By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Resplendent in energy and humour which deceptively hides a darker, at-times quite cynical heart, Mumon: The Land of Stealth will certainly entertain the millions of fans who adore its leading man, but it will also impress audiences looking for something more than just knockabout comedy and well-staged ninja action.
Set in the year 1579, we are introduced to two warring families; the Shimoyamas, led by Kai (DenDen), and the Momojis, commanded by Sandayu (Danshun Tatekawa); who fight for no other reason than it is just what they are paid to do. As one opponent points out, it is more of a ‘scrap’ than a battle, but each side carries out its mindless tasks. Suddenly arriving late on the scene is Mumon (Satoshi Ohno of Arashi fame), deemed the greatest ninja in the Iga province (with skills that justify that boastful claim), defeating his Shimoyama enemies in the blink of an eye. We soon find out that Mumon doesn’t have any grudge against the Shimoyamas, but was merely financially rewarded for completing this mission, securing funds to hopefully please his unforgiving wife-to-be Okuni (Satomi Ishihara).
What sets events in motion is when Mumon kills Jirobe Shimoyama (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), Kai’s youngest son, during this skirmish for nothing more than money, but which attracts the vengeful wrath of elder son Heibe (Ryohei Suzuki). The province’s Council of Twelve then discover that the neighbouring province of Ise has been taken over by the warlord Nobunaga Oda, who wants to conquer every region, and is now overseen by his young son Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen). Nobunaga doesn’t want to invade Iga without proper military support, as he sees the amoral ninjas as nothing more than wild beasts.
Matters become more convoluted when Nobukatsu, defying his father’s instructions, threatens to attack Iga, with the help of former Ise retainers Daizen (Yusuke Iseya), Sakyonosuke (Makita Sports) and their accompanying armies, and as the ninja community hear this news, they have to decide whether or not to stand and fight for pride instead of wealth, or just run away somewhere else where a good dollar can be made.
Mumon: The Land of Stealth is the kind of film that could easily be misjudged, as on the surface (and even through some of its advertising) it comes across as a lighthearted action/comedy, ready to deliver an agreeable mix of mirth and mayhem. However, the screenplay by Ryo Wada (based on his novel Shinobi no Kuni) throws some tonal curveballs early on, beginning with the way in which the affable Mumon murders Jirobe in such a nonchalant manner, a needless death that has real impact on Heibe. Wada, who also adapted his own novel The Floating Castle to the big screen in 2012, seems to enjoy playing around with the heroic, larger-than-life tales that are inevitably attached to war, stories that diminish or obscure the real, bloody impact that occurs in any conflict, especially those who have to experience it up close. These elements reminded me of the similarly themed Sanada Ten Braves, directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi.
Bringing all the numerous subplots and tonal changes inherent in the material to life is the wonderful Yoshihiro Nakamura, a truly gifted film-maker who deftly moves all the chess pieces around with supreme confidence and skill. Though maybe not as well-known internationally as current counterparts such as Takashi Miike, Sion Sono, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Nakamura has an impressive (and eclectic) track record, featuring movies which range from medical dramas (The Glorious Team Batista and its follow-up, The Triumphant Return of General Rouge), satirical murder mysteries (The Snow White Murder Case), vibrant end-of-the world comedies (Fish Story), and time-travelling fantasies that blend samurais with cooking (A Boy and His Samurai). On top of that, there is The Foreign Duck, The Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, Chips, See You Tomorrow, Everyone, and Prophecy. The exploration of greed corrupting one’s moral compass and fracturing regional unity, also played a large part in Nakamura’s previous effort, the terrific ensemble piece The Magnificent Nine.
As with Nakamura’s other films, the casting is absolutely spot-on, starting with Ohno, who is perfect as the lazy, money-hungry Mumon. Nakamura brilliantly uses Ohio’s laconic, goofy persona to initially have us laughing at his character’s antics, an undeniably talented ninja who never seems too fussed about whatever havoc is happening around him. Often employing a mischievous, almost child-like grin, Ohno (who has worked with Nakamura before on Kaibutsu-Kun: The Movie) makes Mumon eminently likeable, but as hostilities make their way closer to the clan’s home turf, as well as his personal reaction to the impending invasion, a very different impression of Mumon takes hold, where we see he is nothing more than a conscious-free, warrior-for-hire. The Arashi star’s fight choreography is superb, making his frequent confrontations utterly convincing. I’ve only seen Ohno in one other film, the excellent 2007 drama Yellow Tears, back before I really knew who Arashi were and how huge they are (I do love watching their TV game show Vs Arashi, which never fails to entertain).
Suzuki (Hot Road, Gatchaman, Tokyo Tribe, the Hentai Kamen films) admirably conveys Heibe’s sense of loss and humanity, and is a forceful countermeasure to the empty, deceitful souls that surround him. Ishihara (who appeared in the magnificent Shin Godzilla and the hugely disappointing Attack on Titan films) also scores, trying to provide strict, much-needed guidance for the wayward Mumon, someone she has gradually attained feelings for. Chinen (a member of the popular boy band Hey! Say! JUMP, and co-starred in the Samurai Hustle films) nicely captures Nobukatsu’s frustration in knowing he will never equal his father’s accomplishments and reputation; a re-energised Iseya (who was so good in the second and third Rurouni Kenshin movies, and was a notable stand-out in Miike’s 13 Assassins and Sukiyaki Western Django) is a tower of strength as the deadly-but-practical Daizen; while praise must also go to Tatekawa, and veterans DenDen (Cure, Love Letter, Cold Fish, Tatara Samurai) and Jun Kunimura (Audition, Face, Gojoe, The Wailing, the Parasyte and Chihayafuru films)
Bringing Wada and Nakamura’s vision to fruition is a first-rate technical crew, including cinematographer Daisuke Soma, composer Yu Takami, editor Soichi Ueno, while aided immeasurably by stunning production, costume, and sound design. Of course, which group provides the catchy song which plays over the end credits? You guessed it, the one-and-only Arashi.
Mumon: The Land of Stealth is satisfying in so many ways. On one hand it is a highly enjoyable action/comedy, filled with laugh-out-loud moments and dazzlingly executed set-pieces. But behind this merriment is a surprisingly dour outlook on human nature, where overt materialism outstrips one’s connection to both people and place. It knowingly reflects what is happening in the world today, and it’s an uncomfortable truth that gives its moving finale genuine bite. This is a must-see film from a director in peak form, and if it is playing at a cinema near you, please race out and see it.