Friday, November 7, 2008

REVIEW: Shinobi no Mono 2: Vengeance - Satsuo Yamamoto (1963)

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

One thing we seem to lack culturally in North America is true folk heroes. Since we largely account for our continents historical beginnings after colonies were formed and natives were ‘conquered’, and are on a global scale a very young group of countries, we lack the myths and legends that dot the cultural landscape of older nations (or we choose not to accept the ones that we should have inherited when the first settlers arrived here). The closest thing to a Robin Hood, a King Arthur, a Bak Mei, the Bodhidharma or a Goemon Ishikawa is Billy the Kid and his western brethren. But even then, they haven’t had the gestation period that’s allowed countless exaggerated tales to sprout, leading to the creation of myth and legend. This would account for our shortage of the great cinematic tradition that comes with these kinds of figures.

"Shinobi No Mono 2: Vengeance" continues the tale of Goemon Ishikawa, now one of the last remaining Iga ninja. After a brief recap of the first film, we find Goemon living peacefully with his wife and son. Nobunaga is still intent on conquering all of Japan , but Goemon chooses not to take part in the surrounding wars, instead choosing to lead a quiet life with his family, while the last remaining Iga ninja are hunted down and crucified. Goemon’s dreams are quickly shattered when some of the ninja inquisition finds him, and tragedy strikes, in what is the first of many shocking moments in the film. Driven by vengeance, Goemon travels to his wife’s native area, joining the rebel Ikko sect, a group of Buddhists who oppose Nobunaga. Goemon swears he will kill Nobunaga, and helps the Ikko sect devise a scheme to bring about his downfall. Playing Nobunaga’s allies against each other and even Nobunaga himself, their plan slowly falls into place.

"Shinobi No Mono 2" uses the same creative team from the first film. Satsuo Yamamoto still directs, Hajime Takaiwa still pens the script, Michiaki Watanabe still does the score and the cast remains the same. The only big notable change is the cinematographer, Yasukazu Takemura, who is replaced with Senkichiro Takeda, both of whom directed films in the Zatoichi series. Because of this, the films flow wonderfully from one to the next, but what makes the film so refreshing is that it remains very different from the first. Much of "Shinobi No Mono 2" is spent exploring the political subterfuge Goemon and his band use against Nobunaga, Akechi Matsuhide, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Ieyasu Tokugawa. Its also filled with more brutal and violent images, and the battle scenes are completely unlike the regular jidaigeki people are accustom to, as well as being less dependent on montage than they are in the first film.

And while cinematically it’s an incredible film, it’s wonderfully fulfilling on a cultural level. The legends and tales that surround Goemon are beautifully intertwined in a deep historic context, and even more cultural figures, like Hattori Hanzo, as well as Nobunaga’s group of allies, are introduced. Granted, like most cinematic adaptations of folk heroes, many liberties have been taken. Traditionally, Goemon was known as a prince of thieves, a Robin Hood type character that robbed from the rich in Kyoto , something that was touched on in the first film. He wasn’t known as a ninja. Some of his exploits, that historically have no connection to him, are attributed to him in the film. It also ends rather abruptly. And while to a Japanese audience, or to anyone who knows the tales of Goemon, it ends with a moment that will leave you begging for the sequel, to those unfamiliar it may leave them a tad frustrated.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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