Review: Shinobi No Mono (1962)

Shinobi No Mono is often credited with inciting the very first ninja craze in Japan, and with good reason.  Based on the period novels written by Tomoyoshi Murayama, it was the first film to present a more historically accurate ninja.  It also didn’t hurt to have the lone living link to actual ninjutsu training, Masaaki Hatsumi, on board as a consultant.

The film stars Raizo Ichikawa as  the infamous outlaw, Ishikawa Goemon.  We meet him as the brash young upstart of one of the ninja clans, but he’s quickly brought to his knees by his ego and lust.  The clan leader wants Oda Nobunaga assassinated and he feels that Goemon is the man for the job, but he ends up doing some pretty heavy arm twisting to get his way.  The story is deliberately convoluted and when it was over I didn’t feel as if I really knew the truth of who actually did what to whom, as there’s subterfuge at every turn, but it was still an enjoyable story.

Unlike many of the samurai films of that era, the performances are relatively subdued.  After watching recent movies like Ninja Assassin, I was relieved that there wasn’t any wire work or flying ninjas to be found here.  Ichikawa is clear in his performance but he isn’t exactly playing the kind of character that it’s easy to get behind.  His motives center around saving his own skin or dipping his wick so he’s not exactly a hero, but Ichikawa does give him a certain charm.

I also have to give a nod to Nobunaga’s black cat who gives such a convincing death scene that I became worried for its safety in real life.  I’m not sure if Nobunaga was fond of felines in real life, but they give him that trait here and it made me dislike him less than I should have for the plot to work.

The biggest beef I had with the film is the darkness of the DVD transfer.  There are lots of clever shots and Yasukazu Takemura’s cinematography was way ahead of its time, but the transfer made some of the nighttime scenes very hard to see.  Detail is very good for a DVD but it’s just too dark overall.  I’d love to see a Criterion transfer of this some day.  It isn’t that Animeigo did a bad job with the movie, as their subtitles are among the best in the business, but I felt like I needed to turn up the brightness on my TV.

Music was a standout, communicating the period without directly using any Japanese classical pieces.  Composer Michiaki Watanabe composed 95 scores between 1953 and today (he’s still working!) and I can see why he’s been a favorite of Japanese directors for so long.  He expertly underscores the goings on without ever letting the score devolve into cliche.

This film spawned seven sequels, all of which I’m now interested in seeing.  I just hope the other transfers are a little brighter.  Recommended.

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