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"You're choking me."

Joe Odagiri and Yukie Nakama in Shinobi.
AKA: Shinobi: Heart Under Blade  
Year: 2005  
Director: Ten Shimoyama  
  Cast: Joe Odagiri, Yukie Nakama, Minoru Terada, Tomoka Kurotani, Erika Sawajiri, Kippei Shiina, Takeshi Masu, Mitsuki Koga, Tak Sakaguchi, Houka Kinoshita, Shun Ito, Riri, Minoru Terada, Masaki Nishina, Toshiya Nagasawa, Yutaka Mastushige, Renji Ishibashi, Kazuo Kitamura
  The Skinny: After years of enforced peace, two ninja clans are pitted against each other in mortal combat. Amidst the chaos, two lovers from rival camps try to salvage their romance in the face of impending doom. Lush and evocative, Shinobi is a visual feast, but thankfully, the CGI-enhanced action doesn't outshine the story, thanks in large part to the performances of its two leads.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

Take Romeo and Juliet and add an ample dose of high-wire ninja action, and you'll probably end up with something like Shinobi, the visually dazzling 2005 martial arts saga from director Ten Shimoyama. Based on the novel by Futaro Yamada, this Tokugawa-set film depicts the fate of two star-crossed lovers: Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) from the Koga clan and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) from the Iga clan. Both ninja groups are secluded deep within the mountains, honing their ninja skills to levels beyond that of mortal men. Although they remain fierce rivals, the two camps live in peace. The reason? An imperial decree forbids any warfare between the two.

However, as the film begins, both Gennosuke and Oboro have already met and fallen in love, and both are looking for a way to make their romance public, hoping their peers will let go of their various hatreds and accept them as a suitable match. However, this already complicated situation is made even worse when Iga matriarch Ogen (Riri) and Koga chieftain Danjo Koga (Minoru Terada) are summoned to have an audience with the Shogun. Once there, the leaders are commanded to pick their best warriors and pit them against each other in combat. The Shogun's motivation, however, has less to do with finding out which clan is stronger, and everything to do with eliminating any and all potential threats to his sovereignty.

After secretly planning to wed, Gennosuke and Oboro are shocked to learn that not only has the ban against warfare been lifted, but that they have both been chosen to lead their warriors into battle. Even so, Gennosuke flatly refuses to participate, instead proposing that he and his men start investigating why they've been forced to engage the Iga clan to begin with. Unfortunately, Gennosuke's comrades see things very differently from their lovestruck leader. In their view, they have trained their entire life to be instruments of doom at their lord's disposal. And for Gennosuke to suggest that they suddenly abandon their purpose, well, that's patently absurd to these guys. Besides, all those years of enforced peace have gotten these guys itching for a fight. Oboro's clansmen are no different, as they, too, seem to be eager to spill some blood.

This colorful cast of characters include the Koga clan's face-changing Saemon Kisaragi (Hoka Kinoshita) and the venomous beauty Kagero (Tomoka Kurotani), who just so happens to secretly have feelings for Gennosuke. On the Iga side, there's the long-haired Yashamaru (Tak Sakaguchi), whose fluttering robes hide various deadly surprises for his enemies, and the silver-haired, near immortal Tenzan Yakushi (Kippei Shiina), who knows more about the situation than he lets on. It seems that as the two clans start picking each other off, they've unintentionally sealed their clan's fate - in ways they never anticipated. And after losing people they've cared about, will Gennosuke and Oboro be able to put their clan differences aside, save their loved ones, and live happily ever after? The answer to that question just might surprise you.

Visually impressive, both in terms of art direction and CGI-enhancement, Shinobi is nothing less than a joy to behold. Filled with beautiful forests, mountains, waterfalls, and other visual delights, it's a definite feast for the senses. And from a choreography point of view, the film appropriates much of the high-flying, wuxia-style action of Hong Kong cinema and modernizes the techniques via top-notch special effects wizardry and jazzy production values. Those with an aversion to wire-fu or supernatural martial arts in general may bristle at Shinobi's action sequences, but overall, they are sharply drawn, well-paced, and even exhilarating at times.

But with all this natural beauty and slick technical ingenuity on display, one might fear that the whole experience would feel a bit hollow. However, the film's romantic angle - something that would come off rather trite in a lesser film - actually saves Shinobi from being complete eye candy. Both Odagiri and Nakama do well in selling the reality of this time-honored tale of doomed romance. Odagiri, in particular, conveys a welcome sense of world-weariness and plain-spoken common sense in his character's rejection of the Shogun's decree. Although the movie does sometimes feel like a series of "boss battles" in a video game, it does approach a more substantial, epic feel for the majority of its duration. Amidst all the action, the film is, on a larger level, a story about a group of people coming to terms with their own obsolescence. What should one do? Hide from the changing times? Adapt? Or go out in a blaze of glory? If you like movies with star-crossed lovers, all-out ninja action, and tragedy on a grand scale, then Shinobi delivers it in spades. Or would that be shurikens? (Calvin McMillin, 2006)

Notes: • The main theme "HEAVEN" is performed by Ayumi Hamasaki.
Availability: DVD (JPN)
Region 2 NTSC
Shochiku Home Video
16 X 9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Japanese Subtitles
Various Extras
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