Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)

Wild kung-fu meets political intrigue meets troubled romance in Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. This wire-fu Japanese martial arts movie blends several elements together in a story that works pretty well.

In 17th-century Japan, two clans -- Manjidani Koga and Tsubagakure Iga -- have Shinobi, warriors with almost supernatural powers. The two clans, living in hidden villages, have a longstanding hatred of each other but maintain a truce brought about by a previous emperor. Fearing the power these clans have, the current emperor rescinds the truce and declares a battle to the death between the five greatest warriors of each clan.

In the midst of these politics are the star-crossed lovers Oboro (Yukie Nakama) and Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri). They are not only members of the opposing clans, but the grandchildren of the clans' leaders. Gennosuke believes it's only a matter of time until they can marry, while Oboro fears their destiny will keep them apart and their marriage can happen "only in our dreams." When clan leaders Ogen (Lily) and Danjo Kogo (Minoru Terada) slay each other, Oboro and Gennosuke become the leaders of their clans. Gennosuke sets off with his warriors to confront the emperor, while Oboro pursues them for combat.

Shinobi: Heart Under Blade has plenty of highly stylized action. The Shinobi have a variety of powers, from the feral man-beast with steel claws, to the warrior whose sleeves and wires can let him fly through the air or capture enemies, to the seductress who breathes poison. (It's very reminiscient of the anime cartoon Naruto, from warriors bouncing from tree to tree to their swatting throwing stars out of the air.) Unfortunately, as with many ensemble movies (such as the X-Men franchise), most characters are one dimensional and exist only to show their powers. (The second disc has plenty of behind-the-scenes material on the action, from storyboards to the filming of the battles.)

As for the non-action scenes, be they romance or poltical, they work to a certain extent. While Shinobi: Heart Under Blade has beautiful visuals, it lacks the subtlety and grandeur of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but still manages to include intelligence in-between the fight scenes. Many characters argue that violence is the only life they can ever know, and the division between clan destiny and personal desire is handled well by Nakama and Odagiri.

If you're looking for a martial arts film that's more than just fighting, I highly recommend Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. This movie isn't perfect, but it blends preternatural kung-fu with romance and intelligence.

Overall Grade: B+

Reviewed by James Lynch

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