SHINOBI NO MONO: A Ninja’s View of Japanese History

19 Jan

I watch lots of Japanese movies set in the pre-Meiji era, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and some TV shows. There are certain historical figures and incidents that get dramatized often in both live-action and anime. Only a small fraction of these productions have been released in the U.S. and most of those that are famous here tend to focus on the same trio of major events: the legendary sword duel between Musashi Miyamoto and Kojiro Sasaki in the early 17th century; the vengeful raid by the “loyal 47 Ronin” in 1703; and the formation of the Shinsengumi, a sort of paramilitary corps of farmer-samurai who sought to defend the interests of the Shogun near the end of his rule in the 1860s.

Then there’ve been movies and TV shows focusing on the ninjas, with emphasis on the Iga and Koga ninja clans who were active in the late 1500s, pre-Tokugawa, and, according to legend, long afterward in deep cover. These are not always based on actual history.

In watching some of the lesser-known titles in my collection lately, I’ve been discovering films depicting the three major Japanese historical figures who worked toward the unification of Japan in the Sengoku period in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, culminating in the Tokugawa Shogunate, which effectively ruled a unified Japan from 1603 to 1868 and which, in a series of gradual steps in the early-to-mid-17th century, shut off most contact with the outside world until the West came-a-calling in 1853. These figures are Nobunaga Oda, Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Ieyasu Tokugawa (L-R, below). They’re often referenced in samurai and ninja movies, but until recently, I’d hardly seen any movies depicting them as significant characters. Rather than try to sum up these men’s accomplishments, I’ll just copy and paste the first paragraphs from each of their Wikipedia pages:

Oda Nobunaga, (June 23, 1534 – June 21, 1582) was a powerful Daimyō of Japan in the late 16th century who attempted to unify Japan during the late Sengoku period. Nobunaga is regarded as one of three unifiers of Japan along with his retainers Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. During his later life, Nobunaga was widely known for most brutal suppression of determined opponents, eliminating those who by principle refused to cooperate or yield to his demands. He was both a skilled ruler and keen businessman, economic reformer, strategizing at both the micro- and macroeconomic scales. He was killed when his retainer Akechi Mitsuhide rebelled against him at Honnō-ji.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉, March 17, 1537 – September 18, 1598) was a preeminent daimyō, warrior, general, samurai, and politician of the Sengoku period[1] who is regarded as Japan’s second “great unifier”.[2] He succeeded his former liege lord, Oda Nobunaga, and brought an end to the Warring States period. The period of his rule is often called the Momoyama period, named after Hideyoshi’s castle. After his death, his young son Hideyori was displaced by Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康, January 31, 1543 – June 1, 1616) was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which effectively ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ieyasu seized power in 1600, received appointment as shogun in 1603, and abdicated from office in 1605, but remained in power until his death in 1616….He was one of the three unifiers of Japan, along with his former lord Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Before seeing a handful of films this year featuring Nobunaga Oda as a character, I knew him mostly from anime where he’s generally portrayed as a villain and even, in some works (Spirit Warrior #2: Castle of Illusion), as a demon resurrected in modern times by evil spirits.

Curiously, both Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Ieyasu Tokugawa are often portrayed as villains as well or, at the very least, as crafty, ambitious and duplicitous men who pushed aside men of honor and civic devotion in their rise to power. I don’t recall ever seeing a film in which either man was depicted as an outright hero or as Japan’s founding fathers, of a sort. Granted, such films may exist but have simply not been made available in the U.S. Or, on the other hand, having seen hundreds of Japanese films over the last 40 or so years, I may indeed have encountered such a film without knowing it, having seen it long before I knew enough about Japanese history to be familiar with the figures being depicted.

Oda, Toyotomi, and Tokugawa all appear as prominent characters in a series of ninja films produced by the Daiei Studio, SHINOBI NO MONO, the first four of which came out in a box set from AnimEigo in 2009, a set that’s still in print, as of this writing, and quite a bit cheaper on Amazon than what I paid for it at a Japanese bookstore in Manhattan in 2011. (There are eight films in the series.)


