Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/07/06 20:33:08

"Romeo and Juliet... with ninjas, of course."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: You know what? I've got no patience with Romeo and Juliet. Grow a pair of freaking spines, leave town, start a new life together, and don't make it complicated. Just friggin' DO it; you're only tragic because you insist on being tragic. Here, that story is transplanted to Japan at the end of the age of ninjas, with the Koga and Iga ninja clans serving as Montagues and Capulets.

As the film opens, Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Iga clan and Genosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kouga clan meet in an isolated spot and are instantly attracted to each other. Alas, their clans are deadly enemies, living in hidden villages, training in deadly techniques but forbidden from fighting each other or selling their services. They're able to see each other secretly, sending messages via bird when they aren't meeting. But things are about to change. The Shogun insists five of each clan's greatest warriors face off in a battle for the death, and aside from the star-crossed lovers, they're all too eager to test their skills to think, hey, maybe the Shogun is trying to weaken us so that we can be crushed and he'll have no obstacles between himself and absolute rule.

Freaking ninjas. Even the ones with super-powers are dumb, dumb, dumb. It's a reasonable enough stupidity, though - these clans have been waiting for an opportunity to wreak chaos for generations, and some of them have powers that are as much curses as gifts. Consider Kouga's Kagerou (Tomoka Kurotani), who has been fed poison since infancy so that now her very sweat can be toxic. She is not likely to accept either her clan's prince with an Iga girl or that her entire life has been spent making her a weapon that would never be used.

These are, as you can see, super-ninjas, so we're in for a great deal of wire-work and nifty special effects. Oboro's talent, for instance, is a potentially lethal gaze, and when she uses it, director Ten Shimoyama gives us a cutaway view of the victim's nervous system, so we can watch the damage course through their bodies. There's a neat visual for each of the special gifts, but even when those aren't involved, the action is still impressive. Tak Sakaguchi plays one of the Iga ninjas, and I wouldn't be surprised if he had a hand in the fight choreography as well, as he's been known to do for other films he appears in. We're dealing with ninjas, not samurai, so the combatants tend to favor the stealthy sneak attack over the protracted swordfight, but things don't always work out that way. Also, the bulk of the movie is a journey to the capital through the forest (Genosuke and Oboro undertake it to protest the combat order, but their clan-mates see it as a chance to pick each other off), and the wooded setting makes for a three-dimensional combat arena.

It's also beautiful. The location manager gave Shimoyama and cinematographer Taro Iwashiro some absolutely gorgeous spots to shoot, from the secluded spot where Oboro and Genosuke first meet to the wooded areas where many of the battles take place, and the hidden villages manage the neat trick of looking both fanciful and practical. The filmmakers have a knack for stopping the action for a stylish shot in a way that doesn't seem like an interruption, but a moment of special beauty in the midst of the chaos around it. Great care is given to the design of each of the ten ninjas who will be hunting each other in the movies latter half. I especially liked Kisaragi Saemon (Houka Kinoshita), the Kouga fellow who appears to be all armor. It's also notable how the villages which blend into nature and the mobile camera there and in the forest contrasts with the right angles and very static shots of court.

Sadly, the visuals have to carry the film, because the story is Romeo & Juliet grafted onto an obvious plan to play the clans off each other. Part of the problem is that it's not exactly an even romance; I'm not sure whether the problem comes from actress Yukie Nakama, screenwriter Kenya Hirata, or Futaro Yamada's original work, but Oboro just doesn't seem nearly committed to their romance as Genosuke. He's the one willing to propose breaks with tradition, question the Shogun, and prioritize Oboro's life over his own. I wondered occasionally if a woman had to toe a harder line as clan leader, so that Oboro had less latitude than Genosuke, but if this idea is brought up, it doesn't make it to the subtitles. This leaves Joe Odagiri as the film's sole emotional center, and he creates a very sympathetic character, so many of the rest are emotional dead zones that the movie seems somewhat mechanical when he's not on screen.

"Shinobi" was the third movie of five on the day, and that situation really highlights how ambivalent a pretty but kind of dull film like it can make me. It finishes, and I'm neither excited nor particularly relieved it's over. I'm more excited about the review being finished, because it's tough to write one of these when all the flick leaves you wanting to say is "Next!"

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