Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, is a tale of two warring ninja clans, Iga and Kouga, forced to choose five of their best ninja each to square off against one another. The result of this grand ninja clash will decide who will serve as heir to the Shogun, all part of a scheme concocted by Tokugawa Ieyasu to consolidate the threat that such deadly clans pose.
The movie, directed by Ten Shimoyama, took the story of Futara Yamada’s novel, The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, to Japanese movie theaters in 2005, putting Yukie Nakama (Trick, Love & Pop) in the role of Iga leader Oboro, with Joe Odagiri (Azumi, Blood and Bones) as her star-crossed Kouga lover, Gennosuke. Rounding out the cast are plenty of big shots, like Versus‘ Tak Sakaguchi and the legendary Renji Ishibashi.
The setup of the five-on-five Shinobi battle is a promising one, and the movie doesn’t waste too much time establishing who’s who, showcasing the many quirks and powers held within each group’s carefully selected ninja. These various shinobi range from sinister to silly, all of them equally deadly. One, for instance, steals the faces of its victims by rubbing his hand over their features and absorbing the appearance onto his own visage, which is essentially an eyebrow-less blank slate. Another has threads that spring from his sleeves like Spider-man’s web, binding and shredding his enemies with the precision of an arachnid spewing razor wire.
In contrast, Joe Odagiri’s character isn’t nearly as interesting. Sure, his haircut is awesome and he has a killer slow-motion power, but he fades into the background among the Ninja GI Joe variety pack of the supporting cast. After all, how can anyone expect to compete with deadly ring-tossers, Ninja Scroll-like loins of death and pale-faced, androgynous sleeve-shredders? A similar fate befalls Yukie Nakama’s Oboro, but to a lesser extent. The somewhat vanilla attitudes of both leads makes their Romeo and Juliet story less intriguing (They are destined to fight, but also destined to looooove!), and what begins at the forefront of the film quickly becomes a side-story or, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, a ninja gaiden. There, I said it.
Regardless, Shinobi is still an entertaining cluster of various parts that don’t operate as smoothly on their own. The action, while not particularly well choreographed, is engaging and, at times, really creative. With so many superpowered shinobi, though, you’re bound to run into one or two stand out characters that are underserved in their fight scenes. There’s a feral ninja near the beginning, for instance, that falls quickly to his foe after only a few seconds of leaping and snarling. Dishes like that may have been best served closer to the main course, but some concessions must be made in a movie with so many characters and a decent amount of story to tell.
The movie, especially on Blu-ray, looks really amazing. There’s a fair amount of questionable CG that stands out like a sore thumb, most noticeably in HD, but it’s more of a quaint and momentary distraction than a glaring annoyance. Other than that, there are a lot of fantastic looking locales and a few nice traditional effects interspersed throughout. Shinobi isn’t a landmark ninja magic flick by any stretch of the imagination, but it won’t disappoint anyone looking for a fun and light 100-minute tussle in the trees with enough throwing stars to kick-start a new ninja solar system.