Goemon is a Japanese folk hero in the tradition of Robin Hood -- fighting tyranny and robbing the rich to give to the poor.
So he was inevitably the subject of an action movie, simply called "Goemon." This sleek, stylized historical-fantasy movie looks a little like the ninja lovechild of The Adventures of Robin Hood and 300, but the mix of humor, romance and sharply-drawn action takes a shockingly dark turn in the movie's last third.
Goemon Ishikawa (Yôsuke Eguchi) is a clever master thief who likes to give his stolen valuables to the impoverished. But fifteen years ago, he was a loyal ninja serving the brilliant warlord Oda Nobunaga (Hashinosuké Nakamura) -- and after Nobunaga was murdered by a traitor, the disillusioned Goemon became a wandering thief and friend to the poor.
That is, until a literal Pandora's box shows him that Toyotomi Hideyoshi was involved in his master's death -- the very man who is taking Goemon's childhood sweetheart Chacha (Ryoko Hirosue) as his concubine, and preparing to declare war using Western weapons. Along with his old friend/rival Saizo (Takao Ôsawa), Goemon sets out to attack Hideyoshi... but they soon discover that this path only leads to tragedy.
"Goemon" is one of those movies that has a good-but-not-great script, paired with spellbindingly lovely visuals -- explosive ninja battles on golden rooftops, waterfalls surrounded by glimmering fireflies, and sea battles full of blood and fire. It's a pretty wild ride, and the only problem is that a couple of the characters feel unnecessary (the little boy Goemon rescues).
The first two-thirds of the movie are a pretty steady stream of action, brief romantic scenes, and sepia-toned flashbacks of Goemon's childhood (and especially of the charismatic Nobunaga). But after that, the movie becomes much darker and bleaker, with innocent people being horribly killed and Goemon becoming a more hardened, dark person.
Egichi does a great job as Goemon, both as the rakish thief and the tormented ninja avenger -- sort of like a Japanese Errol Flynn with a touch of Harrison Ford. He's funny, charming and eventually heartwrenching. Hirosue is decent, although she doesn't get to do much except wear enormous dresses and look sad.
But honestly, the title character often gets eclipsed by Saizo -- this is a strong, tragic man who is torn between his old friendship, his intense love for his wife and baby, and his often nasty job. Osawa gives a beautiful performance full of raw emotion, which climaxes in an impassioned speech to the masses, apparently inspiring them to rebel.
"Goemon" sculpts a folk legend into a fun, thrilling and ultimately tragic adventure movie, and turns out a pretty good movie while it's at it.