This is something which shouldn’t surprise a lot of people - kaiju films (of either the scientific or fantasy genres) are not the main tokusatsu films anymore. Tokusatsu means special photography. So, of course, anything with special effects or visual effects can be considered tokusatsu (though now, it does have to come from the Land of the Rising Sun). Thus comes films like SHINOBI: HEART UNDER BLADE. The film’s SFX were such that Shochiku had a demonstration of the making of the SFX at the TFT Tokyo Fashion Town building (West Wing), done by Kazuhiko Mino (who IMDb doesn’t have an adequate page on).
It is also interesting that the type of film SHINOBI is has a good bit of appeal from many different cults. Not just Japanese cinema otakus, but also from anime fans (who can count the film as a sort of non-official adaptation of BASILISK) and a breed of fan quite their own, modern chanbara fans (people who would actually pair this film with Kitamura’s AZUMI, which I thought was interesting to say the least). What should we make of SHINOBI?
For those unfamiliar with the story of BASILISK, SHINOBI concerns the Kouga and Iga ninja clans (who you might have seen play very small roles in films like MAKAI TENSHO). Knowing that these two clans have skills which make them dangerous to “normal” society, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his advisors plan on wiping out both clans by having them fight each other (meaning having to break a bond the clans made with the Hatori Hanzo family). If this doesn't succeed, then the plan is to cannon ball both clans in an act of gross genocide. It is masked as a competition to decide the successor to Ieyasu Tokugawa. This isn’t too good of a thing, for there is somewhat of a Romeo & Juliette affair afloat - a young man from Kouga and a young woman from Iga love each other. But fate has it be that they are in charge of their clan’s representative groups.
Oh the drama.
Seeing that this film is admired on three fronts, let’s grade it from those first. Most importantly is the CGI. Using Maya and even creating new functions within it (Mesh Aniport), the result that Japan comes up with still look different than American, Korean (Younggu-Art), or German (Centropolis) CGI works. The look is just different. This concerns things like creating whole environments like the Kouga clan’s village's mountain side and crevasse which is set upon. Is it necessarily good? Well, if we were talking about the end result having to look realistic, Japan has only a bit more to catch up upon . The Japanese are getting better. One problem with films like GAMERA 3: INCOMPLETE STRUGGLE (which helped pioneer CG usage in Japan), matching a CG model to it’s analogue doppelganger, was a challenge. It is less of a challenge now, and unless you see making of documentaries which show off pre-visualization and in-progress shots, you wouldn’t know that the character Tak Sakaguchi (VERSUS) plays is for a good bit of time CG (knowing what the actor has been willing to go through (chipping of teeth), I would think he’d be alright with crane work). Knowing that this was a 2005 film, I can just imagine what Japanese CG looks like now (I have yet to see the latest film adaptation of BATTLESHIP: YAMATO).
From an action point, it can be considered one which trades dynamic direction for more interesting weapons. To continue a comparison with Kitamura’s AZUMI, Kitamura is a more dynamic director of action than Ten Shimoyama (maybe because this was Shimoyama’s fifth feature). The variety of angles, camera movements, and the flow created from such is something Kitamura should be commended for. SHINOBI should be commended for being more imaginative with what actually happens than how it is depicted (though the film does get more stylized as you go on, to match up with the abilities of the Shinobi). A variety of weapons from all over the place (not just Japan) are used (this is given detail in a behind the scenes tidbit on the DVD), even to the point that it compliments a character played by Kippei Shiina (who, in this films, shows that he could be a live action Sephiroth if a live action FINAL FANTASY VII film was to be optioned). Only thing to be criticized is that some of the chosen five die to quickly in the movie in too quick a fashion.
As for being an adaptation of the manga/anime… I have no earthly idea. Nor would I think most in America’s anime clubs would know either. Knowing that it is officially an adaptation of THE KOUGA NINJA SCROLLS by Futaro Yamada, I cannot speak of that either.
