If you were to make a live-action anime, you couldn’t do any better than what director Shimoyama Ten (“Muscle Heat”) has done with “Shinobi: Heart Under Blade”, a film that is parts superhero comic book, parts tragic love story, and when it hits its stride, a seriously insane manga come alive. Essentially a familiar story about duty-bounded souls caught up in circumstances not of their own making, the film is an excellent example of not re-inventing the wheel, but rather taking what is there and making it work nonetheless. The presence of good actors, a tender and affecting love story, and wild action makes for one excellent action-adventure romp through feudal Japan .
“Shinobi” opens with an accidental meeting between ninja warriors Gen-no-suke (Jo Odagiri) and Oboro (Yukie Nakama). The two are members of opposing ninja clans that have been at war for 400 years; she of the Iga, and he of the Kouga. It’s love at first sight, but alas, they are very much star crossed lovers, and as Oboro sighs, only meant to be together “in their dreams”. Oboro and Gen-no-suke’s forbidden love is made worst when the Shogun, fearing that rebels may use the ninja clans as instruments of insurrection, revokes the long-held truce between the ninjas, thereby allowing them to kill one another once more. Doubly worst, Oboro and Gen-no-suke gets chosen as the leaders of their respective battle squads, and must face off in deadly combat for the right to survive.
It’s a good thing, then, that Gen-no-suke isn’t the “follow orders at all cost” type, as he bucks against what he (correctly) perceives to be a foolhardy way of life that seems to have no purpose. Thanks to a measured performance by Jo Odagiri, last seen romancing another female assassin named “Azumi”, the character of Gen-no-suke is the film’s central core, and it is he who gives voice to the viewer’s questioning of the madness taking place. Although his rebellion is obviously steeled by his affections for Oboro, Odagiri plays Gen-no-suke as such a thoughtful young man that we think he would still question the sanity of the situation even if he didn’t know who Oboro was.
Less successful is Japanese beauty Yukie Nakama, whose Oboro oftentimes infuriates with her inability to commit. Granted, the prospect of usurping one’s entire upbringing for the love of a man one was never supposed to talk to, much less fall in love with is not exactly an easy choice. The problem, then, lies in the script, which makes Gen-no-suke so sane in his objections that Oboro’s passive acceptance of her role becomes all the more odious. The less than steely nature of Oboro can be blamed on a Japanese male’s attitude toward Japanese woman, as even when she breaks out her superpowers to, literally, crush her opponent, Oboro still gives the impression of being weak and vulnerable.
Another hiccup is the ending, which though heavy on emotions and pathos is empty of action. A curious decision, considering all the wild sequences that had come before. Of particular note is the fearsome match between ninja heavyweights Chikuma (Mitsuki Koga) and ex-“Versus” star Tak Sakaguchi, which kicks off the one-on-one duels between the two clans in fine style. The ninjas themselves (though they never actually wear ninja garb) are easy enough to tell apart, but unfortunately with only five on each side, they get dispatched much too quickly. By the time the film hits its 90-minute mark, the dueling is all but over, and audiences will be left wishing there was more.
“Shinobi” works because the film’s many superpowered and CGI-assisted ninja battles are always grounded by the very mortal romance between Gen-no-suke and Oboro. As the two conflicts with their loyalties, the other ninjas do battle around them, killing each other with wild fury. Restrained from doing battle for 400 years, the clan lets it all rip when presented with the first opportunity. As Tenzen (Kippei Shiina) remarks, their very existence was a prelude to these moments. It is not only who they are, but the only thing they know, which makes the doomed love between Oboro and Gen-no-suke all the more tragic as we realize that they never had a chance.
The film’s one major disappointment is that it kills off its characters much too quickly, and it’s to the film’s credit that I wanted more. And not just more action, but more exploration of the characters because they’re all so original, managing to be surprisingly well-developed in the brief moments they are onscreen. I wanted to know more about Kagerou (Tomoka Kurotani), the beautiful Kouga ninja who is a living, breathing well of poison. Then there’s the seemingly immortal Tenzen, a character that begs to have his history recited in detail, including those worm-like things that instantly heals him when he’s wounded.
At less than 2 hours, “Shinobi” is sadly too short, and a longer running time is needed not only to explore the film’s many fascinating ninja characters, but also to fully delve into the reasoning behind the Shogun’s decision to kill off the Iga and Kouga. We understand that the Shogun sees the two clans as threats, but we never really get a sense of the man himself, and whether his actions are really for peace or if he fears being overthrown. Obviously it speaks volumes for “Shinobi: Heart Under Blade” that I wanted the film to go on longer. If “Azumi 2” failed to live up to the hype, “Shinobi” more than exceeded my expectations.
Shimoyama Ten (director) / Kenya Hirata (screenplay), Futaro Yamada (novel)
CAST: Yukie Nakama …. Oboro
Kippei Shiina….Yakushiji Tenzen
Takeshi Masu….Muroga Hyouma
Mitsuki Koga….Chikuma Koshirou