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"Shinobi": Silent and Deadly Dull

In recent years flamboyant period action films from China have enjoyed considerable success internationally, most notably the Academy Award winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and most recently the Jet Li epic Fearless. Perhaps envious of its neighbor, Japan has begun fielding its own bigger and bolder productions. Takeshi Kitano’s offbeat Zatoichi has been the most critically acclaimed, and the Azumi franchise probably the most commercial, more or less a comic book come to life. 2005′s Shinobi hails from this latter school, graduating in the middle of the class.

CoverOriginality is not Shinobi‘s strong suit, being one of several adaptations of Futaro Yamada’s popular novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls. Thus the film is almost identical to the recent animated series Basilisk, although surprisingly more two-dimensional. The dialogue is very dry, and the characters have considerably less charisma than their animated counterparts. The ever so simple plot moves slowly and is virtually devoid of any dramatic weight until the final act. Of course the emphasis in Shinobi is clearly on the action, but while plentiful it is more competent than exceptional.

Our story begins at the end of the prolonged civil war that ravaged feudal Japan, now peacefully governed by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa. Fearing that the powerful and no longer necessary Iga and Kouga ninja (shinobi) clans may challenge its reign, the government orders these longtime rivals to choose their five strongest warriors for a fight to the death. This is a terrible blow to the budding secret romance between Iga’s Oboro (Yukie Nakama – Ringu 0) and Kouga’s Gennosuke (Jo Odagiri – Bright Future), who had optimistically hoped to earn their elders’ approval for marriage. Refusing to fight, Gennosuke leads his team toward Tokugawa’s castle to demand an explanation for their senseless assignment, but his and Oboro’s comrades are not so easily dissuaded from the opportunity to settle old scores.

None of the characters has much of a personality, distinguishable only by their colorful powers. Kagero excretes poisons, Saemon assumes victims’ identities, Yashamaru (Tak Sakaguchi – Versus) ensnares prey with ropelike arms, Hotarubi controls butterflies (!), and Gennosuke and Oboro fix the imprudent with a really menacing stare. You know, the kind you get when you tell your parents you spent this semester’s tuition on a PS3.

The performances are average at best and generally wooden, none more so than the lifeless Odagiri. He and Nakama have no chemistry and leave the audience caring little whether they ever get the proverbial white picket fence. Although to be fair the script spends precious little time establishing their curious relationship, she being rather plain and he frightfully dull. I suppose everyone else had prom dates already.

Do I look like I want to see a size 12?!

Gennosuke bangs the hoary antiwar drum so tiresomely common to Japanese action films, despite their often intense violence. Luckily his fellow warriors, perhaps sensing the audience nodding off, show little interest in a peaceful resolution to their problems. The issue of warriors who have outlived their usefulness is an interesting one that has bedeviled governments throughout history, memorably in this country when increasingly unruly mobs of disenfranchised World War I veterans besieged Washington in the 1930s. Unfortunately beyond one stilted speech on the futility of denying one’s nature Shinobi does little to explore the topic.

The film’s carefully choreographed duels are well done for a Japanese film, though not spectacular enough to impress anyone who’s seen Crouching Tiger, Hero and the like. The one notable exception is the frenetic fight up, down and around trees between Yashamaru and the master of blades Hyoma. I won’t give away the ending, but the loser receives his comeuppance in a quite unexpected and satisfying way.

Shinobi‘s production values are good for a Japanese action film, although unsurprisingly the green screen work isn’t quite Hollywood quality. The film is visually very subdued and unremarkable, save for the shogunate’s thunderous artillery assault on Kouga’s mountainside base. Iga’s “village” is especially Spartan, consisting apparently of a single hut. It’s a good thing ninjas are light snorers.

Ultimate frisbee never really caught on until the kimono was phased out.

More impressive is Taro Iwashiro’s (Azumi) score, which occasionally ventures into enjoyably dramatic Lord of the Rings territory. The end credits are accompanied by Japan’s reigning pop superstar Ayumi Hamasaki’s tender ballad “Heaven,” which easily ranks among her least annoying compositions.

My Shinobi screener unfortunately contained no special features, but reportedly they will include behind the scenes footage, storyboards, and a weapons featurette. I find it odd that none of these recent ninja related releases include a how to guide for prospective warriors. Even Leonardo and the boys had one of those in their heyday, and my pizza slicing skills are now the stuff of legend.

Considering the general weakness of Japanese action films, Shinobi is far from a poor effort, but it is a mundane one. If the material sounds interesting you would be well advised to seek out the considerably more exciting and visually engaging Basilisk. It’s got everything Shinobi has and then some. Except for the guy with worms living in his gut, but sometimes less is more.

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