Mumon: Land of Stealth (2016) review

Introduction

While Yoshihiro Nakamura has tried his hands at various genres in the past, like the thriller-genre with The Snow White Murder Case (2014) or Prophecy (2015), it is only recently that he started to frame pure Jidai-geki narratives – his first jidai-geki, The Magnificent Nine, a film adaptation of a story written by Michifumi Isoda was only released in 2016. His latest jidai-geki narrative, once again based on a novel, this time Ryo Wada’s novel ‘Shinobi no kuni,’ ventures in the fictional world of the Shinobi.

Review

Even though Oda Nobunaga is rapidly pacifying and unifying the Japanese islands under his rule, he fears one province: the Iga province, a province famous for its deathly ninja. Mumon (Satoshi Ono) might be known as Iga’s strongest and most deathly ninja, but he is lazy – only seeking good pay to please his refined wife Okuni (Satomi Ishihara).

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One day, during a skirmish between Momoji Sandayuu (Danshun Tatekawa) and Shimoyama Kai (Denden), Mumon is send to kill Jirobee (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), killing him with ease in a one-on one-fight. When Shimoyama Heibee (Ryohei Suzuki), Shimoyama family’s hair apparent and Jirobee’s brother, questions his father about the murder of his son, his inhumane answer dispels Heibee’s belief in the humanity of the Shinobi’s way of life. Entrusted with delivering Iga’s message of surrender, Heibee sees an opportunity to change the future of Iga by instigating a devastating war with Nobukatsu Oda (Yuri Chinen).

Even though Mumon is a fictional action-narrative, it is important to know that this fiction is set within the confines of the historical Iga-war – or, better, the two Tensho Iga wars. Various historical facts have been loosely used to construct a narrative that does not contradict the general outcome of the Iga-war. Despite its straight-forward nature, the narrative does have a good structure, delivering some nice plot twists along the way. The narrative’s unfolding is further supported by easily identifiable characters (e.g. Nobukatsu, for instance, can be understood as suffering from an lingering inferiority complex with regards to his father, Oda Nobunaga, while Okuni is a diamonds-are-a-girl’s-best-friend-type of woman) and, in some cases, their one-dimensional change of hearts (Acting-note 1). Due to this good structure and its clear characters, Yoshihiro Nakamura is able to provide a mixture of moments of sensible tension, moments of enjoyment – be it visually or speech-related, and moments that are able to touch the spectator.

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Despite the comical facets of the narrative – facets related to the character of Mumon as such – and the framing of unbelievable but exciting ninja-moves, the narrative succeeds in believably grounding the narrative in the Sengoku period. This is not only attained by showing traditional samurai armor and room wear or by the evoking the beauty of Japanese castles and the importance  of Buddhist rites (e.g. sutras), but also by contrasting the way a council with vassals and a league of local warrior clans (Jizamurai) functions.

One of the best aspects of Mumon is that the narrative does not try to pretend to be anything other than an action narrative with comedic elements. At first glance, there is no true thematic depth to be uncovered as the narrative unfolds – there is, for the most part, only mindless enjoyment to be had. But the narrative of Mumon nevertheless concludes with a moral lesson, by successfully turning the lighthearted conflict between greed and that what goes beyond greed – i.e. the worth of a human life and the importance of the feelings of others – into a source of sadness. It is only due to this heart-felt sadness that the narrative’s message concerning the beyond-social dimension of greed is able to resound in the hearts of the spectators. The element of greed is furthermore shown as perverting notions as honour, pride and love for one’s origin (Narra-note 1 (spoiler), Cine-note 1).

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The cinematography of Mumon is a fluid composition full of movement – a mix containing slow fluid moving shots, snappy zoom-ins, and subtle slow-motion among others. While the narrative is framed with constant movement, the framing, even when it gets frantic, always enables to spectator to keep a clear overview of the action as such. Furthermore, one has not forgotten – be it during battles or duels – to frame, as is important in a Shinobi narrative, the over-the-top shinobi-moments in a visually pleasing way.

