Shinobi is like Titanic with Ninjas. It’s like Star Wars without the crass merchandising. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean with TWO Johnny Depps. It’s James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis standing in the same room together looking hella cool. It’s the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant and the shroud of Turin all at once. It’s all that and better, much, much better.
By all logical reasoning this sappy, manipulative, derivative drivel shouldn’t work on me, but it does. I loved it. It made me realize just how sadly underwhelming George Lucas’ supposed oeuvre is. How little he understands about the art of involving an audience in his movies. Screw story, and plot can go to hell. None of that matters or ever mattered. If you can’t invoke mood and control it like a freakin’ magician so that it touches the audience and washes them in a tide of feeling then what good are you as a director?
The Shinobi are ancient shadow warriors trained to operate in darkness. Far more powerful than mere Ninjas, they have incredible powers like being able to breathe out poison mist or snap someone’s body into pieces just by looking at them. So dangerous are they that Hattori Hanzo the 1st declared that there had to be two separate and segregated villages of trained Shinobi; and that if one village took up arms for a warlord, the other village must fight for the other side. Any other time, the two villages must be at peace. However, hundred of years later in 1614, their continued existence worries the present Shogun who hatches a plan to destroy the two groups. The village leaders are asked to choose five of their best warriors and pit them against each other. Whoever emerges as the sole victor is promised to be the next Shogun. This will make sure only one Shinobi remains, as the Shogun has secretly sent troops to exterminate the now near defenseless villages.
This puts a kink in the plans of Gennosuke and Oboro, a man and woman from different villages who had planned to marry due to the hundred year’s long peace. Their love being exactly what the Shogun feared most, that the two clans might band together and become an unstoppable force that could strip him of his power.
Do I need to tell you that Gennosuke and Oboro are both made leaders of the group of fighters selected from each of their respective villages? I hope not, because if you didn’t see it coming you’re a freakin’ idiot. Anyway, the battle begins with the groups slowly stalking each other but Gennosuke soon parts with the way of the warrior and wants to demand of the Shogun WHY they must fight. And here is where Shinobi truly captivated me.
For heavy is the heart of all warriors and soldiers who fight wars while never truly knowing why. Even the most gung-ho hothead eventually wonders what all the killing is about. It’s hard to accept that you’re seen as no more than a hammer and nails by a cruel carpenter, but such is the heavy burden of fighting men. It’s even worse for dedicated warriors like Gennosuke, who have sworn their lives to war. If they don’t fight then what are they? It’s bad enough to realize that your leaders see you as a mundane and disposable tool, but its even worse is to be a useless tool. Soldiers get to dream of home and eventually all the above questions become irrelevant, while warriors must die in battle. Not for any cause or country or out of any sense of duty, but because a warrior’s ultimate goal is to become a legend and his ultimate fate is always a violent death. You die the minute you set foot on the battlefield and if you happen to make it out alive, that is merely a gift; a chance extension of your life in order to fight again.
To see Gennosuke and Oboro and their friends struggle with this eternal dilemma in the most poetic way imaginable was fascinating. Shinobi is a grand and tragic opera of the highest order. Does it mean that it doesn’t fall into maudlin sap? Nope, it’s pretty sappy and cheesy and doesn’t attempt to hide it. But despite that, it’s a beautiful touching film that entertains you with exciting actions scenes by the fistful; and has enough of a brain in its head to make you think about some of the things it said after the credits roll. I’ll admit that isn’t my kind of movie, but I’d be blind and a liar if I didn’t say that I was very impressed.