Ninja: best friends of the silver screen. For years these silent killers have been poisoning their way into our hearts. Mumon: Land of Stealth dares to ask its viewers “what if ninja were cool to watch, but also vainglorious murderers devoid of humanity?” It’s a delicate balancing act, but perhaps one worth examining.
In the 1570s, Nobunaga Oda has been consolidating power across Japan. He is dangerously close to Iga, the country’s ninja stronghold. The twelve councilmen of Iga decide to take a break from their meaningless infighting in order to provoke Nobukatsu Oda (Yuri Chinen, JFF 2016’s Samurai Hustle Returns), Nobunaga’s 21-year-old second son, into engaging them in warfare. A key figure in the times to come is “the greatest ninja in Iga”, Mumon (Satoshi Ono of the boy band Arashi), whom no gate can hold. Mumon must balance his love for life against his need to provide his wife Okuni (Satomi Ishihara, Shin Godzilla) with the fortune that he promised her when they married.
Often in Mumon you may find yourself asking whose side you are supposed to be taking: is it that of the ninja, who are unambiguously death merchants, or of Oda the younger, whose capriciousness often leads to needless murder? Mumon operates in an extreme moral vacuum that means that the story is often presented on its own terms, with no directorial judgment, until it isn’t: when the ninjas do exciting ninja things, suddenly we’re on Team Ninja.
Because that’s the strength of Mumon: when it’s not locked into one of its lengthy politicking sessions, it offers action sequences that are everything that you want from a ninja film. The first, which turns out to be literally for nothing, is a dynamic introduction to the concepts of screen ninjutsu. This, of course, turns out to be a mere entrée for the latter parts of the film. The ninja antics get dialled up as the film progresses, including a scene showcasing super speed that’s flashier than The Flash, and one of the most clever uses of fading to black that’s ever been committed to screen. This action is not just novel, it’s effective.
Directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura (JFF 2016’s The Magnificent Nine) from a script adapted by Ryo Wada from his own novel, Mumon: Land of Stealth has a general handle on its material and only missteps when the dust begins to settle at the end. We are expected to forget most of what we’ve learned in the preceding 110 minutes, and are asked to adopt a much more serious tone that is counter to the levity of much of the material absorbed to date. It doesn’t quite meld with the body of the film, and the ending comes almost from nowhere, but it’s not enough to undo the Nakamura’s stronger work along the way.
Mumon: Land Of Stealth is a movie that blinds its audience with flashily committed murders and then judges them for daring to enjoy the mayhem. Its well isn’t quite deep enough to draw the drama its climax demands, but it’s a lot of fun getting to the end of the gauntlet it throws down.
Mumon: Land of Stealth is screening in Australia as part of the Japanese Film Festival, which tours the country between October 13 and December 3, 2017.
Directed by: Yoshihiro Nakamura.
Starring: Satoshi Ono, Yuri Chinen and Satomi Ishihara.