Shinobi: Heart Under blade Made in: Japan Language: Japanese Director: Ten Shimoyama Starring: Yukie Nakama, Joe Odagiri Year: 2005
Adapted from the novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Futaro Yamada.
Synopsis: It's the year 1614. Beautiful Oboro (Yukie Nakama) and her lover Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri), like most young people, long to be together and live happily ever after. Finding the the right person to settle down with is hard enough, but their situation is even more complicated because they're members of feuding ninja clans that have been mortal enemies for over 400 years!
Oboro's clan is called Iga, while Gennosuke is a member of the Koga. Warriors from both clans, Oboro and Gennosuke included, have incredible supernatural powers that would wet the pants of any comic book or video game enthusiast.
Feared by all because of their mysterious powers, both clans have been banished to the mountains by Tokugawa Ieyasu (Kazuo Kitamura) Japan's highest ruler at the time. And for a time, the Iga and Koga clans lived in peace under a truce.
But one day Tokugawa Ieyasu lifts the truce, and calls 6 warriors from each ninja clan to meet and fight to the death. The winning side would then be formally recognized as the dominant clan in the region.
But all this is part of a bigger plot involving Tokugawa Ieyasu's desire to consolidate power. And since he dislikes the idea of super-powered ninjas running around in the mountains unchecked, he hatches a scheme that will ultimately threaten the existence of both groups.
Meanwhile, Oboro and Gennosuke are named the leaders of their respective clans, and are called to lead their warriors into battle against each other. Can the love between these two ultimately bring peace or, as the most powerful members in a long line of superhuman ninjas, are they destined to carry on the age-old tradition of flipping out and killing each other?
The good: Beautiful cinematography, elaborate and detailed costumes, strong characters, and a compelling (although not entirely original) love story give Shinobi a fast pace with an epic feel. Visually, the most fascinating (and most anticipated) aspect of this foreign film are, not surprisingly, the fight sequences.
And they certainly deliver!
The warriors from Iga and Kouga and the powers they wield are very much like the ones you'd find in a graphic novel or in an eye-popping game on your X-Box 360. The fights are well-choreographed and intense, and will make you think of Japanese animation (aka anime) without the seizure-inducing flashing lights.
And as stated before, director Ten Shimoyama creates an epic, sophisticated feel that brings depth to the story without self-indulgence or too much melodrama.
Shinobi is not just a series of cool action sequences- there is a heartfelt and very emotional exploration of the intertwining of love and hate, duty vs destiny, and sacrifice.
The bad: For the most part, the special effects are very well done but there a few instances when they look a little campy and fake. For a short time, I was afraid this ninja action movie would become a low-rent knock-off of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but thankfully it doesn't. Shinobi and Ang Lee's masterpiece are completely different creatures.
Yet, some of the gravity-defying stuntwork and the radiant Yukie Nakama, who looks an awful lot like a Japanese version of Crouching Tiger star Zhang Ziyi, will make it hard to not compare the two.
And speaking of Yukie Nakama- she's a very strong presence but lacks the edge necessary to bring out the colder side of her character near the film's climax.
Who would like this movie: Shinobi is a well-told, complete story with beautiful visuals and an intriguing plot. However, my feeling is that it's for a niche, rather than universal, audience.
This is a foreign film that will resonate most with pop culture aficionados who are into comic books, video games, anime, and epic stories of honor, the supernatural, and of course, stuff about samurai and ninjas.