The first two films, SHINOBI NO MONO and SHINOBI NO MONO 2: VENGEANCE, feature Oda as a significant character. The hero of the first three films in the series is Goemon Ishikawa, a legendary member of the Iga ninja order and played here by Raizo Ichikawa, a major samurai star of the late 1950s and ’60s, based exclusively at Daiei, who is probably best known for playing the redheaded Kyoshiro Nemuri in the SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH film series.

In SHINOBI NO MONO (1962), the first film in the series, the Iga clan is opposed to Oda, who is treated as something of a bad guy and is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, who would later achieve stardom as Ogami Itto in the six LONE WOLF AND CUB films (1972-74), two of which were edited together in 1980 to become SHOGUN ASSASSIN. Wakayama’s Oda is a tough, ruthless bastard and not without appeal to the viewer for sticking to his vision and surviving all sorts of lethal opposition before he finally meets his end in the second film. In the first film, ninja Goemon tries to poison a sleeping Oda by pouring a drop of highly lethal poison to glide down a string into Oda’s open mouth. Oda gets the poison and licks his lips and soon enough he’s up and retching and calling for help. He’s deathly ill for a few days, but he bounces back. Goemon’s ninja master had assured him one drop could kill 50 men, but he was obviously wrong. Either that or Oda has the strength of 51 men.

Readers of this blog may recall that I mentioned this scene in my 50th anniversary celebration of the fifth James Bond film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, which cribbed this scene and had a ninja try to kill Bond with the same method, only to see Bond move over in his sleep while his bedmate, a Japanese agent named Aki, slides over and gets the poison meant for him. Needless to say, she didn’t quite have Oda’s fortitude and she perishes.

SHINOBI NO MONO is the only film of the four in this set in which the hero, Goemon, tries to  break with the order, going so far as to flee to a remote mountain cottage to settle down with a woman, Maki (Shiho Fujimura), whom he’d rescued from a brothel. His ninja master, Momochi Sandayu (Yunosuke Ito), refuses to allow this and never lets up on the harassment and surveillance of Goemon. In order to appease Sandayu, Goemon has to commit acts of burglary, using his ninja skills, and hand over the proceeds to Sandayu’s contact, who is disguised as a wandering monk. Sandayu leads a dual existence with a second identity as a rival ninja leader, Fujibayashi, who incites each group of ninjas to compete with each other in the goal of assassinating Oda. It all culminates in Oda’s crushing assault on Fujibayashi’s garrison. With Sandayu’s death, Goemon is free to return to his wife in the mountains.

AnimEigo, alone among distributors of Japanese films, includes lots of explanatory text onscreen, in addition to the subtitles.


In SHINOBI NO MONO 2: VENGEANCE (1963), Oda’s campaign to wipe out both the Iga and Koga ninja orders has led to tragic results for Goemon’s family and prompted his return to ninja activity and his alliance with the Saiga faction of the Ikko sect. He is contacted and guided by another legendary Iga ninja, Hattori Hanzo (Saburo Date), who has managed to elude capture and death chiefly by allying secretly with Ieyasu Tokugawa, who watches and waits patiently on the sidelines. They use Goemon as they see fit.

As Oda continues his reign of terror against all who oppose him, the remaining ninjas step up their efforts to eliminate him. Goemon uses stealth tactics to infiltrate the inner circle of one of Oda’s allies, Akechi Mitsuhide (So Yamamura), who has suffered continuous humiliation at the hands of Oda, and try to persuade him to turn against Oda. At a key point, Mitsuhide has been ordered to lead his army one place when Goemon appears and informs him that Oda has gone for rest to Honno-ji Temple with only a skeleton force of guards, making him vulnerable to attack. As Mitsuhide and his men are on the march, he orders a change of direction and they head to Honno-ji and overwhelm Oda’s men. Goemon shows up also and manages to get to Oda first and finish the job. (In real life, Oda apparently committed suicide by performing seppuku in the temple as he faced inevitable defeat at the hands of Mitsuhide.)

Hideyoshi Toyotomi is in SHINOBI NO MONO 1, but in a minor role as a protégé of Oda who calls him by the degrading nickname “Saru” (monkey) and is played by a young actor whom I am unable to identify. He has a much bigger role in SHINOBI NO MONO 2 as a key ally of Oda and is played by a different, older actor, Eijiro Tono, a venerable character player who was in films from 1943 to 1994. Once Oda is out of the way, Toyotomi and his allies swing into action, making deals with some factions, wiping out Mitsuhide’s forces, and crushing the Saiga rebels and other holdouts. Goemon is finally apprehended after a failed attempt to assassinate Toyotomi in his own castle and is sentenced to be boiled in a cauldron of oil. Toyotomi is now in power and the film ends on a cliffhanger.

Ieyasu Tokugawa is also a character in SHINOBI NO MONO 2 and is tested repeatedly by Oda, who likes to see how far he can push him. Ieyasu always responds graciously and affirmatively—one can almost say obsequiously–to each of Oda’s requests. At some point, he tells a close confidante that he got where he is by being patient. Since we know how his career turns out, we know he’ll prevail. I have been unable to identify the actor who plays Tokugawa.

Hattori Hanzo is a key figure from ninja folklore and appears in both SHINOBI NO MONO 2 and 3. Working in secret for Tokugawa, he gives Goemon important assistance at various points from behind the scenes. Hanzo would be a key character in many subsequent ninja films and TV shows, most notably the 1980 series, “Shadow Warriors,” in which martial arts star Sonny Chiba (THE STREET FIGHTER) plays Hanzo at a time when the Iga clan has had to go into hiding to avoid complete destruction. In 2003, Chiba played a latter-day incarnation of Hanzo in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOL. 1, in which he makes a special sword for the protagonist, the Bride (Uma Thurman), as she sets out to kill Hanzo’s former student and her treacherous former mentor, Bill (David Carradine).


In SHINOBI NO MONO 3: RESURRECTION (1963), the series shifts from ninja antics to focus more closely on Hideyoshi’s rise and fall and the emergence of Tokugawa as the key power figure in Japan. The ninjas take a back seat, although Goemon, who managed to avoid the fate assigned to him at the end of the previous film, continues to try and kill Hideyoshi, played again by Eijiro Tono. He is aided in these efforts, again, by Hattori Hanzo (Saburo Date).

We see a lot of Hideyoshi’s family, including his nephew Hidetsugu (Junichiro Narita), his wife Lady Kita, and concubine Lady Yodo (Ayako Wakao). Hideyoshi’s son by Kita died in childhood, leaving him with no blood heir, so he grooms Hidetsugu to take over. When Yodo gives birth to a son, Hideyori, Hideyoshi starts shutting Hidetsugu out, making it clear that Hideyori will eventually be his heir. In reaction, Hidetsugu behaves very badly and becomes a liability for the Toyotomi clan.

During the course of the film, Hideyoshi begins an ill-advised invasion of Korea with the aim of ultimately conquering China. One of his nobles, Kiyomasa, dissents and the others, while secretly skeptical of the mission’s chances of success, are too intimidated to side with him. Hideyoshi himself never leaves Japan, but gets favorable reports about the campaign even if we never see any actual combat in Korea. As in the previous film, Ieyasu Tokugawa, played here by Masao Mishima, bides his time. Another key figure in the film is Mitsunari Ishida (Yoshiro Kitahara), an ally of Hideyoshi’s who would go on to lead a significant army on the side of the Toyotomis against the Tokugawa forces in the Battle of Sekigahara, which comes after the events of this film.

At one point, Goemon, hiding in the walls of Hideyoshi’s command post, drops a note to Hideyoshi telling him he’s losing in Korea, although we’re not sure how he knows this or if it isn’t just another ninja tactic to cause chaos.

Goemon and his fellow ninjas, Hattori Hanzo and Inuhachi, flit in and out of the action, causing trouble, wreaking havoc and instigating various disruptions, but they don’t really halt Hideyoshi’s progress. Eventually, Goemon, in full ninja garb, sneaks into Hideyoshi’s bed chamber to fulfill his goal of assassination, only to find the sickly, dying man too pathetic to kill and decides to prolong the man’s suffering by simply letting him live. In a clever juxtaposition of sum-up scenes, Goemon insists he manipulated Ieyasu, while Ieyasu insists he manipulated Goemon.

Interestingly, another ninja film made the same year, CASTLE OF OWLS (1963), from Toei Pictures, also follows a ninja hero’s mission to kill Hideyoshi, but on orders from a merchant working for Tokugawa. The scene where Juzo (Ryutaro Otomo) finally confronts Hideyoshi in his bed chamber is almost identical to the one in SHINOBI NO MONO 3, except that it’s in color, not black-and-white.


In SHINOBI NO MONO 4: SIEGE (1964), the cast of characters mostly changes as actors from the previous films play different parts and the few characters remaining from the previous films are played by different actors. Raizo Ichikawa is still the star, but he plays an entirely different ninja here, Saizo Kirigakure, whom I’d never heard of before. Tomisaburo Wakayama, who’d played Oda in the first two films, plays another historical figure, Sanada Yukimura. Both men are now on the side of the Toyotomi Clan, hanging on under Lady Yodo and her son Hideyori after the death of Hideyoshi, and opposed to Ieyasu Tokugawa, played in this film by a different actor, Ganjiro Nakamura. This one’s more ninja-centric than the previous film, although Tokugawa figures more prominently here than he did in any of the previous films, not only because he’s the target of the heroes but also because he’s now the Shogun.

Historically, that’s somewhat inaccurate, since by the time of this film, 1614-1615, Ieyasu had retired and passed on the title of Shogun to his son, Hidetada, who’s not seen in the film at all. We also see lots of Hideyori, now a young man and played by the actor who played Hidetsugu in the earlier film (Junichiro Narita), and his mother, Lady Yodo, now played by a different actress, whom I’ve been unable to identify. The film is bookended by Tokugawa’s two attacks on Osaka Castle, where Hideyori and his loyalists are holed up, first in the winter of 1614 and then in the summer of 1615, when the Toyotomis are wiped out once and for all and Tokugawa completes the consolidation of his power. Needless to say, the best efforts of his ninja opponents come to naught. Body doubles or “kagemusha” are used as stand-ins during assassination attempts aimed at both Ieyasu and Yukimura. We see Princess Sen, Ieyasu’s granddaughter and wife of Hideyori, in a few scenes, including one where she pleads with Ieyasu, in vain, to stop the final assault on Osaka Castle.

The film has a big budget, with lots of costumed extras, extensive battle scenes, destruction of castle walls by cannon fire, and large-scale ninja combat in nighttime forests. Ninja characters working for both sides toss darts at each other, leap up and off of tree branches, sneak into castles and villas and hide in walls, appearing out of nowhere to make declarations to other characters before disappearing again. One of the most unusual ninja techniques depicted in the film is shown when the hero, Saizo, is declared dead after he’s been captured and held in an underground dungeon for a long period without food or water. He is buried and then digs himself out, having used a technique called “shin-ki” to slow his metabolism to the point of stopping his breathing in order to fake death.

