SHINOBI NO MONO (1962)
Directed by Satsuo YAMAMOTO
Starring Raizo ICHIKAWA
Before Sho Kosugi, before Michael Dudikoff donned Ninja hoods there was Raizo Ichikawa who was also known as the "Japanese James Dean". Raizo would act in over one hundred and fifty movies all for the Daiei motion picture company. In fact two years after Raizo's death in 1969 the Daiei studio would go bankrupt. Of all of his films it was the Shinobi series which would propel Raizo into super stardom.
Shinobi no Mono is set in the first year of the Tensho period (1573). The Tensho period would be marked by the the daimyo Oda Nobunaga the ruthless warlord whose burning ambition was to conquer all of Japan. Nobunaga was opposed by a coalition of other daiymo and Buddhist sects. It was in particular the Buddhist people that Oda was particularly fond of displaying his penchant for destruction. In 1571 (two years before Shinobi is set) Nobunaga destroyed a Tendai monastery and massacred all of the occupants of this holy ground. Historical context is needed to fully appreciate this film as it is very much rooted in history.
We begin the film by meeting Goemon (Raizo Ichikawa) a mid ranking ninja of the Momochi clan. He is a young man with endless ambition who one day wishes to assume the head of the clan. He and the other ninja are summoned to a meeting led by Momochi (Yunosuke Ito). During this meeting we learn the origins of ninja. The art of Ninjutsu was created by En-no-ozunu during the reign of Emperor Tenchi. Ninjutsu was then spread to various monks to extend and protect Buddhism. The very religion that Nobunaga is so bent on destroying. The Momochi clan has vowed to work for daimyo opposed to Nobunaga as mercenaries.
Along side this political context lies personal dynamics. Ninjas for all their special abilities are after all only human and it seems personal rivalries are amongst one of the many problems of a ninja clan. Goemon and fellow ninja Yohachi vie for top spot in the Momochi clan. The Momochi ninja clan and the Nagata ninja clan are rivals. Kizaru (Goemon's counterpart in the Nagata clan) vie against other ninjas for the honor of top ninja. Goemon gives into his carnal needs and begins to have an affair with Momochi's wife Ino-ne who is very much neglected by Momochi. If this sounds very much like a soap opera it is because it is and takes up the first act of Shinobi.
A scene that really shines for me is when Ino-ne is fraught with paranoia that Momochi is watching her and Goemon. It is here we see the power of the ninja. Using deception, secrecy and stealth the ninja can confuse and get into the mind of an opponent. To give away anymore of the plot would be to ruin the film.
I must confess I have always been intrigued by Ninjas since I was a small boy so I will always have a soft spot for films featuring Ninjas. I recommend Shinobi no Mono to aficionados of ninjas but more importantly to Japanese cinephiles. Shinobi no Mono is a film very much steeped in Japanese history. The "action" scenes of the ninjas are very much a standout for me. We see the ninja use all the skills of their trade, shurikens, smoke, dexterity etc etc. One final note the cinematography of Takemura Yasukazu is absolutely exquisite.