Yoshitsune and Benkei are amongst Japan's best known folk heroes. Yoshitsune was a 12th century prince of the Genji clan who, having been spared as a baby when his family was wiped out by the rival Heike clan, grew up to lead the remaining Genji forces to decisive victory. Benkei was a monstrous bandit monk who would challenge anyone crossing Kyoto's Gojoe Bridge to combat, and then strip his defeated opponents of their weapons. He had already accumulated 999 swords when the young Yoshitsune bested him, and from that day forth Benkei changed his ways and became the rising leader's faithful squire till the day of his death.
In Gojoe, Sogo Ishii takes these popular figures of Japanese legend and turns their intermeshed fates inside out. His Benkei (Ryu) is a one-time rapist and murderer who has spent the last seven years trying to atone for his sinful past by devoting his life to quiet contemplation of Buddha. Convinced by divine signs that the only way he can achieve true absolution is to slay a dreaded creature responsible for slaughtering almost 1000 Heike soldiers at Gojoe Bridge, Benkei returns to his old haunts in Kyoto.
There he discovers that the 'Gojoe demon' is in fact the adolescent Shanao (Asano), a Genji prince who, as preparation for assuming his inherited name Yoshitsune and taking command of the Genji clan, has been honing his swordfighting skills in nocturnal acts of vengeance against the Heike. Having already perfected his technique, Shanao now seeks to carve out for himself a new power that goes beyond politics and revenge, and Benkei is the only worthy opponent left.
Shanao slices his foes with the same effortless precision as a barber cutting hair, and never incurs so much as a scratch himself, so that the film's two major battle set-pieces are oddly one-sided affairs. The 300 or so deaths featured on screen make Gojoe, at least in theory, the most violent Japanese film ever made, but what marks these fight sequences out is not their violence, but the almost supernatural detachment that Asano conveys in his performance (calling upon the blank stillness that he has already made his trademark in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life In The Universe, and Shinya Tsukamoto's Vital), as though his character is engaged in a religious ritual rather than a massacre.
Asano's quiet forcefulness is more than matched by Ryu (familiar from Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha and Ran), whose Benkei is a deeply conflicted soul, trying to destroy forever his own past as much as the Gojoe demon, even as he shuns acts of violence. As these two titanic characters circle ever closer to one another, Ishii creates an almost unbearable tension, before finally climaxing with an auto-da-fé as explosive as the elemental denouement of Takashi Miike's Dead Or Alive.
Both Benkei and Shanao are on a quest for enlightenment, one trying to overcome his personal demons, the other to become a god, and their ultimate, inevitable confrontation on Gojoe Bridge spans the divide between history and fiction, politics and metaphysics, man and superman. And while Ishii does in the end find an ingenious, if cynical, way to reattach his own idiosyncratic re-imagining of events to the more traditional version, by then his Benkei and Yoshitsune have transcended their own myth, and even their own humanity, and evaporated into a plane of pure spirit.
What it lacks in humour (and there is absolutely none to be found in it), Gojoe more than makes up for in its sheer, unrelenting intensity, something which few other directors would be able to sustain over so long a duration. This is achieved by a combination of deadly serious performances, unnervingly eerie locations, Matoko Watanabe's restless camerawork, and the ominous rumblings of the film's industrial score (performed in part by Ishii's own band Mach 1.67). Establishing from the start its mood of impending doom, Gojoe is an Apocalypse Now for Dark Ages Japan.