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Ever hear of a castle named after a bird? JPFmovies Looks at Owl’s Castle (1999)

19 Jun

Based on the 1999 novel by Shiba Ryotaro and directed by Shinoda Masahiro the same year, Owl’s Castle is thoroughly tangled in actual Japanese history and a terrific depiction of the politics of the times.  One of the great features of this movie is that it was shot on site at many of the original locations in Osaka and Nara. Owl’s Castle attempts to recreate the politically tumultuous times following the Sengoku Era during which the entire nation was engaged in civil war.  Traditionally three key figures are credited with resolving that anarchy and inching Japan along the path of political unification that would last about 300 years from 1568 until Japan finally opened itself up to the West in the Meiji Era circa 1868.  The three figures were Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (ruled 1584-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).

 

Aspiring to the appointment of Shogun by the Emperor, Oda Nobunaga skillfully crushed many of the most powerful daimyos (military families – of which there were about 200 at the beginning of the Sengoku period), resulting in a gradual establishment of a working yet risky unified stability.  Following Nobunaga’s death in 1582, his top general Hideyoshi, though holding the lesser title of regent (kwampaku) rather than Shogun, established himself as the de-facto military leader and immediately set out to further solidify the remaining daimyos under a national government.  In the ruthless pursuit of complete military domination of the country Hideyoshi violently conquered any remaining groups he believed to be unfriendly.  In 1577, having overcome all his national enemies, Hideyoshi amassed a huge army of 200,000 and set out by ship from Kyushu to attempt a conquest of China via Korea.  When the King of Korea refused to allow Hideyoshi’s troops to pass through the country toward China, Hideyoshi fought his way as far north as Rakuro (PyongYang, North Korea). Through gradual realizations of the difficulties in logistics and their potentially being outnumbered by the Chinese, Hideyoshi’s ambitious vision was at last discarded at his death in 1598.

 

Owl’s Castle is set during the height of Hideyoshi’s rule and tells the tale of an assassination attempt by a surviving member of the Iga Clan, one of the groups vanquished by Hideyoshi.  The assassination plot ultimately involves infiltrating the immense and (thought to be) impenetrable fortress built by Hideyoshi, nicknamed Owl’s Castle.  Hideyoshi had built a monstrosity of a castle during the years 1583-1585, modeled after Nobunaga’s mammoth Adzuchi Castle (the ruins can still be visited in Shiga prefecture).  But Owl’s Castle was much grander than Adzuchi, Hideyoshi built a massive edifice using enormous granite blocks surrounded by deep moats and steep embankments.  The castle is known (in real life) as Osaka Castle. It remains to this very day and is considered the grandest and most elaborate castle in Japan.  The infiltration of this castle (and the ensuing escape) marks the dramatic climax of the narrative.

 

The plot itself involves a survivor of the formidable ninja school located in Iga Province (modern day Nara prefecture) which Hideyoshi cruelly slaughtered (including women and children) out of fear of their skill and growing influence.  The locations and regions conquered are historically accurate, making this film a dramatic exploration of the otherwise heralded campaign by Toyotomi Hideyoshi to bring order to the nation.

 

Most of the film is shot in wide panoramic cinematography, using the actual historical locations in both Nara and Osaka.  Thus we are in for an illustrated history lesson which includes all the major figures, maps, castle interiors, and social life and trends of the time—that is why I am going through the history so much.  For this reason alone you should watch this film.  In addition, however, Owl’s Castle boasts an amazing cast of popular talent, most of whom have plenty of experience in similar productions. The narrative itself, running at 138 minutes, is chock full of character studies and plot-relevant relationships and rivalries. There is also plenty of action ranging from military conquests to hand-to-hand ninja battles upon massive rooftops.  When put all together, along with the aid of an effective soundtrack, this film does deliver what it promises to Japanese audiences: a thoroughly engrossing tale enmeshed in the history and politics of one of Japan’s most formative and memorable periods.

 

Now on to the story itself.  After 10 years of seclusion hiding in an abandoned temple, the formidable ninja Juzo (Nakai Kichii) is called back into action to assassinate the nation’s leading military leader Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Juzo watched his own mother and sister die horribly during Hideyoshi’s brutal conquest of Iga (Nara), which left only a handful of survivors.  The mission will require him to return to Osaka and infiltrate the new castle which Hideyoshi built for himself. Only a ninja of unparalleled skill will be able to scale and penetrate the formidable defenses Hideyoshi resides in.

 

During his mission, Juzo encounters a number of the survivors of the Iga massacre.  They, like him, live anonymously in lowly positions, but are eager to aid Juzo once they realize his mission. All, that is, except Gohei, another well-trained ninja of the Iga school whose allegiance now lies with Hideyoshi and whose aims involve attaining a high-ranking samurai position within the Hideyoshi faction.  The capture or death of Juzo during such an attempt on Hideyoshi’s life would provide the opportunity needed for Gohei to attain this coveted position.

 

Even during the governmental stability established by Hideyoshi, political turmoil and plotting continued making trust and alliances difficult for Juzo.  So he must not only survive the complexities of the political environment, but also develop and carry out a plausible scheme to fulfill the assassination.

 

In my opinion this is a thoroughly entertaining film filled with historical tidbits and is heavy on dialogue (which is not a bad thing).  The degree of dialogue, however, is also matched with highly detailed panoramic scenes of landscapes, architecture and the bustle of 16th century life in Japan.  The polished film visually presents you with top-notch scenes and historical re-enactments. Because it is complex and intricate, this storyline is far from boring while action permeates the film from first to last scene.

 

Anyone interested in Japanese history or jidaieki (history-based films) will enjoy this film and not be disappointed.  The film also presents a much more realistic vision of the ninja instead of the superhuman image seen too often in films, making it enjoyable by martial art and samurai fans as well.

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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