players in the background tale.

The boy and his teacher get on well and are very close, but one day he finds her collapsed with a strange sphere rolling out from underneath her skirt. This “mysterious object” then transforms into a boy who hides the teacher’s body in a cupboard before taking on her form when he realises the first boy misses her. The odd story grows and develops as each person brings something new to it, reflecting their own lives and histories as a kind of brand new myth making occurs in which ordinary people try to make sense of extraordinary events. Consequently, we have everything from kidnapping to hostess bars and aliens suddenly creeping into this magical realist exercise.

Beginning in the city and ending in the country, Apichatpong talks to anyone and everyone, getting old grannies drunk and letting children run riot. Nearing the end of the journey, he recreates the constructed narrative as a travelling show complete with singing and dancing though his country players are quick to criticise the lack of proper script and random nature of the story. Realising they’ll need some kind of explanation as to why the disabled boy is in a wheelchair, the in movie director decides to film an insert sequence along the lines of an archive news segment. More archive footage follows before Apichatpong takes things in the opposite direction by letting the camera roll on with his cast for the invented story as the second boy becomes keen to remind everyone he was promised some KFC on the way home and Apitchatpong himself steps in front of the camera to fix a lighting setup.

Stories are the way we define our worlds, though given enough leeway the ones we imagine for ourselves are much stranger than conventional logic would allow. The real world is, however, ever present in the sappy radio adverts, political posters, elephants and boxing rings which give way to the darker elements of child abductions and human trafficking. Real life is here, but its deeper layer is here too in the stories which we tell to make sense of it. Using narrative devices from intertitles to sign language, Mysterious Object at Noon embraces all kinds of storytelling from the dramatic to the literary, but its heart is always with the people and the random craziness that emerges when attempting to explain the inexplicable. A necessarily disparate and strange experience, Mysterious Object at Noon neatly heralds the direction of Apichatpong’s ongoing career in its effortless playfulness and sympathetic exploration of this most basic of human needs.


French release trailer (subtitles/captions in French only)

Unchain (アンチェイン, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2000)

unchainTo date, Toshiaki Toyoda has released only one feature length documentary. Unchain (アンチェイン), the story of four boxers from Toyoda’s own home town of Osaka, was released between his debut feature, Pornostar, and followup film Blue Spring, but Toyoda had, in fact, been following his subjects since the mid-90s as they battled with themselves, the ring, and life’s unending tests. Like the fictional heroes of many of Toyoda’s subsequent works, his real life subjects are frustrated young men seeking release through a pugilistic purgatory all the while finding themselves trapped against the ropes.

The film takes its title from the ring name of the group’s lynchpin, “Unchain” Kaji who, it has to be said, may be the most “unchained” person whoever lived. An angry young man from unusual family circumstances in which he discovered he’d been adopted by an uncle as a baby only after his adopted father had died and he was in the process of applying for a driving license, Kaji took to boxing early only to wash out after just seven bouts.

Losing each and every match he ever fought and eventually forced to leave the ring on medical grounds, Kaji remained in the world of boxing as an ardent supporter of his boxing friends – long haired Garuda, second generation Korean Nagaishi, and “shoot boxer” (Japanese kick boxin based mixed martial arts) Nishibayashi. A big hearted man who wanted to make a difference and help people, Kaji drifted through several occupations post boxing from working in an all night cinema and DJ-ing to caring for disabled children. However, his violent impulses always got in the way of his good intentions and an enraged attack on a job centre in which he took the younger Nishibayashi with him for support landed him in a mental hospital where he stayed for the next few years.

Toyoda then follows the other three boxers as they continue their quest for glory in the ring but encounter mostly defeats and setbacks. Garuda and Nishibayashi fight hardest to stay with Nishibayashi eventually giving up after a brutal defeat leaves him with a sour looking wound under his eye, but Nagaishi drifts away from boxing after marrying Kaji’s former girlfriend, Sachiko, and becoming a father to her two children as well as a few of his own later on. The only one to find fulfilment outside of the ring, Nagaishi eventually finds his place as a family man, given a new kind of hope by familial bond rather than fraternal opposition.

Toyoda makes no secret of the fact that he staged some scenes and slightly manipulated his footage but his documentary approach shares much with his narrative filmmaking in its study of young men looking for an escape through violence. Kaji describes the ring as a place where is killing legal but also as a kind of promised land they’ve all been trying conquer. As his name suggests, Kaji was seeking freedom through the ring, a chance to let his soul fly, but never found it leading to his life of picking fights with anyone and everyone. The Kaji released from the hospital is a calmer, though perhaps no less passionate, figure, but one who finds his friends waiting for him with a mix of good humour and exasperation. Even the potentially difficult reunion with Nagaishi finds Kaji in a philosophical mood, grateful for all his friend has done for him and harbouring no ill will.

