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Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1999


Return of the big-budget ninja hero

Once a major genre that accounted for nearly half of production of all films in Japan, the jidai geki (period drama) has been largely absent from the screen these past few years. After the box-office failure in 1994 of two jidai geki -- both inspired by the Chushingura story -- the studios put their swords and topknots in storage.

Now, however, the genre is back, with veterans Kon Ichikawa, Nagisa Oshima and Masahiro Shinoda filming ambitious period dramas for wide release. There is also "Ame Agaru (When the Rain Lifts)," a new jidai geki by a first-time director, but based on a script by Akira Kurosawa.

The first of this new spate to hit the screens is Shinoda's "Fukuro no Shiro (Owls' Castle)," a jidai geki about the loves and rivalries of ninja in the Momoyama Era (1568-1600). Based on a novel by Ryotaro Shiba, "Fukuro no Shiro" is Shinoda's attempt to give the genre a new lease on life with eye-popping computer effects and stuntwork.

The film also is faithful to the many twists and turns of Shiba's plot -- a program chart outlining the relationships among the various characters looks like an aerial view of a maze -- which will please the purists among Shiba's enormous readership, but may baffle the uninitiated.

Shinoda and his collaborators have produced images of Momoyama Japan that vividly re-create the bold, ravishing visions of the era's artists and craftsmen. And yet the film's freshly minted world -- the Momoyama at the moment of creation -- has something of the sumptuously mounted museum exhibition about it. Shinoda invites us to admire the achievements of Japanese culture on display (and we willingly accept), but instead of plunging us into the atmosphere of the past, as do the films of Mizoguchi, "Fukuro no Shiro" makes us feel we are gazing at carefully restored marvels in glass cases.

The film begins in 1581, with the attack of Oda Nobunaga on the ninja of Iga, a small province in today's Mie Prefecture. Nobunaga has long hated the ninja, whom he regards as spies and assassins for hire, and orders his warriors to wipe out their villages to the last man, woman and child. A few escape the ensuing massacre and, over the next decade, dream of repaying Nobunaga and his allies in their own blood.

One of the survivors, Juzo (Kiichi Nakai), is living a quiet life alone in the mountains when he is contacted by his former teacher of the ninja arts, Jiroemon (Gaku Yamamoto). He wants Juzo's help for an assignment he has accepted from a Sakai merchant: assassinate Taiko Hideyoshi, the diminutive but crafty and ruthless warlord who has taken over from Nobunaga. Juzo decides to join him.

Traveling to Kyoto to carry out this plan, Juzo encounters Ohagi (Mayu Tsuruta), a prostitute with a mysterious past and an irresistible allure. Juzo finds himself falling under her spell -- while she in turn is under the spell of yet another ninja, a clouder of minds who is in the employ of . . . perhaps I shouldn't say.

While in the capital, Juzo catches the act of a beautiful tightrope walker, Kisaru (Reona Hazuki), a ninja in disguise who is Jiroemon's daughter. Her troupe of traveling entertainers, in fact, is full of undercover Iga ninja who are taking part in the assassination plot. At night they become a band of robbers sowing chaos and confusion to distract the authorities. Then, when the time is ripe, they plan to pounce.

Among the police officers pursuing them is one Gohei (Takaya Kamikawa), yet another of Jiroemon's disciples, who has joined the establishment with the aim of rising to the samurai ranks. On the order of his superior, he sets out specifically to get Juzo, his former rival.

These are among the most prominent of a large cast of characters involved in an elaborate game of deception and intrigue, with an empire at stake. There is action galore for the ninja movie fans, both standard genre tricks, including jump cuts that make ninja seem to appear out of nowhere, and stunts that impress with their ingenuity and panache.

Unlike classic Hong Kong action movies, however, which build to operatic heights of near nonstop violence, "Fukuro no Shiro" uses the flashy swordplay and flying leaps much as kabuki does: to punctuate a drama whose main concerns remain the human ones of love and revenge, friendship and betrayal.

Shinoda has a true affection for and deep understanding of his material and rightly refuses to cheapen it for the box office. There is even something Shakespearean in the confrontation scene between Juzo and his tiny, wizened target, played by veteran Japanese-American character actor Mako Iwamatsu. Enough to say that the dialogue, while of the period in its diction, is revealingly direct and frank, while its theme -- the elusiveness of truth and illusiveness of reality -- has a Bard-like ring.

Would that the rest of the film had this scene's intelligence and impact, but it dissipates its energy in crowds of characters and thickets of plot. An owl may be known for its unblinking stare, but this viewer of "Fukuro no Shiro" was all too tempted to dream.

"Fukuro no Shiro" is playing at Shibuto Cine Tower and other theaters.

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