“Shinobi No Mono 2: Vengeance” – A.J. Hakari

Like zombies and pirates, ninjas have enjoyed a status of prominence amongst those who just think more forms of media could do with them. But strangely enough, this cult success hasn’t translated well to the world of film. Samurai flicks are a dime a dozen, serving as both art and entertainment, but it’s hard to find something ninja-centric that isn’t some rancid ’80s action movie. Enter the Shinobi No Mono series, ready and raring to give these warriors of shadow their cinematic due. The first picture was flawed fun, but it’s the second film, Vengeance, that emerges to bless the series with enough dramatic chops to bloom into a full-blown legend.

The year is 1582. Having disbanded the last of the ninja clans opposing him, warlord Oda Nobunaga (Jo Kenzaburo, better known as Tomisaburo Wakayama) is free to complete his conquest of Japan. Rather than fight the winds of change sweeping through the land, lone surviving ninja Goemon (Raizo Ichikawa) has opted to spend the rest of his days raising his family in peace. But such serenity is shattered when an attack by Nobunaga’s troops results in the death of Goemon’s infant son, leaving our hero thirsting for justice. Vengeance coursing through his veins, Goemon joins up with a group of rebels, embarking on a secret mission to infiltrate Nobunaga’s inner circle and turn one of the fiend’s trusted allies (So Yamamura) against him. But the fight is far from over, for Goemon also finds himself having to fend off those all too eager to usurp Nobunaga’s place and seize control of Japan for themselves.

If the first Shinobi No Mono was Star Wars, then Vengeance is definitely The Empire Strikes Back. That’s not to say the films are as culturally significant (they’re just ninjas, not the Second Coming), but when it comes to structure and the direction the story takes, a few common elements are shared. The inaugural Shinobi No Mono was a relatively light adventure, a film that never patronized its audience and balanced out the action with the historical hubub. But most importantly, it felt like the beginning of a true saga. The Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub movies often stood alone and thus could be viewed in any order. Shinobi No Mono, on the other hand, set the stage so that you really had to start at the beginning. Watching it, you got the feeling that something big was on the horizon, and I’ll be damned if Vengeance doesn’t give fans a big ol’ peek at just what that is.

Vengeance is more than just a generic subtitle; it encapsulates everything the film is about. The plot is driven by acts of revenge, and not just in Goemon’s case. A pivotal event occurs about two-thirds of the way through that feels like it’s about to wrap up, when in fact it’s just the beginning of the end. I dare not spoil the twist, but I will say that while the film does drag a bit after its introduction, it makes a strong statement on how closure isn’t so easily obtained. Compared to its predecessor, Vengeance is a real descent into darkness, nudging its players ever so gently towards the pits of despair. But fret not, for the film doesn’t completely wallow in doom and gloom. As dramatic as the story gets, the action is still fun to enjoy, from Goemon’s stealthy goings-on to the occasional battle sequence. Once again, Ichikawa does arresting work as Goemon, especially since he’s allowed to explore more emotional dimensions this time around. Nobunaga is featured as a much more boisterous villain here; he doesn’t feel as wise as he did in the first film, but Kenzaburo has fun with the character regardless. When these two characters face off in a memorable confrontation, the results are nothing short of riveting in what’s easily the film’s finest scene.

The key to any successful sequel is to work well enough on its own, yet at the same time leave you anticipating what else the series has up its sleeve. Vengeance passes both tests with flying colors, standing proud as its own compelling ninja story, as well as gearing up interest for where Goemon’s travels lead him next.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

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

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