Set in 1614 and based around popular historical figures and events Shinobi is a fantasy action-adventure story which concerns itself with two opposing ninja clans, trained in the deadly arts of shinobi. A time of peace has settled upon the land and these mysterious warriors whose villages and power are unknown to all but their own have for 400 years been sworn to an agreement which prevents them from fighting one another. Instead they only fight for the Lord of Lords’, who is now concerned that their abilities and tendency for action will reignite the flames of war in the lands he has brought to peace. And so a ruse is instigated which lifts the ban and asks the Iga and Koga clans to pit their five best warriors against one another in a battle they are led to believe will decide the next Shogun.
The two young heirs to the thrones of these respective clans however, the beautiful Oboro (Nakama Yukie) and dashing Gennosuke (Odagiri Joe), have found something more to life than that of practicing their art for the purpose of killing, they have found love and just prior to this arranged contest married in secret. These star-crossed lovers were beginning to believe their love could be more than just a dream, but are soon leading their respective clans into battle against each other as they journey to their destination. At their sides are warriors of many shapes and sizes possessing fearsome abilities second only to their own, but they share one common attribute, that of living for this moment so they can live or die holding up the honour of their clan. They were born to fight and born to die, and despite Oboro and Gennosuke’s protests cannot have their way of life altered so easily, and soon the young couple will find themselves at odds with each other as they struggle to choose between their love and the people who look to them for leadership.
So, I certainly hope you read that synopsis with an idealistic tone, believing that life or death scenarios await these clans and the lovers which lead them as Shinobi requires a viewer who can play into the grandiose love affair which rules over the predominantly action-orientated story which looks to recreate an era where great changes were afoot in the warrior clans’ way of life and more often than not, great sacrifices were required of all involved. You could just as easily set the basic story used here in most period settings, with or without the fantasy elements the theme of forbidden love is at the same time familiar and well trodden but also greatly recognised and able to stir an audience provided it’s executed well. Sadly the film never gets it quite right, with the initial set-up concentrating too heavily on the lovers recognition of their doomed relationship instead of actually spending a little time projecting to the audience how their love blossomed, and before too long the proceedings jump head-first into action mode, never allowing enough development which ultimately makes or breaks the inevitable confrontation between them.
It’s a testament to the actors then that we do at least feel a little involved by the time said confrontation takes place, with the early stilted dialogue between the two slowly dissipated as the confrontations between their people over the course of the film gradually take a toll and adjust their views towards that of the ninja way of life, something which is projected well by the leads and allows for a nice scene towards the latter part of the movie which solidifies their love more than any of the earlier calming moments ever manage. There is however every chance I’m being both unfairly harsh and lenient in the case of Nakama Yukie, an actress I’m eminently fond of and most at home with when playing quirky comedy characters in Japanese television series. For that reason alone it probably took me some time to fully accept her playing a straight romantic lead, especially in a role where the early dialogue is reminiscent of the exposition she delivers in Trick, but she certainly has the physical attributes and ability to pull off the role and so dodgy make-up effects aside in the closing scenes I found myself believing in her. Hopefully my predilection and the judgement brought with it evened out by the end, but there were no such concerns in the case of Odagiri Joe, a popular actor that I’m only personally familiar with from Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Bright Future. His role here is a little more forgiving in terms of dialogue than his female lead, with less exposition in the early scenes with which to do any damage, but like Nakama Yukie, if not more so we can play into the internal struggles of the character as he flirts between love for Oboro and the grasp of happiness to acceptance of the ninja life. He moves with confidence between portraying a deadly ninja with a purpose to kill and that of a sympathetic soul capable of self-sacrifice. His character’s intentions are at all times absolutely transparent but Odagiri still manages to inject a hint of much need enigma into the proceedings.
Take away the romantic elements and the internal struggles of the lead characters and for many we find the true essence of a Shinobi movie, the action. With four skilled warriors on each side travelling alongside their clan leaders and holding the belief that without the option to fight there is nothing to live for, you have a recipe for disaster in the best possible sense of the word. Taking the ways of the ninja several steps beyond we are launched into the realms of fantasy that wouldn’t be out of place in a Chinese swordplay picture, only here you get to enjoy some devilishly cruel antics such as a warrior with the ability to steal anyone’s face to a lady shinobi nourished all her life on poison making her kiss a very deadly weapon indeed. The action is never anything less than fun and inventive, with the computer aided set-pieces working well and looking as realistic as is necessary given the scenarios which play out, and then you also have some nice (though not exactly original) touches such as an ‘internal’ camera mapping out the destruction in detail to one unfortunate soul, and some clever use of slow-motion for good effect in portraying Gennosuke’s remarkable shinobi technique. Surrounded by lush forest and mountainside vistas the action moves along at quite a pace and while it never serves the simplistic story in a way that helps the film overcome its basic shortcomings it makes for an entertaining and light romp which looks every bit as accomplished as most modern action fare.
Released in February Shinobi is available in both single-disc ‘Standard Edition’ and four-disc ‘Premium Edition’ versions. The latter is fairly expensive (though not ludicrously so by Japanese standards) and equally luxurious, packed with additional features none of which offer English subtitles making it one for the fans and Limited Edition collector’s only. The former, which is on review here offers the main feature with optional English subtitles at a relatively low-price for a Japanese DVD (under £18 through our affiliates at YesAsia.com).
Released in Japanese cinemas in 2005 Shinobi appears on DVD just as you would expect, free of print damage and with as much detail as the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation can manage. As previously mentioned the film is set within the stunning Japanese countryside which is rendered here with consummate ease. Colours jump off the screen with the blue and green hues of the sky and landscapes graded perfectly, while black levels are handled just as well though as is often the case with Japanese (and usually Korean) discs blacks are not quite as deep when played on display devices calibrated for most UK and USA discs. The only hint of trouble I could find was some minor blocking in the lighter landscapes such as those seen in sweepingly cinematic title sequence and later on the beach at dusk scene.
In terms of audio you get the Japanese soundtrack in a choice of DD2.0 Surround and a reference quality DD5.1 EX mix. The latter truly brings the film to life within your living room, with the film making full use of the surrounds and subwoofer channels as the rapid and often destructive action set-pieces are filtered through the channels to staggering effect. Easily the best 5.1 track I’ve heard in quite some time, this one really made me sit up and take notice.
Of great importance to the majority of readers are the optional English subtitles, presented here in a white font that stands out well on screen and to the best of my knowledge provide us with a good translation of the film with no spelling or grammatical errors to speak of. There are also optional Japanese subtitles.
As previously mentioned there are several DVD releases of Shinobi to choose from, and this single-disc edition represents the best value for money to those who are only interested in the film. So what I’m trying to say is, there are no extras here. The only additional materials are some trailers (5 in total) for other Shochiku Home Video and Cinema releases.
Short on the emotional depth the underlying romantic story requires but rarely stepping into the ill-fated melodrama arena Shinobi offers up an entertaining ninety-minutes of fantasy action with a good old-fashioned romantic core. Given the rich subject matter and sheer power the title carries it’s not the movie it should have been, but then it’s also fair to say that it never feels as though the director was aiming for more than what is on the screen. So in that sense I found myself enjoying the film in spite of its short-comings with plenty to enjoy from character’s who come out with lines like “I’m not good at dying” to Nakama Yukie and her character Oboro delivering a new meaning to the term ‘evil eye’.