Shinobi No Mono
Japan 1962
Directed by Yamamoto Satsuo.

The historic drama about the life and love of young Ishikawa Goemon, Ninja, training to assassinate Oda Nobunaga.

This is the original -- accept no substitutes. If you like your ninja action straight up -- no shiny gold costumes, no magic powers, no chunky white marine ninja wannabes -- this one is for you. And no, there's nothing wrong with your vision -- Shinobi no Mono was filmed in glorious black and white. This was the very first movie, and probably the last, for that matter, which depicted ninja in a realistic manner. Or at least, as realistic as possible for something so seeped in folklore and fantasy. It came on the heels of dozens of bestselling ninja novels, many of which have been made into films, sometimes several times. Shinobi no Mono is based on one of these novels, written by Maruyama Kazuyoshi. The sixties represents the first ninja film craze, most especially in Japan, where the craze died down in the mid-sixties, but also abroad, when You Only Live Twice was released in cinemas worldwide. The next ninja craze wouldn't come until the eighties, when Enter the Ninja touched off a ninja film frenzy in America, and movie industries all over the world produced as many ninja movies as they could to profit from the short-lived fad.

The action in Shinobi no Mono features three famous historical ninjas: Ishikawa Goemon, Momochi Sandayu, and Fujibayashi Nagato. Though perhaps 'historic' is not the best term, considering one of them was a bandit, and not a ninja at all, and the other two may have been the same person.

The bandit was Ishikawa Goemon, and very little is really known about him. He is mentioned among other places in a biography of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, written in 1642. The biography refers to him as a notorious bandit. Upon his capture, he was boiled alive in a tub of oil. And such is the framework upon which story upon legend upon play upon movie have been hung. The legends began immediately. A common thread in the stories is that he stole from the rich, and the people loved him, like a Japanese Robin Hood. The story of Ishikawa Goemon was further elaborated in the popular Kabuki drama Romon Gosan-no kiri. In it, Goemon is the son of Akechi Mitsuhide, the retainer who assassinated Oda Nobunaga. Toyotomi Hideyoshi slays Mitsuhide's entire family, but Goemon escapes, and spends his later years trying to assassinate Hideyoshi, but is finally captured in the attempt. Unrepentant in death, the stories have him accuse Hideyoshi, "I am considered a thief, but you are the greater thief, for you have stolen Japan!"

As the stature of this once simple bandit grew, so too did suggestions that he was in fact a trained ninja. And in these stories, his master was none other than Momochi Sandayu, founder of Iga style ninjutsu, and head of the southern ninja. The site of his home can still be visited today in Mie province. When Oda Nobunaga entered Iga in 1581 on a punitive expedition against the ninja, he was most likely slain, in any case he is heard of no further. It is suspicious that, when the ninja of Iga joined together to fight Nobunaga, Momochi Sandayu and Fujibayashi Nagato, the head of the northern ninja, are never mentioned together. Legends suggest this is because they were one and the same person.

All of these legends are woven together to create the world of Shinobi no Mono. The movie follows the beginning of Ishikawa Goemon's career as a ninja. Ishikawa Goemon (Ichikawa Raizo) trains under Momochi Sandayu (Ito Yunosuke) to become a ninja, for the purpose of assassinating Oda Nobunaga. Fujibayashi Nagato (Ito Yunosuke), leader of the northern ninja, hears that Sandayu is training his men to assassinate Nobunaga and swears that his ninjas will be the ones who will accomplish the deed. Nagato's ninja, a man with the biggest sideburns I've ever seen, is on the case, and at the same time he tests out Goemon's ninjutsu, which he discovers to be pretty good.

Goemon is not studying the art of the ninja for long before Sandayu's wife makes a pass on him and they become lovers. Fearing detection, they attempt to flee one night, killing a man in the courtyard. But in the excitement, Goemon accidentally knocks the poor woman down a well, killing her, too. Sandayu corners him, and forces him to travel to Kyoto, where he is to take up a life of crime, stealing money to deliver to Sandayu, and waiting for the signal to assassinate Nobunaga. Only then, will Sandayu let Goemon go.

In Kyoto he becomes known as a notorious bandit, and hides out in a brothel, where, in the quickest falling-in-love montage I've ever seen, he falls for the prostitute Maki, buys her freedom, and asks her to marry him. But the sideburn ninja is on his trail, and he is forced to fulfill his last mission for Sandayu -- the assassination of Oda Nobunaga, which he attempts using the now legendary trick made famous in You Only Live Twice -- lowering a string from the ceiling, dripping poison on it, and letting it run down the string onto a sleeping man's lips.

Shinobi no Mono starts slow, and with the most confusing expository monologue I've ever heard. But after that it finds its groove and ends up being an incredibly enjoyable film. The acting is quite good, with Ichikawa Raizo playing a most sympathetic Goemon, and Ito Yunosuke as the really weird and nasty-looking leader(s) of the ninja clans. Perhaps I sympathize with Goemon all the more knowing he will end up in a pot of boiling oil, in some accounts with his own child in his arms. Thankfully, it doesn't happen in this film. The cinematography is crisp. Especially strong is the sound for outdoor scenes, instead of the usual overpowering melodramatic music, we hear the wind rustling through the tall grass, so realistically I could almost feel the breeze on my face. Interesting, too, is the fight choreography. Why? Well, because it was done by actual, modern day ninjas. Both Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, the world famous ninja master, and his teacher Toshitsugu Takamatsu (now deceased), advised on the film. So the action incorporates certain stances, throws, and weapons that are actually part of the ninja training, as it is understood by these two grandmasters. But though this adds some credibility to the fights, they still are not choreographed entirely realistically. Occasionally the combatants will jump in the air, high over each other's heads, or scale a tree in an instant, or perform other feats utterly impossible without the use of wires or a trampoline.

Shinobi no Mono was a hit, and so popular that it spawned a half dozen sequels, three of which were released in the same year. The second in the series, Zoku Shinobi no Mono, continues where the first left off, and young Goemon must continue in his attempts to harass the Nobunaga clan.

Note: The DVD has some of the most atrocious and confusing subtitles I've ever seen.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.


all this history and only two stars?

Posted by: devin at May 4, 2006 10:05 PM

Yeah, I was wondering that also. This film definately deserves much more than two stars... but maybe it's because the reviewer saw the hong kong version with the confusing subtitles. There are other versions available now with proper subtitles.

Posted by: corey at May 31, 2006 05:33 PM

Point taken, guys. As much as I try to separate the film from the presentation, It's quite likely that the preposterous, eyeball-gouging, HK DVD subtitles influenced the final rating. I promise to pick up the newer version you mention and give it another spin.

Posted by: PTN at May 31, 2006 10:39 PM

This film is definately the best I have ever seen on the subjectof ninjutsu. The version I have is not the Chinese version and therefore is completely coherent.
However, unless the viewer is familiar with ancient Japanese history, to follow this film will still be very difficult.
An excellent display of ninja tactics which isn't surprising considering the technical and historical advisor was "Toshitsugu Takamatsu" 33rd Grandmaster of the Togakure-Ryu Ninjutsu Ryu (School)

Posted by: Tenkai at October 5, 2006 09:21 AM

Yeah, two stars seems very unfair, i watched this with no background knowledge (your review was very informative) and despite the complex plot it remains the best ninja film i have ever seen. (if anybody can recomend any other realistic ninja films in the vein of Shinobi No Mono plz let me know, or bobwasere on imdb). Btw, the string trick was used in You Only Live Twice after Roald Dahl saw this then wrote the screenplay.

Posted by: Gugliemo at May 10, 2007 02:58 PM
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