I’ve found in the course of my moviegoing travels that Japan never met a story it didn’t like — or couldn’t sequelize, for that matter. Hollywood gets a lot of flack for mining its own franchises for filmic gold, but Japanese cinema is filled with tales that span numerous pictures, though it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Shinobi No Mono series is one that has always maintained its sense of purpose through one invention or another, of which its fourth chapter, Siege, is proof positive. Not only does it carry on its party line, it does so by beginning a new story cycle, both reinvigorating and honoring its original intentions at the same time.
In the years following Shinobi No Mono 3, Ieyasu Tokugawa (Ganjiro Nakamura) has become the latest to reign supreme throughout Japan. But the man’s not pleased with the conquest of an entire nation, committing the forces at his command to eradicate the rival Toyotomi clan for good. But although the Toyotomis are slowly cracking under pressure, they have one last secret weapon up their sleeve: Saizo Kirigakure (Raizo Ichikawa), a ninja who’s dedicated his life to ensuring Ieyasu’s downfall. Clan advisor Yukimura (Jo Kenzaburo, also known as Tomisaburo Wakayama) seeks a peaceful end to the conflict, but Saizo isn’t ready to go down without a fight. Banding together with a few fellow ninja, Saizo sets about bringing an end to the fiend’s campaign of terror and restore order to a wartorn society.
Siege takes some getting used to, especially for someone who’s seen the first three Shinobi No Monos. Not only does this film focus on a different time period and a new main character, the same actor from those original pictures is back for another round of darkness and deceit. The film’s first scenes are a lot to handle, filled with a good deal of information and history packed in a very short amount of time. Unless you’re a little familiar with the intrigue and espionage that’s already taken place, you’ll be busy trying to get up to speed while the story warms up. By that time, however, Siege has a good idea where it stands and makes jumping into the action a little easier. Although the series has almost switched sides (rooting for the clan the last movie was rallying against), the center of attention remains the ninja himself, whose philosophy is to stomp out evil no matter who practices it.
While previous Shinobi No Monos emphasized stealth over bombastic battles, Siege is more at ease with its action-oriented side. Given the nature of the story, it fits, since the characters are at war with one another for most of the time. Ieyasu lets his artillery do the talking as he bombards the remaining Toyotomis in their castle keep, while Saizo takes the sneaky, subtle approach to bringing about the winds of change. The resulting struggle for power is absorbing stuff, and even if the sneakiness starts to bore you, there’s usually a rousing battle sequence around the corner to perk you up. The performances are suitably strong, as they have been throughout the entirety of the series. Ichikawa manages to engage in classic ninja-centric shenanigans (scuttling through the trees, doling out a shuriken or two) while never feeling like he’s just rehashing his character from the first three movies. Saizo doesn’t have Goemon’s emotional baggage, but keep in mind that the thematic slate has been wiped clean, and you’ll have no problem finding him a hero to cheer on. It is a little odd, though, seeing Kenzaburo, who played the chief villain in the first two films, as a do-gooder here (not to mention one who, as a victim of some hurried writing, plays a fairly vague role in the proceedings).
Shinobi No Mono 4: Siege may not advance its story terribly much, but the film makes up for it in how it conveys its story, action, and ideas with riveting aplomb. Just as the very essence of the ninja is the element of surprise, this picture sneaks in, delivers the goods, and vanishes before you know what’s hit you.