Thanks to films by such masters of cinema like Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Kenji Mizoguchi, by 1962 samurai films had become international art house hits. Throughout the following decades they continued to occupy that same space, being championed by such Western filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. While they enjoying a grind house following during the seventies thanks to such films as Shogun’s Assassin, it really wasn’t until the last decade, and more so after Quentin Tarantino released Kill Bill, that samurai films have spread into the general Western psyche and out of the art house circuit. But ninja’s seem to have suffered a different fate. Maybe because their history is shrouded in myth and mystery, maybe because ninja themselves are masters of the secret arts and maybe because so little is really known about them in the West, but they have always occupied a different space than the samurai. Thanks to the likes of You Only Live Twice, the ground work was laid for the Western boom of the eighties, when Michael Dudikoff and Sho Kosugi were the face of the ninja. But soon ninja’s suffered the wrath of the VHS market, perhaps thanks to the bright primary coloured ninja outfits they wore or Franco Nero’s complete lack of martial arts ability.
With the popularity of jidaigeki, particularly the chanbara films, in Japan during the 1960’s, it was only a matter of time before someone attempted the same with ninja. Satsuo Yamamoto, who would eventually go on to direct several films in the Zatoichi series, directed Shinobi No Mono, the first in what would become a very popular series of films based on real life folk hero Ishikawa Goemon. Goemon is one of the most skilled ninja in his clan, situated in the region of Iga. He is recruited by his clan’s master, another real life figure, Sandayu Momochi, to work for him personally. However, Goemon soon finds himself being blackmailed by Sandayu into stealing for the clan after having an affair with his wife. Meanwhile, Oda Nobunaga is on his conquest to unite all of Japan, and Iga stands in his way. Sandayu insists Goemon assassinate him, before a rival clan has the chance too. Goemon, having no choice, attempts the impossible.
Shinobi No Mono is unique in that while it is most definitely a jidaigeki, it definitely breaks the mold. Written by Hajime Takaiwa, who would later write Story of a Prostitute and Incident at Blood Pass, the script is rich in detail, deception and double crosses. He takes what little is known about these historic figures, mixes it with the popular Kabuki plays about their lives and places it in definite time and place that was immediately recognizable to most Japanese film goers of the time. While he does take several liberties with the characters, the attention to detail, especially in regards to ninja society, culture and the weapons they used is incredibly accurate and realistic. Nothing depicts this better than the opening. It starts like many chanbara, with a duel, but it is immediately apparent that this is a duel unlike most jidaigeki. Instead of the stoic showdown of the samurai, Goemon and his rival, who looks like a ninja version of Elvis, dodge and evade each others attacks, before disengaging for a later battle. The film not only features a stunning climax of death and destruction, that is breathtaking in its scope and the montage created by the masterful editing, but it is perhaps the first film to depict the old poison down the string assassination method that was later used in You Only Live Twice and Grosse Point Blank.
Shinobi No Mono is the real deal. It’s brilliantly crafted, and like the best jidaigeki, completely immerses you in its world, bringing to life ninja as they were meant to be seen, or not seen.