Since when did epic storytelling get so bloody boring? I blame Gladiator, which took heroic set pieces and a grand, historical context, only to force the viewer to wade through overwrought melodrama at the climax. Then take Troy, which sapped the Iliad‘s godliness in favour of dull humanity, or Robin Hood, Ridley Scott’s attempt to retell folklore without a shred of humour or charm.
But it’s with a particular sadness that we welcome Goemon, a Japanese film that is nothing but a dull fantasy-historical misfire.
Taking cues from the life of the country’s own Robin Hood-like legend, Ishikawa Goemon, writer-director Kiriya Kazuaki paints broad strokes with CG imagery, building up a lavish representation of 16th century Japan.
Against a backdrop of civil war, where various clans tussle for power, Goemon plays the thief, stealing from the rich for the benefit of the poor, both as folk hero entertainment and as a wealth-sharing trickster. In a cheeky opening sequence, Goemon fumbles a job, only to dash across city rooftops during a magnificent fireworks display, with the acrobatic chase eliciting cheers from an enthralled audience.
However, before long, the film’s narrative grinds into gear, bringing with it multiple layers of overcomplicated intrigue, conflict and anguish, as Goemon matches pace with grand historical events. Such a shift is to be expected, but it is at the expense of the opening’s innocent charm and humour.
Goemon, you see, was orphaned at a young age. However, he escaped the bloodbath that took his family, and was eventually adopted by Nobunaga Oda, a warlord who hopes to unify Japan. Under the tutelage of Nobunaga, and mythical swordsman Hanzo Hattori, Goemon became a topnotch ninja, but, after his master was assassinated, he turned rogue.
Goemon tries to tell an intricate story that gives its historical background a hyper-real, CG-swathed potency. However, the direction is far too blunt, and the script lacks any storytelling skill, as the whole second act is given over to a series of long, tedious flashbacks, which are supposed to lend backstory and coherence, but instead pile on unwieldy subplots.
Need we have a romance? Or a tale of two companions found opposed to each other?
Goemon has trouble setting up its own central plot of conspiracy (spoiler: the decadent megalomaniac is the bad guy), while giving its protagonist an unconvincing character arc of destiny, responsibility and revenge. And even though lead actor Eguchi Yosuke is joyous when he’s preening and winking, he’s soap opera hammy when tasked with drama.
Goemon is doomed the moment it ditches the sense of the carnivalesque. It suffers from an identity crisis, junking the free flowing imagination of anime (which, following on from Kiriya’s Casshern, it is, no doubt, influenced by) in favour of high register drama.
But its murky colour palette, incongruous operatic rock soundtrack, and the CGI (award-winning in Japan, but blocky in the potentially DVD-sourced screening) recall a cheap videogame cutscene from a decade ago. And, ultimately, it lacks the poise and balletic grace, not to mention the sumptuous, bold cinematography, of Chinese historical drama, such as Hero or House Of Flying Daggers.
By mixing up its legendary protagonist with pretensions of grandeur, Goemon fails to communicate the character’s importance, and turns a particularly fascinating era of Japanese history into bloated pomp.
For a better, more irreverent and, importantly, fun look at Goemon, track down the Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon N64 videogame. Thanks to its surreal humour and minimal plot, it leaves its cinematic counterpart in the dust.
Goemon is in UK cinemas from 23rd July 2010.