Starring: Yukie Nakama,

Joe Odagiri, Kazuo Kitamura

Director: Ten Shimoyama

Category: IIB (Japanese)

A popcorn action flick about ninjas in 17th-century Japan, Shinobi starts beautifully, with Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) and Oboro (Yukie Nakama), the future leaders of two rival ninja clans, falling in love at first sight by a river. It ends with one of the star-crossed lovers mourning by the same river. In both scenes, the background noises gradually fade away, leaving only the rhythmic sounds of falling water droplets.

In between these poetic moments, it's all surreal action. Ninjas fly through the air like falcons and jump off cliffs as if they're leaping a few stairs.

Most die quickly - in unimaginable ways. A few leave you with a lasting impression, thanks to their unusual murderous ways - such as a long-haired spider-man who cuts his enemies to pieces with iron strings shot from his black sleeves, and a sensuous woman who poisons people through French kissing.

The ninjas are set against each other by Japan's first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (Kazuo Kitamura), who wants to eliminate all potential sources of strife in the newly united Japan. The Koga and Iga families are asked to select their best five warriors, with Gennosuke and Oboro as opposing leaders and the winner being allowed to claim the position as the next shogun. Ieyasu's real aim, however, is to exterminate both clans.

Packed with spectacular fighting scenes and action choreography, Shinobi, directed by Ten Shimoyama and adapted from the manga Koga Ninpo Cho, is an eye-pleaser. Impressive visuals of nature - fiery red leaves, trees in a spotless white winter, and the vast desert where the lovers stage their final fight - flood the screen.

But the film is more than a soulless spectacle, because it portrays ninjas as people abandoned by their times. The conflict between free will and duty is a timeless theme in drama, and in Shinobi the lovers not only find themselves torn between love and responsibility but also have their skills rendered useless in times of peace when ninjas become obstacles to a ruler's grand scheme for national unity.

Similar themes are present in Zhang Yimou's Hero and House of Flying Daggers. But Shinobi surpasses both of these films - even though they are grander in scale and have more sophisticated special-effects - by being less contrived.

Shinobi, in its element, is a comic book B-movie. And by staying true to itself, it's pleasurable escapist entertainment with a heartbreaking message.