Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Review: Shinobi: Heart Under Blade

I recently found myself in the mood for a "ninja movie," and while Shinobi: Heart Under Blade does have ninjas, and is a movie, it wasn't quite what I had in mind. Next time maybe I'll do more research.

Not that Heart Under Blade is bad or anything. But I'd hoped for more of a "ninjas doing badass shit to non-ninja mooks" kind of movie, rather than "ninja clan vs. ninja clan, but with lots of talking and romance-y moping, and also they're superhuman." That said, if you're in the mood for the latter, look no further.

The Netflix description nails it for once, describing this film as Romeo and Juliet meets the X-Men. The lead characters, Gennosuke and Oboro, are the star-crossed lovers (and yes, they use that phrase a couple of times, just in case the influence is unclear). They belong to rival ninja clans populated by a host of bizarre characters, including a Wolverine analogue with rapid healing, a male Mystique analogue, a poisonous Rogue analogue, and Sleeve Guy—whose power is telekinetic control over the fibers in his sleeves. (I'm not enough of a comic book nerd to know the relevant X-Man for Sleeve Guy.)

Clearly these are the more fantastical and less historical varieties of ninja. Yet the story takes place in a historical context, during the age of peace brought about by Tokugawa Ieyasu. All the same, more than once I felt like I was watching an anime RPG cutscene rather than a movie, whether due to strange performance choices or the music or the plot points or perhaps most of all the English dubbing—which was decent as dubbing goes, but it's still dubbing.

The story is that Gennosuke and Oboro meet by chance, fall in love basically instantly, and soon inherit the leadership of their respective clans. Meanwhile, Tokugawa wants the clans to send champions to fight each other, but he's got ulterior motives. Gennosuke figures this may be his only chance to stop the fighting between the clans so he can get it on with Oboro, but ninjas being ninjas, violence ensues nonetheless. In one memorable scene, we're introduced to one of Oboro's more likable underlings, whose humility and kindness mark her quite obviously for death. But the surprise is just how rapidly that death comes; any quicker and I would've thought it was satire. Eventually a tense scene at the big castle leads to the tragic ending (as is so often the case in movies like this), followed by a sweet coda.

Striking scenery, occasional kick-assery, and largely effective camerawork help make Shinobi: Heart Under Blade enjoyable even during the periods of plot slog. I'd give it an extra half-star if it wasn't for the acting, which is uniformly blander here than in similar films, such as the oft-corny Shaolin or the majestic Hero. Maybe the way of the ninja is one of making characters from Howard's End seem positively demonstrative by comparison, I dunno.

Star Score: 3 out of 5

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