Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is a live-action adaptation of Fûtaro Yamada’s ninja-adventure novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, which in turn inspired the manga and anime Basilisk — so with a pedigree like that it ought to be a knockout. It’s stuffed with outlandish costumes, lush scenery, savage fights and bizarre adversaries. But it’s strangely unengaging as a story, and anyone who’s familiar with the original material (like me) will squirm at how much has been thrown out.
Back when the original DVD edition of it appeared I wrote a review for my own site where I panned it roundly. Now having seen it again on Blu-ray Disc, I’m inclined to be a little kinder to it, if only because it really does look spectacular on all counts — and because anime/manga fans will almost certainly get a bang out of it. The cliché that this is a “manga come to life” completely applies here, but sadly, that’s pretty much all it is.
At least the core of the story remains unchanged. In the first years of Tokugawa-era Japan (1614), with peace newly established across the land and the country finally united under a single banner. The two fabled ninja clans, Kouga and Iga, are bound by a peace agreement forbidding internecine warfare between them. Both clans are chafing more than a bit under this restriction, since what are ninja for except battle? The lovely Iga ninja princess Oboro (Yukie Nakama) and the handsome Kouga prince Gennosuke (Jô Odagiri — he who was the mad Bijomaru in the live-action Azumi), star-crossed lovers of Kouga and Iga, have been planning to marry their respective villages together ever since they first met in secret years ago.
Unfortunately, the powers-that-be have other ideas. In the first of the movie’s many eye-popping action sequences, the fiercest warriors from each clan are invited to demonstrate their powers for the Shogun and his retainers. Those who have seen the other versions of this story will recognize this scene immediately — and also realize it’s the first sign of how much has been changed from the source material. The Shogun’s plan is simple: pick five warriors from each clan and have them battle to the last. The winning clan will be the Shogun’s true protectors in this new era.
Even worse, Gennosuke and Oboro are named as the respective commanders for each of their groups. No way is Gennosuke going to slaughter the one he loves, and so he secretly arranges a plan: Let each of our respective groups make pilgrimages to the Shogun’s castle and demand an answer of him there. Each group will only do battle with the other. And do battle they do, with everything from poison mists to swarms of killer butterflies, from fistfuls of shuriken to an evil eye that explodes blood vessels and shreds enemies from within. (The latter is shown off with the help of an unintentionally hilarious X-ray vision shot that looks like an airport luggage scanner gone berserk.)
The movie looks terrific, as it ought to. Individual shots have the care and composition of paintings, and the filmmakers fill the screen with acre after acre of achingly lovely countryside. The production design does a great job of evoking a world of “silk and straw”, as the title of a scholarly work on Japan put it. And yes, the fighting and effects are fun to watch, and I enjoyed the rogues’ gallery of grotesques on both sides of the battle. I especially liked Tenzen of Iga (veteran Kippei Shiina, of the upcoming Hidden Fortress remake), whose regenerative powers make him almost immortal — “Not immortal,” he quips at one point, “just not very good at dying” — and who sees this whole ninja grudge match as a wonderful way to finally die happy.
The film’s look and feel is inspired at least as much by Hong Kong wuxia movies — e.g., everything from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on down — as it is the old-school ninja adventures like Shinobi no Mono. Actually, the closest cousin that comes to mind is theother movies that were in turn adapted from Yamada’s novels — like Makai Tenshô (Samurai Resurrection), brought to the screen no less than three times in a row now. Check out the original 1981 version with Sonny Chiba in the lead and Battle Royaledirector Kinji Fukasaku behind the camera; the effects are a little dated but Chiba owns the film from front to back.
What’s frustrating, though, is the fact that this story has already been adapted for the screen, and spectacularly well at that, in the anime Basilisk. It’s even more over-the-top and outlandish than Shinobi is, but it’s also that much more deeply felt, and spends that much more time involving you in its characters. Strangely, Shinobi feels about as long as the whole of the TV series, but to far less effect. Too many scenes where people stand facing each other and repeat information we already know; too many moments drawn out for emotional affects that would have been better expressed with action or dialogue instead of long, lingering gazes; too many scenes where people bemoan their fates instead of doing something about it.
There’s another problem, one I singled out in my original review. When you describe something outlandish on the page, or even put it on the screen as animation, you can do it that much more easily without losing the audience. But with a live-action movie,everything becomes drastically literal: what seemed thrilling on the page and eye-filling as animation runs the risk of looking merely goofy when acted out live. When Iga ninja Yashamaru (Tak Sakaguchi, of the brilliantly insane Versus) spews out his magic wires to strangle enemies or snatch weapons from their fists, it looks like CGI; when he uses the same trick to somersault over their heads, it looks like bad CGI. With a less stodgy story, we might not have minded as much, but here it’s like thumbs in the eyes … something that definitely came to mind by the time the movie limps to its deeply unsatisfying conclusion. You’ll see what I mean — or maybe not.
As strange as this might sound, Shinobi will probably go down best with those of you who aren’t already fans of Basilisk or Fûtaro Yamada. If nothing else you won’t be comparing it compulsively to the original, and you’ll be able to enjoy it on its own merits as a spectacle. But those of you anticipating something that has the ferocity of the anime or the raucousness fun of the novel are going to have to scale your expectations back.