The world of animation has for some time experienced glorious works of art coming from Japan and whilst sometimes their message might get lost in the translation from one culture to another usually most of the features I have encountered have been pleasurable affairs which in one way or another demand both your attention and your visual skills; the detail often apparent within these productions can at times be staggering. The Japanese film industry though is slowly migrating some of these traditional fantasy concepts often found within anime/manga and adopting live action features as opposed to the more traditional animation styles; Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is one of these films.
Set in the feudal 17th century, warring factions of Japan are coming to an end (being replaced by a period of peace), tranquillity and stability, we encounter a set of people known as Shinobi or dedicated warrior. For generations these people have done nothing other than hone their skills from early age to become supermen/women amongst the population; their mission to fight for the Emperor as needed. Two such villages remain, the Shinobi Koga and Shinobi Iga, both dedicated to their art and both harbouring a passionate hate for the each other.
Two members, Oboro (Yukie Nakama) from Koga and Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) from Iga have transcended these barriers and have ultimately fallen in love with one another. It is their destiny though to serve and servitude means following the words of the Emperor without question, even when he asks each village to supply 5 of their best warriors to fight each other to the death. The best are chosen and both Oboro and Gennosuke are representatives of their respective villages. Although in love they are now fated to meet each other in war and face the possibility of killing one another.
The transition from animation to live action was completed well enough and it is only in recent years that this has been achievable due to the constant progression in digital technology so that extensive airbrushed out wirework and digital doubles allow our human characters to behave in ways once never even contemplated. Its use here is extensive and although in the main it works well it doesn't always seamlessly fit into frame as a whole. At times the characters stand out as being obvious CGI elements and this is somewhat distracting. It removes the suspension of disbelief bringing the viewer back to reality insofar that they realise they are in fact just watching a movie rather than being totally immersed within it.
The action scenes are well staged and choreographed and this is something that the Japanese action filmmakers have always excelled at in my opinion from early Bruce Lee action epics through to recent ventures into slow mo and wires with The Matrix trilogy. The main characters involved, The Shinobi of the title, have their roots deep within Japanese lore and at times these do seem a little far fetched but it's no different really than the Western Hemisphere's love of modern legends in the form of comic, and now film, superheroes. Our combatants are in fact an alternative realisation of the mutants we have come to enjoy with the X-Men series, one even sporting steel claws and a wolf skin. Looking upon it at that level and suspending that disbelief as we do for the Hollywood equivalent is no different really.
Although these action sequences do come thick and fast and it is one of the main aspects of this film it is by no means the ultimate story. The pain our two main characters face is what drives this forward and this is just an updated version of the star crossed lovers from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet or the updated West Side Story. Oboro and Gennosuke say as much themselves on a couple of occasions that their "stars have been crossed". Unfortunately though this side of the story doesn't work too well; there is little background to these characters for the viewer to understand their plight and empathise with, they are not on screen together for any length of time and as such there is no chemistry between the two and again the viewer really does not understand where this love originates from.
The film itself progresses at a steady pace with the ultimate aims of Gennosuke to put an end to the warring between the two villages and ask the Emperor why these challenges must take place. When the two sets of challengers embark upon their journey it moves from one battle to the next and at times a little too quickly, at times there should have been more padding in between these deadly encounters for the viewer to catch their breath and perhaps gain a better insight into the nature of these people.
It's shot well enough, some of the scenes showing a beautiful mountainous landscape populated by rushing water and blankets of forest; lighting through the trees and village abodes comes across well. Framing the battle scenes is exemplary as discussed earlier and the CGI effects team in part added this to this by indicating what they needed from any one particular scene or scenes for them later to do their job well. The score is fleeting and somewhat sparse but it does present an overall haunting melody which better sums up the nature of the love between Oboro and Gennosuke far more than the actors or script ever do. It is this score which actually develops their relationship and which shows its ultimate ending.
Even though I enjoyed Shinobi I just felt it lacked a little emotional depth and the characters themselves were never given time to mature on screen. They have history but it was never explored and even brief glimpses into their past or their nature would have produced more rounded characters which the viewer could have related to more; even though these characters can essentially float on air. A good enough romp which ultimately though lacks any sort of detail into the characters' plight or the two main characters' love affair.