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Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2000

'GOJO REISENKI'

Shock treatment for jidaigeki


Period dramas (jidaigeki) once accounted for nearly half of all films made in Japan. Then, in the 1960s, top-knotted heroes began moving their act from the big to the small screen and the genre went into a long decline. In the past year there has been a revival of sorts, led by directors on the far side of 50. But whatever merits Masahiro Shinoda's "Fukuro no Shiro," Kon Ichikawa's "Doraheita," Nagisa Oshima's "Gohatto" and Takashi Koizumi's "Ame Agaru" may have as films, they are less reinventions of the genre than late-career reworkings of familiar themes. Two are "ghost movies," made from scripts late genre master Akira Kurosawa wrote either in whole ("Ame Agaru") or part ("Doraheita").

Among younger filmmakers, the period drama has inspired scant enthusiasm, ghostly or otherwise. Their sporadic attempts to pump new life into the genre, such as Kaizo Hayashi's 1990 "Zipang" and Hiroyuki Nakano's 1998 "SF Samurai Fiction," have been little more than mangaesque parodies.

For producer Takenori Sento, who has worked with many of the best talents of the under-40 generation, this lacuna represented an opportunity. If the "Ring" horror series, which he helped produce, could hit at the box office by applying a teen-friendly gloss to genre conventions, why couldn't he do the same for jidaigeki?

"I'm not going to make a period drama," he told me in a 1998 interview. "I'm going to make an action movie -- a Japanese action movie." In other words, goodbye to tired cliches, hello to Gen-X attitude, stud star power and eye-popping visuals.

Sento found a willing collaborator in indie director Sogo Ishii ("Angel Dust," "Mizu no Naka no Hachigatsu," "Yume no Ginga"), who had long been mulling a period-drama project based on the life of Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-89). A general of the Minamoto clan, whose brilliant victories over the rival Taira have long been celebrated in story and song, Yoshitsune fell from grace when his jealous older brother Yoritomo (1147-99), the clan head, suddenly turned against him.

Pursued to the wilds of northern Japan by Yoritomo's troops, Yoshitsune found a protector in Fujiwara no Hidehira, a local warlord, but when Fujiwara died, his son yielded to pressure from Yoritomo and offered to surrender Yoshitsune. Rather than endure disgrace at his brother's hands, Yoshitsune ended his life by suicide in 1189.

Rather than retell this story, however, Ishii intended to focus on the fabled meeting between Yoshitsune and Benkei, a fighting monk, on Kyoto's Gojo Bridge. Yoshitsune won and Benkei became his loyal retainer, accompanying his master throughout his career, on his flight north and into his subsequent exile.

The story of this struggle, like the one between Robin Hood and Little John in Sherwood Forest, has acquired an accretion of legend and symbolism. In both the young, handsome hero overcomes his larger, stronger, simpler opponent with skill and wit, while winning his heart with his star charisma. The facts have long ceased to matter -- and rightly so.

In "Gojo Reisenki (Gojoe)," the big-budget, visually extravagant film Sento and Ishii finally made from this story, not only facts but reality has taken a holiday. From the rather effete youth of legend, the film's Yoshitsune, played by Tadanobu Asano, has morphed into a two-sworded killing machine with supernatural powers, whose hatred for the triumphant Taira has become a madness. Accompanied by two young retainers, Yoshitsune has established a base in a wood near the capital, where he wreaks havoc on hapless Taira troops, slashing through their colorful armor as though it were so much marzipan.

In pursuit of this fiend in human form goes Benkei (Daisuke Ryu), once a warrior consumed with a devilish rage of his own, who became a monk after accidentally killing his son in a fit of anger. Though possessed of spiritual powers himself (he casts out a demon who possesses a pregnant woman) Benkei doubts his fitness for this ultimate challenge. Instead of the stout-hearted hero of tradition, this Benkei is a conflicted soul, who may carry a big two-edged sword, but is reluctant to use it.

Nonetheless, at the urging of his saintly teacher (Saburo Teshigawara), and with a disillusioned swordmaker (Masatoshi Nagase) as a guide, he ventures into the wood, where he encounters forces beyond the ability of a mere mortal to comprehend, let alone conquer. Most terrifying of all is his opponent's ability to confront him with his own past.

Ishii and cinematographer Makoto Watanabe express the mythic grandiosity of the story, particularly its climactic duel to the death, by bending, distorting and shattering reality into a rush of hallucinatory fragments, while the camera performs stunts worthy of an Olympic gymnast fried to her mascaraed eyelashes on some exotic variety of performance-enhancing drug.

Ishii is not merely making a two-hour music video (though the program comes with a CD of Hiroyuki Onogawa's pulsing techno score), but creating a sensory and narrative experience of hypnotic intensity and density. Those who expect a Heian Period jidaigeki to have a wispy ethereal beauty may go into shock at the pounding the film delivers. Those who have experienced the wilder matsuri (festivals), with their audio-visual overloads and emotional extremes, will be better prepared for what transpires.

In the midst of all the hyperactivity is a rock-solid performance by Ryu as Benkei, which combines the lean, wired intensity of the monk just descended from the mountain with the spiritual fragility of a man who has wrestled with the dark angel and won an uncertain victory.

In the end, however, Benkei becomes a character in a titanic clash that recalls the more excessive episodes of the "Dragonball Z" cartoon show. "Gojo" may do what Sento intended -- bring in the same kids who made the "Ring" films an event -- but it's not going to make anyone forget "Shichinin no Samurai." Kurosawa's masterpiece delivers the essence of battle with gut-wrenching authority. Ishii's struggles are all behind the eyelids, eidetic images from a strange and troubled dream.

"Gojo Reisenki" is playing at Nichigeki Toho in Ginza and other theaters.


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