Radiance Films: Shinobi (1962 -1963) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Radiance Films

Radiance Films is on a roll lately as far as doling out deluxe special edition releases of films that have yet to have their fair say in the United States or westerners in general.  Earlier this year they unveiled The Bounty Hunter Trilogy consisting of three Shogun era action thrillers starring Tomisaburo Wakayama.  In quick succession, Radiance turned right around to unveil their newest forthcoming trilogy set of distinctly feudal Japan era set action-war jidaigeki thrillers with the Shinobi film trilogy.  Ranging from 1962 to 1963, these three Kadokawa Pictures productions lensed in black-and-white Daieiscope 35mm widescreen were startlingly violent and realistically gruesome for their day from renegade filmmakers’ adaptations of an already subversive author’s novels. 
Centered around the character of Goeman Ishikawa, a rogue ninja who springs into action when Oda Nobunaga’s forces wipe out his ninja clan and murder his family, the series spawned a total of five films but only the first three are actually based on the Shinobi no Mono works of novelist Tomoyoshi Murayama.  Written for the screen by Hajime Takaiwa, the period-set wartime ninja thrillers followed the trajectory of the first three novels before Takaiwa continued on writing new screen adventures for the character unrelated to the text.  For that reason, despite switching directors from Satsuo Yamamoto who handled the first two films Band of Assassins and Revenge while Kazuo Mori handled the third film Resurrection the fourth and fifth films have been excluded from the set. 

Staying true to the source in this case, the Radiance Films boxed set presents all three films made from new 1080p transfers provided by Kadokawa Pictures in their world English-subtitled blu-ray disc premiere.  Inspiring everything from the James Bond films, notably You Only Live Twice including but not limited to the poisoning attempts to the villain carrying and caressing a pet cat, to paving the way for other like-minded action-thrillers centered around conjuring up Japan’s wartime past into the glorious widescreen present, the Shinobi trilogy represented an uncompromisingly vicious side of Japanese warfare not even Akira Kurosawa or Kinji Fukusaku were ready to come near. 

Though switching directors and crews on the third picture, the films maintain the same sets of cast members and unlike other film sequels that posit the hero in a new series of misadventures or what have you, the Shinobi trilogy consisting of Band of Assassins, Revenge and Resurrection play out connected as one chronological story requiring you to watch them in order.  Following the chain of events while recognizing the patterns of war and history repeating themselves despite valiant efforts of the ninja, the course of history and events playing out across the Shinobi trilogy is thrilling, stealthy, ranging between pin-drop quiet and explosive loudness while ending on something of a bleak sense of defeat.  For how hard the film’s lone dark knight in the shadows sneaks, backflips, flies, cheats and defeats death itself, Goemon Ishikawa seems destined to keep on fighting hard bloody battles forever.

The first two films by Satsuo Yamamoto are notable for not just their levels of graphic violence and stealth factors, but for how anti-authoritarian they come across.  Yamamoto was already considered an anti-military activist of sorts with his previous films and got himself into trouble with the censors before, making him a perfect fit for this sort of project.  Though switching cinematographers between films, Yasukazu Takemura handling the first in scope while Senkichiro Takeda lensed the second while the third swapped its director and cinematographer again, there’s a linear flow and thread running through all three films which all are scored by the same composer Chumei Watanabe.  It goes without saying Raizo Ichikawa as the central young ninja master spy gone rogue at a time when his kin are being eradicated is fantastic in the leading role.  Possessing a physicality and energy in the way he runs and jumps that’s as graceful as it is astonishing, Ichikawa singlehandedly leads us through the battlefield into intense, increasingly bloody fights.

The supporting cast members are also fantastic with none other than future Bounty Hunter Trilogy and Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama in the role of the nefarious and murderous Oda Nobunaga who carts around his trusty pet cat when he isn’t lopping off heads or limbs with katanas.  Also worth note is Saburo Date as Shinobi’s recurring comrade Hattori Hanzo (yes Kill Bill fans, you read that correctly) and soon as quickly as Wakayama’s goose is cooked, another nemesis arises in the form of shit-eating grin elder Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Eijiro Tono), popping up almost like a jack in the box blindsiding our heroic lead.  One other striking characteristic of these largely male-driven wartime actioners is the treatment of female characters who meet grisly ends and aren’t spared the horrors of fighting warfare, including but not limited to a shocking aside involving a woman buried up to her head.  No one gets off easy in this world at war.

Packed to the gills with extras, including but not limited to a beautiful yellow hardbound box with a black obi on the spine, housing the amaray cases which themselves include reversible sleeve art, a booklet of essays and replicated lobby cards and/or poster art, the Radiance Films Shinobi trilogy is another must-own essential purchase from the ever-evolving boutique label.  Continuing to give The Criterion Collection a run for their money despite their own recent foray into 4K UHD, Radiance Films have struck another home run here in a set I’ll be proudly displaying on my media shelf.  While somewhat sad the fourth and fifth films aren’t here, I can respect the artistic reasons for excluding them as they stray outside of the source material.  The transfers and packaging are so ornate and meticulous you almost want to blind-buy the set for how visually appealing it is.  Longtime fans and newcomers will feel the burn in their wallets but trust me, it’ll be worth it!

--Andrew Kotwicki