The Great Asian Fantasy Movie Quest: Shinobi ~ Heart Under Blade (2005)
Ten Little, Nine Little, Eight Little Ninjas…
by Ender’s Girl
A hopeless sucker for a good sword-and-sorcery yarn, I never pass up the chance to road-test possible contenders for the Next Great Asian Fantasy Flick. (Recs from y’all are most welcome!) This particular movie tracks two ill-fated ninja lovers trying (not?) to kill each other in the mountain forests of 17th-century Japan. Sounds, epic, I know. But is it really?
Shinobi: Heart Under Blade
Nakama Yukie, Odagiri Joe, Sawajiri Erika
Directed by Shimoyama Ten / Shochiku Films, 2005
In a Nutshell:
An uncanny pair of star-crossed ninjas (and one in a mullet) must choose between forbidden love and clan duty. (OHNOES OHNOES!!!)
(SpoilLert: Ohohoho you bet!)
Genres: fantasy, romance, cosplay
Iconography: secret ninja communes, dueling magicky people, Odagiri Joe in a mullet
Main themes: mullets, blood feuds, filial piety, forbidden love
Key message: If your boyfriend grows a mullet, you might as well gouge your eyes out. (Yowww!)
Watching certain parts of Shinobi – and I’m just talking about the good parts here – is like watching nature-themed screensavers w
hile pretending to send emails from your workstation. Same amount of brainwork required, too. Because if all you’re looking for is a pretty movie, then this one is it. It’s hard to top the visuals of the Edenic realm in which this film is set: a falcon winging over tree-topped ravines… a shallow rock pool shimmering in a forest glade… a fish arcing out of the water and scattering crystal droplets in slow-mo… a wood nymph with lavender chenille in her hair, alighting by the pool for a sip while her would-be lover, a solemn young man in a mullet, gazes at her from across the water…
Okayyy, so maybe a moony-eyed man in a mullet ain’t such a great idea for a screensaver. But all the other location shots just mentioned are very scenic indeed. Too bad there’s little else to be admired about this movie — besides the fact that Nakama Yukie has never looked lovelier than she does here (no nerd glasses or unisex track suits for Yankumi this time, oh no no!). She’s the wood nymph by the mountain stream… except that she’s not really a nymph, but a tough cookie of a ninja princess (!!!) — who can kill with a glance (!!!). Enter the mullet (gonggg!!!) in the shape and form of Odagiri Joe, who also happens to be a ninja… except that his clan has a long-standing blood feud with Nakama Yukie’s kin, ohnoes (!!!).
Yepyepyep, it’s THAT kind of story, think Romeo and Juliet… but with superpowers! And mullets! (I seriously have to stop saying that… but first I ought to mullet over, hahaha.) The year is 1614 and Tokugawa Ieyasu sits in his castle fretting over spy reports that the shinobi people (another term for ninja) are offering their arcane arts to the highest bidders, many of whom are the Shogun’s political enemies. Worried that these mystical mercenaries will be used to undermine his regime, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his advisers hatch a plan that will pit the two strongest shinobi clans against each other.
These two clans, the Iga-ryu and the Kouga-ryu, have been locked in an uneasy 400-year peace treaty that basically limits their mutual hostilities to mooning each other across the river and leaving territorial pee marks on the bark of enemy trees – pretty hardcore stuff, I know. But the ancient ceasefire obviously hasn’t stopped the tribes from hating each other with a passion – or, as we find in the case of Yankumi and Odagiri Joe, from luhhhving each other, either.
Guarding this shaky peace is Hattori Hanzo, a functionary in the Shogunate’s employ tasked to arbitrate among the shinobi. It naturally becomes clear to the Shogun and his flunkies that the most effective way to stamp out these stealthy little buggers is to rescind the no-fighting ban – and then wait as they finish each other off. The Shogun then commands both tribes to select their five best ninja, who are to square off in a fight-oh!!! to the death-oh!!! – all on the pretext that the winning clan will get to determine the next Shogun. It’s a terribly lame-oh!!! ruse, I know, but the shinobi fall for it hook, line and, er, shuriken – which makes you wonder whether all those centuries of hermitic inbreeding have caused their recessive traits – low IQs! mutant powers! fast-growing mullets! – to surface with a vengeance.
