Directed by: Hideo Gosha
With Goyokin, Samurai stalwart director Hideo Gosha has made one of the most complete chambara in the genre. This is a film where every area of the picture is something a spoke connecting into a singular connective hub. Of the sword-fighting films I've seen to date, I've not viewed one where all the cinematic facets support the primary motifs as strongly as Gosha's filmmaking represent in Goyokin. In large part, the completeness is abetted by an intrinsic backstory that encompasses our featured ronin and permeates the narrative focus.
The plot of Goyokin concerns the mysterious massacre of nearly all the townsfolk inhabiting the village known as Kurosaki. We discover the slaughter through the eyes of the lone survivor, a young woman named Oriha (Ruriko Asaoka), in a slow, chilling discovery that reverberates a haunting aura that hangs over the characters for the duration. We learn that the massacre was part of a plan by the impoverished Sabei clan to utilize the Kurosaki villagers to assist them with robbing a ship carrying goyokin ("gold") and then sink the vessel to mislead others to a conclusion that the gold capsized with it. In a plan orchestrated by Sabei leader Tatewaki (Tetsuro Tanba), he orders his clan to kill the villagers to eliminate all witnesses, forever concealing the truth from the Shogunate to whom Sabei is indebted and further hiding the massacre under tales of witchcraft and the supernatural.
Three years later, Magobei Wakizaka (Tatsuya Nakadai) is living in exile from his homeland of Sabei with painful regret and on the verge of giving up his sword for good. Magobei's exile is the only viable option given to him by his brother-in-law, Tatewaki, after voicing his disgust and protest toward the Kurosaki massacre. However, Magobei opts to hold onto his sword when discovering that the Sabei plan to stage another gold heist and massacre to once again repay their debts to the Shogunate. With help of another skilled ronin, Samon (Kinnosuke Nakamura), and Oriha, Magobei decides that he must return to Sabei and stop this massacre from taking place to amend his non-action years ago.
I often find assertions that describe non-actor aspects of certain films as "characters," such as set design, music or editing, are generally overblown. Although, I feel compelled to utilize such a description for the atmosphere created in Goyokin through the use of the natural elements. If that's pushing it a little far, I'd pose that the elements certainly characterize Magobei's inner turmoil. We witness torrid winds, harsh downpours and heavy snowfall. There's even something of an Earthquake manufactured after a large collection of timber is cut loose and thunderously rumbles down the side of a cliff. These forces conspire to form a turbulence that mirrors Magobei's self-proclaimed loss of being alive for not stopping the massacre three years prior and his desperate need to stop it from happening again to regain his sense of life. And while the obvious symbolization is clear, it is effectively administered; the fire a marks hellish representation and the snow-drfited field evokes a certain angelic look with wind-stirred cloud-like snow swirls.
Beyond the pure artistic use, the elements not only underscore all the fight scenes with this palpable brood, but they maximize the visceral coolness. Call it my inner-popcorn munchin' brainless moviewatcher, but I was simply fascinated watching samurai bloodshed and cold steel melees transpire amidst fiery structures, snowy landscapes and rain-drenched tableaus. Stripping away the elemental approach, the fights scenes themselves are numerous and well done. They're realistic, quick and not sensationalized. Aside from one or two blood sprays, the combat is not particularly gory, though there's no shortage of massive battles where our outnumbered heroes battle droves of adversaries. Nonetheless, the fights feel as intense, if not more so, as any I've viewed in comparison to other Samurai films, which is in no doubt powered by the visually chaotic atmosphere and guilt-driven remorse.
Gosha constructs a feature that resonates much like well-crafted drama. With that in mind, there is no shortage of action. In fact, a multitude of action exists throughout the runtime, which speaks volumes of the filmmaking that the dramatic undertone sticks. It is impressive that the entirity of the picture is geared toward the inability to leave the past behind and unending desire to set misdeeds right in the future. This verisimilitude is embodied through the flashbacks. In most films, flashbacks are typically lazy narrative devices to fill in perceived backstory beats for the audience or to patch illogical potholes. Here, the flashbacks enhance the overall thematic. In a story centered on a horribly unforgettable past, it makes sense to allow key plot points to unfold through flashback and imbue the viewer with a similar inability to relinquish compunction and constant reflection.
Make or Break scene - Once again, I'm surprised to admit that the pivotal scene in a Samurai film for me is not one featuring clashing swords. The scene that makes Goyokin is the dramatically-driven one between Magobei and his beloved wife, Shino (Yoko Tsukasa), wherein he states his intention to return to Sabei. Shino pleads with him not go, fearing for his safety. Magobei equates his situation to already being dead and that stopping the next attack is the only way for him to return to the living. The drama is further heightened since we've learned that Shino's brother, Tatewaki, is the leader and instigator of the original bloodshed. This a lengthy scene and played deeply with heartfelt emotion by both Nakadai and Tsukasa, cementing simultaneously the past agony and foreboding dread.
MVT - Tatsuya Nakadai's work as Magobei anchors Goyokin to the central themes. I've seen various reviews that describe Nakadai's as devoid of emotion and stoic, but I disagree with this analysis. While there is a modicum of these traits present, I clearly see Magobei as a man carrying immense baggage and remorse beneath the surface, which resounds in all phases of the film.
Score - 7.5/10