Any anime enthusiast who doesn’t rank ‘Ninja Scroll’ as one of the most stunning animated features of all time should turn in their membership card. Even by today’s standards, it’s a classic that strikes the perfect balance between mystical fantasy and gritty swordplay, offering a thrilling series of otherworldly battles amidst a sweeping saga of love and honor. ‘Ninja Scroll’ fans like myself have been frothing at the mouth for a live-action adaptation for decades, hoping beyond hope that someone will eventually be able to capture the animated version’s bloody splendor. In the meantime, I’d like to direct your attention to FUNimation’s ‘Shinobi: Heart Under Blade,’ a live-action, anime-influenced extravaganza that should serve as a solid appetizer while you wait.
'Shinobi' tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers in 17th century Japan: a beautiful Koga ninja named Oboro (Yukie Nakama) and a rival Iga warrior named Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri). The Koga and Iga shinobi have been embroiled in a bitter feud for centuries – in fact, loyalty to the Tokugawa empire is the only thing that has prevented the clans from going to war with each other. Forced to keep their relationship a secret, Oboro and Gennosuke dream of forging peace between their clans. Tragically, fate has other plans. When the emperor realizes the mystical shinobi clans could use their inhuman abilities to disrupt his nation, he employs a scheme to trick the deadliest Koga and Iga ninja into destroying each other. Desperate to embrace their love and live in peace, Oboro and Gennosuke reluctantly join their clashing brethren and search for a way to end the bloodshed.
Based on Futaro Yamada’s 1959 novel “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls” and the subsequent 2003 “Basilisk” manga, ‘Shinobi’ is one of the few live-action films I’ve seen that have nailed the style, pacing, and tone of Japanese anime. The film is saturated with epic melodrama and poetic dialogue and leaps into motion when blades are drawn and battles are fought. Just like its animated influences, ‘Shinobi’ uses subtle exchanges to inject an aching, tragic tone into every conversation and embrace, while relying on genuine weight and speed to make each fight a thrill to watch. Whether Gennosuke is slowing time to slaughter a legion of ninja, or Yashamaru is vaulting through the air dispensing foes with razor sharp ropes, the shinobi battles are a showcase of style and martial arts technique. Sure, some of the grander leaps and bounds have clearly been achieved via wirework, but the random flakiness of these errant moves is quickly forgotten when the warriors return to the ground.
Admittedly, fans of the 2005 ‘Basilisk’ anime series may be less impressed with ‘Shinobi’ than I am. Despite the same roster of fighters and plenty of other similarities, intriguing character traits and subplots have been completely exorcised to pair the film down to a digestible 102 minutes. As a result, the warriors who die early in the tale aren’t given any room to breathe, and their demise doesn’t have the same impact that it would had their characters been properly developed. I was lucky enough to dive into the ‘Basilisk’ series after watching ‘Shinobi’ last year, so my progression with the material has been far more rewarding. Still, regardless of your enjoyment or awareness of ‘Basilisk,’ the live-action film really doesn’t have a sufficient runtime to deliver the scope the story deserves.
Beyond the pacing, the CG elements of the film aren’t always up to snuff. While most of the superpowers and abilities blend well with practical elements, a few key shots are populated with low-quality CG models and mediocre effects. When a main character rockets from ledge to ledge (or tree to tree, depending on the scene), the actor suddenly turns into a computer creation that distracts from the otherwise top notch production values. It doesn’t help that the seams and plasticized figures are even more apparent in high definition -- although the Blu-ray version offers a significant visual upgrade over the standard DVD, the increased resolution inadvertently highlights the budgetary limitations of the production.
My last two paragraphs may make a four-star rating seem like a stretch, but I genuinely enjoyed ‘Shinobi’ in spite of these relatively minor hiccups. While I’ll be the first to say it’s no ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or ‘Ninja Scroll,’ I was enthralled by the film’s somber tone, languid dialogue, and supercharged fight scenes. One glance at our message boards makes it clear that not everyone digs ‘Shinobi’ as much as I do, but my hope is that fans of anime and Asian cinema will at least give this one a fair shot.
Thankfully, ’Shinobi’ features a notable 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that leaves its muddy standard-def cousin in the dust. Colors are more vibrant, skintones are more natural, and the contrast levels are far more stable than they were before. Detail receives a significant boost as well -- skin and clothing textures are sharply defined, background elements are crisp, and landscape shots showcase thousands of individual stones and leaves. There are occasional scenes in which the backgrounds are noticeably softer than the rest of the film (a waterfall rendezvous between Oboro and Gennosuke comes to mind), but the reduced clarity seems to be an intentional product of the original print rather than the technical transfer. As a fan, I was exceedingly pleased to see how nicely the film made its transition to high definition. Better still, the Blu-ray doesn’t suffer from the rampant artifacting and crush issues that plagued the DVD.
Sadly, I do have a fairly major complaint -- low light interiors and nighttime scenes don’t have the same three-dimensional pop as the daytime exterior shots. Contrast integrity drops in these instances, producing a series of lackluster blacks that flatten the image rather than creating an illusion of depth. Don’t get me wrong, these scenes still look much better than they do on DVD, but shadow delineation and image clarity take a hit when compared to the rest of the film. Even so, this problem shouldn’t be a deal breaker for fans -- ‘Shinobi’ looks better than I expected (considering its initial bargain-bin price on Amazon) and it completely outclasses the 2007 SD release.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Shinobi’ includes two options -- a Japanese-language Dolby TrueHD 6.1 surround track and a comparable 5.1 TrueHD English dub. While I’m happy to report that both mixes are particularly impressive (the voiceover work on the dubbed track isn’t nearly as grating as I expected), the Japanese mix gets the edge with an additional channel, a more immersive soundfield, and a series of silky smooth rear pans.
Vastly improving on the solid sonics of the DVD, each TrueHD track boasts powerful LFE support, subtle ambience, and crystal clear dialogue. Prioritization and directionality are spot on, and I never had any problems hearing the actors, even in the midst of the most chaotic battles. I could hear every shard of splintering wood during a tower collapse, every pebble shifting beneath the feet of dueling warriors, and an abundance of rustling leaves in the forest. Better still, mystical effects (like slowing time, healing wounds, and swarming butterflies) invade each speaker and envelop the listener in a thoroughly engaging soundfield. If anything, the soundscape is a bit too reminiscent of an anime series -- quiet character beats sound unnecessarily subdued, a whoosh of air accompanies every physical blow, and weapon effects are as over-the-top as the ninjas’ magical powers. Regardless, each track manages to craft a cohesive and memorable audio experience that won’t leave fans wanting.
The Blu-ray edition of ’Shinobi’ packs in all of the supplemental features that graced FUNimation’s 2-disc standard DVD in 2007. Considering this is a foreign-language film, I’m quite satisfied with the abundance and variety of high-quality content that’s been included.
An anime-inspired, live-action martial arts fantasy like ’Shinobi’ may not be at the top of many people’s Netflix queue, but it should be. I love the weighty action, the over-the-top fights, and the quiet character beats enough to suggest that any fan of anime or Asian cinema give it a try. Initially offered to select retailers at a bargain-bin price, this decidedly non-bargain-bin Blu-ray release features an above average video transfer, a powerful TrueHD 6.1 audio mix, and a thorough collection of supplements. Track down a copy, give it a spin, and see what you think of this overlooked gem.