Ninja movies come with certain expectations, especially in the West. One is for action of the fantastic sort, with the ninja performing feats impossible to real human beings without assists from wires or CGI. Another is that, dramatically, they will be laughably bad.
So when a ninja movie comes along like Toshiyuki Morioka’s “Shinobido (Shinobido — Way of the Ninja)” that keeps the action within human limits and attempts serious emoting with its actors, the reaction abroad may be disappointment. Where’s the fun?
“Shinobido” is inspired by the Grand Ninja Theater attraction at Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura, which is celebrating its 25th year of bringing ninja thrills to countless tourists on their way through Nikko. As one of those tourists many years ago, I enjoyed the show, but never imagined it would result in a film. That was before the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, of course.
Unlike that megahit franchise, “Shinobido” is not tongue-in-cheek in the slightest. Instead, Morioka, whose credits include the 2009 childhood drama “Onnanoko Monogatari (Your Story),” takes his cue from the many local movies about star-crossed love, though he strips his own of the usual emotionalizing, while presenting his two principals as fallibly human, not generic exemplars.
One is Oko (Aimi Satsukawa), a young female ninja ordered by her village chief (Hatsunori Hasegawa) to gather intelligence about the Kurobaneshu, a secret band of samurai dedicated to wiping out the ninja (or, as they are called in the film, shinobi). In a nearby town, she finds a job in a samurai-frequented izakaya pub and begins her investigations.
After rescuing a girl from two pint-sized bullies (in a drolly choreographed scene that is one of the film’s lighter moments) and latter saving her life with an unladylike exhibition of strength, Oko becomes acquainted with the girl’s samurai father, Togoro (Ryoichi Yuki). A decent sort, who helps the townsfolk instead of lording it over them, Togoro senses something extraordinary in Oko beneath her shy exterior — and she likes what she sees in him. But he also has a secret of his own: membership in the Kurobaneshu.
Love is just beginning to bloom when Oko is called home. Her elders have heard about her friendship with Togoro, and they fear she is becoming too close to a man she might have to kill.
There is much more before the samurai and ninja clash in earnest, including Oko’s uneasy friendship with a fellow female ninja (Ayaka Kikuchi, of pop group AKB48) who wants her body and soul. The focus, however, remains on Oko’s conflict between her budding feelings for Togoro and her unswerving loyalty to her ninja clan.
Unlike such iconic women warrior actresses as Meiko Kaji and Junko Fuji, who could dominate their male opponents with the strength of their personalities and the skill of their martial-arts moves, Satsukawa comes across as tentative and stiff in her barmaid guise. But she is only reflecting the truth of Oko’s unformed character and uncertain situation. When called on to fight, she can be satisfyingly fierce, though romance, heterosexual or otherwise, is never quite her thing.
As Togoro, Yuki expresses the churn of emotions roiling his nice-guy surface with strong but delicate strokes. He elevates what could have been a standard genre exercise into something like real drama.
For fans of ninja movies, though, what really matters is the action finale — and both Satsukawa and Yuki give 100 percent and more, while doing all their own sword work minus obvious stunt or digital support. And they bring the film to a conclusion inevitable but starkly right.
Yes, “Shinobido” is shot cheaply and, at times, awkwardly. But it’s also got a heart that made me want to root for it against its Hollywood competition. Or to write a spinoff: “Ninja Vs. Pirates.”