4 out of 5 stars

This Blu-ray box set from Radiance collects the first three Shinobi movies that drove the ninja-centric jidaigeki boom of the 1960s. As an opening trilogy, they work cohesively to tell the embellished tale of legendary ninja, Ishikawa Goemon. The first two, directed by Satsuo Yamamoto, and the third directed by Kazuo Mori, are the only movies in the series to be based on the popular novels by Tomoyoshi Murayama, and they were so successful that Daiei Studios decided to extend the cycle into an eight-film franchise starring Raizô Ichikawa which spawned hundreds of imitators.

Made more than six decades ago in stylish black-and-white, these films will still satisfy fans of Asian cinema. Their timely release would surely benefit from the recent popularity of the 2024 Shōgun TV series, which reintroduced shinobi to mainstream Western audiences. A stealthy band of shinobi assassins featured prominently in the penultimate episode, “Crimson Sky,” prompting a flurry of Google searches from viewers who learned that shinobi-mono, translating to “the stealthy one” or “the one who hides,” is the Japanese term for the trained assassins more commonly known by their Chinese name, ninja.

The first film here, previously released outside Japan as Ninja: A Band of Assassins, is set in the late 16th-century. Its story arc covers historical events leading up to the period depicted in Shōgun and even features some of the same characters. These first three Shinobi films effectively function as a prequel, and those who enjoyed Shōgun will undoubtedly find them very interesting. Referencing real historical figures, locations, and events, they offer history buffs the additional pleasure of unpicking the cleverly entwined fact and fiction.

Between the interpersonal dramas that drive the historical events here, we are treated to plentiful displays of ninja trickery, such as walking on water, flaming shuriken, knotted cords, climbing claws, sleeping gases, poisons, flash bombs, a novel use of tatami mats, and of course, the now-iconic ninja night camouflage costumes. Additionally, there’s the ninja-detecting “nightingale floor.” These were by no means the first ninja films, but they set the bar for any that came after, establishing so many of the now-familiar tropes.

Shinobi: Band of Assassins / 忍びの者 / Shinobi no Mono (1962)

4 out of 5 stars

A young ninja becomes embroiled in a plot to kill a tyrannical warlord. He journeys across feudal Japan, facing deceit, betrayal, and enemy ninja at every turn.

We meet our protagonist, Ishikawa Goemon (Raizô Ichikawa), on a battlefield when he confronts Kizaru (Kô Nishimura), a rival ninja picking over the corpse for valuables. It seems they were both involved in the bloody skirmish but in the capacity of spies to assess the tactics and balance of power between the armies. This is the immediate aftermath of the Siege of Hikida Castle which places the opening action in 1573—during the Sengoku period of warring states in feudal Japan.

When Goemon reports back to his clan leader, Sandayû Momochi (Yûnosuke Itô), a large chunk of exposition sets the scene, although it introduces too many names to remember easily. However, the only truly important name is Oda Nobunaga (Tomisaburô Wakayama), a ruthless samurai warlord who is rising in power and has gone too far by massacring monks at Buddhist temples. Nobunaga aims to unify Japan by defeating or dominating his rival feudal lords, eliminating any faction that defies him, before claiming the title of Shōgun.

Sandayû, after hearing advice from his top ninjas, including Goemon, sets out on a mission to disrupt this new order, ultimately aiming to assassinate Nobunaga. However, he fears losing honour if the rival Fujibayashi ninja clan accomplishes this goal first.

The narrative sophistication here is perhaps the most surprising element of the movie. While the premise seems fairly straightforward, the first act quickly becomes more interesting, demanding the viewer’s active attention. Early on, complications arise when Sandayû’s much younger wife, Inone (Kyôko Kishida), confides in Goemon that she and her husband sleep in separate rooms and haven’t yet consummated their marriage. Soon after, she and Goemon embark on a very risky affair. We then learn that the main reason Sandayû sleeps in his private chambers is to access secret passages for clandestine exits from the fort. The reason for this, however, will remain undisclosed to avoid spoiling a later surprise.

During one of their assignations, Inone panics when she hears a small noise beyond the door. My favourite line from the film comes here: “Sandayû knows how to use mice!” In the ensuing scuffle with Sandayû’s spies (not actual mice), Inone is shot with a poison dart and falls down the well, leaving Goemon with no choice but to flee the fort. However, on the road, he’s met by none other than Sandayû himself, who accuses the young ninja of raping and murdering his wife before dumping her body down the well.

