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DVD SAVANT

Shinobi no mono
(The Ninja)


Shinobi no mono
AnimEigo
1962 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date October 9, 2007 / 24.98
Starring Raizo Ichikawa, Yunosuke Ito, Shiho Fujimura, Katsuhiko Kobayashi, Kyoko Kishida, Reiko Fujiwara
Cinematography Yasukazu Takemura
Ninjitsu Granmaster Masaaki Hatsumi, Toshitsugu Takamatsu
Original Music Michiaki Watanabe
Written by Hajime Takaiwa
Directed by Satsuo Yamamoto

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

That most rigorous importer of Japanese action films AnimEigo has released a Region 1 DVD of 1962's Shinobi no mono, the first entry in an eight-film series dedicated to the art of the ninja. The neatly constructed thriller is packed with clever ninja subterfuge. Director Satsuo Yamamoto energizes his action scenes without short-changing his interesting characters.

Ordinary samurai and yakuza films often focus on abstract notions of honor and duty. This less stylized ninja film deals with a cult of black-ops specialists that prides itself on executing dirty deeds with stealth and cunning. The young hero has already mastered his physical skills and powers of strategic thought; Shinobi no mono shows him learning the true nature of leadership in such a ruthless organization.

Synopsis:

Warlord Nobunaga Oda (Tomisaburo Wakayama of the classic Baby Cart / Sword of Vengeance series) is consolidating his power through bloody battles. Two 'schools' of Ninjitsu compete to assassinate him: the Fujibayashi school and the one run by Sandayu Momochi (Yunosuke Ito, the sour-faced farmer from Seven Samurai). Sandayu promotes his most promising student Goemon Ishikawa (Raizo Ichikawa) to become a personal advisor. But Goemon's revered father is blown up while packing explosives, and then Goemon is seduced by Sandayu's neglected wife Inone (Kyoko Kishida of Manji and Woman in the Dunes). To punish his acolyte, Sandayu sends Goemon out to personally assassinate Nobunaga, who has already survived several assaults.

Shinobi no mono teaches ninja lore from the ground up. It is said to be the feature that popularized the relatively obscure warrior clan in the Japanese culture. AnimEigo's liner notes confirm that the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice was indeed the first western film to feature ninjas (cartoonish though they were) and that its writer Roald Dahl derived a number of elements from a screening of Shinobi no mono in 1963. The ninja assassins wear black pajamas, throw star-shaped metal blades ('shuriken') and utilize miniature grappling hooks as weapons. The notion of murdering a sleeping person with drops of poison lowered down a thread also comes directly from this picture.

Shinobi no mono delves into ninja lore in fine detail. Ninja are mercenary fighters unrestrained by class considerations or the Samurai code. No target is out of bounds. A ninja's personal life is secondary to his professional duty, a lesson Goemon learns when he falls in love with a beautiful and innocent maiden. Caring about anybody is an open invitation to one's enemies.

The film displays ninja trickery without undue exaggeration. The clan leader can go undetected in his own house if it is searched, hiding in tiny secret chambers. Old man Sandayu climbs walls like a spider, while his assassins move silently among sleeping households. If detected while night prowling, a ninja will loose a rat to provide a distraction for his escape. Small pyrotechnics are also used to mislead adversaries during combat.

Goemon's jealous competitor is an ace with the throwing stars but has an unlucky habit of accidentally striking small birds and animals. When captured, he withstands torture without speaking and follows the strict ninja code: if escape is impossible, the captive ninja should mutilate his own face so he cannot be identified. The evil Nobunaga doesn't even bother with extreme torture methods. It's obvious that the poor fellow won't talk, even after his ears have been sliced off.

Shinobi no mono turns on a plot twist better left undivulged, even though it is revealed early on. The callow Goemon begins as the best martial artist and is his mentor's favorite as well as a successful ladies' man. But his father is killed under mysterious circumstances, and when he begins an affair with the clan leader's unhappy wife he proves vulnerable to sentimental weakness. The satisfactory ending finds Goemon coming to a new understanding of the nature of power and loyalty. In a society so ruthless that it needs ninja assassins, one shouldn't expect honesty from anyone. Hajime Takaiwa's script is refreshingly un-cynical about this cynical world, and director Yamamoto keeps the action fast and high-spirited. Shinobi no mono is a welcome relief from a diet of too many Japanese action fantasies about martial arts supermen.


AnimEigo's Shinobi no mono is a very good enhanced B&W transfer with clean sound. As is usual with AnimEigo product, the English subtitles are appended with many 'footnote' explanations of specific jargon and references, all authoritatively researched. Shuriken stars, we're informed, came in a variety of shapes. The disc credits several subtitle writers and editors.

The disc includes a still and poster gallery and several trailers. AnimEigo has raised program notes to a high art, with several information-packed text extras on the production, the filmmakers, and the movie's stars. We're surprised to learn that the film's historical framework is true: Goemon Ishikawa, Nobunaga Oda and Sandayu Momochi were real people of the 16th century, and the power struggles between the clans were as pictured in the movie. These program notes have been made available online. AnimEigo's presentation also exhibits a refined sense of humor, as when a text disclaimer warns that this product "Contains Violence and Ninja Secrets."


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Shinobi no mono rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Stills, Trailers, elaborate production notes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 2, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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