With all the cinematographic movement going on, one might wonder if there are any more ‘fixed’ moments to be noted in the narrative. During framing of moments of fighting or those moments of rest between fights/duels, there are, in fact, various moments where the cinematographical movement slows down and becomes semi-fixed. As these semi-fixed moments of composition generally frame speech-exchanges or, in some cases, scenes of death, it should not surprise us that these moments often act as guiding buoys around which the narrative is developing (Cine-note 2).

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Mumon provides a mix of traditional and contemporary music – a mix underlining that Mumon is not meant to be experienced as a historical narrative, but first and foremost as an action-narrative set in the Sengoku period (lightning-note 1). While the use of contemporary music within a jidai-geki setting could have felt out of place, its thoughtful application perfectly fits the narrative’s purpose to engender enjoyment. In other words, much of the enjoyment the spectator can extract from Mumon finds its very origin in the way the musical blend of old and now supports the compositional flow of the imagery.

When more rock-like, jazzy or funky music – music devoid of any presence of traditional instruments – comes to support the narrative flow, it is often applied to support the framing of action-scenes – be it battle-scenes or one-on-one duels (Music-note 1). The power and the subtlety of the traditional instruments, for that matter, are successfully exploited for accentuating the feeling of tension hanging in the narrative space (e.g. like before a skirmish or during a one-on-one duel (See also Music-note 1, music-note 2, music-note 3).

While Nakamura will never be considered a master of the Jidai-geki genre – something that seems impossible in light of Japan’s cinematographical history, his somewhat refreshing take on the genre does prove to be an enjoyable one. So, in short, for those who are looking for  a well-crafted ride with thrills and twists, finished off with some subtle melodrama, Mumon: The land of Stealth fits the bill.

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Notes

Cine-note 1: Notice the use of the sound of hungry animals to emphasize the driving force behind Iga’s fighting prowess.

Cine-note 2: Another use of fixed shots can be found at the level of introducing central characters. To introduce these characters moving shots are turned temporally into a picture – a shot fixed in time and space. While this could have been done differently, this choice is instrumental in giving the spectator the time to read the set of relationships between the characters without disrupting the fluid flow the cinematography is creating.

By using a specific sound to support the shift from moving shot to shot-as-picture, Nakamura succeeds in integrating the introduction of the characters in a smooth way into the cinematographical flow.

Lightning-Note 1: In the final one-on-one duel, a shift from natural lighting to dramatic-lightning is made. This shift, by revealing that main importance of the framing of the action, underlines the stature of this narrative as foremost an action narrative with a comedic touch.

Music-note 1: Note that it is not only rock-like music that is used to support the framing of battle-scenes, but more subtle music with string-instruments as well. Furthermore, rock, jazzy and funky music are also used in other instances (e.g. Nobukatsu’s council) than instances of fighting.

Another element we should not fail to mention is the fact that some duels also supported by subtle sounds and traditional musical pieces instead of more playful contemporary pieces – pieces that generally support Mumon’s fights and duels. As these duels are more serious, tensive, and intimate in nature, the musical support aims to reflect these moods as well as evoke them.

Music-note 2: Note that the engendering of tension is unrelated to the contemporary musical influences sensible in the narrative.

Music-note 3: More traditional musical is also applied to support the contextualization of the narrative through a narrating voice and to infuse some lightheartedness into certain speech-exchanges.

Cine-note 3: In some cases the flare of spot can be noticed. While it does not happen often, it is still a minor annoyance.

Narra-note 1: It won’t surprise anyone that Okuni becomes central in the narrative’s development. In order to protect Iga, she gives up a large amount of money – money first, love’s for one’s home comes second. In other words, she defers her own wish in order to satisfy the condition for making Iga’s people fight. Her act, as the narrative suggests, acts also as a sign of her love for Mumon.

Acting-note 1: While the performances are good overall, two performances are a cut above the rest – the performance of Satomi Ishihara as Okuni and the performance of Yusuke Iseya as Daizen Heki.

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