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Shinobi - Heart Under Blade

FUNimation // R // February 6, 2007
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 31, 2007 | E-mail the Author
Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is quite a surprise. To blend superhuman-empowered characters, intense martial arts action, and star-crossed romance isn't an implausible idea. Executing such a film with exceedingly polished quality and class is what takes Shinobi well above expectations. Shinobi's tremendously engaging line-up of characters, stark cinematography, and outlandishly superb effects fuels the film forward as a heavy dose of winning entertainment. Director Ten Shimoyama has delivered an incredibly enjoyable cinematic treat.

Note: Adapted from the novel Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Futaro Yamada, this film does not have any connections with the video game license, Shinobi. It does, however, have a connection to the anime Basilisk: The Kouga Ninja Scrolls. This reviewer is covering the DVD as a sole film without exposure to the anime or the novel.

The Film:

Amidst 17th century Japan when peace has covered the land, the shogun ruler Tokugawa has been gradually eliminating sources of conflict. During his reign, rival ninja clans Iga and Kouga have lived in mountainous seclusion. For well over 400 years, each respective clan has been producing shinobi (aka ninja) that possess mystically phenomenal power. However, mandate prevents the two warring sides from committing aggression against one another.

Through this peace, the heirs to each clan's hierarchy have developed a hidden relationship. Gennosuke of the Kouga tribe and Oboro of the Iga tribe have fallen deeply in love. Seeming to understand their doomed relationship from the beginning, the two still wrestle with the constraints of destiny and struggle for a solution. Amidst their strife, the shogun requests that the current tribe leaders must travel to the royal fortress accompanied by one of their most accomplished fighters to demonstrate their combative skills. After bearing witness to these skills presented by the warring clans, the royal hierarchy devises a plan for the menacingly talented ninja. Five powerful warriors from each clan, decided upon by the clan leaders, are granted the opportunity to combat with each other in a display that will decide the rising shogun patriarch. War is declared between the Iga and the Kouga that will result in a mortal battle to the finish. Gennosuke and Oboro must be pitted against each other.

Shinobi kicks into full-throttle from the starting gate. Lavish with spectacular scenery, this film takes the viewer through the beautifully contrasted landscapes amongst the mountainous Kouga territory and the river-bound Iga village. Though leisurely in pace at times, even in a relatively dormant scene does energy spill at the brims from Shinobi. Filled with a mystical history, these villages mirror one another as polar opposites with the same heart. Almost anybody could develop such mystical powers when encompassed in these locales.

But it's these immensely rich characters that develop such inventive powers. Each team from the clans contrast wonderfully in abilities and personas. Selected by the hierarchs after the initial demonstration, the finest from the Iga and Kouga possess tremendously charismatic qualities. Director Shimoyama takes the stark distinction between each side and injects them with overflowing, tangible personality. Each superpower that these shinobi possess matches their character strengths flawlessly. While Gennosuke and Oboro embody the heart and determination behind the peaceful efforts, the remaining Iga and Kouga show what the Shinobi truly are: living, breathing weapons made specifically for that purpose. What's truly a shame is that the history behind most of the other shinobi, aside from the protagonists, is left a mystery. With its engrossing nature, Shinobi could have easily stretched out a bit more to extrapolate Oboro and Gennosuke's supporting team. However, what little is known about their supporting shinobi is easily matched by their familiar, riveting personalities and fascinating abilities.

Shinobi's ferociously addictive nature lies amidst a superior blend of CG-effects and live-action sequences. Fusing outrageously frenetic action with simplistic grace and quality can be very difficult to achieve. Shinobi: Heart Under Blade has really hit the mark. The true fascination lies in how these powerful entities use seemingly hand-made, modified tools of the land to be so potent. Such simple weapons such as a cluster of spikes and multiple strands of sharp, whip-like fabric integrate into the shinobi's power – and quite dangerously at that. The superhuman artillery in this flick would give many comic book heroes a run for their money. However, its those incredibly powerful teams that are giving each other a run for their money amidst some truly inspired action. Though the action isn't persistent from start to finish, the kinetic energy behind the well-paced action and building conflict is quite good.

Even though Shinobi: Heart Under Blade does not deliver the dramatic thump as strong as other art-house martial arts flicks, it does serve up an ample message of peace behind the mask of a dazzling fantasy/romance/action flick. Even without this added little twist of drama, the film would still be outrageously enjoyable. One of the best compliments to a film is an inclination to desire more knowledge about lesser addressed elements. Though Shinobi: Heart Under Blade leaves a great deal as mystery truly desired to be known, it still terrifically executes everything packed within its brief time with the audience.

