Ten Shimoyama, director
Once there was a people of darkness, against whose arts none could stand. Living only for battle, these 'warriors of shadow' were called 'shinobi'. The year is 1614. Peace comes to the land after centuries of war. A man of one shinobi tribe meets a woman of another. Thus our story begins.
With this opening text I think one can be forgiven for thinking, "Oh god, not ANOTHER take on Romeo and Juliet," or at least I certainly hope I can. While I love Shakespeare and I love Japanese cinema AND Kurosawa deftly demonstrated that they are, in fact, two great tastes that go great together, however I am a little tired of the Romeo and Juliet story right now. I have no idea why but there it is. I was pleasantly surprised when Shinobi turned out to be something more.
Shinobi is the story of Oboro of the Iga shinobi clan, played by Nakama Yukie and Gennosuke of the rival Koga shinobi clan, played by the impressively coifed Odagiri Joe. As the daughter and son of their respective chieftains they are expected to inherit the leadership of their clans which, while mortal enemies, have been prevented from fighting one another by a pledge extracted by the first Hattori Hanzo. Oboro and Gennosuke meet by a waterfall and fall in love, eventually marrying in secret, hoping for a day when they can set aside the differences between their clans. In the new era of peace promised by the Tokugawa victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, which brought an end to the sengoku-jidai*, or Warring States period, and Tokugawa Ieyasu's ascension to Shogun, they hope they can forge a new future for themselves. Fate has other plans for the star-crossed lovers. Tokugawa Ieyasu lifts the ban and sets the two clans against one another. The chieftains of the clans are to select their five best warriors and set them against each other for the honor of the clans. Inevitably Oboro is chosen to lead the Iga warriors and Gennosuke the Koga. Seeking to avoid conflict Gennosuke sets out for Sumpu Castle with his companions, all of whom urge him to fight the Iga, to confront the Shogun and learn why the Iga and Koga must fight. The Iga warriors follow and soon there is blood between another generation of Iga and Koga. Eventually Oboro and Gennosuke must face one another and, well, I think at this point you should just go watch the movie.
The cinematography was the first thing that really struck me about the film. The film is full of sweeping vistas and is at times a visual feast. There are times where the visuals have been pushed to give us both a photorealistic image along with a background that comes right out of Hokusai's "36 Views of Mount Fuji" which gives the film a dream-like atmosphere. For example here are a collection of four screen grabs from the film:
I especially like the flock of birds in the first one.
As beautiful as the movie is to look at, lets face it we really came for the martial arts action. While not as accomplished as some movies in this aspect, Shinobi does not disappoint. The high-flying antics that we have become accustom to in the post-Crounching Tiger world are skillfully done and combined with some ninja magic that makes things more interesting. My favorite scene in the movie is when Gennosuke faces a large group of ninja and dispatches the last of them while silhouetted by the full Moon.
Shinobi manages to be far more than just another chop-socky flick. Based on the novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Yamada Futaro, the movie explores the very Japanese idea of duty and obligation versus our heart's one true desire. The movie also touches on the question of whether a weapon has a place in an era of peace. As the author was the right age to have served during World War II I cannot help but wonder whether this was a question with which he struggled.
In the end I really enjoyed watching this movie and can heartily recommend it to you if you enjoy the genre. While the version I watched was the Chinese release from eHit.com, FUNimation released a subtitled version of the movie here in the States last year and it can be had from Amazon and a translation of the novel is also available from Amazon. I intend to add this version to the DVD collection at some point.
Here is the trailer for your viewing pleasure:
* Does the word jidai look or sound familiar? Go ahead and say it aloud, no one is looking and we will still be here when you get back. Done? Does it bring to mind a certin young Skywalker, perhaps? The story is that this word was the inspiration for the name for the Jedi Knights.