A sylvan people, the Iga-ryu live in primitive huts on a secluded river bend, while the Kouga-ryu have carved out a mountaintop hamlet where they can practice mining, quarrying and other ecologically destructive methods to their hearts’ content. Even the set design of both villages couldn’t be more disparate, as if to stress just how much at odds these two tribes are: the Kouga lands are all dusty browns and blazing sunlight, in contrast to the tranquil blue-greenery where the Iga tree-huggers romp and live.
And did I mention that Yankumi and Mullet Joe are the only ones unhappy with the Shogun’s new edict? Because they’re secretly lovahs, not fightahs!!! But as much as they want to elope to the city and put the whole silly vendetta business behind them, they can’t – because Yankumi’s granny just happens to be the Iga clan’s chieftain, while Mullet Joe’s gramps happens to be – you guessed it!!! – the headman of the Kouga. (What to do, what to do???)
Turns out that Granny and Gramps don’t wanna fight each otha’ no mo’ either, for their confrontation in the forest following the Shogun’s announcement suggests that they, too, were once lovahhs. But, well, clan duty trumps personal happiness once again, because the chieftains end up fighting their final duel, this time to the death — for both of them. (Tsk, tsk)
Meanwhile, Yankumi and Mullet Joe are having their own romantic powwow in another forest clearing, oblivious to the geriatric showdown just a few thickets away, lol. In this scene, Mullet Joe finds Yankumi by the river and grabs her behind – er, grabs her from behind – and it’s without a doubt the lovers’ Shining Moment of Happiness before their Doom!Doom!!!, something akin to Romeo and Juliet’s last (illicit) hurrah before their story’s tragic denouement.
Hours later (and still a little dopey from their tryst), the lovers return home to learn the unfortunate news. With the ancient peace treaty now irretrievably shattered, the clamors for revenge from both sides will not be denied. But as the tribes gear up for war, oh! – what’s this? Mullet Joe morphs into “Pacifist Joe” and balks at leading his homies into battle against Team Iga! The poor chump also knows he can’t fess up to his loyal subjects that he’s been sleepin’ with the enemy (or who knows what they’ll do to him – maybe chop off his mullet? shudders!), so he vents this frustration by screaming and punching the walls of his mud hut. Tsk tsk… excitable, excitable. Lol. Baffled by his un-Kouga-like behavior, the villagers promptly label their leader a pansy and call him everything from “Satyagraha Joe” to the less cultured “Chickensh*t Joe,” e.g. “Oh here comes Chickensh*t Joe, too sissy to fight those gay Iga river rats!” *spits on ground* (Lawl)
Thankfully, Yankumi is made of fiercer stuff than her wimp-o boyfriend and wastes no time going on the warpath with Strike Force Iga. And just so you know who we’re speaking of, here’s a quick look at their lineup:
1) Yankumi. (Power: the Death Stare that turns one’s innards into gunge!!!)
2) Mr Hypothermia – a jujumancer in a color-coordinated ensemble of silvery hair, purplish lips, cobalt blue wizard robes, and a ghastly, ghastly shade of face powder. (Power: longevity and self-healing abilities, thanks to his symbiotic pet worms!!!)
3) Whippy the Whipping Boy – an androgyne in a stylized black-and-white kimono-cum-Adidas tracksuit. (Power: can shoot whiplike wires from his sleeves!!!)
4) Beastly. (or… Manimal?) (Power: can do a really, really low-rent Wolverine impersonation!!!)
5) Sawajiri Erika. (Power: blows gold pixie dust that turns into… butterflies!!! hahahaha are you all scared now, Team Kouga??? ARE YOU ALL SCARED NOW???)
Not to be outdone
in the costume and prosthetics department — is Team Kouga!!!
1) Mullet Joe – ‘nuff said. (Power: can move fast, very very fast! – faster than a speeding mullet! er, bullet! hahaha)
2) The Saracen – a blind, blah-looking man in brown robes and a nondescript cowl. (Power: clairvoyance and remote sensing!!!)
3) Lamia — a slinky, pouty vamp secretly in love with Mullet Joe. (Power: there isss poissson in her kissss!!!)
4) El Scowl’o – a dour-looking bearded dude sporting an old leather cuirass and gray bloomers. (Power: none!!! but is good with weapons and heavy machinery!!!)
5) Mr WTF – a silver-faced mummy zipped up in a filthy gray… pod. Or something. (Power: can shape-shift! and teleport faster than you can say “WTF?!!??”)
After seeing these ten ninjas parade before the screen in their… frippery, you’d expect that back home, the other villagers would also be decked out in similar fashion, right? RIGHT? Then why does everyone else look so friggin’ normal, clad in simple villager garb of tatty tunics and breeches — and oh looky, no makeup or face paint!!! Hahahaha. Which only makes our ten elite shinobi fighters look stooopider than they already do, blerg.
So Mullet Joe sends a strongly worded telegram to Team Iga saying that he and his posse won’t rise to the Shogun’s bait, but will seek an audience with Hattori Hanzo in yonder Emerald City, and ask the burning question of the day: “WTF is going on and why are you making us play this sick and cruel game, huh?” (lol) But while Mullet Joe & Co. skip down the Yellow Brick Road leading to Sumpu Castle, linking arms and singing, “We’re off to see the Hanzo, the Hattori Hanzo of Oz…” an incensed Yankumi sets her own hit squad after the Kouga peaceniks — OHNOES!!!
What follows is the Great Shinobi Purge-a-thon, in which our ten little ninjas dispatch each other with disturbing alacrity. But it’s the speed and casualness at which these shinobi drop dead (and drop out of the story) that only prove how disposable everyone is, writing-wise. You feel no real loss even as these ninjas, these mortal kombatants, run all over the forest stiffing each other, because you never get to know them beyond their fancy superficies. What does it say about a movie if more thought and effort obviously went into designing the cast’s cosplay outfits and props, and ascribing the characters their superpowers — than into developing the characters as real persons who evolve as the story unfolds?
Well, you can chalk it up to a script that’s thinner than denatured alcohol and characters flatter than pee on a plate. These ninjas have about as much depth as those mutant Beastnoids from the Super Sentai shows of yore, the ones who’d get trotted out in their cheap rubberized suits just to strike one or two fierce poses and show off their combat moves — before getting whacked by the bionic heroes, of course.
Things get so bloody predictable in Shinobi that you can sniff the payoff a mile away. I mean, we all know how that popular children’s counting rhyme ends, don’t we?
Ten little ninjas looking fierce and fine,
One got the kiss of death and then there were nine;
Nine little ninjas out to test their fate,
One was skewered to a tree and then there were eight;
Eight little ninjas (cos)playing under heaven,
One croaked by the river and then there were seven;
Seven little ninjas pulling out more tricks,
One had his cover blown and then there were six;
Six little ninjas miraculously still alive,
One became a dartboard and then there were five;
Five little ninjas fond of blood and gore,
One received the laser stare and then there were four;
Four little ninjas lurking in the trees,
One gave her life for love and then there were three;
Three little ninjas playing peek-a-boo,
One got eaten by his worms and then there were two;
Two little ninjas no longer having fun,
One ran the other through and then there was one;
One little ninja, now blind and very glum,
Slipped and fell into a stream… and then there were none.
(Well okay, so maybe we never really see Yankumi drowning in a mountain stream per se, but it ain’t that hard to imagine, LMAO.)
Granted, the fight choreography in Shinobi can wow the most hard-to-please of action-adventure (and ninjutsu) enthusiasts, especially that standout scene where Mullet Joe on “super speed” mode hacks his way through a swarm of government-issue ninjas in a moonlit glade (or was it just his magic mullet doing all the work? t’was too dark to tell, lol). But seriously, what’s the point if the action and stunt work – however niftily executed – do nothing to substantiate or advance the plot?
