posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 2

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.

63 credit
Let's start with the very first thing you see in both flicks - the title screen. Here's the 63 original, a simple graphical burn over a woodgrain background, which I absolutely ADORE as a designer.
The remake's titles use illos of the ninjutsu hand power symbols over a digitally rendered blossom. Yeah, I'm thinking the same thing you all are - FEMININE PRODUCT LABEL!
BUT... there is a crow-barred-in shot of an actual OWL in this movie, unlike the original. Thumbs up to that at least.
Things go wrong quick though. Shots like this digital recreation of a Ukiyo-e painting take the place of normal interiors. Jarringly different than anything else around them, shots like this do little more than distract the viewer from the movie as a whole.
And we so don't need over-complicated shots of the armies leaving for the invasion of Korea or...
...this whooshing pan of an all-digi Edo that is so sub-video game quality it's embarrassing. Nintendo was a production partner on this film, and was insanely proud of these FX sequences. There's even a doco extra on the DVDs celebrating the achievements of the FX crew. ME, I just can't imagine how bad this looked theatrically in Japan.
This is the worst of the digital sequences, a totally unnecessary rooftop run from above with a primitive animated figure. Again, you ask WHY. Compare this to the matching shot from the original below...
This castle wall and roof are part of a public landmark and still available for shooting today. Look how gorgeous that vanishing point is. It's a real shot, and a better shot.
This, however, is the most egregious of the digital sequences. Toward film's end, Juzo gets lost in a maze of identical screen doors - sort of a security system to trap invaders I guess. Not only is the background all super crispy blatantly digital rendering, but eventually the 'shot' switches to a POV deal right out of a first-person shooter game. MISERABLE!
It's not all bad, though. This is a nice composite of a tight rope walk, although nowhere near as impressive or convincing of the danger of such a feat as the original's below:
When you have this familiar set-up (it's in lots of movies, and there are woodblock prints from centuries past that use the same composition), you get better scale, the notion of height, and a separation of nature and man-made structure that conveys the gravity of the invasion. Compared to billable computer hours, probably cheaper to do, too...
Although a bit fake looking, even by 1999 standards, this rooftop meeting of Juzo and Gohei does actually take advantage of what digital can (and should) do - provide a location that can't be had by practical means.
And they did construct some sets, they just didn't have the discipline to stay in them and not surrender the movie to computer animators. This is a nice rooftop...
...and I love this set-bound 'exterior' too, a real throwback (that Buddha head reminds one of NINJA WARS). Thing of it is, even when there is a nice (and real) shot, the standards of photographic excellence set by the original are just too high for a favorable comparison. Check out some examples below:
Depth of field for DAYS!
Foreground, background, placement of action... Trees in the way of both character and viewer, symbolizing Juzo's negotiation of the cluttered intrigue afoot...
...and superbly staged COMBAT. In this case, the duel is minimized by the (real) architecture around them, driving home the smallness of their personal conflict amidst massive political and social movements around them.
The same combat scenes in the remake are stiff, upright, conventional...
...and nothing to brag about in the martial arts choreography department either.
And while I like the new Juzo duds...
...the Gohei get-up is pretty dumb. I get the whole 'he sold out and is rich now, so this is his upscale pimped-out night ops coture', but c'mon, give us SOME credibility.
Switching to the women of the newer version, you may think at first glance there's a credibility issue here, too, but not so. The remake's older and far less innocent Kizaru hides in plain sight as a circus tightrope walker in this adorable ensemble.
Awful late 90's compositing here, too.
Yep, that's a ninja dwarf.
The new Kizaru is not only a fully baptized shinobi, she's involved in a shadow crime spree, and has given herself sexually to Gohei out of a flawed sense of duty. Her character is largely sabotaged from minute one, and things don't end well for her.
Actress Riona Hazuki has little to work with here, and mostly just pouts (and is gorgeous doing so, BTW). Ignoring the original's optimistic subplot of young love entirely, it seems the filmmakers just wanted the character out of the way in favor of the Juzo/Kohagi dynamic.
That dynamic, however, is anything but... Actors Kiichi Nakai and Mayu Tsuruta have little chemistry, and she has no credibility as a femme fatale with lethal skills.


The one MAJOR prop I and just about every reviewer gave OWL'S CASTLE though, was the casting of our beloved MAKO as Hideyoshi. Awesome to see him in a Japanese role!

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!

2 Responses

  1. ablo

    I love ninja movie, like this
    what movie ? the story of ninja koga clan

  2. Karen Grey

    Great review. As a graphic designer and self appointed critic I’ve only seen 20 mins of clips for the 1999 remake and I completely agree. The 1963 version is true to the era and a well told story. Something many current directors seem to have lost touch with. It is also one of the most historically accurate depictions of shinobi as opposed to the post 1980s exploitation that we ignorantly call ninja.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *