Monday, May 11, 2009

Thoughts on "Goemon"

In the space of only two movies, Kiriya Kazuaki (real name Iwashita Kazuhiro) has become arguably one of the most divisive filmmakers in Japan today. Both he and his work are either lauded as visionary or derided as incompetent; the former usually originating mostly from his producers and staff, and the latter from film critics, both amateur and professional. The vitriol levelled at him is often so vehement as to (almost) generate sympathy for him.

It's a bit of a mystery as to why Kiriya, who started out in photography and music video and isn't the scion of a filmmaking dynasty, has been given such free creative and financial reign with his first two features when other more respected, experienced - and some might say talented - directors are unable to get their own projects off the ground. Perhaps his backers believe his brand of visually elaborate CG-reliant action is one way of taking on Hollywood at its own game, at a fraction of the price.

As with Tsukamoto Shinya's "Nightmare Detective" films, story-wise "Goemon" is more accessible than his (single) previous work but it still bears all the hallmarks of a Kiriya project, so much so that it's virtually the same film as "Casshern". A conflicted outsider hero whose recklessness has irreversible repercussions for his loved ones. Superhuman leaps into the sky before plunging back down to earth to deliver shattering blows to ineffectual and identical enemies. Virtual cameras that travel impossible speeds and distances. Impressively ornate sets and costumes. An obsessive attachment to colour manipulation. Fuzzy live-action elements unconvincingly composited against digital backgrounds that sometimes provide much-needed depth, and at other times are laughably unrealistic. A doomed love story that ends in tragedy. A lavish cast of well-known names with some employed luxuriously in brief bit parts. A muddled anti-war/violence message. An apparent lack of regard for his own country's filmmaking traditions as well as the integrity of his source material.

If you've read my “Casshern” review for Midnight Eye you might have got the impression I'd been drooling at the chance to dump all over Kiriya and his work again, but I honestly went into the theatre really wanting to like “Goemon”. Despite a lukewarm reception domestically, “Casshern” still went on to generate an impressive fanbase for itself and its director overseas and it would be safe to assume that Kiriya's latest will be greeted enthusiastically by those same people, especially considering that it deviates very little from his previous effort. However, the flipside is that it shows little in the way of progression or maturity as a filmmaker, both technically and as a storyteller. He still can't shoot even the most serene of scenes without adding unnecessary cuts from different angles, and still relies on choppy editing to provide movement instead of allowing his actors do so in takes of adequate duration. Maybe its done to compensate for his cast's lack of athleticism and action chops; Eguchi Yosuke might possess a more impressive physique than stars from past eras such as Wakayama Tomisaburo, but he can't wield a sword with anywhere near the same degree of finely-honed elegance and authority. That's not Kiriya's fault. But I'm convinced he'd enjoy far more success (and a hell of a lot less ridicule) if he just left the writing and direction to someone better qualified and concentrated solely on art direction, a discipline in which he's shown far more aptitude and enthusiasm to date.

By the way, despite what the Yomiuri says, Kiriya doesn't 'act under the name Akechi Mitsuhide', he appears in a cameo as the treacherous general who turned on his lord Oda Nobunaga, and is clearly listed in the credits as Kiriya Kazuaki. Proof that their reporter wasn't able to sit through the whole film?


  1. Thank you for the review. Having loved his first film Casshern (not that I find it perfect, far from it, but there are several elements in it that just push the rights buttons for me), I was curious - and a bit apprehensive - to see how "Goemon" would turn out to be.

    I have lamented Eguchi Yosuke's casting many times (not that I think he's not a good actor, just that I didn't feel that he was the right choice for this role) - but then again, Osawa (who had never done an action movie before) proved me wrong in "Aragami", so I was kinda hoping that the same would happen in this case....obviously not, which is a shame.

  2. Hi Aria,

    If you loved "Casshern", I'm sure you'll enjoy "Goemon". I don't rate Eguchi Yosuke or Osawa Takao highly, but they're both adequate in their roles: it's just that the script doesn't give their characters or story arcs enough depth. Actually, I was quite pleasantly surprised by "Aragami" and it's probably Kitamura Ryuhei's best work in some respects. Can't wait to see "Midnight Meat Train" if it ever gets a theatrical release in Japan.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts on Goemon, my main question is if you enjoyed the film. There are plenty of films that I criticized the crap out of but still had a blast watching.

    I'm on of the people who loved Casshern. Yeah I had to watch it a couple times just to understand what was happening, and I still have no clue about many plot points, but it's visually one of my favorite films to watch, and the melodrama just works for me somehow.