Monday, November 8, 2010

'Seventeen Ninja': A film as hidden as the ninja?

Seventeen Ninja (1962)
Starring: Jushiro Konoe, Ryutaro Otomo, and Satomi Kotaro
Director: Yatsuo Hasegawa
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

As the Shogun lays dying, seventeen Iga clan ninja are sent to infiltrate the impenetrable fortress where his youngest son is preparing to storm Edo Castle and name himself Shogun by force of arms. They are to either steal the documents that will eventually give him lawful claim to rulership, or they are to assassinate him. But even before they reach the castle walls, they find their every move countered by a ruthless ninja hunter in the employ of the would-be usurper (Konoe), who not only knows their every tactic but knows the exact make-up of their team thanks to his own spies within Edo Castle. As the Iga Ninja fall one by one, the mission's success or complete failure--where failure will result in a bloody war of succession--comes to hinge on a single young and inexperienced ninja (Kotaro).


Interestingly, although a friend alerted me to the "classic status" of this film--it's thought of very highly of by those well-versed in the ninja genre (a sentiment verified at the site I grabbed the still from, Vintage Ninja)--it's not listed in IMDB. I'm used to films I write about "not existing," but I'm always surprised when I find a classic that's not in their database, even a foreign one like this. Especially when it's deserving of the label "classic" like this film is.

"Seventeen Ninja" was one of the earliest movies to portray ninja in a realistic light. There are no spells, no flying sword-fights, and no magic beans/pellets that allow the ninja to mysteriously disappear in puffs of smoke. There are just guys in black outfits fighting Japanese samurai with big shoulder pads. The ninja in this movie are masters of disguise, infiltration, and covert murder. They are, as they were historically, spies and guerrilla fighters who rely on specialized skills and equipment to get their dirty work done.

The life of a ninja, as portrayed in this film, is one of anonymous servitude, to the ninja clan first and to the lords who hire them second. The life of a ninja is also cheap, and, although every ninja is resigned to the fact that they might be called upon to sacrifice themselves at any moment, the film gains some depth from the fact that the leader of this band of ninja (Ryutaro Otomo) has grown frustrated with seeing his men die, especially while performing missions that he feels uncomfortable with. Like the one that claims his team in this movie. The character takes a couple of surprising actions born from his frustration, actions that are against the stereotype of the hardbitten ninja master and they will keep you guessing as to what the final outcome will be.

Another character that is more complex than is usual is the "anti-ninja expert" portrayed by Jushiro Konoe. He plays a character very much like the bitter ninja slayer from "Ninja Hunt", Wada, except that here he is the villain. Like "Ninja Hunt", however, there is not much in the way of a moral distinction between the "good guys" (the ninja assassins trying to infiltrate the castle) and the "bad guys" (the samurai and their "new retainer" that are trying to stop them). Both sides are killers, and both sides view human beings primarily as disposable assets that are there to be sacrificed on the whim of their "betters." There might have been a bigger gulf between the ninja heroes and their opponents if the viewer didn't feel a growing sympathy for Konoe's character, even as he's causing the deaths of the film's heroes; he is working for people so full of themselves and their self-perceived stature that they time and again disregard the very expert advice they hired him to provide.

Aside from the multi-faceted chief antagonists in the film, "Seventeen Ninja" is blessed with some great cinematography where the black-and-white medium is used to its fullest dramatic potential and the drama is heightened even further by expert framing of shots. It's a movie that's just great to look at.

On the downside, it slants a little too heavily toward melodrama, with just enough speeches being delivered with too much emphasis on each and every word and just too many pregnant pauses to make the film feel draggy during its first half. Things get more exciting when the impossibility of the Iga Ninjas' mission becomes apparent, and more focus is placed on Jushiro Konoe and Ryutaro Otomo's characters, but that first hour requires a little patience.

It's the second-best movie in the "Ninja Collection Vol. 1" set, and combined with the aforementioned "Ninja Hunt" is what makes the set worth buying, especially if you're a fan of Japanese movies.





The deadliest of blogathons....

Note: While looking alternative titles for this film, I discovered that there's another blogathon going on featuring ninja movies (and Japanese movies in general). It's a real blogathon, not like my one-man show here. Click on this link to check it out.

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