Shinobi: Heart Under Blade

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)
FUNimation Entertainment
Cast: Yukie Nakama, Joe Odagiri, Ayumi Hamasaki
Extras: Featurettes, Storyboards, TV Spots, Trailers, Art

"I will not fight…"

I'm usually not a rumor hound, but simply mention the possibility of a live action adaptation of the groundbreaking anime, 'Ninja Scroll,' and watch me knock over small children to get online to see if it's true. I suppose the fact that it's never been made is for the best… it would take a miracle to bring the story to the screen without ruining everything that made it great. It would be a tough tone to nail for a feature film and I wouldn't want to see any average filmmaker waste the opportunity to craft it properly. Lucky for me, I found something that would make my wait more tolerable in this wonderful, Japanese surprise, 'Shinobi.'

'Shinobi' is a heart achingly beautiful tale of two star-crossed lovers Oboro (Yukie Nakama) and Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri), leaders of separate clans of mystical warriors that have been in conflict for centuries. Both clans serve the Tokugawa empire, but each have a strained relationship with the other. Love is certainly forbidden between the two and, when the film begins, we see a glimpse of Oboro and Gennosuke's first meeting before we're flung forward to a time when their greatest desire is to find a way to be married. Before they can figure out a way to reconcile their clans, the emperor of the Tokugawa orders each clan to select five of its greatest warriors. He declares that whoever is left standing will rule the two clans and a fight to the death is inevitable.

There a few things about 'Shinobi' that really impressed me. First off, any fan of classic fighting games like 'Samurai Showdown' will instantly fall in love. I've never seen a non-animated feature film capture the setup and tone of a fighter without reducing it to comicy, pop culture junk. All ten fighters present in 'Shinobi' feature hidden, inhuman talents that are reminiscent of the Devils of Kimon in 'Ninja Scroll' and the resulting battles and visual wonders are equal parts 'Hero,' 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,' and 'The Matrix.' Second, the love story is handled with such care and tragedy that it borders on being Shakespearean. All of the relationships (love, friendship, or rivalry) are genuine and realistic… it may even throw some people off at first when soft conversations suddenly burst into violent action. You would think all of the leaping, flashing, and special powers would diminish the soul of the story but it is one of the most languid, gorgeous journeys between clashes that I've seen in a long time. Even the gorgeous vistas swell with emotion and you may find yourself checking the box to see if Peter Jackson somehow brought the Japanese crew to New Zealand. Finally, the tone of 'Shinobi' never succumbs to its clichéd manga roots. Yes, characters can bound from tree to tree, slow time, and perform all sorts of magical feats, but the movie never feels cartoony in any way. It's a heavy, depressing journey towards the end of an era that never grows stale or repetitive.

Sure there are a few problems: the effects are occasionally transparent, the film lifts a lot of material from the influences I mentioned (particuarly 'Ninja Scroll' with a poison bred assassin named Kagero, a demon warrior that can regenerate, a tragic opportunity for our hero to leap through a slew of human ninjas, as well as similar otherworldly attributes in our warriors), and the ending slows down to a conclusion that some American audiences would call anti-climactic. However, none of these potential hindrances have much negative impact on the film when all is said and done. The love-it-or-hate-it subtlety of the ending was very welcome and I found it to be a perfect to the film as it takes on a message that was entirely unexpected. While you'll notice the similarities to other movies, it never feels like plagiarism and always feels like a loving homage from the filmmakers. I was thoroughly engaged by 'Shinobi' and I have friends coming over this evening to sit down and enjoy it as well.

Visually, this DVD from Funimation was a treat and displayed deep blacks and high detail. I would kill to get a copy of 'Shinobi' in high definition (which I'm told is out there somewhere) and I can only hope its brought to the US on one of the high-def formats. For now though, I have little to complain about in this DVD. Even problems that are more common with foreign releases (like macroblocking and source noise) were absent from this nice transfer. The only knock on the consistent quality was the washed out color palette… but it's intentionally presented in this manner by the filmmakers. Shadow detail is tough to make out as a result and some of the pristine visuals are lost in nighttime darkness. However, it does add to the tone and there's never a moment where splashes of color or long lensed landscape shots suffer at the hand of low saturation. In fact, these moments explode across your screen with a vibrance that allows them to spring to life. I was also grateful to find the special features were left to a second disc so the feature film didn't have to be crammed into a higher compressed file that would kill all of the beauty from shot to shot.

The audio is sadly not as big of a deal. That's not to say it's bad at all… it's just to say there isn't much happening in the way of the sound design, soundscape, or musical score. This is a quiet movie that only raises its head when chaotic fights toss all sorts of sound effects through your system. These effects are the only thing that boost an actiony tone, but I've watched too many martial arts films to expect it any other way. For the most part, the things that the filmmakers provide to our ears are technically solid and you won't have a complaint about the DVD mix itself.

The bonus disc includes a nice pack of features that give you more than you'd expect from a foreign film. Since the cast and crew of these movies don't speak much English, there seems to be a misconception that American fans don't want a lot of supplements on their version of the DVD. At least for me, that couldn't be further from the truth. 'Shinobi' comes with an some documentaries, behind the scenes featurettes, storyboards, art, and an exploration of the characters' weapons. Some of the mini-docs are boring, which was a surprise which such a thrilling film. But they're usually interesting and worth a look. The art, set construction, and weapons documentaries shouldn't be skipped and I had a good time watching the attention to detail that was put into every aspect of 'Shinobi' in pre-production and post. To sum it up, I had no problem spending time with this entire set because I enjoyed the movie so much.

Funimation usually doesn't work on live action films but I hope they keep it up. 'Shinobi' is anime all the way, but it never falters under the weight of its animated roots. This DVD is a great package and well worth your money. Fans of the film should also check out the animated version of the film ('Basilisk') which appears in a 5 disc series on DVD. I can't vouch for it, but I immediately threw it into my Netflix queue so I can hope… especially since it was made by the same people. All in all, at least give 'Shinobi' a rent – fans of anime like 'Ninja Scroll', visual martial arts powerhouses, and Japanese films won't regret it!