(13/02/08)

"Our love was but a dream, our stars were crossed"

Shakespeare may well be England’s most renowned writer and Romeo and Juliet the most famous of lovers but on viewing Shinobi (set in 1614, roughly around the time of the Bard’s last quillfull of ink) you begin to realise that somewhere along the road old Bill took his eye off the ball. He missed the obvious in his tale of two star-crossed lovers in that Romeo couldn’t slow down time to take out armies of highly trained ninja and Juliet lacked the essential skill of being able to kill a man with her eyes, causing his insides to contort and rupture.

Gennosuke and Oboro share passionate glances across the river as the auburn autumn leaves dance from the trees and a magical waterfall cascades silver strands as a backdrop to their amour. But, tragically, their love is doomed for they are members of rival clans of Iga and Koga village, hidden deep in the Japanese countryside. These are no ordinary clans but Shinobi, trained from birth in mystical warrior ways and possessing awesome, almost supernatural, powers of strength and skill. For 400 years since Hattori Hanzo the First laid a stone to separate the lands the clans have had to abide a truce under the dictate of the powerful shogun. But Hattori Hanzo III, having tested the abilities of the two clans, annuls the peace and demands that the five top warriors from Iga and Koga convene at Sumpu, providing they can make it there alive. Heading the rival clans following the mutual deaths of their former leaders are Gennusuke and Oboro, now officially at war.

Shinobi is a film painted with broad brushstrokes, filled with hyperbole and accentuated passions. The tale is simple but, in keeping with its characters’ extreme abilities, everything about the film is larger than life. Characters span the centuries, forests are impossibly golden, sunsets breathtakingly beautiful and even the sound is exaggerated for effect. The drips of water or blood echo all around, Shinobi dropping from massive heights cause mighty sub-woofer booms and, at a number of key moments, the film plays with the most powerful (but dangerous) sound effect of all – utter silence.

Visually the film is a treat, with a stunning combination of wirework and CGI used to create its fantastical hyper-real world. However, those expecting the "realism" of Hollywood fantasies may struggle to cope with the more expressionist use of effects that Shinobi offers, although these are entirely in keeping with the film’s mythical tone. Much of the feel of the film, particularly in the character of Yashamaru, a dispassionate Shinobi with skills that include the ability to shoot deadly black string capable of ripping off limbs or crushing trees, recalls Ching Siu-Tung’s Swordsman 2 and East Is Red, but the addition of extensive and imaginative CGI gives the tone of a video game or manga.

Characters can bounce down mountains or through forests with weightless ease or seemingly fly into the air. Similarly, the range of abilities are so diverse as to be almost like a medieval version of the X-Men, there is even a Wolverine character in the shape of feral fighter Mino Nenki, complete with his own iron claws. There’s the decidedly creepy Saemon who can steal faces, the beautiful Kagero whose veins run with venom, Hotaru-Bi who can summon golden deadly butterflies and Hyoma, a blind warrior with heightened senses. Character identification never becomes an issue.

Shinobi may well be a shallow film in terms of its postage stamp plotting but more than compensates in sheer exuberance, romance and pathos. It’s a beautifully designed romantic martial arts spectacle filled with action and passion but almost totally devoid of realism, not necessarily a bad thing. When Gennosuke unleashes his rage on a small army of ninja he turns into a blur of fury, decimating the black clad warriors who move in slow motion to his speeded up combat skills, dispatching three armed combatants in mid air set against the backdrop of an impossibly large and beautiful moon.

Optimum’s DVD offers a very impressive set of extras including a sizable documentary on the special effects (including quite a detailed presentation explaining the integration of 3D characters into the film that’s a must for budding CG artists but a bit antiseptic for the casual viewer), as well as shorter pieces on weaponry and set design as well as storyboard to final film comparisons. All in all a great package.

The Shinobi DVD is out now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.