The myth is always going to be more interesting than reality. We like to romanticize and fantasize our history, especially where there are gaps of evidence. Sometimes its just easier to ignore the ugly or boring truth and spin a yarn. Drunken sociopaths are painted as misunderstood geniuses. Criminals become rebels. Con men turn into prophets. And then of course, there is the "good old days."
As far as the ninja are concerned, there is far more myth than there is concrete evidence. To what capacity they actually existed is pretty vague. Even defining their basic class be it monks, a specially trained samurai, or just some bumpkin, is open to loose interpretation because no one exactly knows. So, what survives the most, what has become indelible, is the myth of the ninja being a group of men and women keen on guerrilla warfare stratagem and possessing near superhuman skill.
The eight film Shinobi No Mono series, which began in the early 60's from Daiei studios, is credited as paving the way for the ninja films we know today. The series (I've only seen half, sadly) does a good job of blending the standard ninja action caricature along with some feudal era dramatics.
Probably assuming that the audience was familiar with the first film or the novels the series was culled from, part two begins with very little setup. Former Iga ninja turned farmer and family man Geomon (Raizo Ishikawa- Sleepy Eyes of Death series, Sword Devil) lives in a time when his fellow ninja brethren are a dwindling lot. Lord Nobunaga (Tomisaburo Wakayama- Lone Wolf and Cub) has decreed that all ninja are wanted and subject to capture and execution. Raids are steadily wiping the ninja out and bounties ensure that they have few places to hide.
Already, very early on, the film establishes a grim tone. A group of samurai discuss how they have grown bored torturing the ninja and need new ways to amuse themselves. One proposed solution is to bury the ninja in the town square and charge villagers a fee to take a hack at their necks until the ninja is decapitated. When Goemon's identity is discovered and his home is invaded, despite his best efforts to defend his wife and child, the attackers throw his newborn into the fire. Powerful way to kick off a film and motivate your revenge seeking protagonist, huh?
The plot could seem a little convoluted, names and alliances are spat at you in quick succession, but it breaks down very simply. With nothing but the titular vengeance on his mind, Goemon joins up with the rebel Ikko sect. The ninja infiltrate Nobunaga via a kunoichi (female ninja) who seduces Nobunaga's right hand man and by having Goemon plant the seeds of doubt and revolt in Nobunaga's ally Lord Mitsuhide. Goemon also steers Mitsuhide towards actions that make him look like a potential rival in Nobunaga's eyes. The double dealing suspicions from both sides all but forces Mitsuhide to actually strike out against Nobunaga which in turn sends the land into turmoil.
Without giving too much away (and, trust me, the film has a spoilerish moment roughly halfway into the film), factions scramble against each other, vying for power, and Goemon and the Ikko sect find themselves on the sour end, held siege by an army, being starved out, and while Goemon does carve out some measure of shockingly grisly revenge, the finale leaves him all the more harrowed for the inevitable sequels.
While the sequels that I have seen show some diminishing quality, it is still a decent series showcasing a good blend of action, intrigue, and dramatics. Especially in this, the second film, it is hard not to be moved by Goemon, a man wanting the proverbial simple life but is forced into action and violence through the worst tragedy imaginable. That life he wishes and works for is literally destroyed, making for a great arc from the first film where he is essentially a student of the ninja arts who becomes disillusioned, falls in love, then he carves out a normal life, and in revenge film fashion, is dragged right back in.
And, of course, in addition to some tight scripting, a great cast, and composed direction, you get plenty of ninja action tidbits- some throwing stars, subterfuge, and gravity defying. The violence is especially shocking for its day and age. Of course, the Japanese have always been a bit more lax when it comes to bloodshed, but even audiences who were accustomed to seeing Toshiro Mifune becoming a pincushion in Throne of Blood just a few years earlier had to brace at some of the graphic and, as I said earlier, just plain grim acts that occur in Shinobi No Mono 2.
The DVD: AimEigo
Anamorphic Widescreen. The print holds up pretty well. Despite the age, the image is fairly free of any severe signs of wear and tear, dirt or spotting. The black and white image has deep contrast and well-defined sharpness. Unfortunately, AnimEigo doesn't have the best track record with some of their samurai flick aqusitions. Yet again, this one has some minor ghosting and slight edge enhancement issues. Luckily these quibbles are to a less annoying degree than their Samurai Assassin and Incident at Blood Pass debacles.
Standard Mono track, Japanese with optional English subtitles (with extra definitions for certain words/phrases). Excellent subs, bold, well-timed, and colored (no white subs to fade into the background). Not much to write about the audio. Clean but limited by the era and production standards.
Trailers. --- Program Notes. ---Image Gallery. --- Interactive Map of 16th century Japan. --- Audio Commentary by Ric Meyers. Ric is a familiar name within HK cinema circles and, shaky as his acumen may be, that really is his forte, though apparently he did write some pulpy ninja fiction back in the 80's. He mostly delivers some wikiish facts about ninja history and briefly touches on the cast. I'm not really a big fan of Meyers and found myself more than a little annoyed at grossly exagerrated statements like, "Essentially, from 1960 to approximately 1980, the Japanese could not make a bad film." Really Ric? Really?
A great, breezy action-drama with a solid cast and skilled direction. Fans of this era of Japanese
film making should really enjoy it and those more in tune with modern exploitative vibes can see where action film makers found some influence in Shinobi No Mono. The disc is decent, basically gets the job done with a middling transfer and some okay extras.