It's in the nature of every kind of storytelling to grow familiar, to need a shaking-up from the outside. When someone shows a whole new approach to a genre story, it feels like nothing ever got old in the first place. Japan's samurai movies, like the Western and the detective thriller here, have gone through multiple cycles of ossification and reinvention. Gakuryū Ishii's Gojoe Reisenki (五条霊戦記, "Gojoe Spirit War Chronicle") took a samurai legend overly familiar to Japanese audiences, spun it on its ear, swathed it in blazing imagery that seems embroidered by hand, and enriched it with apocalyptic and experimental sensibilities. Twenty years later, it's still in a class by itself, still dazzling and jolting like few other movies anywhere.
The age of demons
Gojoe reworks the story of Yoshitsune and Benkei, a tale from the end of Japan's Heian period, when a decadent aristocracy gave way to the warrior class and the country entered a period of centuries of internecine wars. Yoshitsune, exiled son of the Genji, returned to the capital Kyoto to reclaim his birthright, only to clash with a legendarily demonic warrior monk, Benkei, on Gojoe Bridge. The two fought to a standstill, then recognized in each other not merely a formidable opponent but an ally, and became fast friends to the bitter end.
The movie doesn't open anywhere near either of those two or their vaunted heroism. It plunges us directly into the bleak, millenial flavor of that moment. Guards of the ruling Heike clan are being ambushed and beheaded at night by some apparently inhuman force, and portents in the sky strike fear into the hearts of the Buddhist monk Suzaku (Jun Kunimura). Buddhist lore tells of historical cycles of decline and collapse, and what with Kyoto in near-ruins and corpses cluttering the riverbanks, it seems all too true.
Out of the forest comes the towering Benkei (Daisuke Ryū), the former brigand and killer turned Buddhist monk, now on the run from a klatsch of other warrior-monks. In the throes of a vision inspired by his guardian deity Fudō, he's stolen "Onikirimaru", the legendary Demon Slayer Sword, the better to exorcise the demon haunting Gojoe Bridge and leaving Heike warriors dead by the score. Benkei's gentle teacher, Ajari (Saburo Teshigawara), tries to dissuade him from choosing violence once more, even if it's righteous violence, but Benkei will have none of it: maybe the best way to destroy one demon is to send another one.
If he did, he would only be doing the Heike a favor. Suzaku and Heike leader Taira no Tadanori (Ittoku Kishibe) are determined to rout out and destroy this pest, the better to keep their grip on power undisturbed. They are also not above employing the likes of the Shirakawa Gang to do their dirty work. That collection of rock-throwing rabble, presiding over a riverside shantytown of outcasts and vagrants, are led by none other than one of Benkei's old rivals, the brutish Tankai (Masakatsu Funaki). He's got no patience for what he sees as Benkei's hypocrisy. Even in monk's rags, Tankai knows the other man is still a killer at heart.
The holy man, the cynic, and the killer
In the midst of their clash, the Demon of Gojoe shows up, decimating Heike soldiers by the score. Even when clad in fluttering midnight robes and sporting a black and gold lacquered mask, this "demon" is clearly a human being. He is Shanao (Tadanobu Asano), soon to be Yoshitsune, ostensibly collecting weapons from the dead Heike to raise his own revolt against the capitol. From his cave sanctuary deep in Omaga Forest, he and his decoy Keshimaru (Takahito Hosoyamada), his personal guard Gōjin (Kairi Narita), and his priest Shōshinbo (stage actor, playwright, director, and screenwriter Wui-Sin Chong), prepare to rejoin allied forces massing elsewhere in the land. But Shanao's fascination has been captured by Benkei. For the first time he's met someone who actually intimidates him. Such a thing cannot be suffered to live if he is meant to ascend to power unchallenged.
Benkei's reappearance in Kyoto turns many heads. Among them is weedy Tetsukichi (Masatoshi Nagase), the former swordsmith turned scavenger. He dislikes Benkei on principle: his love of his craft became eclipsed by his disgust for warrior-monks and their hypocrisies, and so he quit supplying them with weapons. But he can't take his eyes off Onikirimaru once he sees it hanging from Benkei's waist, and tentatively enters into an agreement to help Benkei find Shanao's forest lair.
