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Friday, Sept. 30, 2005
Ninja are cool, but love rules
The big fight scenes in samurai swashbucklers used to unfold like dance numbers, with the hero as the prima, the attackers as the corps de ballet. The audience was expected to admire the virtuoso choreography and bravura turns, while ignoring the absence of blood, just as they would at a Kabuki play.
Now the samurai movie and its variants are back, but the model has changed. Films like Hiroyuki Nakano's "Red Shadow," Hideyuki Hirayama's "Makai Tensho (Samurai Resurrection)" and Ryuhei Kitamura's "Azumi" are closer to video games than Kabuki or ballet. The fighters have highly distinct powers, costumes and physiques, but little depth -- they are types, not individuals. The story is a series of fight scenes, with the supporting players falling by the wayside (or vanishing into a clouds of pixels), until only the hero and the leader of the bad guys are left to duel it out. The ending, unlike the final "boss" stage of a game, is a foregone conclusion.
Ten Shimoyama's "Shinobi," with its story of two warring ninja clans in the early days of the Tokugawa era, follows this game formula -- but with differences that make it a cut above the genre run. A king-of-all-media type who has directed everything from TV dramas to a theme-park attraction, Shimoyama aspires to the epic, mythic quality of Zhang Yimou's "Hero" or Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" -- and attains it surprisingly often. I say "surprisingly" because most Japanese films in this genre settle for the surface flash and dazzle of the arcade. Shimoyama may be aiming at the same teen gamer market, but takes his material more seriously.
Also, the effects supplied by CG director Hiroyuki Hayashi are in the service of the story and characters, not simply for eye-popping display. Some are dazzling, as when the hero, Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri), uses superhuman powers of concentration to see water tumbling over a waterfall in ultravivid slow motion. Or as when the heroine, Oboro (Yukie Nakama), pierces a foe with her glance (her eyes changing color in the process) and shorts out his synapses, in a sequence that resembles an animated medical drawing in hyper-realistic 3-D.
These and other feats derive from the ninjas' training and abilities, not simply from cartoonlike superpowers. Impossibly exaggerated, yes; verging on the absurd, no. Also, they defeat each other more with their smartness than brute power displays. Again, not the standard zap-'em-till-they-vaporize model.
Finally, Yukie Nakama, a TV drama queen whose film work has been on the light comic side, exudes dynamism, passion and sensuality, as though she prepped with the films of Zhang Ziyi. The usual strategy for an actress in a superhero role is to butch up, either successfully (Angelina Jolie in "Tomb Raider") or unconvincingly (Aya Ueto in "Azumi"). Nakama never abandons her femininity, even when she is being the fiery warrior. Conversely, she never loses her steely ninja spirit, even as a woman in love.
She plays Oboro, a granddaughter of Ogen (Lily), the matriarch of the Iga clan. Early in the story, she meets and falls in love with Gennosuke, the son of Danjo Koga (Minoru Terada), the leader of the Koga clan. Living in the remote mountains, these two clans have, over the centuries, perfected the arts of ninjutsu (or shinobi), which is far beyond the reach of mere mortals. They are also ancestral rivals and, under the order of Hanzo Hattori (Yutaka Matsushige), chief ninja to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, are forbidden to exchange secret techniques -- not that they would anyway.
Seeking to consolidate Tokugawa rule and seeing the two clans as a threat to it, a powerful Tendai priest and Tokugawa adviser, Nankobo Tenkai (Renji Ishibashi), schemes to set them against each other. He commands the two clans to each choose five champions who will battle to the death. The survivor will be elevated in rank and power.
Both Oboro and Gennosuke are selected as champions, but neither are aware, at least initially, of each other's position. Also, Gennosuke doubts the shogunate's good intentions and refuses to take part in the contest. But when his comrades begin to fall, he is forced into action. He cannot, however, bring himself to battle at least one Iga warrior: Oboro.
The 10 contestants in this ultimate death match are radically different from both the common run of humanity and each other, such as the bizarro Saemon Kisaragi (Hoka Kinoshita) of the Kogas, who can change faces without cosmetic surgery, and the mysterioso Yashamaru (Taku Sakaguchi) of the Igas, who is the long-haired ninja equivalent of "The Incredibles' " Elastigirl.
The most memorable, however, are ones with the closest relationships to the two principals, including the lovely-but-creepy Kagero (Tomoka Kurotani), who is poison to her enemies, but sweet on Gennosuke, and Tenzan Yakushi (Kippei Shiina), a silver-haired ninja master who knows all and sees all, including Oboro's conflicted heart.
For those less interested in the emotional interplay than the action, "Shinobi" has much to offer beyond the usual wirework leaps and bounds. Action director Yuji Shimomura has created fresh variations on familiar ninja stunts that will have hard-core genre fans doing "did I really see that?" takes.
"Shinobi" does not require shinbo (patience): It flies across the screen and ends, after all the mayhem, with a poignant moment of remembrance and hope. Super ninjas may not be forever, but love endures.