Judge Joel Pearce was shocked to learn that "shinobi" isn't a lyric from a doo-wop song.
Love is war.
Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is difficult to describe, let alone review. I suppose it's best described as part Romeo and Juliet, part X-Men, set in 17th-century Japan. Its running time is too brief to be epic, but its pace is too slow to play as an action film. As a result, it always feels trapped between genres, just as its characters are trapped between eras.
Facts of the Case
The Tokugawa shogunate has taken power, which means a period of peace in Japan after centuries of continual war. For most Japanese citizens, this stability is welcome. However, two villages hidden deep in the mountains continue to train the supernaturally powerful Shinobi fighters who played a key role in those wars. The Koga and Iga clans, at war for centuries, are now in a state of truce by order of the shogunate. This truce has allowed Genosuke (Joe Odagiri, Azumi) of the Koga clan and Oboro (Yukie Nakama, Love & Pop) of the Iga clan to meet in secret and fall in love. But our two heroes' romance is complicated when the Shogun decides to manipulate the Kogas and Igas into annihilating one another in order to prevent them from helping rebels topple the new shogunate. The two lovers are pitted against one another in a fight that neither can truly win.
I remember my enthusiasm when I first saw promotional material about Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. It's an interesting (if familiar) premise. The trailers showed some pretty sweet samurai action involving superhuman ninjas. It's too bad the end result is a bit of a disappointment. I'm not saying it's a bad film, just a disappointing one. The action, once it gets going, is a blast. Each of the shinobi has unique and remarkable powers, which are well designed and animated. An all-out battle between the ten main shinobi could have been a brilliant chess game of tactics. Alas, things don't play out that way.
The two clans are pitted against each other on a journey between their mountain villages and Sumpu castle. Sumpu's on the southern coast of Honshu, but you'd never know it watching Shinobi, which has a terrible sense of geography. We never get a feel for the landscape, for where the warriors are going, or exactly where they are during any particular moment of the journey. There are simply duels every so often, set in different locations. There's a forest fight, a river fight, a town fight, a road fight, and a temple fight. The absence of a bigger picture in this conflict keeps us from caring as much as we should about the warriors and their fates. When I think about how immensely cool the fighting could have been, I'm saddened that this is all we get.
The performances by the two leads also disappoint. They don't have enough time to really connect with each other, so their character development feels abrupt and unrealistic. Genosuke begins the film as an impulsive idealist, clinging to the hope that his and Oboro's love for one another will have the power to unite their clans. By contrast, Oboro is a pragmatist who immediately accepts that their love is impossible. Unfortunately, that makes it difficult for us to believe that she really loves him. She quickly agrees to the battle, but spends much of the film moping about it. In the end, both lovers make an uncharacteristic decision that feels too much like a manufactured conclusion. I felt more bewilderment than pathos at the fate of these two characters.
All of these problems stem from a 100 minute running time. I don't say this often, but Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is far too short. As an audience, we need more time to connect with the two lovers at the beginning, more time between battles to establish the geography of the fight and the relationships between the clans. We need to be introduced to the shinobi powers before they're all at battle with one another, so that we can understand the tactics employed. This could have been a delightful epic, but it just doesn't work as a short action movie. I can understand it working more for an audience that was familiar with the source material, but the average North American viewer will probably be extremely confused and frustrated.
The saddest thing is that justice hasn't been done to the theme at the center of the action. The shinobi clans, crucial players in Japanese politics and warfare for hundreds of years, have been rendered obsolete and declared enemies of the state. This is a theme that resonates well in contemporary society. The film does this theme occasional justice, but mostly it stumbles. The real struggle of the two tribes isn't with one another, but against the era itself. This idea should have been enough to hold the film together, but it's ignored through much of the running time. Shinobi: Heart Under Blade contains many good moments, but they haven't been assembled into a cohesive movie.
That said, Funimation has pulled out all the stops for this DVD release. The film itself is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced. It looks excellent. We are given the option of Dolby 5.1 tracks in the original Japanese and an English dub. As usual, the Japanese track is preferred, and the subtitles are well translated. The second disc is full of special features. The visual effects featurette is fascinating, as it's becoming more and more difficult to see what is real and what is virtual. We also get some storyboard montages, which are handled better than most, though you'll need a large display to make the most of them. After this, we get featurettes about the weapons used in the film, and the locations of the beautiful scenery. Finally, there is a featurette focusing on the Sumpu castle fight at the beginning of the film. This is an impressive collection of special features for a small studio to assemble.
Despite all my complaints, samurai action fans won't want to miss Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. Anime fans in particular will enjoy the way that anime-style action has been brought to life, and the film does do a fine job capturing a time period in which everything is changing for the people in Japan. A rental may be in order, though, since the film simply didn't evolve into what it could have been.
I was disappointed by Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, but it's not Funimation's fault. They are free to go.
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