Speaking from regular film criticism, Ten Shimoyama does a good job with the film when it comes to everything having an elemental feel. Safe except from a questionable is-it-or-is-it-not-a-green-screen-shot, the feeling of nature is in the film almost as if Haruhi Kadokawa directed this. Of course, modern influence is helping the feel along with color filters (brown for the Kouga’s mountainous village and an aquatic blue for the Iga’s river-side village). That isn't to mean that the usage of such isn't as bad as it is here in America, where as natural colors cannot come out due to the filters. The characters that end of mattering the most are given the best shots while the other shinobi are introduced with their name on screen and everything (similar to Hugo Stiglitz's part in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS).
If anything should be criticized, it should be the writing. Even though there is a likely chance that SHINOBI was written in a way that it wouldn't be over 2 hours long, SHINOBI is a film which I would have wished they went all the way into a 2.5 hour film and I think it would have still succeeded in the success it has had. As mentioned, some characters die too quickly and the way which they are killed is just as swift. The only characters who are given development are the ones who can make it passed the 1 hour mark. The rest are dead meat. This is sad for some of the Shinobi on both sides sound like they could have some pretty interesting story arcs. Instead, one might think that they are used only to convey one ideal in a conformist fashion that our main two characters (Gennosuke and Oboro) do not seem to think it is right: since Shinobi are raised to do battle, that is what they must do otherwise, there is nothing. Take the characters either way you must, either undeveloped or used to flesh out a certain philosophy.
What we have when it comes to the film is a basic study of shinobi in the world. What is their place, and how will the outside world tolerate them? Forget that a bunch of the characters within the two ninja clans are having philosophical troubles about weather or not they should fight. There is a much bigger picture. It is a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED type situation we have. It is like that in which there is a breed of humans who have skills above that of the rest of the human population. Natural selection or artificial selection will occur one way or another. The chances of co-existence aren't existent. So, artificial selection seems to be the choice the lesser-skilled majority choose. Meaning, they choose to kill off the Shinobi.
What does the film do with this?
Just shows that regardless of the Shinobi being human also, the majority will still execute the genocide. That of course is brought to an end when the Shinobi seem to symbolically give up practicing their art (Oboro destroys her eyes at the end of the film). More could have been done with this theme, but to complain about it further would serve to only show off philosophical skills and such, which is not the point here.
The actors in the film are of a good quality. Jo Odagiri (who seems to have been under some fire from the Henshin otaku recently) plays Gennosuke. The multiple award winning actor has won Japanese Academy Awards for work he has done such as Bijomaru in AZUMI (the character Tohokingdom bashed for being too feminine (which I thought was actually a good thing)) comes back and does a more "manly" job this time around. He actually does as good of a job to let the audience know (when watching the film subtitled and in Japanese like it should be viewed) that what seems like over acting in the English language isn't when you can speak Japanese.
Yuki Nakama, gravure model and a person that the readers of this blog will probably remember as being adult Iris' first victim before getting her boyfriend in GAMERA 3: INCOMPLETE STRUGGLE. The use of models and such in films is something even America does (take a look at Michael Bay's work). The comparison though is one which makes perfectly clear that either the Japanese are just naturally better at the theatrical arts or their directors are a lot better. Nakama, along with Odagiri, shows full emotions and is a character that I felt some remorse for by the end of the film. She does a good job, but not as good as the rest of her cast, which except for one other person doesn't add up to much.
That person would be Kippei Shiina. The person referred to as a male Sephiroth earlier plays maybe the most interesting character of all - a nearly immortal Shinobi. Having foreign weapons and the insight of an old person, he actually ends up telling Odagiri's character certain aspects of the Shinobi's place in history. He even has a poetic death. Shiina is an award winning actor, but to think that he has not won an Academy Japanese award and Odagiri has is truly something to ponder about. He knows how to play wise. Just too bad we don't see more of this character.
All in all, SHINOBI is a film which if given a longer running time would have been a better film via more development and maybe more meaning. But for what it is, it is an enjoyable film which entertains and is distinctly Japanese in flavor and will please many the Nippon eiga otaku. Action is good, the basic study of the shinobi's place in the world is interesting, but it is just too much of a studio film to reach the horizons that it could have broadened itself to.