Denying him a way out through honourable suicide, Sandayû instead sends Goemon on a suicide mission. He is to use his ninja skills to steal from rich officials to fund the clan in arming themselves for the inevitable battles to come. And infiltrate the court of Nobunaga, sowing dissent, and turning allies against each other, while biding his time until an opportunity to assassinate the warlord arises. To ensure that he doesn’t simply disappear, Sandayû’s right-hand man and top ninja, Yozo (Yoshi Katô), shadows Goemon to collect the stolen gold and ensure he pursues the main mission.

Tomisaburō Wakayama, perhaps best known for his later role as Ogami Ittō in the six Lone Wolf and Cub films (1972–74), portrays Nobunaga as a brutal despot, but one with some unexpected quirks. He appreciates a good daikon radish when he sees one while shopping for himself at a street market. However, he needs to be restrained from beating the stallholder simply because the man didn’t react quickly or graciously enough after receiving praise for his vegetables. Nobunaga’s moods swing from world-weary ennui to irrational rage, with even the occasional flicker of joviality.

He seems to care more for his cats than his menfolk and this has been suggested as the inspiration for introducing Blofeld’s famous cat in From Russia with Love (1963). The scene in Shinobi where Goemon manages to deliver poison onto Nobunaga’s sleeping lips via a thread dangled through a hole in the ceiling was also paid homage in another Bond movie, You Only Live Twice (1967), which is set in Japan with ninjas—see, even Hollywood jumped on that 1960’s ninja boom.

While hiding out at a brothel. Goemon meets and rescues Maki (Shiho Fujimura), a reluctant new courtesan, and together they dream of escaping their situation to live a quiet life in the country. There’s a brief respite from the deception and ninja trickery when this does seem possible. But there’s no doubt things will, eventually, catch up with them.

In her first major role, Shiho Fujimura portrays Maki with an engaging vulnerability that masks a deep-seated resilience and wisdom, allowing her to work out Goemon’s true identity long before he reveals himself. She went on to have a prolific five-decade career, repeatedly appearing alongside Raizô Ichikawa in the Shinobi series and several of the Sleepy Eyes of Death films (1963-69) in which he starred. Upon retiring from acting in 2008, she received a special ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award at the Yokohama Film Festival.

From the age of 15, Raizô Ichikawa was trained in kabuki theatre. The actor had been given several stage names since his birth name was Kamezaki Akio. He was adopted by Ichikawa Kudanji III and made his stage debut as Ichikawa Enzō. Unlike a surname, the name Ichikawa denotes a lineage of kabuki masters and students, not a biological family. When he transitioned from stage to screen in 1954, he adopted the name Ichikawa Raizō VIII.

His breakout performance came in a starring role in Conflagration / Enjô (1958)—based on Yukio Mishima’s play—for which he won several accolades, including the Blue Ribbon and the Kinema Junpo Award. By the time he took the lead in the first Shinobi film, he had already racked up around 100 screen credits in a prolific, though relatively short, career. Before his untimely death in 1969, he added another 50 or so films. These were predominantly period dramas and sword-fighting jidaigeki. Retaining his youthful good looks and dying young, he earned the reputation as the ‘James Dean of Japan’.

The real Ishikawa Goemon was indeed a cunning thief who stole from rich officials and is said to have redistributed the wealth amongst the poor or to fund rebels. He became a folk hero for the working class in Japan, similar to Robin Hood in Britain. Just as few facts are known about him, he was certainly a real person around the time of Oda Nobunaga’s uneasy unification of Japan and was credited with an attempt to assassinate the feared daimyo.

Goemon was already well-known as the subject of several films before Raizō Ichikawa’s nuanced performance took the character on a clear journey. Initially, his youthful bravado compensated for a certain naivety, but he eventually comes to grips with the convoluted political machinations of those around him. It takes most of the first instalment for him to learn how those he once trusted manipulated him. Will he be able to turn the tables in the second part?

JAPAN | 1962 | 114 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | BLACK & WHITE | LANGUAGE

Shinobi 2: Revenge / 続・忍びの者 / Shinobi no Mono 2: Vengeance (1963)

4 out of 5 stars

Confident that he has destroyed the Iga Ninja, the evil Oda Nobunaga continues his quest to conquer Japan.

