In the light of recent costume action movies from Japan such as Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi, Ten Shimoyama's Shinobi seems much closer to the example of the action films from China's Zhang Yimou than the stylised façade of his countryman's efforts. True, Shinobi does feature trendy looking young leads and oodles of CGI but the cool factor of the film is less important than some fine work on character and a good interesting story. Even better still, the film develops its story carefully keeping the action plot driven rather than over indulging in video game showiness.
The tale is one of forbidden love between the daughter of the Koga ninja tribe of Manjidani and the son of their sworn enemies, the Iga tribe of Tsubagakure. The peace has been kept between the tribes for years after the intervention of the Lord of Lords, Hattori Hanzo, but the prowess of the two set of ninjas is so frightening that machinations are afoot to cause war between the tribes. Each tribe must nominate five fighters to face off en route to Sumpu castle, and both Oboro and Gennosuke are chosen to lead. Gennosuke will not fight but the other fighters can't stop themselves from facing off as he tries to find out the truth and save his love and enemy.
The nice thing about what is a commercial movie is the good style and taste that it possesses whilst ensuring that it is entertaining and proficient as an action film. The costumes for each of ten fighters mix autumnal shades and bright colours, and the stranger fighters are given imaginative appearances that avoid cliché but complement their special skills - as almost immortal, a poisonous seductress and a shape-shifter. Rather than overdose on the strangeness of these fighters, the director takes his time revealing their special skills and uses the skills to illustrate their character - the poisonous seductress can't love without killing, and the world weary almost immortal is a man craving his own demise.
The supporting actors are all well cast and perform admirably and it is nice to see another shifty turn from Renji Ishibashi, but the two leads hold the picture with their doomed love story. The script is intelligent enough to reference Romeo and Juliet in calling them "star-crossed" and both characters work well once they break free of some perfunctory teenage rebellion in the beginning of the film. Their inevitable conflict is touchingly done with echoes of Hero and their efforts to seek peace are surprisingly original as they forsake their special skill.
The moments of CGI animation work better when the effect is away from the centre of the screen or the intention is fantastical. The CGI mattes at the beginning of the town around Sumpu castle look artificial and some of the ninja bounding from tree to tree is mercifully short. Tricks and technology aside, the film remains well balanced with the romance and the flurry of fights underscored by a strong humane concern for the plight of the two tribes condemned to war. This is what causes the whole enterprise to succeed, the simple virtues of story and character over the temptations of technology and elaboration. Shinobi has a good heart and you should give it a go.
The DiscOptimum serve up a strong colourful, anamorphic transfer in original aspect ratio. The detail is strong and the image is very sharp with mild edge enhancement and strong contrast. The print is spotless and the picture is so good at times it shows up some of the digital mattes that are used for their artificiality. Sound comes in a 5.1 mix and this shows off the dramatic score and atmospheric effects well with very solid bass and use of the sub-woofer. The surround track distributes effects to the rear channels when appropriate and also uses them for the music, the voices are always mixed in the front and centre speakers and there is no fussiness in trying to keep up with the camera position in the kinetic action scenes by altering the sound mix accordingly. The result is a conservatively mixed track which suits the film well. The optional English subtitles are easy to read and of sensible grammar.
The featurettes included as extras begin with a piece explaining digital doubling in the film, and this is completed by a 30 minute lecture from production staff on the same technique. This is followed by short footage of one of the digital doubled scenes being shot and the director working closely with continuity and photography to make sure the live footage will match the computerised additions. A piece on weapons design follows with dimly lit Props man Ryuji Hayakawa describing the derivation of the ninja weapons shown in the film as being from the farming life the ninjas pursued outside of battle. The building of the sets for the film is examined next with footage of the construction of the two ninja villages and the particular natural difficulties of erecting such a large set in a short time whilst at the mercy of the elements.
Next up is almost 40 minutes of storyboard to film comparisons with the scenes from the film running in the top left hand corner of the screen whilst the line drawing storyboards enclose it, the bottom of the screen using the current storyboard and the right hand side showing the rest of the storyboards for the full scene. Included also are two teasers, three TV spots and the trailer for the film, all presented with English subtitles. The remaining two extras are galleries with brief notes on the ten fighters and the two chieftains, and fifteen still photographs of cast and crew make up the picture gallery. All of the extras are subtitled but video quality is inferior to the feature with the materials not properly converted from NTSC to PAL with ghosting and aliasing evident.