Have you ever heard of "The Kouga Ninja Scrolls"? Chances are very good if you're into anime or Japanese fiction you are well aware of it. Originally a novel written by Japanese author Futaro Yamada in 1958, this little tale has been told and retold a few times with the most recent visitation to the story being the anime Basilisk which was released by FUNimation not too long ago. It's only fitting that the same publisher would be handling the release of Shinobi: Heart Under Blade which is the live action reenactment of Yamada's novel.
"The Kouga Ninja Scrolls" is loosely based on Romeo & Juliet but in this particular version it's set in feudal Japan with samurai, ninja, and supernatural beings. There are many complexities strewn throughout the plot but for the most part it's a character driven drama with a whole lot of fighting in between the mushy parts. In other words if you appreciate Romeo & Juliet and think that everything is made better with ninjas then you're going to be on Cloud 9.
The setting for this film takes us all the way back to the early 1600's when Japan has been united under the Tokugawa Shogunate. An unprecedented era of peace has been seen throughout the land but dark forces are stirring the pot of war. Seeing these events set into motion, the powers that be have decided to force the hand of blood and see what is made of it. Basically that means two opposing ninja clans, the Kouga and the Iga, must compete with each other to see who is the strongest. I'm sure you've already figured out that when two warring ninja clans fight there's going to be some nasty fallout.
Like all good stories featuring a similar Romeo & Juliet theme, members of the Kouga and Iga ninja have fallen in love despite their clan's vile hatred of each other. Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Iga and Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kouga keep their desires and feelings secret from the rest of their respective clan in the beginning. After all, you don't exactly want your peers to know that you're dating the enemy. At any rate with the forced peace between the Kouga and Iga lifted, the Shogun makes each pick their top fighters for a contest where only one will be left standing. It's a smart plan if you think about it because the Shogun fears both clans and this is a great way to eliminate much of their power.
At any rate once the heads of the Kouga and Iga clans have picked their names there should be no surprises that Gennosuke and Oboro are at the top of the list. They are essentially deemed to be the respective leaders of their people and as such I'm sure you can figure out what's going to be coming in the end. In between the predictable bits are a ton of fantastic ninja battles that really push the limits of special effects for this kind of medium.
If you've seen the high flying wire antics of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon then you're going to marvel at what Shinobi can do. The effect is just as impressive but it's the supernatural abilities that take it to the next level. Rather than just flying above the trees the ninja here showcase some freaky talents that resemble much of what we saw in Basilisk the anime. Unlike the animated show Shinobi doesn't have a lot of time to develop the secondary characters and other members of the ninja clans. That means Gennosuke and Oboro get the top billing for most of the feature though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Nakama and Odagiri are perfectly suited for their roles and handle the characters with a necessary amount of weight. I was wondering how Nakama would handle such a dramatic role but thankfully she performed wonderfully.
While each of these characters is fine in their own regard and the special abilities of the ninja will appease anime fanatics, the cinematography deserves to be mentioned here. The backdrop for this film was drop dead gorgeous with vibrant colors and plenty of personality. From the riverside Iga village to the mountainside Kouga, there was enough diversity and beauty captured in between to impress. Quite honestly, from a visual standpoint everything about this picture is captivating and that serves the script nicely while setting the appropriate mood.
Whether you're familiar with "The Kouga Ninja Scrolls" or not, this is a film that must be seen by Asian film enthusiasts. It features a lot of wire-fu, plenty of supernatural abilities, beautiful scenery, a strong script, and fantastic acting. FUNimation put themselves on the live action map with this release and hopefully anime enthusiasts will branch out enough to check it out. This outing is also worth the trip if you appreciated Basilisk since the two stories are virtually identical. All around Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is a solid film about tragic lovers and it's definitely one that should wind up in your Blu-ray collection.
In case you missed it the first time around, the DVD release for Shinobi was quite the sight to behold. The lush landscapes, high quality shooting, and stunning cinematography lent themselves well to a clean presentation and the Blu-ray release is no different. Presented with a 16x9 anamorphic AVC-encoded 1080p transfer this version is undoubtedly the definitive edition for this film. FUNimation took some extra time to address some of the quality issues such as edge enhancement and occasional bouts of grain but even so those flaws are still present; just less noticeable with this format.
Overall the picture here is stunning with a great amount of clarity and details that do not get lost in translation. Through an artistic decision the colors in this film pop with some really nice contrast and balance though at times they appear a tad unsaturated and bleak. In all honesty though, this is about as good as Shinobi has ever looked and you'd be hard pressed to find a better looking ninja flick on Blu-ray.
Two Dolby TrueHD tracks are available for this release like you'd expect with English and Japanese languages both featuring dubs. The English track is presented with a 5.1 mix while the Japanese comes with a slightly edgier 6.1 offering. Both dubbing tracks were very good but the Japanese edged the English out in my opinion. That's really just a matter of personal taste though. Technically speaking both selections performed well and you'll definitely want to crank your sound system up with this one. The audio is crystal clear and the sense of immersion is very refined. The dialogue feels tad muted when stacked up against the abundant amount of action, which decidedly steals the show. Whirling weapons, snapping branches, and clashing swords hit home with precision and you're set up will definitely get a workout.
In case you missed out on the 2-disc DVD version of Shinobi: Heart Under Blade you'll be pleased to know that all of the bonus content from the second disc is included on the Blu-ray release. Lighter fare such as original TV spots and trailers are available here but meatier supplemental material such as in depth storyboard comparisons are present as well.
Not only are there multiple storyboard inclusions with tons of illustrations that map out particular scene but some featurettes can be found here too. The first documentary is "VFX Behind the Scenes" (41:15) which takes a look at the special effects that went into Shinobi. Presented with a Dolby TrueHD stereo track with the Japanese language and English subtitles this featurette chronicles an impressive array of moments during the film's production. From crude black and white drawings to various forms of effects being implemented there's a nice level of detail to the amount of information given here.
Following the "VFX" feature is "Weapons Introduction" (8:52) which gives a better idea about the characters and the different armaments they employ. After watching the film you'll undoubtedly be interested in the style of weapons that were used in the fight scenes and this brief overview doles out some nice tidbits. "Shinobi Art - Manjidani" (8:47) looks at another visual aspect from the film but this one has more to do with traditional construction which happened on the side of a mountain. And finally "Shinobi Action - Sumpu Castle Fight" (4:41) is another look at the effects of the movie but this time there are behind the scene shots included with some discussion amongst the cast.
No matter which way you slice it Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is a fantastic Blu-ray release. The movie is epic in so many ways from the development and plight of the characters to dramatic moments within the script. Fighting and some amazing cinematography also have their fair amount of time in the spotlight and the technical merits of this disc only help their splendor. In addition to all of those things the disc also includes about 80 minutes worth of bonus material when all is said and done.
If you missed the standard definition release of this film you'll definitely want to pick up the Blu-ray. This retelling of "The Kouga Ninja Scrolls" is not to be missed and if you're an anime junkie looking for something different, consider this a live-action version of Basilisk if you need even more convincing. Highly Recommended