One of my friends likes to refer to this film not as Shinobi, or even as the clever and yet ridiculously literal subtitle, Heart Under Blade, but as – and this is a patented title you understand – the People With Shiny Eyes Movie. Now, that might sound ill-considered, but it’s much more descriptive than you’d think, because the main couple in this big-budget fantasy romance about warring ninja clans do indeed have very shiny eyes. Admittedly, it’s all part and parcel of their special ninja powers, but still.
On one side of the mountain, we have Gennosuke Kouga, otherwise known as Jo Odagiri. His Shiny Eyed power allows him to spend his time sitting around streams and whatnot, looking vulnerable and broody and counting the scales on spawning salmon. Also, he must have really liked his Scrap Heaven hair cut, because either he’s sporting the same mohawk, or secret ninja clans actually bear a striking resemblance to punk-rockers. Not that I’m complaining.
Anyway, on the other side of the mountain, we have Oboro Iga – that would be Yukie Nakama – whose Shiny Eyed power is in fact so shiny she doesn’t even need to use it. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from falling in love with Gennosuke, and visa versa, regardless of the fact that they’re from rival villages. Romeo and Juliet with super ninja powers. There’s lots of talk about fate, crossed stars (is this like crossed eyes, I wonder, since stars too are shiny) and many a vow to show their clans that there is a more to life than ninja skillz and nasty slaughter. Aww.
And there you have the first ten minutes of the film.
Now, to the reason you actually would want to watch all this shine, and in a word – ninjas. Or in several words, live action Naruto. For those not up for the anime reference, this is where you have a range of weird dudes with even weirder powers, some fairly convenient reason to pair off and fight, and the quiet guy in the background who you’re always watching because so far he’s not doing anything, but you just know that when he does it’s going to be kick-ass crazy. In this case, the convenient reason is fear, ie, the new government is a little nervous knowing there is not one but two elite ninja villages hidden out there somewhere, so they devise a cunning plan. The guy not doing anything much is actually Odagiri, who doesn’t see why the two villages have to fight just because the Shogun says so. Of course, he can be petulant about it, but this is a ninja movie, and we all know what that’s going to mean, sooner or later…
And you know, I was going to go on about how the villages’ history of violence and the indoctrinated beliefs of the other ninjas that they have ‘no use’ but for fighting was all representative of the ideal of grass roots social change through tolerance and self-sacrifice etcetera, etcetera, but really, you’re not going to care about that. The plot, and the accompanying narrative drama, is just a reason to get from one ninja battle to the next, and doesn’t stand up to too close inspection. Any examination it does withstand is probably due to the fact that the film was based on Futaro Yamada’s popular ninja novels of the 1950’s and 60’s, and that it places itself somewhat vaguely smack bang in the middle of the very famous Tokugawa reign, and therefore is ‘sort of true’.
Not that you’ll believe that for a second. Shinobi is kind of like Japan’s answer to X-Men – a reasonably entertaining, slick looking and mostly uncomplicated fantasy film. What you’re really going to care about here is the neat CG, all the pretty scenery, the attractive (and creepy) characters and possibly the fact that Tak Sakaguchi is cool. Oh, and you might give a damn about the love story, but frankly I sort of doubt it.