Tetsukichi's cynicism runs existentially deep. One of the other residents of the Shirakawa Camp is Asagiri (Urara Awata), a silent, frightened woman made pregnant by her noble master and abandoned. When she goes into labor, the resident shrine priestess incites others to kill the purportedly demonic baby; Benkei intervenes, dragoons Tetsukichi into helping her deliver the child, and provides mother and baby with spiritual protection. All Tetsukichi can see is a hopeless attempt to make amends by a man who once killed women and children for his own pleasure. But Tetsukichi is no prize, either; he loots the coffins of the freshly dead for weapons with all the indifference of someone turning a coat pocket inside out.
Then both men come up against Shanao's spiritual power in the depths of the forest, and for the first time Benkei encounters something that cripples him. He's left a shaking wreck by Shanao's onslaught, wracked with visions of the one great transgression he committed in his former life, one that appalled even him and made him seek Ajari as a guide. Shanao, by contrast, is not troubled by transgression: he thrives on it, seeks it out, uses it to fuel himself. He and Benkei are drawn to each other, something Tadanori and Suzaku decide to exploit when they arrest Benkei and arrange to have the Shirakawas oversee a hopefully fatal clash between the two.
The only thing that stops Shanao (now unmasked) and Benkei from slaughtering each other in that fight is Ajari, whose presence reminds Shanao of the one taboo he has not yet broken: the murder of a holy man. But every limit that Shanao has yet encountered only exists for him to transgress, and soon Benkei must abandon his own resistance and doubt and clash with Shanao one final time in the place where they first met.
Tadanobu Asano and company
If Gojoe wasn't the first place I ever saw Tadanobu Asano, I have long since forgotten what was. When he first showed up in Japanese films in the late Nineties, I gravitated immediately to him, as he enriched everything he appeared in with his presence. He was and still is one of those rare actors who can work in most any kind of role: warm and wild, dreamy and detached, or — as here — cold and omnivorous. His Shanao is more like a natural force or maybe a shark, one with just enough sapience to tell you why he's tearing your throat out. Asano accomplishes all this by simply holding back and letting his surgically precise movements and impassive eyes do all the work.
Daisuke Ryū is not well known to most non-Japanese audiences. I remember him first in Akira Kurosawa's RAN, as one of the sons of the lord who falls to futile squabbling over the division of his spoils. He had the same fire in the veins as another actor now more familiar to English-speaking audiences, Ken Watanabe, and here he melds that fire with the sad grace of a gentle-giant type. It's no coincidence that when in the full rage of battle, with his bulging eyes and bared teeth, he's the spitting image of Benkei's guardian deity Fudō.
Masatoshi Nagase is also only known well to Japanese film buffs, and that's a shame. He first caught my attention as the hapless but dogged protagonist of The Most Terrible Time In My Life, a loving homage to hard-boiled noir where his character was named "Maiku Hama" (ha!). Fans of Jim Jarmusch will recognize him from Mystery Train and (briefly) Paterson. His Tetsukichi's cynicism and resignation seem less like affectations, more like rational responses to the way everything around him has disintegrated. Towards the end, when he's one of the few survivors of a horrific massacre that leaves him with one useless leg, he fixes Benkei with a contemptuous glare and says "What's so great about being alive, anyway?", and it's to Nagase's credit that he can make that seem bottomlessly bitter, not bathetic.
Many of the other folks in the cast were familiar to me the first time, and have been highlights in many other Japanese movies I've seen. Ittoku Kishibe, with his long impassive face and rumbling voice, has long been cast as bad men working from the shadows. He was the drug-pushing kingpin in Takeshi Kitano's Violent Cop, and even when beating in a henchman's face with bare fists he never needed to raise his voice above a murmur to make his points. Jun Kunimura, also often cast as a bad guy, makes Suzaku into a mixture of hissable plotting villainy and wide-eyed, incomprehending witness to the unleashing of things even he can't manage.
Gakuryū Ishii, originally under the name Sogo Ishii, has always done his own thing, even when ostensibly doing someone else's. His first feature film Crazy Thunder Road (1980) was essentially a film-school graduation project, one striking enough to compel Toho to blow it up from 16mm to 35mm and put it on big screens throughout Japan. He followed that with Burst City, a wild hybrid of punk-rock concert movie and anti-authoritarian action drama; and The Crazy Family, a superficially normal story about a modern household that grows ever more unhinged with each passing reel. With the nineties, though, his movies became more dreamlike and meditative: the postfeminist serial-killer thriller Angel Dust, the spirit-infused August In The Water, and Labyrinth Of Dreams, from a Kyūsaku Yumeno novel, which melded flavors from both previous films, and paired him for the first time with then-rising star Tadanobu Asano. When Ishii couldn't make full-length movies, he made shorts, some of which made it to theaters (like the phenomenal Electric Dragon 80.000V, also starring Asano and Nagase).
