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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2001

A samurai flick for the MTV generation

Hiroyuki Nakano strips down conventions and cuts to the chase



Red Shadow Aka Kage

Rating: * * 1/2 Director: Hiroyuki Nakano Running time: 108 minutes Language: JapaneseOpens Aug. 11 at Marunouchi Toei and other theaters

Silent-era samurai movies fulfilled the same function as the westerns of W.S. Hart and Tom Mix: They entertained the common herd, particularly rowdy boys, with larger-than-life heroes and action.

Masanobu Ando looks cool (top) then loses it at the hands of Jinpachi Nezu (above, left) and Fumiya Fujii (center) in "Red Shadow Aka Kage."

Pioneer samurai star Tsumasaburo Bando, who made dozens of films with director Masahiro Makino, was known less for his acting skills than his fantastic feats of swordplay, cutting swaths through crowds of opponents as though they were so many stalks of rice. Meanwhile, Makino described his filmmaking philosophy as: "One, strong plot; two, no unessentials; and three, continual movement."

That philosophy served Makino well through a long and successful career, from his 1928 debut "Roningai" to the 1990 remake, on which he served as an adviser. The genre itself, however, went into a decline with the arrival of television and nearly disappeared from screens in the 1990s. Now we are in the midst of a mini-revival, led by such veterans as Masahiro Shinoda ("Fukuro no Shiro"), Nagisa Oshima ("Gohatto") and Kon Ichikawa ("Dora Heita"). But though this new spate of samurai films may be bringing older fans back to the theaters, they are not connecting with the younger, core audience in a significant way. One reason is that their directors may throw in the occasional splashy effect using computer graphics or one-against-50 sword-fighting scene, but they are still wedded to styles and concerns that have everything to do with their status as auteurs, little to do with selling popcorn and T-shirts to teenagers.

Then there is Hiroyuki Nakano, who is relatively young, a master of the pop music video (credits include Glay, Mr. Children and Miki Imai) and ambitious to update the samurai genre for a new generation. His feature debut, 1998's "SF Samurai Fiction," was a video clip writ large, with plenty of headlong slapstick action and editing wizardry, indicating Nakano had thoroughly mastered the MTV canon, not to mention digital effects software. But though cheeky and inventive, "SF Samurai Fiction" was less an eiga (movie) than an eiga gokko (movie game).

Now Nakano is back with his second film in less than a year, "Red Shadow Aka Kage." (The first, "Rush," was recently reviewed on this page.) This time, instead of the trendy Shibuya crowd that made "SF Samurai Fiction" a hit, he is taking aim at the mass audience, including the boys whose great-grandfathers were Tsumasaburo Bando fans.

He does so with much the same philosophy as Makino, especially the part about "continual movement," but with technical toys that Makino could have only dreamed of. A ninja thriller loosely based on a popular manga from the 1960s, "Red Shadow" wastes little time on the boring expository stuff that fills the samurai films of the auteurs. Instead, it cuts straight to the chase, or rather the CG-spiced action scenes, with a throbbing score by veteran Boowy vocalist Tomoyasu Hotei (who also starred in "SF Samurai Fiction" and has a cameo as a saturnine samurai in "Red Shadow").

Nakano, however, is not subverting the conventions of the genre so much as stripping them down, while revving the pace to warp speed and brightening the tone with goofy pratfalls and other foolery. There is not a dull moment in the film.

There is also, unfortunately, not much in the way of real thrills or laughs, which "The Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo" manage to have, despite the lack of cool computer graphics. What, I wonder, did Kurosawa have that Nakano doesn't?

The year is 1545, when Japan was still in the midst of the bloody, chaotic Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period). The Kageichi clan of ninja, once renowned for its matchless martial arts skills and its fantastically strong weapons made of unearthly steel, has fallen on hard times, with only one master ninja (Naoto Takenaka) and three young disciples remaining: the naive but pure-hearted Akakage (Masanobu Ando), the brave but slow-witted Aokage (Jun Murakami) and the beautiful but dangerous Asuka (Kumiko Aso).

This trio still performs dangerous missions for their master, the cynical, scheming Lord Togo (Masahiko Tsugawa), but are starting to wonder what fending off the occasional threat to Togo's borders has to do with the clan motto: "Working in the shadows for the light of world peace." (Hey, it's a ninja movie for kids.)

Also, Akakage and Aokage, though the best of buddies, begin to have uncomfortably competitive feelings for the lovely Asuka.

Things start to pick up, however, when they become involved in intrigue in the neighboring fiefdom of the Kyogoku clan. After the old lord dies, his daughter and heir, Princess Koto (Megumi Okina), announces that she will "give up being a woman" and rule the fiefdom with a masculine firmness. There are two problems, however: First, even with short hair and a severe expression, she is a still a babe and, second, her father's crafty karo (senior retainer), Takeunouchi (Takanori Jinnai), is scheming to depose her, with the aid of a troop of ninja led by the nefarious Negoro (Jinpachi Nezu).

Needless to say, Akakage and his companions back the rightful heir against the usurper -- a struggle that becomes a crusade for revenge when Asuka dies in a battle with Negoro and his cohorts. Meanwhile, Koto starts to feel stirrings of something more than gratitude toward Akakage, though as a mere ninja, he ranks infinitely below her in the social hierarchy.

More than its various plot complications, the film focuses on its set-piece action scenes, with acrobatics inspired by Hong Kong action flicks and a cartoony propulsion and panache reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films. But for all the slickness of the editing and the stylishness of the set designs and costumes (black has seldom looked better on action heroes of any era) the film is minus moments that will make 14-year-old boys go "Wow!"

Save for a few spectacular exceptions, such as the grinning, gyrating thief played by rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva, it's all too obvious that the stunt team and CG wizards, not the actors, are performing the high-flying leaps and other superhuman feats. Hong Kong action stars may use the occasional assist from the editing room, but most are genuine martial artists who, after the filming is finished, have the bruises and broken bones to prove it. Nakano's ninja barely break a sweat -- cooler, perhaps, but not as convincing.

"Red Shadow," though, makes for a terrific trailer, soundtrack clip and calling card for its tech staff. One day, maybe, Nakano will get around to filming a movie.



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