If Trinity Blood was an example of an anime where they took a great idea and wasted it, Shinobi is the live-action version of the same sort of mistake. It is a period ninja-fantasy adventure with a game cast, based on a bestselling novel, and my god is it ever boring as hell. Sorry, gang, but that’s the way it is. The movie is all promise and no payoff.
I gave the movie a chance, honest. I let Shinobi unspool for two hours without feeling it strike a single neuron, without a single surprise that I hadn’t seen coming miles off, and when it was done I could not remember a single image, a single line of dialogue, a single scene that had held my interest in more than the most fleeting way. How is it that Japan can use the samurai / period-adventure genre to produce some of the most compelling, visually striking and all-around inventive films—Gojoe, or Takeshi Kitano’s Zatōichi—but then turn around and come up with a complete wet dog of a picture like this? Probably because Gojoe and Zatōichi were the products of artists with vision, and Shinobi is a piece of made-to-order piffle.
Futaro Yamada’s novel, the vastly influential source material for the film, told a story of two star-crossed lovers from opposing ninja clans. I haven’t yet read the book, but it has been translated into English for a release later this year, and I’m grateful for that: it means that one of the most influential works in Japanese popular culture is finally getting some recognition here; with any luck others like it will follow suit. The book was also the inspiration for a manga and anime, Basilisk, both of which raised my anticipation for the live-action movie enough that the difference between the promise and the reality of the film is just plain shocking.
As the movie opens the two ninja lovers, Gennosuke (Jô Odagiri of Tanuki-goten, Blood and Bones, and the equally misguided Azumi) and Oboro (Yukie Nakama, of the frankly hilarious Gokusen), have been meeting in secret since before the beginning of the film. Their respective clans are forbidden by imperial edict to wage war against each other, but now that an age of peace has been brought to the land, the Shogun has decided to lift that ban and let the two clans kill each other off under the guise of a contest to serve the Emperor. The lovers are caught in the middle, and are confronted with having to kill each other off—either by proxy, through each others’ sidekicks, or face-to-face. From this we get many tedious scenes where people leap around from treetops, slash at each other with exotic weapons in slow motion, and so on. It all builds to a climax that is as unedifying as it is arbitrary.
If I sound like I’m giving the story such cursory attention, it’s only because the film does the same thing. Its story is basically a clothesline for a bunch of action scenes and flashy composite shots, and it’s all set up and played off so stodgily that any native interest we might have in the story is smothered a-borning. There’s a mildly interesting plot element in that one of the ninja is quasi-immortal, and uses the internecine war as a way to finally find death at the hands of an honorable opponent. In fact, it’s interesting enough that it could support a movie all its own—a smaller, more focused and less tediously stupid movie than this one, most likely.
Aside from the story issues, my biggest problem with Shinobi is its tiresome and indiscriminate use of CGI. Once you’ve seen what real people are capable of, albeit on film—i.e., Tony Jaa running out of a blind alley on his enemy’s shoulders—CGI exaggerations aren’t remotely as interesting. And when the movie uses CGI to supply us with visuals that are intended to be fantastic, they come off as overblown. One female ninja can kill with the evil eye, and when she does so the film supplies anatomical X-ray graphics to show her powers causing her victim’s blood vessels to explode from inside. The fact that we can be shown almost anything onscreen overrides any governing taste about what should be shown onscreen.
I think filmmakers are finally realizing that when you do blatantly impossible things with the camera (or with the characters, depending on how it’s set up), the audience isn’t so much awed as dismayed. If we can’t believe that the camera can do that, we can’t believe the people being filmed by it can do that either, and any sense of credulity on our part is destroyed. This isn’t so bad for movies where the laws of physics aren’t really meant to apply (like The Matrix), but for something like Shinobi—which has an investment in being at least partly grounded in physical reality—it quickly becomes a deal-killer. Worse, our sense of whatever limitations exist within the story is also shattered. It’s like I said about Hard Luck Hero: in a movie where anything is possible, everything becomes equally arbitrary and stupid.
What’s most bizarre is that the animated version of the same source material is far better executed. It started with a bang, held the audience all the way through, and constantly found ways to keep the story intriguing. But I felt other forces at work that made the material more suited for anime: in anime there’s more freedom of vision and movement than there is in live-action—things can be freer without also running the risk of looking ridiculous. Plus, the anime ran as a 26-episode TV show, giving the creators more time to explore the story without shoveling in tons of clumsy explanations that don’t really lead to anything important anyway.
More than anything else, Shinobi is a failure of imagination. For me the one thing that is most emblematic of this is how much dismayingly modern-looking eye makeup the women are wearing in almost every shot. Look, I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept the possibility that ninja can leap over rooftops and spit razor-sharp wires from their sleeves—but not in a million years could I suspend disbelief enough to accept the possibility that 17th-century Japan had the Avon Lady.
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