Take Romeo and Juliet, blend with a liberal dose of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and what do you get? You get Shinobi, a visually stunning film about the Iga and the Koga, two ninja tribes with magical powers. Sworn enemies, the tribes have nonetheless managed to live at peace with each other thanks to a treaty forbidding them from fighting. That doesn't mean they have to like each other, though. Then one day Oboro (Yukie Nakama), the granddaughter of the matriarch of the Iga clan, happens to meet Gennosuke (Jô Odagiri), the son of the Kouga chief, at the watering hole. For reasons that are never made completely clear (but is love ever really completely clear?) the two fall deeply in forbidden love. The idealistic Gennosuke thinks they can just tell their respective families about their love and all will be well: "Look, Dad, the Iga are nice! I'm in love with one of them!" The more pragmatic Oboro warns Gennosuke that no happiness can come of their love. Guess who's going to be right?
Before they get a chance to test the power of their love, however, fate conspires to tear the lovers apart. Ogen, Oboro's grandmother, and Danjo Kouga, Gennosuke's father, are summoned to pay a little visit to the Lord of Lords, each of them with their best warrior in tow. At the palace, they have a little demonstration of the remarkable powers these ninjas have. Afterwards, Ogen and Danjo Koga are told they must each list their five greatest warriors, who will then battle each other to determine who the future emperor will be. Of course, when government is involved, it's a pretty safe bet that someone is lying, and apparently even in ancient Japan this was the case. The real issue is that the country is finally united and peaceful. There is no more war, ergo, no more need of ninjas with superpowers who might pose a threat to the empire. The emperor, guided by his aides, figures he'll kill off the ten best with this battle, and then wipe out the rest of the tribes with a little carefully calculated genocide. For the good of the Empire, naturally.
It should come as no surprise that Oboro and Gennosuke both end up on the list. Oboro accepts this as fate, kind of a cosmic "I told you so," whereas Gennosuke has the radical idea that maybe they don't have to fight at all. Ogen and Danjo Kouga, on the other hand, finally freed of the treaty that has kept them from killing each other, meet for a battle to the death, thereby placing the mantle of leadership and tribal responsibility on the shoulders of Oboro and Gennosuke. Gennosuke decides to set out for the palace, to see if he can't figure out what the hell is really going on. Oboro, bound by duty, sets out with the other four warriors chosen by her grandmother to set aside her love and kick some Kouga butt.
The high-wire fight scenes are as cool as one would expect them to be, and there is some truly stunning cinematography in the film -- you feel, while you're immersed in it, that you've stepped inside a fairy tale. There are some interesting characters among the warriors, each of whom has a particular cool talent (Oboro is the most dangerous -- she can kill people with her eyes). I had a hard time getting past the obvious (to me at least) solution to the problem. With both of their elders out of the way, and Oboro and Gennosuke chiefs of their respective tribes, why couldn't they use that opportunity to unite their tribes instead of fighting? And hey, instead of killing each other off for questionable reasons at the behest of an emperor, why not use the combined powers of the two tribes to stage a little coup? Problem is, the warriors of the tribe are killers, plain and simple. It's all they know, all they've been raised and trained to do since birth. Without that, who would they be?
All in all, Shinobi is a fun and satisfying little flick: The story is interesting, the characters engaging, and the visuals stunning. You don't have a be a fan of martial arts to enjoy Shinobi, either. I took my mom with me to the screening I attended, and while she wasn't crazy about the violence and bloodshed, she still enjoyed the film very much. If you can track it down, it's worth watching.