It's the Middle Ages and there are demons afoot. At least that's what the soldiers of the Keike clan think. They are fresh off victory over the Genji and eager to bring prosperity back to Kyoto, but each night some of their clan are being slaughtered. The rumours of these attacks get the attention of a former warrior, now turned monk, named Benkei who has given up his killing ways, but vows to slay the demon. His own reputation precedes him, though, and some wonder just who the real demon is. One such person is Shanao, a young warrior about to lead the Genji back to Kyoto, but who feels he must first battle this powerful monk. He delays accepting his title as Prince Yoshitsune and moves toward the unavoidable final confrontation with Benkei at Gojoe - the bridge that may be a gateway to Hell.
A re-telling of sorts of the actual battle in the late 1100s between Benkei and Yoshitsune, Sogo Ishii's film is thought of by some as a "revisionist" tale. Considering the story has already evolved into legend (via many different interpretations in Kabuki and Noh theatre) and that the film's secondary title is "Spirit War Chronicle", calling it revisionist is somewhat silly. It's a re-imagining. Other legends are mixed into the build-up towards that final battle as well as additional themes that consider man's place within the natural world and the difficulty of determining what is good and what is evil (at one point Shanao asks a priest "How will the Gods you believe in save this chaotic world?"). Ishii does all this in a dream like fashion via skillful swoops of the camera through natural surroundings, quick edits and pulsing music that breathes tension into the entire film. It's quite effective and pulls you into the 140 minute film without it ever feeling slow or rambling.
One aspect of Ishii's style that didn't work as well, though, were the battle scenes. There are several long sword fights involving Shanao and his two accomplices laying waste to scores of soldiers where the characters are in tight zooms and the sword play is edited at a too frenetic pace. It matches well with that dream like quality, but doesn't quite provide the power that you might expect or hope for from this kind of blood-spraying carnage. One exception, however, would be the final confrontation on Gojoe bridge. It's a remarkable 10 minutes of sights, sounds and experimental filmmaking that is worth the wait and fits perfectly with the preceding two hours of stage setting.
This type of story lends itself to broad and sometimes over the top acting, but that isn't an issue at all here. Tadanobu Asano easily convinces you that the prince is indeed the force that will lead the Genji back - his calm demeanor and focused gaze never waver . Daisuke Ryu brings an intensity to Benkei that shows his commitment to his role as a pacifist monk, but also belies his previous life - you don't doubt this guy has killed women and children in his past. The supporting characters also turn in solid, dialed-down performances when required. Of course, that doesn't mean the picture is a low-key affair - it's bristling with anticipation, energy and interesting visuals. A great way to begin a new legend.