Mumon: The Land of Stealth (忍びの国, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2017)

MumonJapan prides itself on its harmonious society, but just like the Spartans of Ancient Greece, there have always been those who choose to do things differently. In the late 16th century, Japan was divided into a number of warring states but one visionary general, Oda Nobunaga, had begun a campaign of conquest which he intended to extend across the nation creating peace through unification under a single ruler. One tiny province held out – Iga, home to the ninja and renowned for the petty heartlessness of its mercenary men.

In the September of 1579, two rival ninja clans are engaging in a little practice fighting to the death during which Mumon (Satoshi Ohno), “the greatest ninja in Iga”, takes a commission to assassinate the younger son (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) of the opposing general, which he does with characteristic style and efficiency. The dead man’s older brother, Heibei (Ryohei Suzuki), is heartbroken not only by his brother’s death but by the relative lack of reaction it provokes in his father (Denden) who remarks that the loss of a younger son is no different to that of a foot soldier, and foot soldiers die all the time.

Ironically enough for a man nicknamed “no doors” because no doors can bar him, Mumon is currently locked out of his own house because his wife is upset about his meagre salary. When he stole her away from her noble home, Mumon exaggerated slightly in his tales of his great wealth and social standing and now Okuni (Satomi Ishihara) has decided he can’t come home ’til she gets what she was promised.

The death of Heibei’s brother sets in motion a chain of politically significant events which are set to change not only the course of history but the outlook of at least two men in the “land of stealth”. In Iga, the men are known are known for their beastliness and lack of common human decency. Skilled in stealth warfare, they have no allegiance to any but those with the biggest wallets and live by the doctrine of strength. The weak die alone, and that’s a good thing because it means the tribe is strong.

Later a retainer (Makita Sports) to the son of Oda Nobunaga, Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen), says something similar – that only might can unite, the weak must either follow or be destroyed. He regards Iga as weak because it is small and alone, but Iga thinks it is strong for exactly the same reasons. The Nobunaga contingent have no idea just how beastly and petty minded the Igans can be when comes to defending their independence, little suspecting that they are embroiled in a well planned conspiracy.

Heibei, disillusioned with the inhumanity of his fellow ninja defects, offering his services to the new regime with the advice that they invade and wipe out the heartless warriors like the beasts they are. Mumon, sold to the Iga as a child, has known nothing but the Iga way of life and is as greedy and self-centred as any other ninja save being able to command a higher price thanks to his fame and abilities. He now has a problem on his hands in the form of Okuni who manages to dominate him fully with her insistence on replicating the way of life she was originally promised. Mumon cares deeply for his stolen bride and does not want to lose her, but she objects to his natural indifference to the cruelty of his people, opening his eyes to the harshness he had always regarded as normality.

When greed is the only accepted virtue, there can be no honour and without honour no unity. This Mumon eventually comes to understand. Far from the famed independence of the Iga, he, Heibei, and a host of others have been well and truly played by a corrupt and secretive tyranny. Daizen (Yusuke Iseya), an honourable samurai forced to betray his own code in killing his former lord, has a point when he says that the ninja spirit has not been destroyed but merely scattered and will endure through the ages – a chilling thought which results in an echo of the modern world and the horrors wrought by intensive individualism. Rather than embrace the traditional genre tropes of the jidaigeki, Nakamura opts for a post-modern style filled with punk and jazz while the ninjas perform their death defying stunts and Mumon pauses to wink at the camera. The result is an anarchic foray in a historical folly in which triumph is followed quickly by defeat and always by the futility of life without compassion.


Mumon: The Land of Stealth (忍びの国, Shinobi no Kuni) was screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Also screening at:

  • QUAD – 10 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester- 11 February 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 13 March 2018
  • Eden Court – 15 March 2018
  • Broadway – 17 March 2018
  • Firstsite – 25 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2002)

laughing frog posterEver have a day (or perhaps a lifetime) where you feel so stupid that even the frogs are laughing at you? That’s pretty much how it is for disgraced former bank manager Ippei when he turns up one day at a family holiday home he assumed would be empty but turns out not to be. In Laughing Frog (笑う蛙, Warau Kaeru) director Hideyuki Hirayama deftly dissects the modern family, the gradual redundancy of the middle-aged man, and the way society seems to have of anointing the lucky and the unlucky, in a darkly humorous satire in which even mother nature seems to be mocking our petty human concerns.

