“Shinobi No Mono” – A.J. Hakari

The philosophy of the samurai is quite different from that of the ninja. Samurai abide by a strict code of honor, one designed to enable these warriors to engage in violent acts with some semblance of dignity. The ninja, on the other hand, is a much craftier creature, forced to go about his business under cover of darkness and use whatever sneaky techniques possible to fulfill the job at hand. But while these doctrines may clash, 1962’s ninja-centric Shinobi No Mono has plenty in common with those samurai films that dare to question themselves, showing that, no matter which way you slice it, the art of war is ugly business.

Our story centers on Goemon (Raizo Ichikawa), a young lad who’s picked a pretty bad time to be a ninja. It’s the 16th century, and ruthless daimyo Oda Nobunaga (Jo Kenzaburo, a.k.a. Lone Wolf and Cub’s Tomisaburo Wakayama) is on the warpath, determined to unite Japan under his bloody reign. It goes without saying that this leaves more than a few citizens irked, so the task of taking down the brutal warlord falls upon ninja clans like the one Goemon belongs to. He’s more than eager to put his training to good use, but for some reason, his master Sandayu (Yunosuke Ito) decides to give him a little incentive. A scheme is put into motion that results in Goemon engaging in a steamy tryst with Sandayu’s wife (Kyoko Kishida), a brief affair that doesn’t end well. To redeem himself, Goemon is given the job of slaying Nobunaga all on his lonesome, a tricky assignment our hero comes to regret taking on.

The way of the ninja, or at least the way Sandayu teaches it, is one of putting “heart under blade,” dedicating one’s self to living by the sword in every sense. As you may expect, this could cause some friction amongst more idealistic warriors, which is precisely the point behind Shinobi No Mono. Just as Gate of Hell and Kill! gave the Bushido Code a discriminating once-over, this picture examines what happens when someone gets a little too zealous when it comes to ninjitsu. Due to this storytelling choice, Shinobi No Mono isn’t as action-oriented as you might come to expect. As there’s relatively little violence (what does take place is often shrouded by the night), those weaned on more grisly franchises like the Lone Wolf and Cub series won’t find their bloodlusts sated here. Still, that’s not to say the film is a somber or completely humorless experience. With its emphasis on melodrama and multiple story threads, Shinobi No Mono resembles a soap opera more than your average martial arts outing. It comes complete with torrid romances, over-the-top acting, and a healthy share of plot twists, all elements you wouldn’t think a ninja film would embrace.

But whether or not Shinobi No Mono tactfully keeps each of these aspects in check is another story. For the most part, the film is smooth sailing; despite a running time that sort of pushes it, director Satsuo Yamamoto packs the story with enough intrigue to keep viewers interested. In fact, I actually liked how the violence factor was downplayed. Ninjas make it a point to be swift and subtle in their work, so it makes sense that there aren’t any bloated battle sequences breaking the film’s flow. It also enhances the effect of the scant couple of fights Yamamoto does include, which come across with equal parts badassery and artistic invention (of which Goemon’s final showdown with Sandayu is a perfect example). The story doesn’t always work, as evidenced by one doozy of a revelation that’s more arbitrary than shocking. Still, the acting does a good job of compensating, with especially good turns from Ichikawa as the beleaguered hero, Kenzaburo as the wise but vicious Nobunaga, and Ito, who relishes his role as Goemon’s underhanded mentor.

Shinobi No Mono was merely the first in a series of films focusing on Goemon’s adventures. Seven more pictures followed, turning Ichikawa into a black-suited, shuriken-wielding version of James Bond. This first chapter of the Shinobi No Mono saga may not be perfect, but it certainly has me intrigued to see what the path of the ninja has in store for Goemon.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Leave a Reply