The DVD:

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is presented from FUNimation in an impressive two-disc set. This DVD comes with very sharply-designed coverart in a standard DVD keepcase.

The Video:

Presented in a sharp anamorphic widescreen transfer, Shinobi looks fantastic. At times, the color scheme appears both muted, yet rich. Probably at the discretion of the director, specific scenes throughout the film appear pale, though extremely crisp. Some may see these scenes as a missed opportunity at enriched colors. This reviewer thought the entire video presentation was quite entrancing – though not without flaws. During a particularly dark scene, the picture does have a slightly grayish-blueish fade on the left-hand side at one point. This appears to be a source-print issue. Edge-enhancement popped up here and there, but not to any distracting degree. However, the level of detail is fantastically sharp, whether it be scenery, CG-specific elements, or facial features. Overall, Shinobi packs a solid punch in the video department.

The Audio:

Presented in both the original Japanese DD 5.1 language track (as well as English 5.1), Shinobi delivers a healthy array of aural pleasures as well. Twirling weapons, soaring birds of prey, and rushing water all crisply flowed from each speaker. Bass effects were potent, yet not overwhelming. Dialogue was extremely pleasant sounding and crisp. Shinobi also boasts a loaded soundtrack with a beautifully orchestrated score that chimed in very well on this DVD. From the clanking of weapons to the thundering crashes of fallen foes, Shinobi sounded excellent. Only English subtitles are available.

The Extras:

The first disc is dedicated to the great quality of the audio/video presentation. On Disc 1, Chapter Selection and Coming Attraction options are available.

Disc Two, however, boasts quite an array of quality Special Features.

VFX Behind the Scenes illustrates nearly every pain-staking level of development taken into creating the visually engrossing special effects found in Shinobi. In a film that relies so heavily on the blend between visual effects and tangible actors, this process is essential to getting all the nuances just right. This feature details a great deal of those necessary fine points, from hair design to the actual blending points of reality and fantasy. Plus, a lecture-style presentation is included as well featuring an interesting compilation of sequential slides and video footage explanations to a technology-based class.

Quite wonderfully and functionally displayed, the Storyboard Collections provide a superb comparison between the actual footage scenes and the illustrations. In a cross-section formation, the original video footage is presented in an upper quadrant, while the in-motion storyboard occupies the space below it. Next to both portions is the full storyboard in sequence. This gives the opportunity for terrific comparisons. As for the Director's Storyboard Collection, it is presented similarly, only without the full overlapping storyboard. That portion feels more like an illustration collection than a full storyboard.

The Weapons Introduction is, surprisingly, very insightful for more than one or two reasons. First and foremost, the weapons are delightfully displayed individually by character in the film. Also, a small insight about each of the weapons leads into discussion about the characters that weren't as clear even in the film.

The Sumpu Castle Fight featurette is quite interesting to watch, especially after viewing the VFX: Behind The Scenes footage. While it is addressed in the effects feature, this portion is filmed directly on the set with commentary from the crew.

The Manjidani Mountain construction video footage shows how difficult it can be to create the ideal image in a film. Constructing this town amidst treacherous mountains ends up being very dangerous. This footage shows construction, difficulty, and aftermath of the town.

Also included are a series of Original Trailers and Television Spots. While about three-fourths of the spots are extroadinarily similar, the longer trailers are quite entertaining to watch. Interestingly, the television spots are organized by the "mood" they're attempting to achieve (i.e. romance, action, etc).

Overall, the bonus material included with Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is quite nice. The subtitle placement is a bit screwy at times (since permanent Japanese text is embedded, the English subs must compete with its space). While commentary from the director and the author of the novel would have been wonderful, the materials provided are fairly comprehensive and, most importantly, very interesting to watch.

Final Thoughts:

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade arrived at just the right time. As an interesting cocktail of numerous established genres, this film delivers a blend of many elements in one slick package. A fusion of modern technology, action, and talented characters aids in assembling this charismatic cast. With the support of a straightforward, simple, yet engrossing storyline, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade sports a load of high-quality entertainment. Presented in a package with terrific audio/video quality and fantastic extras, this DVD comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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