Shinobi: The Law of Shinobi
Everybody loves ninjas! In the world of Shinobi, the ninjas of Iga have banded together in villages, swearing loyalty to honorable leaders. Somehow, it's still feudal Japan, but the ninjas have striped tracksuits. I guess tracksuits are just the latest in ninjawear. Shinobi (ninjas) in this film are divided into two social groups: the leaders are the Jonin, and the foot soldiers are the Genin, who frequently die nameless for and on their missions. Kagerou, a shinobi of Shiroyama Village, is very intelligent and skilled in martial arts, but he is a Genin by birth, doomed to be nothing more than a sent assassin. The same applies to Aoi, Kagerou's female childhood friend. Together, they resolve to break the Law of Shinobi and become members of the Jonin, somehow.
In the background, a disturbance is growing between the Jonin and the Genin, who resent their lives being used as cannon fodder. Shuuzan, the leader of the Genin, resents Kagerou's loyalty to the village elder, who is also the leader of the Jonin, as opposed to Kagerou's loyalty to him. Shuuzan also wants to take Aoi as his mistress. Shuuzan abducts Aoi and her cousin, Kasumi, who is raped and killed as to make Aoi give herself to Shuuzan (don't ask me how that's supposed to work). Aoi, however, escapes, and Shuuzan brands her as a runaway, a death sentence under Shinobi Law. Kagerou is sent by the village elder to save the girls, as the elder doesn't know of Kasumi's demise. Kagerou and Aoi meet up, and they take on Shuuzan and his followers. After the big battle, they leave the village, as the elder never told Kagerou *when* to bring Aoi back, and she doesn't want to return to Shiroyama, only to die young as a nameless ninja. Kagerou himself resents how the elder's benevolent act in saving Aoi and not branding her as a runaway was actually just a ploy to make Kagerou eliminate Shuuzan and his followers, the enemies of the Jonin elder. They run off into the horizon, accepting their fate as runaway ninjas, setting up the plot for the next Shinobi movie.
Bad production values surround Shinobi. It feels like a made-for-TV movie. Lighting is often too dark or too light, and the actress who plays Aoi has poor acting abilities, both in expressing emotion and in fighting. In one scene, where Aoi is skipping rocks on a pond, the actress throws the rock like a girl, and the rock plummets into the pond straight on. Fight sequences are rather disappointing, as it is obvious that the film is sped up to make it seem that people are moving ninja fast. It is also obvious that Jet Li could easily take on the entire ninja village without a scratch. When a live-action film relies more on sound effects to illustrate motion, you know it's going to be bad. The plot and dialogue isn't great, but you don't expect Shakespeare in live-action films.
I found the handling of mature subject matters rather disturbing. Blood is shown onscreen rarely, except in the last battle, yet there is a fairly graphic and extended rape scene. Many people will be turned off by the rape as too violent. It didn't make me want to take it out and smash the DVD, but it definitely did not improve my experience of the movie.
Extras include the standard ADV previews and DVD credits, as well as an extra dub track: the literal translation dub. Yes, the good folks at ADV deliberately made a horrible dub, where the mouthflaps only slightly match up and the actors add in lines here and there, namely in the rape scene. As much as I hate to admit it, they turn a rather upsetting scene into a porn parody, making the audience feel a lot less squirmy. Listening to a bad dub made me realize just how long it has been since I came across a really, really bad dub. Well, outside of old live-action films, that is. It must have been hard for the talented voice actor gang at ADV to ignore the mouths and just say their lines with the tiniest bit of synchronization, to ignore all of their years of practice and technique. I would recommend this dub version over the actual dub and sub versions. Bad dubs just improve bad action!
In many ways, Shinobi is a coming-of-age story, as Kagerou and Aoi discover that the mere concept of the Law of Shinobi is an oxymoron: they are ninjas because they are outside of the laws of the land. Also, they have grown beyond just accepting their leaders' orders and acting upon them; instead, they question the motive behind the orders. Kagerou and Aoi are already Jonin by this fact alone.
Shinobi has some good aspects within a mess of bad production values and bad actors, if you can hang on through the tedious fight scenes and bad dialogue. It makes for a good rental when watching with friends who share your love of ninjas, but anyone else will be bored and asking to watch something else within minutes.