Starring: Jushiro Konoe, Kei Sata, Yamashiro Shingo, and Kokuo Hojo
Director: Tetsuya Yamanouchi
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
A group of sinister Koga ninja are hired to pave the way for the corrupt Tokugawa Shogunate to seize the property and wealth of the Matsuyama clan. Four masterless samurai (ronin), who saw their lieges lose power and wealth at the hands of the same ninja through the same gambit, are hired to expose any ninja spies and prevent them from disrupting out the ninja spies. Led by Wadda (Konoe), this "special anti-ninja unit" sets about hunting and exposing spies and would-be assassins with fanatic ruthlessness and brutality that eventually forces the ninja master out from behind his disguise and into a final confrontation that perhaps none of them will survive.
"Ninja Hunt" is a surprisingly violent and amazingly suspenseful film that plays like a cross between a samurai film and a film noir thriller. It's a dark, well-crafted film that grabs you and keeps your attention from the opening scenes through the final fade-out. It's also a film that will keep you guessing as to what is coming next.
The excellence of this film starts with its characters. The "heroes" are a group of men with nothing to lose who are driven first and foremost by revenge, striving to save a noble house to whom they have no particular allegiance and who views them as completely expendable, so long as the Koga ninja are stopped. There is almost nothing that distinguishes the heroes from the villains in this movie, as the unbridled ruthlessness, as each side is equally willing to terrorize, torture, and murder to achieve their ends. While lip service is occasionally paid to duty and honor, it's clear that both the ronin and the ninja just doing tasks assigned to them by rival government factions, and that their extends no further than that. As for honor, any of the characters seem to care about is that their reputation be such that is scares others into submission before they actually have to act. There is virtually no mortal distinction between the heroes and their ninja enemies, nor necessarily between the lords of the Matsuyama clan and the Shogunate functionaries who are targeting them, and the film presents various faces of the cruel and oppressive nature of Japanese feudal society rather than a dichotomy of good vs evil.
The film is strengthened by solid directing, great cinematography and flawless editing. Nearly is perfectly staged for maximum dramatic effect and tension, and, although many scenes are draped in heavy shadow--especially the final battle between the ronin and the ninja inside a sealed burial crypt--at no time does it become difficult to tell who is whom and what is going on. (That's a frequent problem I have with ninja films... the director, camera men, and editors seem to be overwhelmed by all the running around that takes place in these films and fail to capture the action and story in a clear manner. Not so here. At no time did I get the sense the crew couldn't manage the film.)
The only major flaw in this otherwise perfect and engaging film is the scene where one of the ronin confronts and unmasks a female ninja spy within the Matsuyama palace complex itself. He knows she's a deadly killer and yet he allows himself to be "seduced" by her and/or decides to take the opportunity to engage in a little rape just for the hell of it. The stupidity that the character displays in this scene seems out of step with everything else in the movie, as does the whole tenor of the scene. To make it worse, what I suspect the filmmakers thought was dramatic ends up playing like a parody of overly melodramatic, drawn-out death scenes. I couldn't help but wonder if that scene wasn't along the lines of the rape scene got added to Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed because some film executive wanted to "sex up" the picture. (There's also the minor issue of the chief ninja's martial arts speciality--he spits needles at great velocity. While I find that a little too fantastic and silly for an otherwise grounded and serious picture like this, it is a staple of the genre.)
As far as I've been able to determine, the only place "Ninja Hunt" is available in the United States on DVD is in the "Ninja Collection, Vol. 1" ten movie set. It is by far the best film included in it, and it is almost worth the $18 purchase price by itself.
Trivia: "Ninja Hunt" (origial Japanese title "Ninja Gari") was the directorial debut for Tetsuya Yamanouchi. IMDB credits him with directing seven films between 1964 and 1978. He passed away at the age of 75 on April 2, 2010.
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