What sets all of Ishii's movies aside is their look and feel — the ferociously kinetic camerawork, the complex and multifaceted editing, the eye for images that seem to well up from some great, uncharted territory within. With Gojoe, Ishii had his first period production, and an appropriately lavish budget to go with it, but he didn't use the money to just recapitulate the graphic vocabulary of other samurai pictures. It's gorgeous to look at — deep blue and fiery gold and lush green in most every shot — but with many visuals hearkening back to his fire-eating 1980s work. One of the opening shots involves a comet in space, an omen, and then plunges from orbit down through the atmosphere into the temple where Suzaku sits, stopping just short of the man's shaved head. Another recurring image, a blazing sun, is transformed even further during an eclipse when Shanao manifests in the half-light and slaughters everything in this path. Everything from these digital effects to the rough-hewn costuming and sets feels handmade, personalized, intimate.
Not everyone is a fan of hyperkinesis in action movies. I am bored when a movie uses editing to, say, disguise how wretched Steven Seagal's martial arts have become. John Wick was electrifying because its fighting was clear and powerfully staged. Gojoe, though, doesn't feel like it's hiding anything; the rapid-fire editing is part of a larger, hallucinatory state — the kind of thing Benkei and Shanao themselves feel bombarded by when their spirits clash. At one point in their final battle, Ishii fills the screen with nothing but the edges of their blades smashing into each other, with cannon and gunfire dubbed over each clang of metal, and with fireworks and spark trails spewing across the screen. Stated like that, it sounds silly; when experienced as part of the movie's overall vocabulary of attack, it's wondrous. Ditto the shot where Shanao slays a priest and rains blood on a bodhisattva statue, and Ishii's camera lingers on it just long enough to make it seem as if it's weeping red. The sum total of the elements matter in a way a screenshot can't capture.
A matter of spirit
When I first saw Gojoe I was between one phase and another of my own encounters with Buddhism. Up until about 2007 or so I approached it a subject of intellectual and scholarly curiosity. After that, it was personal: I've been a practitioner of zazen since, and much of what was theoretical about Buddhism became for me concrete. Gojoe's Buddhist elements come from a different strain of Buddhism than the one I studied — here, it's not Zen but the Shingon Buddhism of Kūkai, whose tantras and rituals and guardian deities (like Fudō) seem to closely complement Japan's native Shintō practices. Ishii uses Shingon and its rituals not just for visual flavor or period-piece appropriateness, but also its millennial conceits: With the fall of the Heian powers, the world seemed to be plunging into the foretold time of mappō, or spiritual degeneracy lasting for ten thousand years. The wretchedness and death throughout Kyoto that Ishii puts on the screen heralds the crumbling away of an entire world, not merely secular political strife.
What struck me most about Gojoe on a recent rewatch was how Shanao's character is informed by a sensibility that's totally out of phase with all this, as befitting someone of his iconoclastic inclinations. It's not the Buddhist millennialism that backgrounds the story, but Nietzschean will-to-power instead. God, singular or plural, is just one more thing for him to kill on his way to proving himself. Any such incarnations of cosmic willpower, whether they're Benkei or his teacher Ajari, are obstacles to be dispatched. The underdog heroism normally associated with Yoshitsune is subverted right from the git-go. By the end of the movie, it's been doubly subverted, in a way that reminds of how all legend and myth are created to help us make sense of the world, especially when that world seems determined to be chaos.
Gojoe appeared when the samurai movie in Japan was long in decline. By the end of the 1990s it had ceased to be the forum for cultural criticism it had been in the 1960s and 1970s; it had become sentimental and unchallenging, with only the occasional maverick to jazz things up. Ishii's movie is one such maverick: it's informed by the social consciousness of those earlier movies, but its main ambitions are experiential (rather than just experimental). When chanbara movies broke rank, they tended to mutate into horror or fantasy; Gojoe is informed more by psychedelia, by the way projects from the likes of the Art Theatre Guild wanted to get us to not just watch a story unfold, but share states of mind. Altered ones.