33 year old Ryoko (Nene Otsuka) is attending the third memorial service for her late father at which her greedy sister-in-law (Kumija Kim) asks for various things in an attempt to get some of the inheritance in advance while Ryoko’s brother (Shuzo Mitamura) wanders off to chat about silkworms in Chinese on his mobile phone. The event ends with Ryoko’s sprightly mother (Izumi Yukimura) and the sister-in-law urging her to sort out some kind of marital difficulties in order to ease the awkwardness surrounding her lack of external connections.

Meanwhile, Ryoko’s missing husband, Ippei (Kyozo Nagatsuka), rocks up at a rural station and climbs into a familiar house through an open window. Wandering around in his pants, he hears a noise and realises someone lives there after all. Ryoko has moved into her father’s old house in the country and started a whole new life for herself. After a brief discussion, Ryoko agrees to let him stay for a while on the condition that he finally sign the divorce papers but Ippei soon finds himself confined to an especial kind of irrelevance as he starts his new life in the hall cupboard observing his wife’s new freedoms by means of a tiny hole in the wall.

No one seems to have much of a good word to say about Ippei, which is fair enough seeing as he apparently became obsessed with a bar hostess and embezzled money from his bank to pay for a lavish affair before running away and leaving his wife to deal with the fallout. He is, however, paying for it now as his own irrelevance is once and truly brought home to him as he lives out his days like an impotent ghost trapped in a storage cupboard undergoing his wife’s strange mix of kindness and revenge.

Ryoko, the goodly wife, is not quite all she seems. Ippei’s mistress makes a surprise appearance to try a spot of extortion on the wealthy wife but she’s no match for Ryoko’s perfectly practiced poise. One of the oddly cruel accusations the mistress has to offer is that Ippei once referred to a kind of boredom with his wife’s properness, branding her a “fancy pet cat” whilst apparently avowing the mistress’ bedroom superiority. If Ippei’s sheepish behind the wall expression is anything to go by he is guilty as charged but then perhaps the uncomfortable statement leads right back to his uncomfortable place within Ryoko’s upperclass family who seem to look down on a mere bank manager, affecting politeness while secretly bemoaning the fact that their daughter has married beneath herself.

The model upperclass family is a simulacrum. Feigning politeness, elegance and dignity they attempt to disguise their otherwise distasteful affectations. Ryoko’s sister-in-law is at least honest in her constant harping on about the inheritance, plan to steal grandma’s house out from under her to knock it down and build a new one, and constant asides to her apparently hopeless (and unseen) son away at a (not great) university. Meanwhile her husband, Ryoko’s brother, pretends to chat silkworms in Chinese on his phone but is really talking to a Chinese mistress and Ryoko’s mum is planning to get married again to a (possibly dodgy) antiques dealer (Mickey Curtis) who is so deeply in debt there won’t even be any inheritance anyway.

Ryoko too has moved on. Ippei is forced to watch as she entertains her new boyfriend (Jun Kunimura), a stonemason whose main line is headstones, while the frogs outside work themselves into some kind of frenzy. Little by little all his manly affectations are worn away – he’s forced to realise how foolish he’s been, how irrelevant he is in Ryoko’s life, and how perfectly pointless his fugitive existence really is. Ryoko meanwhile remains calm and calculating. She “lies” and she wins in a bloodless victory, allowing her opponents to sentence themselves to the punishments they feel themselves to deserve. Ippei, it seems, is just a weak, unlucky man doomed to ruin himself through a series of poetic failures and petty self involved mistakes. Meanwhile the frogs look on and laugh at our human follies. Makes you feel small doesn’t it….


Manhunt (追捕, John Woo, 2017)

Manhunt30 years ago John Woo was one of Hong Kong’s most bankable directors. The father of heroic bloodshed, Woo’s bullet ballet sent shockwaves through action cinema not only in his home country but around the world. Unsurprisingly Hollywood came calling and Woo was one of the first Asian directors to enjoy mainstream US success with ‘90s hits Broken Arrow and Face/Off before his overseas career began to stall and he eventually returned to Hong Kong directing period epics Red Cliff and The Crossing. Manhunt (追捕, Zhuībǔ) is intended as a kind return to source as Woo gets back into the groove of his beautifully choreographed ‘80s action hits but intentionally or otherwise he sails dangerously close to self parody with a mix of Big Pharma conspiracy and wrong man thriller.

Chinese corporate lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is a trusted employee of a Japanese pharmaceuticals company but is shortly to be transferred overseas, much to CEO Sakai’s (Jun Kunimura) displeasure – Du knows too much about the company’s less than transparent operations. Sakai sets up a honey trap to convince Du to stay but before it can spring Du is accosted by another woman, Mayumi (Qi Wei), who wants to talk to him about a difficult case three years previously in which an employee ended up committing suicide. After talking with Mayumi, Du goes home but the next thing he remembers is waking up in bed next to a dead woman. Du does the right thing and calls the cops, but the cops are working for Big Pharma and soon he finds himself on the run while maverick police chief Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and two female assassins (Ha Ji-won & Angeles Woo) try to track him down.

