Part of the love of any film series is following a character. That's usually the linchpin. You can even replace a lead actor or reinvent a series but, so long as the main character remains familiar, people will still stick around. For me, that is where the Shinobi No Mono series stumbles. While actor Raizo Ichikawa sticks around, by this fourth film in the series Daiei producers must have felt they had mined enough out of the Ishikawa Goemon character and switched things up with Raizo playing a different historical ninja character, Saizo Kirigakure.
Just imagine, it's the 60's and you are going to see the new Sean Connery spy film, only instead of his playing James Bond he plays Ian Fleming's Frank Dudley. For all intents and purposes, the film is a James Bond film, same budget, story beats, and action trappings, except he's playing a lesser character. That is pretty much what happens in the Shinobi films. Same birthday present you got last year, only used and in different wrapping.
Basically, Kirigakure lacks the motivation that invigorated the first half of the series. In parts 1-3, Goemon was a man driven by revenge, his wife and child murdered before his eyes, unable to leave the ninja life, a man who fights less to wipe out injustice but because he has nothing else left but bloodshed. Kirigakure? Well, he's pretty much, in comparison to Goemon, established as a noble goody two-shoes. He's workin' for the man. Which is fine. Kirigakure wants the good guys to be in power but compared to Goemon's hellbent vengeance his forthright politics definitely pale.
In the absence of a decent character thread, what we are left with in part four is focus on the series ever twisting and layering of back-stabbing historical plotting. This is probably the element that is hardest for Western viewers to penetrate, it isn't a history we know, and the series rightly assumes its Japanese intended audience knows the ins and outs of the names and places of feudal era Japan. The extended voice over and montage begins informing us of the evil Ieyasu has taken advantage of a loophole and is waging war on his rivals in the Toyotomi clan, who have taken up refuge in Osaka castle. After this brief intro to the particulars, including Kirigakure and his love interest chambermaid Lady Akane, the story then cuts to a year later. A truce has been formed between Ieyasu and the Toyotomi, but really it is just a method of weakening the clan further, forcing them to become desperate and break the truce, thus giving Ieyasu the good favor of wiping them out more legitimately and with less fuss.
After being violated, poor Lady Akane has become a whore. Kirigakure and his fellow ninja are given
the go ahead to assassinate Ieyasu, but the lord is wily and well-guarded, leading to several failed attempts, and eventually Kirigakure's capture. There is some good action and fun ninja business in the third act Ieyasu bump-off, ziplines, crawling around in ceilings, feigning death, our hero thrown down a well to starve. But, as I said, with Kirigakure being a lesser ninja personality, the bulk of the film finds itself mired in the usual political characters debating their moves against one another.
The DVD: AnimEigo
Picture: The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen. The print appears to be in pretty good shape. Clean. Relatively sharp. The black and white image has decent contrast depth. The big minus are some interacting issues leading to some ghosting in certain scenes as well as some unwelcome noise that is especially apparent in a couple of low light sequences.
Sound: A sole Japanese mono track is the only option. The original source has the usual age impediments but is thankfully free from too many distortions or subpar quality quirks. AnimEigo does, as per usual, an excellent job with the English subs which are bright green and yellow and translate both the dialogue and onscreen text.
Extras: The extras are limited to the usual round of Program Notes, an Interactive Map, Image Gallery, and Trailer, plus one for AnimEigo's upcoming Sleepy Eyes of Death release.
Conclusion: Obviously, if you have picked up volumes 1-3 of the Shinobi No Mono series and enjoyed them, it is a no-brainer that you pick this one up and continue the classic ninja action fun. But, for me this is where the series starts to slip (it would last until film eight). The DVD is a basic affair, leaving this one best reserved as a purchase for established fans and a rental for everyone else.