Directors: Satsuo Yamamoto (Band of Assassins & Revenge, Kazuo Mori (Resurrection)
Screenplay: Hajime Takaiwa
Based on Novels by: Tomoyoshi Murayama
Starring: Raizō Ichikawa, Shiho Fujimura, Katsuhiko Kobayashi, Yūnosuke Itō, Saburo Date, Sō Yamamura, Ayako Wakao, Kō Nishimura, Kyōko Kishida, Yoshirô Kitahara
Country: Japan
Running Time: min
Year: 1962-3
BBFC Certificate: 15

There was a big ninja movie boom in the 1980s, following the breakthrough success of the Cannon classic Enter the Ninja in 1981. Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon and opportunistic filmmakers elsewhere joined in the fun too, most notably Godfrey Ho in Hong Kong. However, the covert warriors of feudal Japan, of whom little historical evidence exists, had featured in their home nation’s cinema since the early days of the medium. In fact, the first ninja ‘boom’ came around 1910-20 in Japan. Their popularity waned for a short while but, in the 60s, those that hid in the shadows would become big business again.

One particularly popular example of this resurgence was the Shinobi film series. Beginning in 1962 with Shinobi: Band of Assassins (a.k.a. Shinobi no mono or Ninja, a Band of Assassins), these were based on a series of novels written by Tomoyoshi Murayama. Whilst there were only 5 books, a total of 9 films were made, which goes to show how successful they were. 8 of these starred Raizō Ichikawa, before his untimely death in 1969.

Radiance Films are releasing the first three of the Shinobi films on Blu-ray. Being the huge fan of East Asian genre movies that I am, I couldn’t resist taking a look.

I’m going to review the whole trilogy together, as the stories lead into one another and share the same writer, as well as much of the same cast. Satsuo Yamamoto directed the first two films too (with Kazuo Mori taking over after Yamamoto refused to go along with a far-fetched twist in the tale).

Band of Assassins kicks things off by introducing us to Ishikawa Goemon (Raizō Ichikawa), a talented young ninja who becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate the tyrannical warlord Oda Nobunaga (Tomisaburô Wakayama).

Whilst his master (Yûnosuke Itô) uses his own ninja skills to control things and manipulate his protégé, Goemon gets into trouble after sleeping with said master’s wife. Once she’s out of the equation though, the young ninja meets the woman who will become the love of his life, Maki (Shiho Fujimura).

In the second film, Revenge (a.k.a. Zoku shinobi no mono or Shinobi No Mono 2: Vengeance), Goemon attempts to settle down with his new family. However, Nobunaga is still hell-bent on taking control of Japan and the ninja stand in his way.

When the warlord tears Goemon’s family apart, the lone ninja swears bloody vengeance.

Meanwhile, other parties plot to gain control of Japan, including the calculating Ieyasu and the considerably less subtle Hideyoshi (Eijirô Tôno).

Without wanting to spoil too much from the previous films, the third film in the series, Resurrection (a.k.a. Shin shinobi no mono), begins with Goemon in hiding, presumed dead. From this ‘afterlife’, the ninja plots revenge on Hideyoshi, using all the sneaky tricks in his arsenal.

Ieyasu continues to vie for power though and, once he learns that Goemon is still alive, plots to use him to take the seat of the Taiko of Japan himself.

I had a blast with the Shinobi films. They take elements I love from jidaigeki and chanbara but throw ninjas into the mix and other fun spy-like features. I felt a splash of James Bond in Goemon’s exploits, in fact, particularly in the first film (something that’s picked up in an Easter egg on one of the discs). Not only are the sneaky ninja tactics something 007 might adopt, but Goemon has a taste for the ladies in the initial entry that Roger Moore would raise an eyebrow at. Plus, one of the main villains is often seen stroking a cat, ala Blofeld.

The films are more action-packed and pulpy than I imagined. Again, this is more prevalent in the first film, but each entry has its share of surprisingly bloody violence and a little sex, or at least the suggestion of it. We see ears and arms get sliced off, suicide by dynamite and even a baby getting thrown into a blazing fire!

However, this being a Japanese studio film of the era, everything is staged and lensed carefully and handsomely, making good use of space and light.

What kept me hooked to the story, away from the violence, was the political power struggle. The plots here are all fairly complex, with the feuds between the various lords driving things forward rather than Goemon’s simple tale of revenge (of which there are several strands by the end). I enjoyed seeing how the leaders played each situation to their benefit, or tried to. Ieyasu is the most intriguing character, in this sense, as he keeps quiet on the sidelines but ensures things play out to his best interests.

I found the second film the strongest of the three, if I had to pick. It balances thrills with political intrigue slightly more effectively than the rest. It took me a little while to get my head around who was who in the first film and the third one didn’t pay off quite as successfully as the others, pulling back on the violence and feeling slightly ‘more of the same’ as the story went on.

All three Shinobi films here are well worth your time though and I’d love to see more of them. Blending brutal violence with juicy political rivalries, as well as a healthy dose of ninja mayhem, the Shinobi series is a whole heap of fun.

Band of Assassins:



Radiance Films’ Shinobi set is out on 27th May on region A&B Blu-Ray. The transfers are strong, with a crisp image throughout the series. Whites can be a little hot in places, leading to a lack of detail in bright spots, but overall it offers a very pleasing picture. There’s a hiss on the soundtracks but, considering the age of the films, the audio is solid.


– High-Definition digital transfer of each film presented on two discs, made available on Blu-ray (1080p) for the first time outside of Japan
– Uncompressed mono PCM audio
– Interview with Shozo Ichiyama, artistic director of the Tokyo International Film Festival, about director Satsuo Yamamoto
– Visual essay on the ninja in Japanese cinema by film scholar Mance Thompson
– Interview with film critic Toshiaki Sato on star Raizo Ichikawa
– Trailers
– New and improved optional English subtitles
– Six postcards of promotional material from the films
– Reversible sleeves featuring artwork based on original promotional materials
– Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Jonathan Clements on the Shinobi no mono series and Diane Wei Lewis on writer Tomoyoshi Murayama
– Limited Edition of 3000 copies, presented in a rigid box with full-height Scanavo cases and removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

On the first disc, Shozo Ichiyama talks about Satsuo Yamamoto, the director of the first two films, and his work on the Shinobi series. It’s a well-researched piece in which Ichiyama discusses how the director was known in Japan for making socially conscious films but also made a number of purely entertaining films that have been relatively forgotten. He also talks about the director’s trouble with Toho after the war, helping lead strikes that were strong enough to have the military brought in to break them up.

Toshiaki Sato talks about the life and career of Raizo Ichikawa. The actor started out in kabuki theatre before entering the film industry and died aged only 37, at the peak of his stardom. Sato also talks about Ichikawa’s relationship with Shintarô Katsu, who came into the industry at a similar time and worked with him on a number of occasions. It’s an interesting piece.

In a fun Easter egg, Sato also discusses the link between the Shinobi films and the James Bond films, both of which were popular in Japan at a similar time. He talks about how both seemed to borrow ideas from each other.

Mance Thompson provides a ‘Brief History of Japanese Ninja Films’. This is enjoyable and illuminating. He talks about the different boom phases of the genre, how they might have come to be and why they faded away.

I haven’t been sent the booklet to comment on that.

Overall then, Radiance have put together a hugely enjoyable collection of films, with some solid extras to go alongside them. Fans of Japanese genre movies shouldn’t hesitate to pick this up.


Shinobi - Radiance
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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