DVD Review: Shinobi

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Director Ten Shimoyama takes us back to 1614 feudal japan with a twist. Labeled as part of the chambara film genre, in the midst of turmoil, blades move with the swiftness of quicksilver, shaken and shuriken take flight toward their intended targets. During the early time of the Tokugawa shogunate or Edo period (1603-1868), the main players in our story are the two warring factions of the Shogun’s feudal espionage agents, known by many names: kusa, ninja, kage no mono, shinobi.

During this new time of peace just after Japan’s warring states period, these two powerful clans are pitted against each other. Skillfully orchestrated by the Shogun’s chief advisors, the Koga (Kouga) clan is now taking their cold war to its counterpart, the Iga, with active aggression. Both separated by lush mountainsides, they select their best, five shinobi with supernatural abilities to enter combat with the upper echelon- the samurai class as spectators.

It so happens that a powerful ninja leader from the Koga- Kouga Gennosuke (played by Jo Odagiri) and an equally powerful onna shinobi/female ninja from Iga- Oboro (played by Yukie Nakama) become enamored with each other and fall deeply in love. Due to the present state of rival clan hostilities, they must regrettably keep their love a secret. While taking center stage with the purpose of preserving their villages, they both embark upon learning what the Shogun’s true plan is for them.

Becoming pawns for the military elite, in their game of possible annihilation for both, both Koga and Iga square off on various terrain. Thanks to stylized and richly colored CGI fx by Japan based Links Digiworks, the battles between the historically unorthodox shadow agents, are enhanced to the likes of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers”, while keeping an epic style predominant. From abilities like poison mist, flying spikes, to shape shifting, the action direction by Yuji Shimomura is top notch and just plain awe inspiring to witness.

Shimoyama adapts author Futaro Yamada’s well known series, The Kouga Ninja Scrolls (Kouga Ninpou chou), which became eventually a resounding success and cult classic as far as anime is concerned. Taking the fantastical approach and touching upon anime sensibilities, Shinobi delves deep into the romance between the two ninja, and while the fighting takes precedence in many of the scenes, it’s the love affair which really keeps the film afloat and moving.

Sparkling eyed Oboro and the ever silent Gennosuke seem to sizzle on screen, not in the traditional means, but just by their gazing at each other for minutes on end. There is definitely a spark of believability and yet an impending sadness which pervades.

Unfortunately, the other characters seem too two dimensional at best compared to the tragic lovers, but as pawns fighting to keep their clan and livelihood alive, each character delivers a unique look at what makes a ninja a ninja (in the chambara world of course). The film definitely has a beauty all of its own and with its grand picturesque locations, the setting itself has personality and not just a drab backdrop. Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is a good popcorn movie with just enough parts- martial arts, ninja-mania, epic flavor and star crossed romance to wet anyone’s whistle.

* * * 1/2
Weak: 1 Star   Average: 2 Stars   Good: 3 Stars   Very Good: 4 Stars   Excellent: 5 Stars

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Tobe R. Roberts

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