Having more in common with Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” than the Japanese ninja movie “Red Shadow”, Masahiro Shinoda’s “Owls’ Castle” has the look and feel of a movie “based on true events”. There is a lot of voiceover narration providing unnecessary background facts, and title cards pop up to shed light on the most mundane background information. Seeing as I know nothing of this era in Japanese history, I couldn’t tell you if the film is supposed to be based on history or just a complete work of fiction.
“Owls’ Castle” is a ninja movie, but it’s a ninja movie that I believe is trying desperately to stay as close to reality as possible. While the ninjas in “Castle” can scale upright walls with the speed of spiders, they can’t glide through the air; and although the ninjas may be able to dispatch multiple armed opponents at once, they’re still susceptible to a blow to the head or a sword to the gut. Meaning these ninjas aren’t invincible, they’re just very good at what they do.
Based on a novel by Ryotaro Shiba, the film stars Kiichi Nakai as Juzo, one of the few surviving members of a ninja clan called Iga. Ten years earlier, the Japanese emperor sent 1000s of men to slaughter the Iga because he feared them. Flash forward 10 years later, and Juzo is on a self-imposed exile in the woods. When the current ruling emperor, Hideyoshi (Mako) shows signs of mental imbalance, his rivals think it’s the perfect time to usurp his throne. Juzo is approached to kill Hideyoshi, which he agrees, if just to get back at the imperial seat of power for destroying the Iga (since the guy who actually did the deed is long dead).
Running at over 2 hours and 20 minutes long, “Owls’ Castle” takes it sweet time getting to the whole revenge thing. Juzo’s quest is sidetracked by a number of issues, including the presence of the mysterious and seductive Kohagi (Mayu Tsuruta), who may or may not be on Juzo’s side; the ex-Iga Gohei (Takaya Kamikawa), who in a bid to become an “honest” Samurai, is now actively blunting all of Juzo’s attempts to kill the emperor.
The entire first half of “Owls’ Castle” is really a waste of filmstock, unless you consider beautiful scenery to be a necessary part of your film. The cinematography is just gorgeous all around, but it’s even more so in the film’s first hour, when nothing much by way of action or progress occurs to keep our eyes from roaming aimlessly in the background. Like the aforementioned “Gladiator”, “Castle” is stuck in first gear, and seems intent on drowning the audience in various plots, conspiracy angles, and a lot of talking and verbal sparring. And like Ridley Scott’s movie, all the plotting and posturing in “Castle” mean absolutely nothing when the end credits roll.
The most interesting aspect of “Castle” is really the personal stories, and not the conspiracy to kill the emperor. Juzo and Gohei’s relationship, as ex-friends turned enemies because of their individual ambitions, provides the film’s most complex and intriguing situations. The movie makes a clear contrast between the two — whereas Juzo knows who he is, Gohei does not, and is trying desperately to discover himself. In truth, they’re both so singularly obsessed with their goal that they don’t even bother to understand each other, or consider the other options waiting in the wing.
If you had expected “ninja action”, the first half of “Owls’ Castle” will no doubt be a big disappointment. It’s only past the hour mark that anything of note, action-wise, takes place. There is a bloody duel between Juzo and a ninja from a rival ninja sect, and a brief scuffle with Gohei and his men after that. But even in the second half “Castle” is not what you would call action-packed. The movie has its share of bloodletting, but there’s no “Red Shadow”-type swordplay here, which is actually a good thing if you didn’t find that other movie to be particularly good.
The killing in “Castle” is swift and deadly. There are no stylish poses and absolutely no one does insane hijinks like defy gravity in the name of coolness. Although there is one sequence where a female ninja seems to be gliding through the air, the rest of the film is very grounded. “Owls’ Castle” is, I suspect, the closest you could get to realism in a movie about masked ninjas. That’s not completely a bad thing, since it does make the action sequences that do show up a lot more satisfying — mostly because there are so few of them that take place onscreen.
“Owls’ Castle” was not the ninja movie I expected, but it is a good film, and has some stunning cinematography to boot. Shinoda even uses a number of CGI effects, like bluescreen work and, I believe, some wirework to add some pizzazz to the ninja break-in scenes. These inclusions are brief and will be hardly noticed at all. The recreation of various Japanese cities and loving pans of the countryside also looks fabulous and adds to the prestige of the film.
Even though “Owls’ Castle” is not the ninja movie that I expected, it is a pretty good drama that just happened to have some action in it.
Masahiro Shinoda (director) / Ryotaro Shiba (novel)
CAST: Riona Hazuki … Kisaru
Takaya Kamikawa … Gohei
Kiichi Nakai … Juzo
Zinya Nezu …
Mayu Tsuruta … Kohagi
Mako … Hideyosh