I suppose many of us would have loved the romanticism associated with ninjas, with their famed skills of invisibility, swordsmanship, cunning and a whole host of weaponry and gadgets that add to their element of surprise. If you'd think you know a lot of their modus operandi, then perhaps The Ninjas, aka Shinobi No Mono, would contribute to that wealth of knowledge, and at the same time dispel some of the myths and stories that add to the stature of these masked assassins.
If you'd wonder what a ninja does when out of his mask, then the film would have painted a rather mundane picture of the practicing ninjas, who hone their skills in enclaves, and frankly look no more like your usual Samurais, except sans status, and honing their skills ala rebels in hiding at their fortified base, and being skilled assassins for hire to Samurais who need someone to do their dirty work for them (yes, even back then you can outsource your dirty laundry), as they themselves are bounded by the honor code of bushido.
The movie doesn't waste time in building up a proper background, but throws you thick into the action. With characters loosely adapted from history, you have Oda Nobunaga, a ruthless warlord on rampaging victories across Japan in an effort to unify the country. Needless to say such aggression doesn't sit well with the able bodied, and 2 clans of ninjas are pitted against each other to see who can carry out a successful mission to stop the warlord. The story centers upon Goemon (Raizo Ichikawa), an up and coming, though ambitious and impatient ninja, who is recognized and granted a promotion (to the back office, away from the battlefield, as an accountant!) but in a moment of lustful folly, becomes the pawn of his master Sandayu (Yunosuke Ito), pledging his life to his master's bidding.
So begins Goemon's mission, which includes a ruining of his reputation, and committing acts which defy even the ninja's code of conduct (yes there is one!). In fact, we learn and observe many rules and regulations of ninja-dom, what with the need to disfigure oneself prior to death, and how torture must be endured and death always an option. All these get interpreted through Goemon's ultimate shame in living with his guilt, up until he meets a prostitute called Maki (Shiho Fujimura), who gives him new cause to live, setting the stage for the truth of his double-headed master to be revealed.
Shinobi No Mono was credited as the first film to popularize the ninja series of films, and had relatively low key special effects, decided to root itself in more realistic elements, rather than have things like tunnelling through sand dunes, and blink and you miss puffing of smoke. Secret passages, booby traps, poison and darts still remain staple, but don't expect any fancy swordplay as targets get dispatched rather quickly. If you're looking for a climatic ending, then you'll likely be sorely disappointed, as everything goes into a big shebang, lacking in any mano-a-mano opportunities.
That said, this film is still rather enjoyable for its shedding of light on these mysterious group who operate in the shadows, and it's not always they have to dress up in black for their operations. It'll look rather dated, but somewhat a refreshing change from current films in its presentation sans the easy way out using tons of computer aided imagery.
The Code 1 DVD by AnimEgo is presented in anamorphic widescreen. However, the transfer is rather soft, and given its in black and white, there is little distinction between its shades of grey, and worse, some night scenes came off as too dark to even make out some outlines. Audio is available in its original Japanese track, and the subtitles tells you on the amount of effort put into this DVD. There are 3 choices of English subtitles, and I thought the full option of having all captions and translations of all cultural material rather unique and neat, where succinct explanations of terms also come on when they are used by the characters. If you deem it too much of a read, then you can opt for either limited captions (for interpretation of signs and Kanji) or captions only. Scene selection is available over 20 chapters.
The Extras here are rather scant, though the Production Notes turn out to be a rather good read. Presented in variable screen pages (noted in brackets), the production notes share details of the film (3), Ninja Notes (7), Ninja in Pop Culture (2), Ninjutsu Advisors (3), Tribute to Raizo Ichikawa and Yunosuke Ito (2 each), Program Notes (17) and a note about the Names (1). An Image Gallery is also bundled in, though these are just 13 stills containing promotional images on and off the set, and the original 1962 Japanese movie poster.
Wrapping things up are a bunch of Trailers presented in anamorphic widescreen as well, for this movie (2:15), as well as for Shogun Assassin (2:15), Samurai Assassin (2:32), Kon Ichikawa's 47 Ronin (1:55) and Ashura (1:23)