And please don’t get me started on the love stuff – or egregious lack of it. The creative mavens behind Shinobi flattered themselves by styling their movie after well-known specimens of the doomed love sub-genre, but aping certain scenes from, say, Zhang Zimou’s Hero only underscores what a pretentious, unoriginal adaptation Shinobi is — even if the source material was published decades before films like Hero came out. I may not have read the original novel by Yamada Futaru or the 2003 manga, nor seen the 2005 anime, but this live-action adaptation penned by Kenya Hirata just blows. Epically.
This is one movie that feels more like a hack-and-slash arcade game played by truant high school boys, than a worthy entrant to the pantheon of tragic romance canon. The scenes that bookend the lovers’ luckless story – i.e. Yankumi and Mullet Joe’s first meeting by the mountain stream, and lastly their disastrous face-off at the story’s climax – may be as dramatic and cool-looking as anything you’ve seen, but it isn’t Point A or Point B, but the entire journey in between that will keep the viewer interested, invested and involved.
And heckyeah, of course I wanted to be interested, invested and involved; I wanted to know Yankumi and Mullet Joe’s backstory and see how they fell in love after that chance encounter at the beginning of the movie (and not merely rely on the narration, which was expendable anyway), and later, how their progressively difficult choices drove them farther apart until the story could not be resolved without one of them dying. And dammit, I wanted something more meaty and satisfying than a few stolen cuddles in the woods, no matter how prettily shot. But all I got was emotional static and dead air… plus lots of fight scenes that, while nicely done, were really beside the point.
Watching Shinobi can become so mentally stultifying that at some point you’ll feel compelled to do something that demands a little more brainpower — like maybe paint your nails (as I did, lol). In the scene where the doomed lovers finally face off on that desert ridge, I looked up from my half-finished nails with a vague feeling that I ought to be sad for them. Had I been watching, say, Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, my face would’ve been buried in my tear-soaked pillow by now. But seeing a homicidal Yankumi run her blade through a very stoic Mullet Joe only made me go, “oh.” before turning my attention (and nail polish) to my big toe.
Next thing you know, Yankumi’s jabbing two fingers into her eyes before a stunned Tokugawa Ieyasu and his court — in a desperate bid to convince the Shogun that she’ll forgo her ninja powers if it means saving the Iga-ryu and Kouga-ryu from the Shogun’s armies, who, unbeknownst to the dueling shinobi, have laid siege to their mountain retreats and are this close to pulverizing both villages to sawdust and pixie dust. Yankumi sacrificing her eyes is all very statement-y, but rather pointless because by the time Tokugawa Ieyasu orders his armies to cease and desist, there’s nothing left of either village but mud and sticks and dead ninjas. (Tsk, tsk. At least Yankumi’s boyfriend got to keep his mullet to the very end, lolzzz)
Yankumi is by turns fierce and flinty as the revenge-obsessed Oboro (there, I’ve said her character’s real name at least once, happy now?) — and you can see her efforts to bring life to such a sketchy and underdeveloped role. Odagiri Joe is a totally different matter, coasting along for the paycheck 95% of the time. I mean it doesn’t take much to look glum and listless while puttering around the forest, spouting quasi-philosophical anti-war slogans, does it? 4% of the time he pulls off some actual ninja fighting, and the remaining 1% is when he remembers to “act” — and by “act” I mean “register any form of emotion” — as his mini-screaming fits in two scenes show us. And speaking of “screaming,” is it just me, or does the whole look of this dude scream “CONTEMPORARY!!!” It’s hard to buy the whole ninja act because it’s like Odagiri Joe doesn’t even belong in the movie, much less the year 1614. It seems as though he just wandered in from the year, um, 1985 maybe? Lol. (It had to be 1985, the mullet’s a dead giveaway, hahaha.)
