If you came of age around the same time I did, you no doubt remember the spate of lousy American-made ninja flicks like ENTER THE NINJA (1981), REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983), NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984) and the nearly indescribably boring and Swedish-made THE NINJA MISSION (1984). I have no idea why the boom happened, but Ninja were every goddamned place for about five years, infesting television, comic books, bestselling adventure novels, and other media, (though their abscence from pop music is conspicuous, but I guess that area of entertainment was already awful enough) and their general craptasticness and ubiquity earned them a place in my heart right next to uncontrollable projectile vomiting or being on the receiving end of a perfectly executed kick to the nuts.
Even by the admittedly over-the-top standard of skills seen in any garden variety martial arts flick, the cinematic/pop culture exploits of the ninja were exceptionally cartoonish and juvenile, rendering the fabled masters of assassination and espionage into caricature and stripping them of much mystery and respectful fascination. Even the excellent LONE WOLF & CUB movies suffered from such crazy theatrics, but those films got away with it by having the sense to be completely motherfucking bloody and insanely ultra-violent, unlike any of the American entries that starred boring rent-a-ninja Sho Kosugi.
Sho Kosugi, the bargain basement ninja cult hero of the 1980's.
With all of that in mind I approached the recent US release of SHINOBI NO MONO with some trepidation, but as it starred one of my favorite chambara actors, Raizo Ichikawa — best known as the red-headed ronin Kyoshiro Nemri — and was described as being the first film to take the ninja seriously and treat him in a realsitic manner, I was willing to give it a chance.
The film is the first in a series about real life ninja/thief Goemon Ichikawa, described in some circles as a Japanese analog to Robin Hood, although to the best of my recollection Robin Hood didn't meet his end by being boiled alive in a vat of oil. Anyway, after a somewhat tedious first third of the film in which we must endure far too much exposition regarding the film's various intrigues, we get down to Goemon's adventures as a top notch soldier and ninja who is charged with killing an asshole warlord (Tomisaburo Wakayama, real-life brother to Shintaro Katsu of ZATOICHI fame, and ten years away from screen immortality as LOne Wolf) while having an affair with his commander's sexually-neglected wife. The affair turns out to be more than it seems, as does Goemon's master, and when the shit hits the fan Goemon goes on the lam and hides out in a whorehouse, there finding love with a sweet prostitute. He gives her the money to buy her freedom so they can retreat to a secluded home in the woods and start anew, but Goemon's past catches up with him and he's forced into accepting an assassination mission or else the lives of his loving wife and unborn child will be forfeit.
Once you get past the turgid first act the flick's a lot of fun in an old school way, and the ninja skills/martial arts are surprisingly realistic, featuring none of the superhuman bullshit I would have expected. The fights and ninja stuff were choreographed by Masaki Hatsumi, a doctor of natural healing techniques as well as being the 34th Grandmaster of Budo Taijutsu and founder of the Bujinkan Dojo, an all-around thoughtful badass who knows his shit, so there's an intimate intensity to the combat that allows the viewer to worry about Goemon as a human being whose skin is the only thing separting his guts from the cold and dusty ground.
The cinematography is reminiscent of a lower-budgeted and perhaps rushed Kurosawa wannabe, but the film looks great and is definitely a fun way to spend 116 minutes. I enjoyed it enough to want to see the next installment, so TRUST YER BUNCHE and rent it.
Poster from the original 1962 Japanese release of SHINOBI NO MONO.