Manhunt is inspired by the 1976 film starring Ken Takakura which was one of the first non-native movies to open in China following the Cultural Revolution. Woo apparently made the film as a kind of tribute to the actor after he passed away in 2014, but he takes his cues from the source novel by Juko Nishimura rather than the Takakura film and the 2017 Manhunt shares little in common with the 1976 version other than a general plot outline involving a man on the run and unethical practices in the pharmaceuticals trade. Du Qiu is not a stuffy, by the book, prosecutor but a compromised employee of a shady organisation who is oblivious to his own complicity in its extremely unpalatable way of doing business.

Despite this, Du Qiu is just as lucky as Takakura’s Morioka in that everyone he meets immediately wants to help him. Even sworn enemies with their hearts set on revenge eventually wind up joining team Du as they each descend on the pharmaceuticals research laboratory where the deadly secrets will be revealed. Woo returns to his heroic bloodshed roots in allowing dogged policeman Yamura and the increasingly confused Du to form an odd couple buddy duo which begins with spiky one liners and ends with becoming one as each places his not handcuffed hand on the same pistol to take down a few bad guys through the power of togetherness.

Woo’s action credentials remain unchanged as he races from set piece to set piece from the opening surprise massacre to Du’s subway chase escape, jet ski race, and mansion showdown before getting anywhere near the endgame of the research lab. Perfectly choreographed, the sequences bear out Woo’s distinctive sense of humour while also poking fun at his back catalogue through a series of homages including an entire coop full of white doves just waiting for their chance to fly.

Set entirely in Japan, Manhunt shifts between Japanese and Mandarin though it has to be said that the film suffers from its reliance on English which is often poorly delivered and deliberately stylised to ape classic action movie one liners the like of which have been out of fashion for two decades. Woo neatly sends himself up with an opening discussion of “old movies” allowing one of the film’s two female assassins to develop an odd fascination with Du which leads to her eventual awakening from company brainwashing, but he also pays his dues with the theme music to Sato’s 1976 version playing over the first scene of mass bloodshed. Woo may have slipped into self parody with his deliberately over the top theatrics, but he has fun doing it and his gleeful self skewering proves extremely hard to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2011)

scabbard samuraiA samurai’s soul in his sword, so they say. What is a samurai once he’s been reduced to selling the symbol of his status? According to Scabbard Samurai (さや侍, Sayazamurai) not much of anything at all, yet perhaps there’s another way of defining yourself in keeping with the established code even when robbed of your equipment. Hitoshi Matsumoto, one of Japan’s best known comedians, made a name for himself with the surreal comedies Big Man Japan and Symbol but takes a low-key turn in Scabbard Samurai, stepping back in time but also in comedic tastes as the hero tests his mettle as a showman in a high stakes game of life and death.

Nomi Kanjuro (Takaaki Nomi) is a samurai on the run. Wandering with an empty scabbard hanging at his side, he pushes on into the wilderness with his nine year old daughter Tae (Sea Kumada) grumpily traipsing behind him. Eventually, Nomi is attacked by a series of assassins but rather than heroically fighting back as any other jidaigeki hero might, he runs off into the bushes screaming hysterically. Nomi and Tae are then captured by a local lord but rather than the usual punishment for escapee retainers, Nomi is given an opportunity to earn his freedom if only he can make the lord’s sad little boy smile again before the time is up.

Nomi is not exactly a natural comedian. He’s as sullen and passive as the little lord he’s supposed to entertain yet he does try to come up with the kind of ideas which might amuse bored children. Given one opportunity to impress every day for a period of thirty days, Nomi starts off with the regular dad stuff like sticking oranges on his eyes or dancing around with a face drawn on his chest but the melancholy child remains impassive. By turns, Nomi’s ideas become more complex as the guards (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) begin to take an interest and help him plan his next attempts. Before long Nomi is jumping naked through flaming barrels, being shot out of cannons, and performing as a human firework but all to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tae looks on with contempt as her useless father continues to embarrass them both on an increasingly large stage. Tae’s harsh words express her disappointment with in Nomi, berating him for running away, abandoning his sword and with it his samurai honour, and exposing him as a failure by the code in which she has been raised. She watches her father’s attempts at humour with exasperation, unsurprised that he’s failed once again. Later striking up a friendship with the guards Tae begins to get more involved, finally becoming an ally and ringmaster for her father’s newfound career as an artist.

