Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

This film kicked ass.  I could, and should just end it there, but the Union of Unpaid Film Critics requires that I at least input 750 words or they will revoke my membership.  A few months ago my good friend Keith was harassing me about watching this Manga series he’d just purchased named ‘Basilisk’.  Based on a 1958 novel, The Kouga Ninja Scrolls’ by Futaru Yamada, Basilisk tells the story of two warring ninja clans.  When I finally got around to watching it, it simply blew me away in the action and depth of the characters, not to mention the brilliant art work.  Then I got word that there was to be a live action movie also based on the novel, not the manga though.  I was interested to see it even though most ninja movies tend to suck, which is odd since a ninja has as much drama and action to offer as any character in fictional lore.  From the opening frames of ‘Shinobi’ with the beautiful photography of the Japanese country sides and the flowing waterfalls I knew at the least that this was going to nice to movie look at, but will it be any good?  I must say that ‘Shinobi’ kept me enthralled in it’s narrative from start to finish to the point I was almost sad to see it end.


Peace has come over land after years of brutal war, brought together by the Great Lord (Kazuo Kitamura).  But in the wilderness lives two separate clans of Shinobi ninja warriors, bound by hatred for each other, but due to the peaceful accord left with nothing to fight for and no one to battle.  One of the Great Lords lieutenants points out, and rightfully so, that it’s probably not in the best interest of the royal palace two have these groups of phenomenal warriors, continuously training with  nothing to fight for because eventually they could unite and no one, and we mean no one would be able to stop them.

Agreeing, the Lord sets up a demonstration in which the leader of the Iga clan, Minonenki (Shun Ito) and the leader of the Kouga, clan Kouga Danjou (Minoru Terada) each bring a warrior to display their skills.  As the palace powers had feared, the shinobi warriors bested the king’s best men with barely a blink of an eye.  This leads to him presenting them a challenge.  Take your five greatest warriors and have them battle each other.  Whoever survives will rule both clans, and have the right select the next Shogun.


Now there are a lot of cultural and historical influences that go into this, but this seemed like a fairly silly solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, at least as far as the shinobi are concerned.  Kouga Warrior Genosuke (Jo Adagari) feels similarly openly questioning why they have agreed to kill each other in the kings’ game.  Firstly, he thinks it’s just plain stupid, secondly, and more importantly he’s fallen madly in love with Iga warrior Oboro (Yukie Nakama).  Things become more complicated for the star-crossed lovers when their names show up the each clans list of five, and becomes even MORE complicated when both are named as heads of their respective clans after their previous leaders kill each other.  Genosuke refuses to fight, much to the dismay of his clan who as they see it, exist only to fight and die, instead opting to find out what the real reason for this insane battle is.  Oboro sadly accepts her fate and leads her team to their destinies.  Along the way warriors meet, spectacular battles ensue, and warriors die.


Behind the amazing cinematography, spectacular CGI and traditional stunt work and special effects, ‘Shinobi’ works because of clear, concise characterization.  At the heart of this is the amazingly grounded performance of Jo Adagari as Genosuke who in this world of fantasy wants two real things; and that is to live and to love.  The other characters motivations are clear as well and that is to fight and die as this is what they have been bred to do since conception. As  Kouga warrior Muoga (Takeshi Masu) aptly points out “If I can’t fight, then what can I do?”.


The action sequences and the fight scenes were very well done and very powerful as as each warrior has essentially some amazing super skill demonstrate. Genosuke and Oboro didn’t display what their powers were ‘til late in the proceedings, and considering both were so reticent to lead, you wonder why they were appointed to such grand tasks in the first place.  However, when Oboro and particularly Genouske eventually display what they are capable of, all you can say is ‘whoa’.


‘Shinobi’ is the kind of movie I live for watching as it completely picked me up (which ain’t easy) and swept me completely into its fantasy world.  But the emotions driving this world of fantasy are completely real, and genuinely touches your heart.  It also relies heavily on duty, honor, destiny, obligation, and as one would expect in a tale such as this, tragedy.   I can’t say enough good things about director Ten Shimoyama’s ‘Shinobi’ and I recommend it as one of the best movies I’ve seen, ever.

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