Veteran helmer Masahiro Shinoda, 70 next year, brings a quirky spin to genre material with “Owls’ Castle,” a big-budget but surprisingly intimate yarn about ninjas in 16th century Japan. Less talky and more playful than recent costumers by fellow veterans — Kon Ichikawa’s “Dora-Heita” and Nagisa Oshima’s “Gohatto” — pic, released locally in fall 1999, has a curiously abstract quality that holds the attention but isn’t enough to make the two-hour-plus drama a salable item beyond Asian markets. Festivals and specialized events look like its best arena, where Shinoda’s name (“Double Suicide,” “MacArthur’s Children”) still has currency among older auds.
Story’s conflicts are triggered by warlord Oda’s 1581 invasion of Iga, a “hidden land” where people traditionally took refuge and which was already developing as a center for the ninja arts. In an excitingly staged opening, Oda leads 50,000 troops into the province and slaughters most of the inhabitants; among the handful to survive is Juzo (Kiichi Nakai), a ninja.
Post-main title, 10 years have passed and a new warlord, Toyotomi (Mako Iwamatsu), has taken over. His ambitions lie overseas — invasion of Korea and then Ming-dynasty China. His enemies, however, have other plans, and Juzo is sought out of hermetic retirement by his former master to kill Toyotomi.
En route, in a nicely played game of mutual complicity, Juzo is seduced and almost killed by the mysterious Kohagi (Mayu Tsuruta), a Mata Hari hired to find out about the plot to kill Toyotomi. And when he finally reaches Toyotomi’s castle and leaps onto the roof, he finds another Iga ninja up there — Kazama (Takaya Kamikawa), who’s keen to stop Juzo so he can earn kudos and turn legit as a samurai.
Throughout all the subsequent twists and turns of the plot, Juzo’s dogged determination to fulfill his mission is consistently stymied by Kazama’s interference. Finally, Juzo gets to confront Toyotomi face to face in his palace one night, with unexpected results.
Pic develops into an elaborate, low-key satire on the genre itself, and the lengths to which people will go to acquire power or exact revenge, even when the original emotional impetus has long passed. Plot requires a reasonable amount of concentration to follow all its elements (especially the political shenanigans within Toyotomi’s retinue), but the main dramatic lines are clear.
Shinoda unfolds the story in a slightly stylized, abstract way, with brief but regular flurries of action: ninjas scuttling across tiled roofs, plus rapid exchanges of swordplay often shot in single takes and punctuated by spraying blood. Between these, the dialogue is delivered in mostly formal style, though not at soul-parching length as in Ichikawa’s “Dora-Heita.” Despite its running time, pic always keeps on the move.
A visual stylist to his fingertips, Shinoda creates one after another eye-watering setting in which to place his characters: stunning palace interiors in red and gold, broken-down buildings in autumnal forests, rooftop vistas of large cities replicated by impressive model and matte work. The abstract feel of the movie is heightened by the way-out soundtrack, which mixes No-like minimalism with standard Western orchestral music and wild percussive crescendos.
Performances by the leads, including the babelicious Riona Hazuki as a female ninja, hit the right note of straight-faced, knowing humor. Overall, however, the movie is more for genre connoisseurs than wider auds.