Some nice costume details here. I love the briefly seen utility armor seen during the raid and bombardment of Iga.
Wonderful still of what I’ve described as the “Wolf vs. Sheepdog” dynamic in the relationship and rivalry of Juzo and Gohei.
Not every chambara star looked good in ninja duds, in fact some looked downright silly (Toshiro Mifune being a fine example), but man do Ryutaro Otomo‘s square-jawed good looks totally work hooded! It’s all in the eyes, and Otomo is prefectly cast as the unwavering stalwart avenger of his people.
The relationship between Juzo and the kunoichi Kohagi is superbly woven into the already rich narrative. The moment below, when he sniffs her out as a woman of ‘peculiar skills’ despite appearances is just the beginning of their cat-and-mouse interaction.
But he is Otomo, when all is said and done…
The film noir lover in me wants to do-away with the happy ending of this otherwise dark and ironic epic, and have Kohgi be a true femme fatale waiting to turn on the man who thinks he’s turned her, but… the softie in me loves these characters so much I’m glad they make it out of the shadows both literally and figuratively.
Finally, below are some cleaner close-ups from images I posted years ago:
This detail from my older batch had been mechanically marked-up by a Thai mural or poster painter back in the day.
I have three antique sepia-toned photos from Japan featuring ninja and hooded heroes that neither I nor the sellers I liberated them from can identify. Anyone who helps me out will get a giant toad’s worth of gratitude from both me and the shinobifile community at large.
Here’s mystery photo #1:
The seller identified this as being from a 1953 version of Castle of Owls, but that just doesn’t jibe. The Ryotaro Shiba novel Fukuro no Shiro wasn’t written until ’59, and I believe the 1963 classic was the first time it was adapted. Maybe I’m full of it though…
I don’t believe all remakes suck. The ’78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hammer’s 60’s reimaginings of the Universal monster films of 30 years previous, the Soderberg version of Solaris… all brought something new to the table and were worthy endeavors. But what ALL remakes do is prompt the question WHY? Is this really necessary, is there anything new here, does it have a reason to be, or are we all just jerking off?
ALL of the above is pretty much true with Toho’s 1999 Owl’s Castle (technically a stand-alone adaptation of the Ryotaro Shiba novel and not necessarily a remake of the 1963 Toei film). It doesn’t automatically suck, but you do have to ask WHY, and yeah, it’s a lot of big budget studio wankery and boys playing with burgeoning tech toys.
I’m not going to do a full-on review here. I’m so in love with the original (and am especially jazzed on it this week), any article I write is going to come off negative, and I do ultimately recommend seeing this version. What I will do here is gripe about the remake’s shortcomings, the baffling choices made at times in the crafting of it, and in particular ask why, WHY??? Why was I watching a half decent ninja movie that suddenly turned into a third rate video game sequence?
And I’ll back it up with side-by-side examples.
Owl’s Castle was a big deal when it came out, a box office hit and a herald of digital period fare to come. But it’s a victim of it’s time, like The Last Starfighter or Stormriders… it’s the movie that takes the painful steps forward, but is pretty sad to look at once we’re beyond those first steps and into the era of stuff like Azumi.
Thing is, even if you forgive the FX nonsense, you’re not left with much. This is a somber, dour take on the tale, stuck on the notion, like many modern remakes, of being dark and gritty and severe.
Yes, there is art here. Director Masahiro Shinoda was also responsible for the absolutely classic Samurai Spy. And there are big fans of this version, too, but I’ve never heard a gushing review Owl’s Castle by someone who had actually seen Castle of Owls…
This wraps up CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK here at VN. We’ll be back October 1st to begin a month of ninja vs. monsters in celebration of Halloween!
CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK continues with some miscellaneous awesomeness centered on the the conflict between Juzo (Ryutaro Otomo) and Gohei (Minoru Ohki). As I’ve mentioned previously, this initially plays out like the old Sam the Sheepdog vs. Ralph the Wolf Looney Toons, with the rivals being friendly and familiar, then punching-in and letting the sparks fly like there’s no tomorrow.
And a note to makers of new ninja films, the above image is beyond F’N AWESOME, and it’s just one of countless brilliant shots in this masterpiece. Man and weapon composed with striking geometry. Actors convincing of rage, angst, fear, and pain with only their eyes visible. Shadow skills used in dark environs with delicate lighting being just enough to expose all the action. It’s ALL here.
