Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is set in a transitional phase of Japan, where rival clans Iga and Kouga had been at war with each other for hundreds of years, however the Lord Hattori Hanzou decrees that there must be peace between the two clans, and the two clans abide. That is until the first Shogun of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Kazou Kitamura) becomes convinced that the clans could become a threat to him after he sees a demonstration of their supernatural abilities for himself. The Shogun declares that each village is to produce their five best warriors for a battle to the death with the victor gaining favor with the Shogun, but that's only a rouse to get the most skilled fighters to kill each other, hence weakening their clans so the Shogun can crush what's left of them.
After the two leaders of the Iga and Kouga clans kill themselves in battle, their titles then fall down to Kouga Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kouga clan, and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Iga clan. However they have wed in secret and were hoping the peace would last long enough that they could reconcile the two clans, but the Shogun's fear of their power has forced them to take sides against each other in a duel to the death. Gennosuke and Oboro know what the Shogun is doing and question his orders, as much as they can anyway, but they are ninja, they are not to question, only to obey, and so, reluctantly, lovers become enemies at the whim of a coward afraid of what he can't even begin to comprehend.
Shinobi is actually very loosely based on the manga Basilisk and anyone who knows me knows that I have a soft spot for anime and manga. I've read and watched a lot of it over the years, and I enjoy it almost as much as I do western comic books, maybe even more so. Now if you really wanted to be cynical, you could say that Shinobi is basically just a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet, but there's more to it than that. The political subtext of austere Japan alone elevates it beyond the sappy Romeo and Juliet, even though the political aspects are minimal.
The rival Shinobi clans go to war to see who will control the new Shogun, or so they're told. It's an obligatory and pointless show of combat that pits the two star crossed lovers against each other, forced to fight to the death. I'd say Shinobi is more of a romantic drama than it is an action movie, but there's still plenty of very cool ninja action and characters in Shinobi, so don't fret. The balance between the two genres is handled quite well, occasionally it could get too melodramatic for me, but there was always some ninja confrontations and complications to keep the momentum going forward. The plot is fairly simplistic, despite the political overtones and misplaced fears that permeated the fearful and war weary climate of the time. Shinobi is not a terribly complex movie, it's just an interesting movie that's told well.
The ninja action is to be lauded though, it's creative, brutal and visually innovative, this is probably the closest I've ever seen to a live action Naruto movie and will probably stand as the closest thing we'll ever get to a Naruto movie for a long, long time. The ninja techniques are awesome and fearsome and the battles are exciting, thrilling and inventive. It's movies like this that make me think that live action manga and anime adaptions are not impossible. Still, for all the high-flying action, the ending was a little too sad and sentimental for me, and the main characters could often be too quixotic as well, but that's not exactly uncommon in these types of movies either. The acting could be soap opera-ish at times too, but nevertheless, Shinobi is a beautiful and well balanced blend of romance, drama and high-flying ninja action.
Written by - The Sentry - 03/04/2015