Around 15 minutes into Gojoe, I commented on how odd it was that I was watching a semi-historical film from another country, and could still tell how off their portrayal of history was.
Damn, am I eating crow from that: around halfway through, it slowly dawned on me that this had to be a movie about at least two historical figures that I knew absolutely nothing about. A quick checking of wikipedia later, and I've discovered that this was true.
So if you're interested in seeing a reinterpretation of the meeting of Benkei and Minamoto no Yoshitsune on the bridge of Gojoe, you should definitely check this out. If you end up deciding you want to watch it on your own, you should probably read the articles linked, and also some sort of synopsis of The Tail of the Heike just to get a bit of a sense of the conventional history. Is there something wrong with this movie, that they're not bothering to fill you in? No, not at all. It's just that Benkei & Yoshitsune are two classical characters from Japan's history & legends. So even though you're clearly introduced to everyone and get to know the characters, there's still a few elements of the story that feel like broad strokes because it's depending a bit on subverting your expectations of the characters. Compare it to a movie starring King Arthur or Hercules: even if you're taking a completely different approach to the character, there are certain parts of the story or of the character that you may not cover, because everyone already knows them.
And as for the movie itself... for me, it was all about the pacing. At 2:18, the movie takes its own slow time to get from place to place; giving you plenty of slow, static, gorgeous shots along the way, occasionally punctuated by shots so incredibly quick you can barely believe them. Meanwhile, you're slowly carried to each action scene, which start ridiculously fast and rapidly-cut then pick up the pace throughout the entire movie until the climax just gives you constant flashes of combat.
It's a hard movie to describe on a lot of levels. If you don't know any Japanese history but want to watch a samurai/actioner with engaging characters, you'll probably enjoy this. If you want a meaty plot, or if you want well-choreographed and followable fight scenes, you may not get a lot out of this: the approach is running counter to you. If you have any desire at all to watch great shot after great shot after great shot, you should definitely check it out. This is almost a cinematographer's wet dream. There are also a number of nice thematic and conceptual elements at work--I suspect they work best if you approach the movie with some knowledge of the characters, but I thought it was fascinating without remembering anything about them.
Four stars: it gets an extra half star for shaming me, and I'd probably give it five if I'd actually remembered anything from my Japanese History class.