Need I also point out the utter absence of chemistry and sexual tension between the two leads? No come-from-behind hugging could squeeze a driblet of romantic alchemy from Yankumi and Mullet Joe. I’m not even talking about open-mouthed kissing (although that too is always welcome, lol), but I needed to see the bridled (but simmering!) sexual energy and unrealized passion that typify romances of the forbidden and doomed varieties, made even more volatile by the lovers’ polarized convictions regarding duty, war, peace, honor. It’s a shame none of that yummy stuff is in this movie. (And puhleeeze, hugging is SO overrated. *rolleyes*) Shinobi a “Tragic Romance?” Hahaha. The only real tragedy here is that there isn’t enough romance in this clunker. And what “Doomed Lovers?” The only thing that’s doomed is the time you spend watching this film, 107 minutes of your life that all the ninja powers and magic mullets in the world can never, ever get back.
Artistic & technical merit: C+
Entertainment value: D
Postscript: In which E.G. Plugs a Book for the Very First Time
If you came away from Shinobi feeling as gypped as I was, and yearn to see the Star-crossed Lovers archetype fleshed out to an infinitely more satisfying degree — but still well within the same fantasy-adventure genre and ninja/warrior motif as Shinobi, then you might just love Lian Hearn’s “Tales of the Otori” cycle (five books in all). An exhilarating blend of historical drama, magic realism, philosophy, YA coming-of-age fiction, and — oh yes – romance baby romance, the “Otori” books are set in a world that strongly echoes Japan in the 16th or 17th century – but in an intentionally unintentional way, if you know what I mean. It’s a world inhabited by deadly assassins and duty-bound warriors, sadistic overlords and exquisite noblewomen, scheming courtiers and forbidden sects. (You won’t find the words “samurai” or “ninja” — or “shinobi” for that matter, hyukhyuk — anywhere in these books, but the geographical and cultural allusions to feudal Japan are hard to miss.)
When I read the first book “Across the Nightingale Floor” several years ago, I instantly fell in love with Lian Hearn’s lush and lyrical prose, and with her richly written characters who struggle with their human nature and with the choices they each make – but always endeavoring to find peace and fulfillment in a cruel, uncertain world.
The “Otori” saga is everything Shinobi would’ve wished to be, but wasn’t. There’s love and honor and heroism and sacrifice and destiny and tragedy and betrayal and all that great, great stuff that makes a true epic. And the action here is no child’s play – neither is it cosplay (hahaha). You’ll get your fill of fierce skirmishes, daring castle break-ins, epic battles and other heart-stopping moments. (Eat your heart out, Shinobi ninjas.)
And it’s impossible not to love the main characters: there’s the teenage Takeo who must choose between two completely different paths, being the sole heir of a noble warrior-lord who adopts him, as well as the secret scion of an underground network of spies, assassins and mercenaries known only as the Tribe. Sensitive and mature beyond his years but imbued with an unshakable idealism despite his conflicted feelings about killing and war, Takeo is everything Mullet Joe in Shinobi should’ve been. And there’s the highborn Kaede, Takeo’s secret love who is pledged to another. She’s everything Nakama Yukie’s character could’ve been – both fragile and headstrong, and incredibly brave in the face of the terrible constraints of her class.
The forbidden romance between Takeo and Kaede will make your heart sing, while their slow-burning sexual tension will simply DRIVE YOU INSANE, HAHAHAHA. There is passion, intrigue, danger, sex — and even a little homoeroticism on the side (which shocked me at first, but then this was way before I got to know my Johnnies, so cut me some slack here, lol).
Do give the first book a try. Once you’re swept away in the “Otori” saga you’ll realize that those silly, shallow Shinobi ninjas never stood a chance.
(Still not convinced? Read what the author posted on her site.)
Photo credits: asianmediacritics.blogspot.com, astronerdboy.blogspot.com, blu-ray.com, CinemaFrenzy @ photobucket.com, daily.greencine.com, dvdtown.com, flixster.com, hakojou.blogspot.com, japinoy.com, lianhearn.com, orendsrange.blogspot.com, reviewbuster.net, syukri0235.blogspot.com, the-other-view.com