Friday, December 12, 2008

REVIEW: Owl's Castle - Masahiro Shinoda (1999)

梟の城 映画 (Fukuro no shiro)

Released: 1999

Masahiro Shinoda

Kiichi Nakai
Mayu Tsuruta
Riona Hazuki
Jinpachi Nezu

Running time: 138 min.

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

Some films are made with the best intentions. All of the resources are at hand. The inspiration spills from the page to the screen. And yet, somehow, it fumbles, and it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. And that’s what ends up happening to "Owl’s Castle", the latest adaptation of the novel "Fukuro no Shiro" by acclaimed historic writer Ryotaro Shiba (the book was adapted previously in 1963 as "Castle of Owls" by Eiichi Kudo). It has all the components of a great film. It’s based on a popular novel, using high definition technology (which at the time was quite new). Its directed by Masahiro Shinoda, director of the classics "Samurai Spy" and "Double Suicide", and stars Kiichi Nakai (who won a Japanese Academy Award for his supporting role in Kon Ichikawa’s "47 Ronin") and features Mako in the role of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (which in itself is worth watching the film, I mean come on, its Akiro from "Conan the Destroyer"!) And its not only a Toho production, but also a Fuji TV and Nintendo production! But somehow, none of that is enough.

"Owl’s Castle" at its core is a tale about the nature of revenge and fate. Ten years after Oda Nobunaga wiped out the Iga clan in the 16th century, Tsuzura Juzo (Kiichi Nakai), one of the lucky ninja who escaped the slaughter, still wants blood. Nobunaga has already been assassinated and replaced by one of his former lords, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi is on a seemingly pointless quest to dominate Korea and China. Many of his vassels disagree with this idea, and they quickly hire Tsuzura Juzo’s to remedy the situation. However, things aren’t that easy. For one, he has to sneak into the most heavily fortified castle in all of Japan to accomplish his task. A reformed ninja, now a member of the court, tries at every turn to foil Tsuzura’s plans. The Koga ninja also seem to be plotting against Tsuzura, as well as legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo. Plus, there’s two kunoichi (female ninja), played by Riona Hazuki (Black Angel) and Mayu Tsuruta (Casshern and the upcoming Goemon), who may or may not be helping Tsuzura along the way. Things quickly get complicated between the four main characters as loyalties shift quickly. It’s the clandestine world of the ninja, and nothing is what it seems.

This film deservedly draws some comparison to the far superior "Shinobi No Mono" series, and even to a lesser degree with Yoji Yamada’s trilogy of samurai films "Twilight Samurai", "The Hidden Blade" and "Love and Honour". For one, like "Shinobi", it tries to presents the ninja in a realistic fashion, setting their exploits in the same time frame. While "Shinobi" deals with the assassination of Nobunaga, here we get the assassination plot of his successor (both also feature Ishikawa Goemon, more or less). And like Yamada’s trilogy, "Owl’s Castle" tries to tell a small poignant tale in a much greater context, this time using the Sengoku period (probably the most popular time period in which Japanese films are set). Unfortunately, "Shinobi" and Yamada’s films have something "Owl’s Castle" doesn’t, and that’s scale. You feel the grand, sweeping nature of history in "The Hidden Blade". The assault of Iga in "Shinobi" is massive, with mammoth sets burnt to the ground and hundreds of extras engaged in mass warfare. "Owl’s Castle" can’t compete with any of that.

The one redeeming quality is that Masahiro Shindo seems to know this. He fills this void with lavish, incredibly theatrical visuals. The art direction by Yoshinobu Nishioka (who incidentally did Yamada’s trilogy of samurai films) won a Japanese Academy Award, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s breathtaking, with colours that pop from the screen. The composition, staging and blocking at times verge on experimental. And the score ranges from classic jidaigeki to guttural throat singing. It does falter visually with some shoddy special effects (come on Nintendo!), but the film for the most part looks fantastic. Narratively however, it does come off a little underwhelming. It’s a tale twice told that desperately screams sweeping epic, but can’t quite deliver.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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