This is not a sequel but a continuation, which opens by revisiting the final scenes of the first film. All the key cast of characters that survived remain with warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Eijirô Tôno) joining and moving to the fore of villainy. His level of grinning cruelty evokes some nostalgia for Nobunaga’s no-frills sadism. Also, Ieyasu Tokugawa (Sônosuke Sawamura) is still biding his time, waiting for other samurai generals to eliminate one another and make room for him to move up. Not to give too much away, but fans of Shōgun—the novel or the two miniseries—will have a good idea of how that thread plays out.

Freed from their obligations to Sandayû and the Momochi clan, Goemon and Maki have made their escape, living a simple life with their young son. However, within the first 10 minutes, their idyllic existence is shattered, unleashing Goemon’s desire for unbridled vengeance. Yet, he’s clever enough to recognise that even a covert assassination of Nobunaga—who still leads his army against any opposing samurai lords—would result in the Ikkō-ikki rebels being blamed and suffering the full force of retaliation. Therefore, he opts for the long game and heads to the rebel stronghold at a Buddhist temple, where he trains them in the art of war, ninjitsu-style.

The second film is even more epic and complex than the first. It takes a little effort to keep track of who everyone is and which side they’re on. Even then, allegiances can change overnight as political manoeuvrings force the hand of those who choose survival over doing the right thing. A lot rides on the samurai’s adherence to their draconian codes, but Akechi Mitsuhide (Sô Yamamura) has had enough of being deliberately humiliated by Nobunaga that it doesn’t take much of a push from Goeman to prompt him into rebellious action.

Once again, the narrative approximates the historical record. While it takes liberties, it also remains believable. For every action, there is a reaction. Small victories for one side result in devastating reprisals from their enemies. Fearing his grip on Japan is weakening, Nobunaga’s methods become even more extreme. He orders the execution of any suspected ninja and offers a tempting bounty for their capture, leading to their public crucifixion.

He also launches a campaign against Buddhist temples that he, quite rightly, believes are supporting the Ikkō-ikki rebels. One particularly memorable scene features a priest engulfed in flames as he continues to meditate serenely. This scene seems to closely mirror the famous news photographs of Thích Quảng Đức, a monk who died by self-immolation in public while continuing to meditate. His actions on 10 June 1963 were a protest against the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam and became one of the most powerful images of the era. Shinobi 2 was released only two months later, and the similarity of the imagery is striking. Director Satsuo Yamamoto is known for his political awareness and social conscience, so it’s hard to believe this is purely coincidental.

Yamamoto had returned from the war in 1947 to renegotiate his contract with Toho Studios. However, he found himself stepping into a pressure-cooker environment of unrest in Japan’s studio system, which had begun to unionise. The US Army initially encouraged the unions to push for reform. Yamamoto, who had already shown his political leanings before the war by directing provocative left-wing plays, was a natural choice to mobilise the workers in their fight for new rights. The resulting strikes crippled Toho, and the army was forced to intervene to break the deadlock. The instigators were dismissed but also compensated, which they used to fund independent filmmaking.

One of Yamamoto’s earliest postwar films was Street of Violence: The Pen Never Lies / ペン偽らず 暴力の街 / Pen itsuwarazu, Bōryoku no machi (1950). This overtly political gangster film centred on newspaper reporters who uncovered corruption in big business and chose to reveal the truth rather than cover it up. A surprise commercial success, it set the tone for the next decade, during which he made mostly films with pro-working-class themes and a social conscience. This marked a stark contrast to the imperialist propaganda films he’d been forced to make during the war. Perhaps he was making amends in the best way he knew how.

Daiei Films recognised his cachet derived from his association with Japanese New Wave cinema, yet he could also make films that entertained mainstream audiences. It appears they were searching for titles that would help win back viewers who were drifting away due to the rise in popularity of television content. Additionally, Yamamoto’s political views chimed well with those of Tomoyoshi Murayama, the author of the popular novel series that Hajime Takaiwa had been tasked with adapting for the screen.

Tomoyoshi Murayama studied art and theatre in Berlin during the early 1920s—the heyday of the interwar Weimar Republic. Idealistic artists of this period saw their work as a tool for political change. On his return to Japan, he founded a radical art movement known as the Mavoists, or simply MV. This movement employed a trans-modal approach, combining painting, collage, and theatre. Murayama described their approach as “Conscious Constructivism.” In 1923, an MV street exhibition was stopped by the police. However, many of the works were later displayed in a dispersed exhibition across Tokyo, held in venues such as shops and cafes. The group were also involved with theatre design and contributed designs for building facades during the reconstruction of Tokyo after the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923.

