Genre: Quasi-Historical Ninja Tale (Momoyama/Sengoku Era 1568-1615)
review in one breath
When a highly-trained ninja is called upon to avenge the ruthless massacre of his family and clan, his mission will take him into the heart of the nation's most formidable castle in a bid to assassinate Japan's top military figure, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. This epic history-based and action-packed film will satisfy anyone with an interest in the history, politics and scenery of 16th century Japan.
Based on the 1999 novel by Shiba Ryotaro and directed by Shinoda Masahiro the same year Owl's Castle is thoroughly enmeshed in actual Japanese history and as such provides a truly epic panorama of the politics and architecture of the times. Shot on scene at many of the original locations in the Osaka and Nara area, Owl's Castle attempts to recreate the politically tumultuous times following the Sengoku Era during which the entire nation was engaged in civil war. Three key figures are traditionally attributed with resolving this anarchy and setting Japan upon the path toward political unification which would last from the year 1568 until Japan finally opened itself up to the West during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). These three were Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (ruled 1584-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).
Aspiring to the appointment of Shogun by the Emperor, Oda Nobunaga skillfully overpowered many of the most powerful daimyos (military families - of which there were about 200 at the beginning of the Sengoku period) and thereby gradually established a working yet precarious unified stability. Following his death in 1582, Nobunga's top general Hideyoshi, though holding the lesser title of regent (kwampaku) rather than Shogun, established himself as the de-facto military leader and immediately set out to further solidify the remaining daimyos under a national government. In his pursuit of complete military domination of the country Hideyoshi aggressively conquered any and all remaining groups he believed to be antagonistic. In 1577, having overcome all his national enemies, Hideyoshi amassed a huge army of 200,000 and set out by ship from Kyushu to attempt a conquest of China via Korea. When the King of Korea refused to allow Hideyoshi's troops to pass through the country toward China, Hideyoshi fought his way as far north as Rakuro (PyongYang, North Korea). Through gradual realizations of the difficulties in logistics and their potentially being outnumbered by the Chinese, Hideyoshi's ambitious vision was at last discarded at his death in 1598.
Owl's Castle is set during the zenith of Hideyoshi's rule and tells the tale of an assassination attempt by a surviving member of one of the groups vanquished by Hideyori. The assassination plot ultimately involves infiltrating the immense and impenetrable fortress built by Hideyoshi referred to in the film as Owl's Castle. In actuality, Hideyoshi had built for hiimself a castle of unparalleled proportion during the years 1583-1585 after the model of Nobunaga's precedent setting Adzuchi Castle (the ruins of which can be visited in Shiga prefecture). In a scale much grander than Adzuchi, Hideyoshi built a colossal edifice using immense granite blocks and surrounded by deep motes and steep embankments. This castle, known (in real ife) as Osaka Castle (pictured here) remains to this day the grandest and most elaborate castle in Japan. It is this castle to which the title Owl's Castle refers, as its infiltration (and the ensuing escape) marks the dramatic climax of the narrative.
The plot itself revolves around a survivor of a formidable ninja school located in Iga Province (modern day Nara prefecture) which Hideyoshi mercilessly slaughtered out of his fear of their skill and growing influence. Though the locations and regions conquered are historically accurate the assassin character as well as his school of ninjary (as far as I can gather) are fictitious. Thus this film is a dramatic exploration of a particular (fictitious) outfall of the otherwise heralded (historical) campaign by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to bring order to the nation.
Most of the film is shot in wide panoramic cinematography using the actual historical locations in both Nara and Osaka. Thus viewers are truly in for an illustrated history lesson which includes all the major historical figures, maps, castle interiors, and social life and trends of the time. This in itself is reason enough to watch this film. In addition, however, Owl's Castle boasts an amazing cast of popular talent, most of whom have plenty of experience in similar historical productions. The narrative itself, running at 138 minutes is chocked-full of character studies and plot-relevant relationships and rivalries. There is also plenty of action ranging from military conquests to hand-to-hand ninja battles upon massive rooftops. Slight recourse is made to CG effects to enhance and perfect the ninja's skillful stealth. When put all together, along with the aid of an effective soundtrack, this film truly delivers what it promises to Japanese audiences, a thoroughly engrossing tale enmeshed in the history and politics of one of Japan's most formative and memorable periods.
After 10 years of seclusion within an abandoned mountaintop temple, the formidable ninja Juzo (Nakai Kichii) is called back into action one last time in a bid to assassinate the nation's leading military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Juzo recalls watching his own mother and sister die horribly during Hideyoshi's ruthless conquest of his home province of Iga (Nara) leaving only a handful of survivors. This final mission will require him to return to Osaka and somehow infiltrate the vast new castle which Hideyoshi has built for himself. Only a ninja of unparalleled skill will be able to scale and penetrate this formidable position of defenses Hideyoshi resides in.
Along his journey, Juzo eventually encounters a few of the survivors of the Iga massacre. They, like him, live quietly and anonymously in lowly position, but are soon willing to aid Juzo in whatever means possible once they realize his mission. All, that is, except for Gohei, another well-trained ninja of the Iga school whose allegiance now lies with Hideyoshi and whose aims involve a high-ranking security position within the Hideyoshi faction. The capture or death of Juzo during such an attempt on Hideyoshi's life would indeed provide the opportunity needed for Gohei to attain this coveted position.
Even in the governmental stability established by Hideyoshi much political turmoil and plotting continues, making trust and alliances very difficult for Juzo. Thus he must not only survive the complexities of the political environment, but also develop and carry out a plausible scheme to fulfill his assassination mission.
This is a thoroughly entertaining tale wonderfully filled with historical tidbits. It is heavy on dialogue (which, dear readers, is not a bad thing!) in order to establish much of the actual complexities of the time. The degree of dialogue, however, is also matched with highly detailed panoramic scenes of landscapes, architecture and the bustle of 16th century life in Japan. This is a highly polished film and will visually present you with top-notch scenes and historical re-enactments. Though complex and intricate, this storyline is far from boring. Action permeates the film from first to last scene and the entire narrative culminates effectively as the assassination attempt is realized.
This is definitely one to recommend for those interested in Japanese history or jidaieki (history-based films). This group will surely not be disappointed by this. This also presents a much more realistic vision of the Japanese ninja than the superhuman depictions so often in film and as such will be enjoyed by martial art fans (and there's plenty of samurai sword fighting too!).
The version I watched is an unsubtitled VHS with a running time of 138 minutes. I've heard that there is another version, presumably with subtitles, but with a significantly reduced running time. This practice of cutting out dialogue-based complexities in order to appease a Western fast-food mentality is truly lamentable and seems to inflict only the more spectacular films such this one and Gojoe (which was redacted a whopping 40 minutes). If possible, watch the original cut for the full force and beauty of the film.
Version reviewed: Unsubtitled VHS
|Excellent historical piece set in the life of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Provides a wonderful array of accurate historical scenery and storyline.||From the beheadings in the opening scenes to being burned alive in vats of boiling oil in the last scenes, this depicts a rather tumultuous and ruthless chapter in Japanese history.||Well, not really sex, but a few sexy legs protruding from kimonos.||Nothing on the strange side, although the very realistic depiction of ninja skills should be noted here.|