Tae and the orphaned little boy share the same sorrow in having lost their mothers to illness and it’s her contribution that perhaps begins to reawaken his talent for joy. Nomi’s attempts at comedy largely fall flat but the nature of his battle turns out to be a different one than anyone expected. Tae eventually comes around to her father’s fecklessness thanks to his determination, realising that he’s been fighting on without a sword for all this time and if that’s not samurai spirit, what is? Nomi makes a decision to save his honour, sending a heartfelt letter to his little girl instructing her to live her life to the fullest, delivering a message he was unable to express in words but only in his deeds.

Matsumoto’s approach is less surreal here and his comedy more of a vaudeville than an absurd kind, cannons and mechanical horses notwithstanding. The story of a scabbard samurai is the story of an empty man whose soul followed his wife, leaving his vacant body to wander aimlessly looking for an exit. Intentionally flat comedy gives way to an oddly moving finale in which a man finds his redemption and his release in the most unexpected of ways but makes sure to pass that same liberation on to his daughter who has come to realise that her father embodies the true samurai spirit in his righteous perseverance. Laughter and tears, Scabbard Samurai states the case for the interdependence of joy and sorrow, yet even if it makes plain that kindness and understanding are worth more than superficial attempts at humour it also allows that comedy can be the bridge that spans a chasm of despair, even if accidentally.


Currently streaming on Mubi

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ, Shotaro Kobayashi, 2017)

hamon posterConventional wisdom states it’s better not to get involved with the yakuza. According to Hamon: Yakuza Boogie (破門 ふたりのヤクビョーガミ Hamon: Futari no Yakubyogami), the same goes for sleazy film execs who can prove surprisingly slippery when the occasion calls. Based on Hiroyuki Kurokawa’s Naoki Prize winning novel and directed by Shotaro Kobayashi who also adapted the same author’s Gold Rush into a successful WOWWOW TV Series, Hamon: Yakuza Boogie is a classic buddy movie in which a down at heels slacker forms an unlikely, grudging yet mutually dependent relationship with a low-level gangster.

Ninomiya (Yu Yokoyama), a classic slacker, makes ends meet by acting as a kind of liaison officer between the normal world and the yakuza one. His contact, Kuwahara (Kuranosuke Sasaki), is a scary looking guy but as yakuza go not so bad to work with. Following the government’s organised crime crackdown, Ninomiya finds himself at more of a loose end and so when an elderly film director, Koshimizu (Isao Hashizume), comes to him and asks to meet a yakuza first hand, Ninomiya sets up a meeting. Yakuza and movies can be a dangerous mix but somehow or other Koshimizu manages to charm the pair and even gets Kuwahara’s boss, Shimada (Jun Kunimura), to invest some of his own money.

Unfortunately, this is when things start to go wrong. Koshimizu’s pretty “daughter” is really his mistress (as Kuwahara suspected) and the wily old bugger has taken off for the casino paradise of Macao with both the beautiful woman and suitcase full of yakuza dough. Kuwahara is now in a lot of trouble and ropes in Ninomiya to help him sort it out but in their pursuit of Koshimizu they eventually find themselves caught up in a series of turf wars.

Yakuza comedies have a tendency towards unexpected darkness but Hamon’s key feature is its almost childish innocence as Ninomiya and Kuwahara go about their business with relatively few genuinely life threatening incidents. Though the pair bicker and argue with Ninomiya always secretly afraid of his big gangster buddy and Kuwahara fed up with his nerdy friend’s lack of know how, the relationship they’ve developed is an intensely co-dependent one which fully supports the slightly ironic “no me without you” message. Eventually growing into each other, Ninomiya and Kuwahara move increasingly into the other’s territory before finally re-encountering each other on more equal footing.

These are less rabid killers than a bunch of guys caught up in a silly game. Shady film director Koshimizu turns out to be some sort of cartoon hero, perpetually making a sprightly and unexpected escape despite his advanced age while the toughened gangsters hired to keep him locked up find themselves one hostage short time after time. Ninomiya’s worried cousin Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) keeps trying to talk him into a more ordered way of life which doesn’t involve so much hanging round with scary looking guys in suits, but Ninomiya is reluctant to leave the fringes of the underworld even if he seems afraid for much of the time. Kuwahara is a yakuza through and through, or so he thinks. This latest saga has left him in an embarrassing position with his bosses, not to mention the diplomatic incident with a rival gang, all of which threatens his underworld status and thereby essential identity.