The SHINOBI NO MONO films—the first four, at least–are full of action and intrigue and move well, boasting lots of authentic period flavor and massive sets. The black-and-white photography emphasizes the “shadow” nature of the ninja world to great effect. It’s fun seeing Japanese history played out with such vigor and enthusiasm, although I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of any of the ninja scenes in these films. The star, Raizo Ichikawa, is particularly lively and spirited, giving intense, athletic performances in each of the four films I’ve covered. He had quite a career as a leading man of historical films in the 1950s and ’60s and is one of the best actors to star in these films outside of Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai. Sadly, he died an untimely death of rectal cancer in 1969 at the age of 37. I had not recalled even hearing of the actor before I came across the SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH film series on VHS in the 1990s.

The SHINOBI NO MONO series is also credited with inspiring the revival of the ninja genre, with more realistic depictions of the ninja arts than we saw in the fantasy ninja films made prior to this series. As noted earlier, the first film in this series offered a direct influence on the James Bond film, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, which borrowed from scenes in the Japanese film for its own depictions of ninja arts. YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, of course, is the film that introduced ninjas to America and most of the global audience.

I mentioned CASTLE OF OWLS above and wanted to add some more about it. It’s as good a ninja film as any I’ve mentioned so far and focuses more on the ninja characters than any of the historical figures we’ve covered so far, even though there are references to all of them here, including Nobunaga Oda, Ieyasu Tokugawa and the only one actually depicted in the film, although briefly, Hideyoshi Toyotomi. It’s an Iga vs. Koga ninja film, with the hero, Juzo (Ryutaro Otomo), representing the Iga and doing the bidding of Tokugawa while his onetime partner Gohei (Minoru Oki) defects to work for the Koga to protect Toyotomi. The death of Nobunaga Oda is referenced at the beginning and the main events of the film start right after that (1582) and end just before Hideyoshi’s death, which happened in 1598. (None of the characters ages even a day during this time span.) Many of the fight scenes are between Juzo and Gohei, usually at night and always in full ninja garb. Juzo and an enemy female ninja, Kohagi (Hizuru Takachiho), whose loyalties shift a lot, fall in love and give the film a solid emotional core, making the film a rare ninja love story, complete with an unheard-of happy ending! The sets and costumes are lavish, the action well staged and the cinematography quite beautiful.

These films paved the way for all kinds of ninja movies, TV series and anime in the years to come, with the Iga vs. Koga theme quite common. I’m constantly compelled to do more reading on the subject and with each new film I realize how little I know and comprehend of Japanese history. I’ve got quite a few books about feudal Japan, the Meiji Restoration, and World War II, but I never sought out books about the pre-Tokugawa era, with a full explanation of the differing roles and contributions of Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa and the reasons for the Battle of Sekigahara. That’s quite a gap in my collection. I did find information in three of the books I have, but none of it was in depth. I need to find some books devoted to that era.

On an interesting side note, I was going through old files of film notes recently trying to see what to save and what to discard and I found a little pad containing notes I jotted while watching a double bill of A BAND OF ASSASSINS and RETURN OF A BAND OF ASSASSINS at the Thalia Theater in Manhattan on July 13, 1983. I didn’t recall these films and in reading through the notes, I saw lots of familiar names including Goemon, Nobunaga Oda, Toyotomi and Tokugawa. So I looked up the titles on IMDB and guess what these films were? SHINOBI NO MONO and SHINOBI NO MONO 2: VENGEANCE. So I had seen these films before, 34 years ago, and completely forgot about them. By writing this post, I’ve restored them to their proper place in my consciousness.

I realize I packed a lot of historical detail and names of numerous figures into this piece and it could easily get confusing for readers unfamiliar with the history. I tried to simplify it as much as I could and even left out several other films I could have mentioned. Part of the reason for doing this was to help me process the people and events being discussed. By seeing the films and writing about them, I understand them more. But there’s still a lot of work to be done and I plan to cover other periods of Japanese history as depicted on film in future entries.

For now, let’s allow Ieyasu Tokugawa to have the last word, with a concise sum-up from SHINOBI NO MONO 2:

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