Filming with mostly the low grade digital cameras of the time, Toyoda captures the fight sequences either from high balconies or heat of the action ringside. Garuda’s final fight is captured unusually well thanks to Toyoda’s fortunate position which allows him to literally get right up in Garuda’s face at a crucial point when it seems all may be lost. Sticking to mostly a talking heads approach, Toyoda also incorporates other archive footage from family photos to documents and news reports as well as a handful of street scenes and recreations offered with Toyoda’s distinctly surreal visual flare. Like many of Toyoda’s heroes, Unchain and his friends are trying to live free in an oppressive environment where they each have reasons to feel constrained thanks to their socio-economic circumstances. They may not find their release, but their quest goes on, alive in the ring even if floundering outside it.


Available now in the UK as part of Third Window Films’ Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years box set.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Sogo Ishii, 2000)

gojoe-2Not your mama’s jidaigeki – the punk messiah who brought us such landmarks of energetic, surreal filmmaking as Crazy Family and Burst City casts himself back to the Middle Ages for an experimental take on the samurai genre. In Gojoe (五条霊戦記, Gojo reisenki), Sogo Ishii remains a radical even within this often most conservative of genres through reinterpreting one of the best loved Japanese historical legends – the battle at Kyoto’s Gojoe Bridge . Far from the firm friends of the legends, this Benkei and this Shanao (Yoshitsune in waiting) are mortal enemies, bound to each other by cosmic fate but locked in combat.

Following a war between the Heike and Genji clans, the Heike have assumed power sending the Genji into retreat and exile. All should be well, but a mysterious force is taking the lives of Heike guardsmen. Around this time, former bloody warrior turned Buddhist monk Benkei (Daisuke Ryu) has received a prophecy that his path to enlightenment lies in vanquishing the “demon” which is killing soldiers in needlessly bloodthirsty ways. The Heike are not so much afraid of a supernatural threat as they are of a predictable one – the first son of the Genji whom they intended to murder as a child but later set free. Shanao (Tadanobu Asano ), only just come of age, wants his right and just revenge to restore his clan to its rightful place, but this is a dark time and there are more powerful forces at play than traumatised monks and disinherited princes.

The world of the jidaigeki, though often violent, has its own degree of careful order – rules which must be followed, pledges which must be honoured, and causes which must be seen through at any cost. The world of Gojoe is a necessarily chaotic one in which a fragile peace has been forged through violence and trickery but the sins of the past weigh heavy on those trying to forge ahead in the new era.

The Benkei of the legends is fiercely loyal to his lord, but this Benkei is very much a lone wolf, standing apart in his desire to expiate his sins. Though his fellow monk tries to convince him that the prophecy he’s been given is nothing but a delusion, Benkei is determined to find his peace through killing a literal demon rather than tackle the ones inside his mind. Nevertheless, the past is ever present through flashbacks, even at one point revisiting one of the darker elements of the Benkei story – the killing of a child who might be his own.

The “demon” which Benkei seeks turns out to be three orphaned children who have been trained by the remnants of their clan to seek nothing other than revenge. Shanao is more killing machine than man, thinking of nothing other than assuming his rightful role as the head of the Genji and restoring his family honour. When the two meet, each regards the other as “demonic” but Shanao has a point when he asks Benkei if it’s not his own heart which is unquiet. Where Benkei is contained rage, Shanao is calmness and refinement personified.

Benkei is joined for some of his journey by the comparatively more everyman presence of Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), formerly a master sword maker who’s taken to robbing corpses after growing disillusioned with his craft which often saw his beautiful handiwork in the hands of hypocritical warrior monks. “What’s so great about being alive anyway?” he asks at one point, not long after reminding Benkei that “this hell” is all of his making. Hell this is, Ishii’s world is bathed in fire and blood as petty clan conflict burns the villages of ordinary peasants who are so far removed from this sword bearing society as to be otherwise unaware of it. The peasants have their own problems to deal with as a shaman calls for the brutal beating to death of a pregnant woman supposedly infected by a “demon” and about to give birth to a “demon child”, but even if Benkei is moved to counter this instance of injustice, he is not willing to follow through when it comes to the larger implications of his decision.

The supernatural elements are more a means of cosmological explanation than they are of real threat yet Ishii conjures a dark and creepy world of ominous shadows and ever present danger. Fantasy tinged action allows for giant blood sprays as heads come off with abandon, but the sword fights themselves are both beautifully choreographed and filled with intensity. The final battle between Shanao and Benkei heads off in an unexpectedly experimental direction as swords spark against a starless sky until a cosmic event allows their fierce conflict to erupt into a raging fire, destroying the bridge and everything it stands for. There is no resolution here, only a passage of one state to the next as Benkei and Shanao live on in altered forms. Conducted to the pulsing, warlike drumbeats of a typically exhilarating Ishii score (composed by Ishii’s own band, Mach 1.67), Gojoe is jidaigeki reimagined for the modern era bringing all of the genre’s anxiety and spiritual conflict with it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)