Still, all we’re talking about here is having a little more time for solo karaoke, not being bundled into the boot of a car and driven to a remote location. Filled with movie references and slapstick humour this is a yakuza tale inspired by classic cinematic gangsters rather than their real world counterparts but it still has a few things to say about human nature in general outside of the fictional. An odd couple, Ninomiya and Kuwahara couldn’t be more different but besides the fact they don’t quite get along, they make a good team. No me without you indeed, solo stakeouts are boring, even if you do bicker and fuss the whole time it’s good to know there’s someone who’ll always come back for you (especially if you tell them not to) ready to take the wheel.


Hamon: Yakuza Boogie was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

9 Souls (ナイン・ソウルズ, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003)

9-soulsToshiaki Toyoda has never been one for doing things in a straightforward way and so his third narrative feature sees him turning to the prison escape genre but giving it a characteristically existential twist as each of the title’s 9 Souls (ナイン・ソウルズ) search for release even outside of the literal walls of their communal cell. What begins as a quirky buddy movie about nine mismatched misfits hunting buried treasure whilst avoiding the police, ends as a melancholy character study about the fate of society’s rejected outcasts. Continuing his journey into the surreal, Toyoda’s third film is an oneiric exercise in visual poetry committed to the liberation of the form itself but also of its unlucky collection of reluctant criminals in this world or another.

Former hikkikomori Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda) is being thrown in at the deep end as the 10th prisoner in a crowded communal cell to which he has been consigned after the murder of his father. Not long after he arrives, one of the veteran inmates who had been assigned to him as a mentor and goes by the nickname of The King of Counterfeiters (Jun Kunimura), suddenly has some kind of psychotic episode where he goes off on a long monologue about a buried time capsule and the key to the universe before being dragged off somewhere by the guards. Right after that, a little mouse turns up signalling the probability of a mouse hole somewhere in the cell. Master escape artist Shiratori (Mame Yamada) somehow comes up with a plan to use this information in order for everyone to escape, which they do, emerging from a pipe into the blue tinted landscape and making a break for freedom.

Commandeering a camper van from a young man terrified of ghosts, the gang of nine hit the road heading for a primary school where their cellmate’s time capsule promises an untold fortune in counterfeit currency. What they find there is unimpressive except for a strange looking key which they decide to give to Michiru because they’re a bunch of guys who appreciate irony. At a loss again, each begins to think about the circumstances which brought them to this point, wondering if there’s a way back or if anyone is still waiting for them.

Less than a prison break movie, 9 Souls shares more in common with the return to Earth genre in which a recently deceased person is given a second chance to deal with some unfinished business until they are finally able to accept the inevitable. Though the prisoners have each committed heinous, often violent or unforgivable crimes, they each have dreams and aspirations which were previously denied to them but may just be possible now given their extremely unusual circumstances. Sometimes those dreams are heartbreakingly ordinary – falling in love, getting married and opening a small cafe in the countryside, for example, or attending your daughter’s wedding and being able to give her a wedding present in person. Try as they might, the prisoners are only able to gain a small taste of their hopes and dreams before they all come crashing down again, leaving them with only their fellow escapees to rely on.

Looking forward to Toyoda’s next film, The Hanging Garden, 9 Souls also takes a sideways view of that most Japanese of topics – the family. Michiru came from an extremely dysfunctional environment in which his mother abandoned him and he was forced to kill his own father only for his younger brother to then betray him. Veteran prisoner Torakichi (Yoshio Harada) unwillingly becomes the “father” of the group though he was imprisoned for the murder of his son. This perfect symmetry of a fatherless son and sonless father adds to the circularity of Toyoda’s tale as each is forced to reassume their familial roles within the equally forced genesis of the prison cell family. On the outside world, each of the prisoners is searching for only one thing – acceptance, but each finds only that which they feared most, rejection. Once again cast out from mainstream society as they had been all their lives, the prisoners are left with nowhere else to go but the mystical destination offered to them by the counterfeiter’s magic key.

The truck driver’s strange fear of ghosts comes back to haunt us at the end of the film as the van, now painted a peaceful sky blue complete with fluffy clouds as opposed to the hellish red of the ironically named “lucky hole”, begins to fill up with departing spirits each finding their exit in one way or another. A man who helped his son to die will now have to save another, while a boy who locked himself inside his room will have to turn the key and open a door on eternity. Swerving from absurd comedy to deeply melancholic meditations on guilt, redemption, and a failing society, 9 Souls is among the most poetic of Toyoda’s early works swapping the rage which imbued the young of Pornostar for the sorrowful resignation of experience.


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

Original trailer (English 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)