The MV movement led by Tomoyoshi Murayama was antiauthoritarian and left-leaning—hard to imagine during the inter-war years under Japan’s overbearing Imperialism. It was through the experimental theatre elements in the MV art happenings that Murayama began writing full-length plays for the stage, often confronting controversial themes. His deliberately provocative plays were frequently censored or banned outright. He was arrested in 1930 and detained for six months under the Peace Preservation Laws.

By 1931, he had become a member of the Japanese Communist Party. He spent the first half of the 1940s in and out of prison before leaving Japan for Korea. Returning to post-war Japan, he worked in theatre and wrote novels. His Shinobi no Mono / 忍びの者 series of jidaigeki stories were originally published in serial form in the Sunday editions of the Akahata newspaper, running from November 1960 to May 1962.

In Murayama’s novels and Yamamoto’s films, the social structure of feudal Japan acts as a metaphor for modern class inequality and conflict. The elite samurai aristocracy views the predominantly working-class ninjas as expendable, even subhuman. The peasantry is merely an exploitable resource, used to generate wealth for the vassals appointed to rule on behalf of the warlords. The downtrodden folk who organise themselves in attempts to overthrow their unjust overseers mirror the unions resisting corporate exploitation and striking for workers’ rights.

This is even more prominent in Shinobi 2. Yet, despite these subtexts and a cleverly convoluted plot where Goemon acts as a catalyst for all manner of political infighting and malicious machinations, the film delivers action with the same efficiency as the first. Yamamoto based the entire look of his ninjas on Edo period prints by artists like Katsushika Hokusai, and the decision to film in black and white may well have been influenced by the growing popularity of manga. Indeed, the influence may well have been reciprocal.

Satsuo Yamamoto stepped down having completed what he had envisioned as a duology with a definite conclusion. After all, Ishikawa Goemon was executed along with his young son in 1594, boiled alive in a cauldron of oil by order of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. But with the success of the first film exceeding expectations, the intended ending of part two was changed by the studios to allow a sequel. The directorial baton was handed over to Kazuo Mori.

JAPAN | 1963 | 93 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | BLACK & WHITE | JAPANESE

Shinobi 3: Resurrection / 新・忍びの者 / Shinobi no Mono 3: Resurrection (1963)

3 out of 5 stars

With the help of the enigmatic Hattori Hanzo, Goemon lives to skulk another day and sets his sights on bringing down the warlord who tried to turn him into soup.

By the third film, we find ourselves in familiar territory. Screenwriter Hajime Takaiwa maintains continuity, while director Kazuo Mori brings a change in atmosphere and a simpler narrative. This shift in emphasis focuses on the households of the dominant samurai who now control the nation’s destiny. The plot follows a trajectory that meshes even more closely with real history, likely because it deals with major events leading up to the Edo period and the beginnings of modern Japan. This covers much the same ground as Shōgun, even recreating a couple of scenes so closely that one might assume James Clavell, or the makers of the 2024 miniseries, were cribbing from the Shinobi films.

Although less convoluted, Resurrection is just as difficult to follow for those who lack a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese history. Especially when the nobility each have several names—their family names, their chosen names, their title names, and sometimes what others call them behind their backs! Also, a different actor is taking on the pivotal role of Ieyasu Tokugawa, with Masao Mishima stepping into Sônosuke Sawamura’s kimono. He evidently studied his predecessor’s performance and is doing an uncanny impersonation—-just as subtle and unnervingly smiley. If he’d been given the same little beard, one may not have noticed the switch.

It’s also harder to discuss this chapter without giving too much away, as again, part three picks up directly from part two’s cliffhanger. The narrative unfolds smoothly, with fewer twists, but it does reach a very satisfying, perhaps even surprising, conclusion. This is quite a feat for a story set against the backdrop of such well-known events because the usual problem with historical stories is that they can feel predetermined. Here, however, we get a philosophical exploration of the motivations for, and meaning of, revenge.

