Dir: Ten Shimoyama. Jap.2005.101mins.

Already sold to 14foreign territories and with strong remake potential, Ten Shimoyama's Shinobiresembles recent Japanese period epics like Red Shadow, SamuraiResurrection and Azumi in its computer game-like structure andtargets their teen audiences accordingly.

But in telling his story oftwo warring ninja clans, Shimoyama also aspires to the epic, mythic quality ofZhang Yimou's Hero and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -and attains it more often than not.

At home the film has enjoyeda good showing, marketed by Shochiku more as a love story than a martial artsspree and targeting under-30s of both sexes, including dating couples, ratherthan just martial arts movie fans.

Overseas, prospects arelikely to be good among specialised Western audiences with a hankering forninja theatrics and Asian period drama.

The film takes place in1614, with Japan finally at peace after long decades of internal strife. YukieNakama plays Oboro, a ninja of the Iga clan, who falls in love with Gennosuke(Joe Odagiri), the son of the rival Koga clan's leader. Living in the remotemountains, these two clans have perfected the ninja arts, called'shinobi,' far beyond the reach of mere mortals.

Seeking to consolidate theshogun's rule - and seeing the two clans as a threat to it, a powerful priestand shogunal advisor (Renji Ishibashi) schemes to set them against each other.The clans are commanded to each select five champions who will battle to thedeath. The reward for the survivor: rank and power.

Both Oboro and Gennosuke arechosen as champions, but Gennosuke doubts the shogunate's intentions - andrefuses to take part in the contest. He is forced into action when his comradesbegin to fall, though he cannot bring himself to battle one Iga warrior: Oboro.

Shinobi cleanly and quickly flies across the screen inlittle more than 100 minutes, minus the dead spots or static set pieces thatbloat the usual period drama.

While the romance betweenthe two principals is central, Shinobi's story is not dependent on Romeoand Juliet mechanics; rather the two leads spend most of their time aschampions for rival families, not as lovers fighting the opposition of theirparents.

The fight scenes are mostlytwo opponents battling to the death before the winner moves on to the next foe(a narrative motor also found in the big-screen adaptation of computer gameslike Mortal Kombat). But Shimoyama ups the ante with pieces of lethalsteel flying at impossible speeds, wire-assisted leaps to the roofs ofbuildings and stunts bordering on "now you see it now you don't' trickery.

The 10 contestants in thisultimate death match are distinctive types easy for the audience to sort out,including the lovely-but-creepy Kagero (Tomoka Kurotani) - poison to her enemies,but sweet on Gennosuke - and Tenzan Yakushi (Kippei Shiina), a silver-hairedninja master who knows all and sees all, including the secrets of Oboro'sconflicted heart.

Star Yukie Nakama, a TVdrama queen whose film work has been on the light comic side (G@ame, Trick),exudes dynamism, passion and sensuality, as though she prepped with the filmsof Zhang Ziyi. She never abandons her femininity, even as a fiery warrior, nor losesher steely ninja spirit, even as a woman in love.

The work of visual effectsproducer Shuji Asano and CG director Hiroyuki Hayashi dazzlingly transcends theusual ninja stunts, as when Obero pierces a foe with her glance (her eyeschanging colour in the process) and shorts out his synapses, in a sequence thatresembles an animated medical drawing in hyper-realistic 3-D.

These and other feats,however, derive from the ninjas' training and abilities, not simplycartoon-like super-powers. Impossibly exaggerated, yes, verging on the absurd,no. Also, they defeat each other more with their smarts and skills than brutepower displays.

Photography is first rate,underscoring the gorgeousness of the period costumes and scenery withoutlooking too staged or picture postcard.

The mayhem eventually endswith a poignant moment of remembrance and hope and a final message: superninjas may not last forever but love will endure.

Production companies
Nippon Television Network
Satellite Theatre
Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan distribution

International sales

Executive producer
Takeo Hisamatsu

Nozomu Enoki
Hiroyuki Sato

Kenya Hirata from the book Koga Ninpo-cho by Futaro Yamada

Masashi Chikamori

Isao Kawase

Production design
Toshihiro Isomi

Taro Iwashiro

Action director
Yuji Shimomura

Costume designer
Kumiko Ogawa

Visual effects producer
Shuji Asano

CG director
Hiroyuki Hayashi

Main cast
Yukie Nakama
Joe Odagiri
Renji Ishibashi
Tomoka Kurotani
Kippei Shiina