Not 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)