Shinobi – Heart under Blade: film could have been cut above other live-action films based on manga / anime

Ten Shimoyama, “Shinobi – Heart under Blade” (2005)

Based on a novel “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls” written by Futaro Yamada in the late 1950’s, this movie will appeal mainly to fans of the manga and anime, both called “Basilisk”, that are also based on the novel. Watch the movie closely though and you’ll find themes that will set you thinking: the age-old opposition between free will and predestination; the determinism that states that what you are and what you do are the products of your background and social history and you can never break away or overcome your past; the question of how people bred, born and trained for war can cope with peace; what is the point of war anyway; and how misfits and outsiders can be accepted in normal society.

The film is set in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate that brought 260 years of peace to Japan. Ieyasu Tokugawa (Kazuo Kitamura) is wary of any threats to the country’s recent unification after 150 years of warfare (a period mined by Akira Kurosawa for insipiration for his films) and in particular is concerned about two clans, the Iga and Koga clans, based in two hidden mountain villages that have waged a vendetta against each other for centuries and are currently co-existing under an enforced 400-year peace. Tokugawa’s advisor cunningly sees a way of obliterating these two clans and wiping out any potential resistance to his master and suggests the clans demonstrate their prowess and powers at a ceremony by sending one representative warrior each. After this demonstration, Tokugawa announces that the enforced peace between the two clans is to be lifted and invites the clans to choose their five best ninja warriors to fight to the death. The one warrior to survive this all-in cat-fight will determine which of Tokugawa’s sons will succeed him as Shogun.

Unbeknownst to all, including their own people, it happens that Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kogas and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Igas fell in love some time ago and married secretly. As a result of Tokugawa’s invitation, both Gennosuke and Oboro find themselves nominated as members of their respective clans’ lists of the five best warriors and moreover, after the aged heads of the two clans foolishly whack each other into oblivion – illustrating that even in those days, when you were supposed to respect aged people for their wisdom, the reality was that being older didn’t necessarily mean being wiser – must lead their teams in this battle to end all battles. Gennosuke determines to find out from a senior noble Hattori Honzo (Yutaka Matsushige) what actual purpose this fight might serve as he suspects there is a hidden motive and he takes his warriors on a long trek on foot to Sumpu to meet this guy. He invites Oboro and her warriors to follow him and his team.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the Koga and Iga warriors taking one another out in ingenious and gruesome ways, their skills and superhuman powers on display though a number of characters don’t live long enough for the audience to fully appreciate the fighters’ abilities, until only Gennosuke and Oboro are left standing. In the meantime, the Shogun sends his armies to destroy the Koga and Iga villages. Realising their families and homes are doomed, Gennosuke and Oboro face a hard decision: one of them must sacrifice himself/herself and “lose” the battle of the clans.

The cinematography is gorgeous, emphasising nature and landscapes and in particular the passing of seasons, and this is the major highlight of the film, more so than the CGI-enhanced fighting scenes, some of which look surprisingly cheap. The overall idea with the emphasis on nature and its cycle is that all characters in this film are locked into an inescapable cosmic game which must be played out to its bitter end; the ninja warrior followers certainly feel this way and are either resigned to their fate or can’t see that they can be more than what they were bred, born and brought up to be.  They believe that without war, without a leader they can serve, their unique skills and abilities are as nothing and will wither and be forgotten. Only Gennosuke sees that there may be a place for the Igas and Kogas in a new world of peace; he questions the idea of being born for war and of wasting lives in violence, particularly in a scene where he defends himself from a horde of black-clad ninjas and slays them all, only to cry out in frustration at a situation where he is forced to kill for no good reason.

The colours of the film are worth mentioning: blue looks bluer, red looks redder and so on with all other colours, giving an intense look that is slightly unreal, even a bit cartoony, and demonstrating that, yes, we are in a world where real-life people like Ieyasu Tokugawa co-existed with people who are both human in their thoughts, feelings and shortcomings, and beyond human in their skills and abilities.

With the film’s emphasis on plot and pleasing the target audience (“Basilisk” manga / anime fans), acting and character development aren’t a great priority which is a pity; the characters of Oboro and Gennosuke at least could be more developed than they are so those viewers who don’t know the manga and anime film could sympathise with the lovers and feel their pain. The romance develops too quickly and next thing you know they’re married in a very brief ceremony (the groom hands his mother’s keepsake to the bride) and that’s it. From then on the action switches to the clans’ feud and how it will play out. The couple’s cardboard cut-out ninja companions are a mix of people who could be remote kin to the superheroes and supervillains of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes: Nenki Iga (Shun Ito) might be cousin to Wolverine of the X-Men team with his retractable iron claws and Kagero Koga (Tomoko Kurotani), the woman with poison for blood, has her analogy in Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy. Pity then that Nenki only has a couple of minutes to showcase his wares before Kagero finishes him off! The only ninja companions who get much to do and say are Koshirou (Mitsuki Koga) and Tenzen (Kippei Shiina): Tenzen especially voices his opinion that they, Kogas and Igas all, exist for war and have no place in a world of peace; significantly he chooses to die by kissing Kagero on the lips rather than rely on his symbiotic relationship with his pet internal tapeworm tenants which oblige him by cleaning and healing his wounds and injuries in super-quick time.

The plot is easy to follow and well-paced, progressing steadily to the surprise climax where the Shogun tells Oboro that her people and the Kogas are not normal people and can never be fully accepted into normal society because of their talents, and Oboro reacts by disabling herself of her unique power. This could be interpreted in different ways, not all of them happy: one interpretation could be that only by suppressing your uniqueness can you be accepted by others; another is that Oboro realises that to end their vendetta, the Igas and Kogas must join the rest of humanity and give up their warring ways by compromising their culture and talents. It’s a sad moment in a sense then when Oboro renounces her old life to spare her clan and Gennosuke’s clan from annihilation. The villagers may be saved and may be allowed to rejoin normal society and be able to resolve their differences with outside help and not have to resort to violence – but at what cost to their unique ways of life, their crafts and their arts?

The Romeo-and-Juliet plot may have been done to death many times already and there’s probably not much here that’s original and fresh but the film is a visually gorgeous and colourful feast for the eyes with lush forests and landscapes (a couple of waterfall scenes do look suspiciously unnatural, as though superimposed on a blank background behind a couple of actors) and the fight scenes and CGI effects are sometimes interesting if not always convincing. If the film had put more emphasis on developing interesting characters and elaborating on its themes, it could have been a cut above other live-action Japanese sword fantasy films based on manga and anime – ah, we’ll never know what could be.

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