Animeigo continues its release of the 8 film Shinobi No Mono series with Shinobi No Mono 4: Siege (Japanese title Shinobi No Mono: Kirigakure Saizo). Released by Daiei in 1964, the movie stars fan favorite Ichikawa Raizo in one of his most popular series. This time around, instead of portraying ninja/thief Ishikawa Goemon (whose character is currently being featured in a big budget Japanese film, Goemon) he’s taking the field as an agent of the Sanada clan, Kirigakure (‘Mist’) Saizo. Different character or not, the ninja action lives on. Also along for the ride is Wakayama Tomisaburo of ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ fame (here billed as Jo Kenzaburo) as clan leader Sanada Yukimura. This illustrates one of the more interesting features of the Shinobi No Mono series-the characters change, but the stars remain the same. Wakayama played sadistic warlord Oda Nobunaga (Goemon’s arch enemy) in the first two films, but here plays the man Raizo’s new character is protecting. You’ll see this pattern repeated throughout the cast-genre favorite Date Saburo, who played Hattori Hanzo in the Goemon part of the trilogy, appears here as a different character as do several other actors. Isomura Midori plays Saizo’s love interest in the film, Lady Akane-if you watched the first three films in the series, you’ll know This Will Not End Well.
The film begins with the Winter Siege of Osaka in 1614. The forces of the Shogunate under Tokugawa Ieyasu have been unable to penetrate the main compound of the Toyotomi’s Osaka castle thanks to the spirited defense being led by Sanada Yukimura. However, Ieyasu realizes that the direct approach is not always the most effective. He begins an artillery bombardment of the main keep meant to frighten Yodo (the mother of Toyotomi clan leader Hideyori) into pressing her son to sue for peace. In order to do this and to keep the pressure on the castle, Ieyasu sends forces to take the outlying defensive works. Yukimura’s son Daisuke finds his fort under assault in one of these raids, and is forced to abandon his position. Here’s where Saizo enters the fray, swinging into action on a rope and coming off a lot like Batman or Spider-Man. He’s ordered by Daisuke to rescue a group of women hiding in a nearby storehouse, but is unable to save them all from the Tokugawa forces (who seem more interested in taking the women as prizes than fighting). Meanwhile, Ieyasu’s plan has worked and an uneasy peace treaty is negotiated.
Saizo is ordered by Yukimura to travel to Edo and keep an eye on the movements and actions of Ieyasu and the Shogunate. He’s immediately spotted by Shogunate ninja and in the process of escaping them, comes across Lady Akane (one of the women he failed to save back in Osaka). She had been raped by several of Ieyasu’s men and in despair resigned herself to becoming a prostitute. She saves him from discovery by enemy ninja, after which she aids Saizo in his mission of gathering information. After many skirmishes with the Tokugawa ninja, the Sanada shinobi confirm that Ieyasu does indeed plan to launch another attack against the weakened Osaka castle (the moats have all been filled in as part of the peace treaty). Yukimura orders an assassination attempt on Ieyasu and departs for Osaka. The attempt fails and the Sanada ninja commits suicide before he can be captured. Saizo returns to Edo castle to give it another try, and is duped by Ieyasu and kills the wrong man. Saizo is captured and thrown into what amounts to a deep, dry well. Akane (who really gets put through the wringer in this movie) is also captured by the Shogunate and drugged. In her delirious state she gives up the location of Saizo’s confederates, who are also captured and killed. Saizo is kept alive, since Ieyasu hopes to extract Yukimura’s location from him. Saizo, however, ‘dies’ and is buried by the Shogunate. When Akane comes to pay her respects, he emerges from the grave (good thing he wasn't cremated)-it turns out he had fooled Ieyasu’s men by using a ninja technique that slowed his breathing and allowed him to appear deceased. Or were they fooled? It turns out he was allowed to escape, with Ieyasu’s ninja following him-straight to their target. Yukimura is killed by a Shogunate sharpshooter and the Tokugawa ninja return in triumph to Ieyasu.
But all is not as it seems. There’re plenty more twists and turns before the final battle of Toyotomi and Tokugawa in the Osaka Summer Campaign. Will Saizo manage to reverse the course of history and put himself on the winning side? Does he go down with the ship? Or will he listen to Akane, say ‘to hell with it all’, and save both her and himself?
The film is letterboxed and the transfer is great. The black and white photography lends itself well to the somber and depressing tone of the film. At times the viewer might think he’s stumbled into one of Toho’s Godzilla films-the music is by Ifukube Akira (noted for his scores on the Godzilla films), and there are sequences featuring realistic castle miniatures being blown apart by artillery fire. The effects range from excellent (the miniatures and explosions) to rather cheesy (such as several blatant dummies, and the flying ninja used in the title sequence). The genre pros of the cast deliver solid performances, with Raizo in particularly fine form as the alternately invincible and vulnerable Saizo. Unlike many films, the heavy (Ieyasu) is shown to outwit, outthink, and outperform the hero at every turn-even alone and unarmed, he’s able to escape assassination at Saizo’s hand. Saizo himself commits several huge blunders in the course of the film, making him fallible and keeping him from becoming the ‘all-powerful ninja’ stereotype. Not only does this give the film a realistic, unpredictable scenario and make Saizo a sympathetic character but also masterfully sets up the next few installments of the series. The film belies its modest budget, with a large cast, elaborate sets, and well choreographed battlefield scenes. Animeigo’s translation and subtitling is top notch, and further gives the viewer subtitle options ranging from none to notes to the full gamut-you even have a choice of subtitle colors.
Many chanbara films don’t require any historical knowledge to comprehend the goings-on, but Shinobi No Mono 4 will make a lot more sense and be more enjoyable for the viewer if they go in with some familiarity with the situation in Japan during 1615. As is usually the case, Animeigo’s extras for the disc have that aspect covered nicely. An interactive map of Japan shows the locations where all of the action takes place (and sometimes spots that are only mentioned) and gives background information for each. The historical notes for the program go into a huge amount of detail for a DVD, going so far as to reproduce the kanji written on the infamous bell that gave Ieyasu his excuse for attacking the Toyotomi. They’re very well done, and the occasional lapses are quite minor-falling into the ‘hair splitting’ category or simple typos (such as when the date for Aki province becoming part of Hiroshima prefecture is given as 1817 instead of 1871). The only glaring mistake is that the program states Kirigakure Saizo is an historical figure when it’s well established he was an invention of the Meiji era ‘Sanada Juyushi’ novels. Otherwise, the notes give you a good history lesson along with your ninja action. Other DVD extras include a still gallery (including some very interesting posed publicity shots) and the film’s original trailer. Also included is a trailer for the long awaited DVD release of another classic Ichikawa series-Nemuri Kyoshiro (released as ‘Sleepy Eyes of Death’ on US video). The first four Nemuri films will soon be released as a boxed set, and if they’re anything like the trailer, will look gorgeous. Time to replace those old VHS copies…
Whether you’re a Raizo fan, a ninja movie aficionado, a chanbara hound, or a history buff, Shinobi No Mono 4: Siege delivers the goods. The blend of ninja ‘skullduggery’ (as it’s called on the DVD box) with traditional samurai action gives the film an engaging blend of all-out action and stealth. While the DVD has an official street date of June 2nd, you can get it now directly from Animeigo or preorder it from Amazon through the Samurai Archives store here.