Call it a coming of age story if you want. The Peter Pan of ninjas can play all day and never take things too seriously. Until he has to. Call it a round-about revenge tale, or even a moral play. It is a little Shakespearean in its developments, and its style of humour (and a brilliant momentary break in the fourth wall) certainly does justice to the Bard. Or call it, perhaps most importantly, a serious Japanese contender for Guy Ritchie’s irreverent, fast-paced rock-and-roll mayhem. Mumon Land of Stealth is definitely all those things.
Hugely entertaining with just the right balance of playfulness and depth, Mumon proves that the famous Nobunaga’s violent militaristic expansion in Japan’s mid to late-1500s had some practical problems at least, namely what Iga, legendary ninja province, is going to do if Nobunaga unites the country and no one wants to pay ninjas to assassinate anyone anymore. Cue the most fun you’ll have watching an action movie outside of the UK and Robert Downey Jr movie franchises.
Wildly popular (if the audiences’ post credit excitement was anything to go by) Arashi frontman Satoshi Ohno plays the eponymous ninja Mumon, who is so good he only gets called into the fight that opens the movie when a bunch of less useful guys get slaughtered. Despite the voice of moderation in eldest son of the Shimoyama ninja clan, Heibee (Ryohei Suzuki, Gatchaman, Our Little Sister), Mumon casually slays Heibee’s younger brother (Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Blade of the Immortal, Third Murder), kicking off a surprisingly twisty chain of events which culminates in our tale’s Han Solo-ian moral – If money is all you love, that’s what you’ll receive, but don’t expect anyone to like you for it.
Heibee, consumed with rage, runs to neighbouring Ise, where the famous Nobunaga Oda’s second son Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen), a vicious young man suffering under his father’s much greater shadow, has just taken control of Kitabatake lands and is eager to prove himself. He is therefore easily convinced that invading Iga, a country his father has said is a “swamp full of beasts and not worth the time”, is a good idea. What it appears Nobunaga actually meant was “it’s full of crazy people, don’t go there son”. Nobukatsu, after some dissension in the ranks – mainly in the form of the fabulous Daizen Heki (Yusuke Iseya, Rurouni Kenshin, 13 Assassins) – does go there. It ends relatively badly.
But that’s more a story for the history books. In this story, director Yoshihiro Nakamura (A Boy and His Samurai, The Inerasable) successfully subverts the chambara genre to great effect, going about his work with an almost palpable relish and a great deal of wry humour. His characters straddle the space between the silly and sublime, turning easily and on a dime from the kind of black comedy clichés the Monty Python team would have certainly appreciated to dead serious. Ohno particularly, as the main character, handles this about facing surprisingly well.
Nakamura also has a respectable amount of control over his pace and narrative, and there’s never too little nor not enough. His ninja tribesmen are more the type to ask “what’s in it for me” than die in a ditch over someone else’s squabble, a fact which is played to great and laugh-out-loud effect in last third of the film. Top that with some pretty fancy camera work from Daisuke Soma, a rockin’ soundtrack, some amazing fight sequences and a reasonably solid emotional vehicle, and it’s not a wonder there was enthusiastic applause after the credits rolled at the Japanese Film Festival session I attended. As ninja movies go, it might not have been entirely traditional, and I’m not sure people were prepared for this film to be quite as funny or fun as it was. But then again, ninjas right? They’re a little like the Spanish Inquisition – no one expects them.