Castle of Owls

Year: 1963
Eiichi Kudo
Rating: 8.0/10

This debut from director Eiichi Kudo is considered one of the finest ninja films made and though I don't know enough to make that judgement, it is a terrific film; very classic in its feel, music, style and acting. The many action scenes are so graceful in the movement of the actors and the camera that effortlessly tracks them. Being made in 1963, I am curious whether this - or similar films - influenced King Hu in his style of filming action. It has a similarity in the jumps, action cuts and the fluidity and in how the camera captures it. Eiichi was to go on and make 13 Assassins as the first in a highly regarded trilogy in the same year.

It helps to know a little bit of Japanese history to follow the film because a lot of characters and names are thrown at us very quickly. I zipped on to Wikipedia to get some basic background information. The period in which the film takes place is towards the end of the Sengoku period (1467 - 1600), a time of unrest in which civil wars were a constant ongoing concern - Lords fighting for power and land. Toyotomi Hideyoshi who came from very poor origins worked his way up to power and began defeating all the power centers in an effort to unite Japan. He basically succeeded by the time he died in 1600, where upon the Tokugawa Shogunate began that lasted until 1868. In the many battles that Hideyoshi fought one of the weapons utilized by all factions were ninjas. In particular, the ninjas from the Iga and Koga clans - named after the area where they lived and trained. They sometimes fought side by side, sometimes against one another - they were paid assassins and spies to the highest bidder.

The film begins with a bloody battle in which the forces of Hideyoshi has overrun the defenses of the Iga Clan and is slaughtering one and all including women and children. This forces the remaining clan to disband and flee throughout Japan, but not before Juzo (Ryutaro Otomo, who was in loads of samurai films), whose parents have been killed and his sister raped before she kills herself, to swear vengeance to kill Hideyoshi. Jump forward ten years and Juzo is still trying.

A merchant funds Juzo to continue trying because he worries that if Hideyoshi invades Korea as he is threatening it will destroy his trading business. Hideyoshi did in fact invade Korea as a passageway to attack China twice; unsuccessfully. Juzo gathers other members of the Iga Clan and plots the assassination. In his way though is the Koga Clan who have allied themselves with the government, an ex-member of the Iga Clan who has other ambitions and a lovely kunoichi (female ninja) who is with the Koga Clan. She (Hizuru Takachiho) can't decide though whether to love Juzo or kill him - "I want to hurt you and see you bleed. And then tend to you." The interaction between the two clans of ninjas is fascinating - almost incestuous as they all know one another, respect one another but have to kill each other. This creates a strong degree of frisson that pulls the viewer in emotionally and gives the film a center of gravity.