There's a scene early in Owls' Castle that says almost everything about what's wrong with the movie in one stroke. In it, a pair of ninja — one hellbent on assassinating the then-ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the other intent on getting rid of him — meet on a rooftop in Hideyoshi's palace grounds. They speak imperiously at each other, eyes flashing, their words elegantly crafted in the way only a screenplay can be. And at no time did the movie ever seem to wonder why a couple of guys up on a rooftop talking wouldn't have their voices carry. It got to the point where I wondered why someone didn't come out below, rubbing his eyes and shouting, "Pipe down up there! Some of us are trying to sleep!"
It would have sure livened things up. Owl's Castle is an amazingly lazy movie based on a semi-historical work of fiction by Ryotaro Shiba. In it, he theorized that an attempt had been made on Hideyoshi's life by the survivor of a ninja clan he had eradicated (ostensibly for his own protection); that one of the survivors would want to take revenge.
The movie touches on a number of interesting historical precedents for all of this, like Hideoyshi's failed attempt at conquering Korea. Gorgeous sets and costumes fill the screen to its edges, and the filmmakers did a fantastic job of recreating period Osaka and Kyoto locations realistically. This all sounds like it should make for a great movie. It does not.Masahiro Shinoda (also responsible for the recent Spy Sorge), has taken a strange approach to the material: he filmed it with top-quality CGI and a first-rate cast, but chose a directorial and cinematographic style that feels like something straight out of the cheapie productions of the Seventies. The camera barely moves at all for each shot — to the point where I started to wonder if for some shots the cast just fired up the camera, ran in front of it, and said their lines. It's that static.
At least we get a relatively engaging opening, showing the destruction of the Iga ninja clan by Hideyoshi's forces. The survivor, Juzo (Nakai Kiitsu) has taken up an existence with a group of mountain monks, carving idols for a living, but when given a chance to kill the man who decimated his clan, he puts on the ol' black outfit and sharpens up his shuriken. The scene where he's introduced is filmed in the most unintentionally hilarious manner possible: every line spoken by his tempter is dramatically undercut by a flash of offscreen lighting and thunder.
Much of the film is taken up with machination of one kind or another, between Juzo and the men he is trying to deceive, or between him and another survivor of the clan — a young woman whom he's either destined to save, marry, or kill off — although the logic behind all of this is incredibly murky throughout the film. There are various attempts to give the characters depth and dimension, but these are limited mostly to speeches that come out when the script has a dead spot that can't otherwise be papered over.
To be honest, there is one scene in the movie that works well (you may want to skip ahead if you don't want to know), and that is when Juzo finally reaches Hideyoshi's inner sanctum. Juzo sees only an old man, frail and weak without his armies and retainers — and Hideyoshi himself agrees. But, he says philosophically, if you kill me, there will only be another to take my place and keep history rolling inexorably on. It's a fine sentiment, but the movie doesn't know how to exploit it in any other way than to turn it into a standalone speech. If it had been made into a more substantive part of the story, we would have had something here.
The flattest part of the movie is the action, and while it should be plain that this isn't primarily an action film, the action sequences are dead weight. They allegedly had a real martial-arts specialist on hand for the combat moves, but the way it's shot and edited is so listless and uninvolving that it hardly matters. People complained about the chaotic and nearly abstract fight scenes in Gojoe, but at least there you felt something was happening. Here, it's the tired formula where two guys yell, swing at each other, there's a "schlorp!" on the soundtrack, and one of them drops dead a moment later. Perhaps that's part of the throwback / homage feel to the movie I described earlier — unless it's all a parody, which is unlikely.
What made Owls' Castle so popular in Japan was probably its colorful interpretation of local history — and maybe also because it took no real risks in that interpretation. It's exactly the sort of bland, lockstep storytelling that I started watching Japanese movies (and Asian films in general) to get away from. There's a good story in here somewhere, but the movie is simply too uninvolving and stodgy to make it work. It’s old-fashioned, and not in a good way.