Shinobidô or 忍道 (2012)
This is about a village of secretive Ninja spies who call themselves the Shinobidô or 忍道 (2012) and their feud with Kurobaneshu, a secret band of samurai dedicated to wiping out the ninja. The first thing you should notice about this set-up is that neither feuding group really knows anything about the other. They both keep their secrets well. To some extent that saves this film from being a direct rerun of Romeo and Juliet, but the basic plot dynamic is the star-crossed lovers theme. On the Shinobidô side, we have Sumino aka Oko (Aimi Satsukawa), a young female ninja ordered by her village chief (Hatsunori Hasegawa) to gather intelligence about the Kurobaneshu. To do this, she has to go undercover as a serving wench in a nearby town. On her first day in this thriving village metropolis, she rescues a young girl from certain injury if not death. This forces her father, apparently the town drunk called Togoro (Ryoichi Yuki), to wake up and take notice of her. During the day, when he’s dried out, he’s one of these helpful types who helps geriatrics cross the road and repairs whatever’s broken. Needless to say, within just a few frames they are looking at each other with delightfully suspicious eyes. As trained spies, they both know there’s something not quite right about the other but there’s also physical attraction.
At least that’s what we’re supposed to infer from their behaviour. However, it’s at this point that I’m forced to raise flags signally the imminent arrival of a storm. There are times when, within a few minutes of a film starting, you become aware this is not going to be a pleasant experience. This is one of those times. No matter how you judge quality, one thing is certain. In the West, films of this quality go straight to video and expire on the shelves of distant warehouses and obscure shops. It’s not just the production values which are of the economical variety. It’s also the cast who must rank as one of the most wooden I have had the misfortune to see in the last year. That this was released into the cinemas speaks volumes as to the patience of Japanese cinema goers. The star of the show is Aimi Satsukawa. Over the last seven years, she’s contrived to appear in multiple films and television shows. But she’s woefully miscast in this. Here’s a trained killer and superspy. She’s supposed to be able to blend into obscurity when undercover yet not only does she immediately draw attention to herself with a very public rescue, but she walks around the inn as if officiating at a funeral service. There’s absolutely no animation, no spark of life about her at all (except when, Bollywood style, we break off and have a musical number when she and a group do a ninja dance for the villagers). Now it’s always possible that, in these distant times and in hick townships, serving girls did not flirt with the customers to pick up tips. But this performance wins a booby prize for failing the course on Bar (Waiting on Table) 101.
Ryoichi Yuki is no better. We’re to think him lost in grief from the death of his wife (she was supposedly killed by the Shinobidô) but the enemy superspy is his chance of resuming life as a red-blooded Japanese man when he gets a load of our her. Except he’s so undemonstrative, it takes a superimposition of his dead wife’s face over the spy’s so we understand what he’s thinking. Allowing for cultural differences, this is tedious as a romance. And, to prove the point, it rains when she stands him up on their first date and goes back to the ninja village. Now it all comes down to an internal emotional conflict between her loyalty to the village and her possible love for the man. In due course, this conflict has to be resolved in a big fight at the ninja village. The fight has its moments but it’s essentially amateurish as a film spectacle. I suppose I could dignify it by saying the general lack of style is probably realistic. In a real fight, warriors don’t care what it looks like so long as it’s effective. Unfortunately, the way it’s shot and put together rather belies that interpretation. We get staged death after staged death with blood spurting out everywhere in an SFX nightmare. Just in case you come across Shinobidô or 忍道 somewhere on a shelf and feel like surrendering a few minutes of your life in watching it, I won’t spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say it’s not the rousing climax you would hope for. It simply continues the death spiral from the first few minutes until we crash into the ground with the rest of the dead.