Already a veteran director, Kazuo Mori specialised in period dramas and action-driven jidaigeki. He had been with the studios since 1936, before they became part of Daiei, and would outlast them to transition to TV directing in the 1970s. During his six-decade career, he directed more than 130 movies including three in the Shinobi franchise starring Raizô Ichikawa. He’s more of a straightforward stylistic director but can’t avoid tackling the socio-political subtexts already laid out by Satsuo Yamamoto.

Kazuo Mori is fond of strong compositional elements where small human figures are depicted interacting with huge architectural structures, often framing the scene with doors and windows, or using walls and rooftops as backdrops. He also employs zooms and a roving camera to emphasise important narrative elements and is more than capable of shooting action. One scene of a night fight is particularly effective as it unfolds among trees in almost total silence as two rival groups of ninjas clash. We hear the rustle of fabric, the shuffle of leaf litter, the occasional ring of blade, but an eerie absence of grunts or groans and when a guard dog bursts onto the scene, its snarls are quite a jolt.

The director also helmed the additional final sequel, Shinobi no Shū / 忍びの衆 / Ninja Spies: Mission Iron Castle (1970). This was an attempt to reboot the series after the death of Raizō Ichikawa. By this time, the stories had entered the public consciousness in Japan. The novels were popular again and were adapted into a 52-episode TV series (1964–65) by Toei, starring Ryūji Shinagawa as Goemon and broadcast on NET/TV Asahi. Only a single episode is known to survive, leaving the Daiei film series starring Raizō Ichikawa as the definitive screen version.

JAPAN | 1963 | 86 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | BLACK & WHITE | JAPANESE

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Limited Edition Blu-ray Special Features:

  • High-definition digital transfer of each film presented on two discs, made available on Blu-ray (1080p) for the first time outside of Japan. They look fantastic, even though some of the cinematography reveals flaws in the daylight location shots. In these scenes, parts of the landscape bleach out in the sunshine, creating a striking, perhaps accidental, yet pleasing contrast. Overall, the greyscale grading is beautiful, and the scenes shot in mist or rain are almost like paintings in their textured beauty.
  • Uncompressed mono PCM audio. The quality of the sound is patchy and there are some sequences with noticeable noise but, for the most part, the dialogue and score are super-clear.
  • 14-minute interview with Shozo Ichiyama, artistic director of the Tokyo International Film Festival, about director Satsuo Yamamoto. A thorough overview of the director’s career, focusing mainly on his place within the historical context of Japan’s post-war cultural climate. It examines the director’s political motivations and involvement with the major strikes that spread across Japan and paralysed the studio system. It compares him with other important figures of the New Wave and delves a little into the political metaphor present in many of his films, especially in his Shinobi duology.
  • 18-minute visual essay on the ninja in Japanese cinema by film scholar Mance Thompson. Exploring how film versions of the ninja, distilled from various historical sources, have created an archetype we now recognise and accept. He touches on just a few of the 430 or so ninja films that defined the genre and traces its history from the first film made in 1912 to the 1960s boom in Japan and the subsequent ninja craze that hit the US in the 1980s. Some of the definitive manga and anime, such as the hugely popular Naruto, are also briefly discussed.
  • 14-minute interview with film critic Toshiaki Sato on star Raizô Ichikawa. He starts by comparing him to other popular male screen idols of the day, such as Yujiro Ishihara, Shintaro Katsu, and Kinnosuke Nakamura. He then provides a detailed overview of Raizo Ichikawa’s screen career, emphasising how the actor always insisted on creative control over the characters he played. Ichikawa utilised his Kabuki training to apply his own screen make-up, which could dramatically alter his look and demeanour.
  • Trailers.
  • New and improved optional English subtitles.
  • Six postcards of promotional material from the films.
  • Reversible sleeves featuring artwork based on original promotional materials.
  • Limited Edition booklet featuring new writing by Jonathan Clements on the Shinobi no mono series and Diane Wei Lewis on writer Tomoyoshi Murayama.
  • Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in a rigid box with full-height Scanavo cases and removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings.
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Cast & Crew

directors: Satuo Yamamoto (1 & 2 ) • Kazuo Mori (3).
writers: Hajime Takaiwa (based on the novels by Tomoyoshi Murayama).
starring: Raizô Ichikawa, Tomisaburô Wakayama, Yûnosuke Itô, Shiho Fujimura, Eijirô Tôno, Yoshi Katô, Sônosuke Sawamura, Masao Mishima.