by Theron Martin,

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade
In Japan in 1614, Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa has finally brought peace to the land. Only one major loose end remains: a pair of powerful, arch-rival ninja clans based out of hidden villages, ones with warriors of such strength that they could be a threat in this new era of peace. After witnessing their power, he concocts a scheme to deal with the Koga and Iga clans: nullify a 400-year-old nonaggression pact between them and get the five top warriors on each side to fight each other under another pretense, hopefully eliminating both sides and thus his problem. Although many of their fellows are eager for the fight, the plan proves problematic for the Iga heir Oboro and Koga heir Gennosuke, who have secretly fallen in love. They are forced to choose between love and clan loyalties in a story that can only end in tragedy.

Does the set-up and plot remind you of the anime Basilisk? It should, because this 2005 live-action movie is based on the same novel as the Basilisk manga and anime series. In fact, it is exactly a pared-down live-action version of Basilisk, one which eliminates half of the cast on each side to meet practical considerations of production and time limits. Those that remain, beyond Oboro and Gennosuke, are those whose abilities can be reproduced relatively easily without enormously complicated special effects. Changes have also been made to some of the characters who made the cut, to better fit the practicalities of live-action and the reduced cast. Oboro's ability to negate ninjitsu with her gaze becomes a truly hideous internal body-mangling gaze attack called Eye of Destruction, while Gennosuke's suicide gaze becomes a slow-time ability which makes him virtually unstoppable in a fight. Changes have happened with some other characters, too, but they stay at least generally to the spirit of the originals.

The story spares only a small bit of time to establish the relationship between Oboro and Gennosuke (which is not out in the open as it is in the anime) before delving into the intricate battle scenes that are the meat-and-potatoes of the movie. Although one of the characters looks cheesy with his obviously-CG-enhanced abilities, the fights are generally well-choreographed and don't disappoint on intensity. As the supporting cast members are whittled away one by one the writing delves into the true heart of the story: the tragedy of a people becoming obsolete because the purpose they have lived and worked for is now neither needed nor wanted.

Expected to read a declaration about tragic love there, didn't you? The love story between Oboro and Gennosuke is certainly a key part of the story, but it is nowhere near as strongly established as it is in the anime, nor is it as effective at speaking to a viewer as the other tragedy afoot here. These shinobi are people born and trained to be weapons, so what place do they have in a world at peace? How can a woman who is, literally, poison, lead a normal life? What can a man who knows nothing other than how to fight do when there's no longer any reason to fight? The Shogun is executing a scheme to rid himself of potentially troublesome leftovers from an era of war by manipulating them into fighting each other, but some of the combatants welcome the opportunity to not only fight but go out fighting, not because they hate each other (they supposedly do, but the movie doesn't show that) but because they need to fight to justify their existences. Only Gennosuke and Oboro are able to rise above this, and the dramatic and desperate way they try to bring matters to an end infuses the movie with real dramatic power in its later stages. The best scenes actually come after the fighting is done.

Unquestionably the highlight of Shinobi is its cinematography, especially its vivid use of color. It clearly takes inspiration from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the way it frames its shots to exploit scenic vistas and panoramic mountain views, but it also follow the CTHT tradition of working color schemes to their utmost advantage. This can be seen in the costuming, such as Oboro's striking outfits or Kagero's white-on-white look, which emphasizes the unnatural nature of her physiology when she is in a natural environment, but is more evident in the landscapes. The brown, earthy overtones of the mountainside village of Manjidani contrast so sharply with the deep blues of the mountain valley village of Tsubagakure that the social separation and rivalry between the two is unmistakable. By comparison the visuals of the fights are only pretty good, with CG special effects being only modestly successful. (Although the internal view of how Oboro's power works is horror movie-worthy. That such a beautiful and supposedly gentle woman has such an ugly power is unnerving.) Enough blood and serious violence is present to merit an R rating, but there are certainly more graphic martial arts movies out there.

The casting for the movie is solid, but the uneven acting is a weak point. Joe Odagiri, whom anime fans will also see in the live-action adaptation of Mushishi, doesn't have the broad physicality that Gennosuke is portrayed as having in the anime, but he certainly is a worthy pretty boy for being a male romantic lead. Gorgeous Yukie Nakama is more than his equal in looks as Oboro, and the two look great together as a couple. They don't, unfortunately, generate much chemistry, and neither exhibits a high level of acting ability. Although they look the parts, they are also the reason why the tragic romance side of things isn't as effective as it should be. Kippei Shiina looks ridiculous as Tenzen but performs the role well, and Mitsuki Koga shines in portraying Koshiro as a man desperately trying to grasp onto the last vestiges of a life now passing him by. Most other actors are at least adequate, although some have such brief appearances that you never get to hear them say much.

Shinobi does not make heavy use of its soundtrack, but it is effective when used, particularly in supporting the fight scenes. Its title sequence is very generic, but its closing theme “HEAVEN,” by J-Pop superstar Ayumi Hamasaki, is worth sitting through the all-Japanese credits to hear. The version currently touring arthouse theaters is subtitled-only, so no English dub is available at this time. The one flaw in the subtitles is inconsistency in the spelling of the Koga home village; it's “Manjitani” in some places and “Manjidani” in others.

Shinobi suffers as much from uneven writing quality as it does from uneven acting, as not enough time and effort is put into establishing the crucial romantic set-up. For much of the movie the plot also seems unable to settle on whether it is primarily a romance, an action movie, or a social commentary, with the latter ultimately winning out. The writing does improve as the movie progresses, however, allowing it to finish much stronger than it starts. It is certainly a must-see movie if you're a fan of Basilisk, and it won't be a wasted choice when it ultimately becomes available on DVD in February of 2007.

Production Info:
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Art : A-
Music : B

+ Great cinematography and use of color, good action scenes, beautiful leads.
Uneven acting and writing.

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