Castle of Owls (1963)
Directed by Eiichi Kudo

Castle of Owls
Ninja hicho fukuro no shiro
Starring Ryutaro Otomo (Juzo), Minoru Oki (Gohei), Hizuru Takachiho (Kohagi), Chiyoko Honma (Kizaru), Choichiro Kawarazaki (Kumotaro), Sayuri Tachikawa, Kensaku Hara, Akitake Kono, Masao Mishima (Imai)

Toei Company, 91 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

Castle of Owls is an entertaining and intelligent ninja movie, apparently following the influence of the Shinobi no Mono series that had started a couple of years prior. There are a few camera-trick ninja jumps and cartoony superhuman feats here are there, but for the most part it's a fairly realistic depiction of the ninjitsu arts. As usual, the story revolves around the rival Iga and Koga clans, though the legendary figures of Hanzo Hattori or Goemon Ichikawa are nowhere to be found, as they are in nearly every other Iga vs. Koga movie.

Instead this story revolves around Iga ninja Juzo Tsuzura (Ryutaro Otomo), who has spent ten years seeking revenge against the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whose forces have decimated the Iga clan and murdered Juzo's family. After five failed attempts on Hideyoshi's life, Juzo accepts a contract to kill the warlord from the wealthy merchant Imai. Hideyoshi has grand ambitions of invading Korea, which would threaten Imai's international trade profits. Juzo also surmises that Imai is in cahoots with Hideyoshi's rival, Ieyasu Tokugawa.

But many obstacles stand in the way of Juzo's mission, primarily his former fellow clansman Gohei, who has left the Iga in search of wealth and prestige. Violating the Iga principle against serving any lord, the ambitious Gohei now works for the governor of Kyoto and indirectly serves Hideyoshi. He is out to expose and thwart Juzo's assassination plot in order to advance his samurai status. Gohei is now allied with members of the rival Koga ninja, including the Koga master Dogen. Juzo and Gohei meet to discuss their differences, reunited for the first time in ten years, having a civil conversation with swords sheathed. As a Vintage Ninja commentary fondly observes, it's very much like Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf chatting congenially before going at each other's throats once they're "on the clock." Eiichi Kudo repeats this trick when Shinzaemon and Hanbei meet early in Thirteen Assassins.

Juzo also has to confront a female ninja named Kohagi, the adopted daughter of the merchant Imai who is also a Koga disciple under the tutelage of Dogen. Kohagi attempts to seduce Juzo initially as a kunoichi ploy, but over time the two find themselves genuinely falling into a Romeo and Juliet love affair.

A lot of fans consider Castle of Owls one of the greatest ninja movies ever made, but I have to stop short of that level of praise. The story just isn't involving enough for me, and in particular I can't find myself caring much about all the ninja angst of Juzo, Gohei and Kohagi. The most interesting character to me is Kizaru, the spunky Iga girl who was betrothed to Gohei as a child but spurns him for being a traitor and pursues a love of her own choosing.

That said, this movie still has plenty to recommend it. The cinematography and action scenes are spectacular, with some top-notch ninja fighting in shadowy forests and nighttime rainstorms. Juzo's long-anticipated showdown with Hideyoshi gets a surprising twist that deconstructs the principle of revenge. And Gohei gets his just deserts for pursuing hollow ambitions instead of staying loyal to his ninja family.

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