Castle of Owls should be the standard to which you craft your trade… NOW GET TO IT!
While the overt conflict of Castle of Owls may be the wolf-vs-sheepdog of Juzo and Gohei, there is a deeper interior conflict in both men played out by their relationships to women, all of whom are deadly female ninja themselves. So let’s take at look at the mysterious manipulator Kohagi (Hizuno Takachiho) and the teen cutie Kizaru (Chiyoko Honma).
Women in Castle of Owls represent the future, the salvation of love, domesticity, peace and the abandonment of the shadow life. One woman is saved from the trail of blood she has been down her entire life. She risks all to save herself (and her man), and in doing so is the model for the next generation’s heroine, who is ultimately spared the black suit and all it entails.
Two interesting side notes on the actresses: As part of the movie’s promotion, Chiyoko Honma hosted a series of short promo films wherein she interviewed ninjutsu grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi, who would demo a different ninja weapon in each short. A year after Castle of Owls, Hizuno Takachiho married chambara superstar Koichi “Shintaro the Samurai” Ose! Man, that’s a vintage ninja power couple if there ever was one…
Hey, that’s the rest of the image from the home-page header! Yep, yer right.
It’s also perhaps the most striking image of Ryutaro Otomo from Toho’s publicity shoots. Those spike shuriken are just awesome. Otomo’s stern, strong eyes lend a commanding character wether he’s in full hood and mask, or partial as above.
The color moray patterns in all these 45-year old press/lobby stills is from deteriorating chemistry shrinking from the surface of the paper. Despite Castle of Owls being a lush color masterpiece, these photos were B&W and manually tinited. Color repro wasn’t quite a reality yet for mass market campaigns everwhere. The grid lines pencilled over the photos are most likely from a sign painter, who would have transferred this photo section by section onto a larger canvass or city wall somewhere. Being a marketing graphic designer by day myself, I just love the notion of these photos tacked up around a busy art department decades ago…
The above is from one of several encounters the former clansmen have over the movie. These fights are superbly edited, quick battles that end with even quicker escapes – the way a ninja-vs.-ninja conflict should be fought. When the two first meet after a decade in hiding, it’s almost like those old Looney Tunes with Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf – they meet, cajole and catch up with each other, then punch a time clock and it’s on, shuriken singing from the shadows of tree-tops!
Despite the escalation of their conflict, there’s still a history, and an affection for each other. In the end, it makes the resolution all the more tragic. You won’t find many better character journeys, either – Otomo’s conflicted ninja is a different, better human being by film’s end.
The 1963 Toei classic, directed by Japanese cinema legend Eiichi Kudo, is out there in the trading communities full subbed, sometimes with extras. It’s also known under the title “Samurai Spies” (not to confused with the Criterion release of Samurai Spy). The much lauded but oddly flawed (and gratuitously digital FX-laden) remake Owl’s Castle has various domestic and all-region international releases as well. It’s well worth seeing, if for nothing else than it’s place in history as launching the digital age of shinobi-cinema.
Inspired by Gobi’s awesome sketch from this post, I’ve declared this CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK at Vintage Ninja!
I’m not saying the 1963 Ryutaro Otomo action-drama is the best ninja movie ever made, but damn if it isn’t my absolute favorite. It’s pretty much in the top ten, if not top 5, of all of us shinobi-cinema-files, too.
Castle of Owls (Ninja hicho fukuro no shiro) is set up as a pretty straightforward revenge tale, but turns into a great exploration of the often visited theme of the lone ninja trying to escape the shadow life.
After the massacre of Iga, surviving suppa scatter across Japan, waiting for the day they can take their revenge on the Shogun. One (Otomo) does nothing but train, taking his skills to the next level. Another initially goes undercover as an ambitious samurai on a strong career path, but over the years sells out and actually wants the good life. After a decade, the time has come to strike, but can the stalwart Otomo succeed with a former blood brother now a motivated rival with an equal array of shadow skills in his way?
Owls has everything: credible ninjutsu mixed with solid action, an engaging story, a great supporting cast surrounding Otomo’s star power, gorgeous cinematography and color… it delivers on all fronts.
More about the movie later this week along with more vintage stills!