The fourth in a series of eight films chronicling the role of the ninja in Japan's turbulent feudal past, Shinobi no Mono 4: Siege (1964) opens at the dawn of the Tokugawa Period, as a peace treaty between the reigning Shogun and his rival clan, the Toyotomi, is signed. The treaty, however, is just the calm before the storm, as the Toyotomi get word of the Tokugawa's secret plotting to destroy them once and for all. Coming to their rescue is legendary ninja Kirigakure (series star Raizo Ichikawa, who made nearly 100 films in his fourteen-year career, cut short by his death at the age of 38), but when he is kidnapped in a cunning ambush by enemy ninjas, even he must wonder if defeat is inevitable.
A prime example of the jidaigeki (Japanese historical drama) — a hugely popular genre that includes such internationally acclaimed films as Kurosawa's Seven Samurai — Shinobi no Mono 4: Siege is steeped in period detail and bookended by in-depth narration that accurately contextualizes the story. But the film is hardly a celluloid textbook: the movie realistically integrates martial arts into its story, meaning that both gravity and physics are (mostly) respected. Director Tokuzo Tanaka uses austerely composed long shots and lengthy takes that force the actors to execute the choreography on film, rather than relying on fancy editing tricks to mask the artifice of the action. There's fog and ninja-stars aplenty, but overall the film seems equally interested in highlighting the skilled acrobatics of the ninjas as it is in cementing their place in Japanese history. The sheer number of entries in the series, and their ongoing popularity, is a testament to the film's success.
This new edition by AnimEigo is pristine, with a full palette of blacks, whites, and grays that nicely complement the location exteriors and intricately detailed sets and costumes. Also appreciated is the use of two-tone subtitles that alternate colors for different speakers — something far more effective than the typical dashes that often leave viewers confused. Above-the-image titles also provide occasional historical information, such as translations of Japanese words used in the dialogue. And as a bonus feature, there are extensive program notes that detail the real life history of the characters and the period that deepen the experience of watching the movie.
Also on DVD this week:
Daisies (1966) (Second Run, Region 2 PAL) - A cornerstone of the Czech New Wave, Vera Chytilová's Daisies follows two young women who run amok in response to the world around them. Their surreal reign of chaos culminates in perhaps the best food fight in film history.
Une Femme Mariee (1964) (Koch Lorber, Region 1) - Everything Jean-Luc Godard touches turns into a triangle of politics, sex, and cinema, including this story of a woman who spends afternoons with her lover and nights with her husband. And thankfully, everything cinematographer Raoul Coutard touches turns into 24 hypnotically gorgeous images per second.
Navy Seals (1990) (MGM, Blu Ray Region 'A') - Navy Seal Charlie Sheen grabs a gun and rescues hostages from Middle Eastern terrorists. After 19 years, the political incorrectness and bad acting have hopefully aged like fine wine.
The Secret of the Black Window (1963) (Televista, Region 1) - German film about a murderer on the loose in London whose custom bullets are modeled after a black widow spider. Stars the tempestuous, legendary Klaus Kinski, and based on the novel The Queen of the Night by Louis Weinert-Wilton.