When I blogged about Isaac Florentine’s original Ninja (2009), I had a few comments both here and on Facebook about the part where I said I thought it was better than its sequel Shadow Of A Tear. While both films are arguably stronger than any other ninja movies made in the last 15 years, they’re very different in approach, so I can see why opinions would be divided. In fact they’re so different, it’s almost a shame they tried to tie the two stories together, rather than approaching it the way Cannon did their own ninja trilogy. They even mirror the Cannon movies in that Ninja – like Enter The Ninja – took its cues from the Eric van Lustbader template of two students-turned-rivals warring for dominance, whereas Shadow Of A Tear – like Revenge Of The Ninja – focuses on a hero pushed to breaking point by external forces, then exploding in a shower of ninja vengeance.
Sho Kosugi played separate characters in his trilogy but Scott Adkins returns here as Casey Bowman, the hero from the first film. Mika Hijii is back too as Namiko and, since we left them, things have gone rather well. Casey is now the Sensei of his mentor Takeda’s old dojo. He and Namiko are married and she’s pregnant with their child. Sadly, as you’d probably expect from the fact that this is an action movie, the peaceful life doesn’t last long. Casey steps out one night to buy chocolate and seaweed from the store and returns to find Namiko dead on the floor with her throat cut open.
At first, he is convinced that two muggers who tried to steal a pendant he’d bought for Namiko are the ones responsible, so he tracks them down and murders them in an alleyway before heading off to Thailand and his buddy Nakabara’s dojo for some Me Time. Nakabara is played by Kane Kosugi (which makes for a lovely spiritual link to the Cannon movies) and welcomes Casey, allowing him to spar with the students and learn some of their not-suspicious-at-all ninja chants like “WE THRIVE IN THE SHADOWS WHILE OUR ENEMIES PERISH IN SUNLIGHT”. Casey can’t let go of his rage though. He’s totally broken by Namiko’s murder and his training suffers as he lets his emotion get the better of him. After a charming Canadian student called Lucas meets a messy throat-slitting end intended for Casey, Nakabara reckons he knows what’s up.
It all leads back to Casey’s former Sensei Takeda who fought and killed a rival named Isamu back in ye olden days. Isamu’s son Goro swore vengeance and his trademark weapon is a manriki gusari with barbed wire in place of a chain; exactly the kind of thing that would leave the marks left of Namiko and Lucas’s throats… Casey decides to go into the jungles of Rangoon and track down Goro (who also happens to be some kind of drug kingpin), which leads to one of the greatest lines of action dialogue I’ve ever heard, as Nakabara warns him, “A man who seeks revenge should dig two graves.” Casey replies, “They’re gonna need a lot more than that…”
Shadow of a Tear is far darker in tone than the original Ninja film. In fact, it’s one of the most serious ninja films I can think of and there is something commendable about playing it so straight. Scott Adkins, luckily, is of the right acting calibre to do justice to the emotions and his fighting is off-the-scale awesome. The martial arts here are brutal and boggingly technical, filmed with long uninterrupted shots reminiscent of Lau Kar-leung. Gone are the mental Power Rangers stylings of Ninja. Even the ninja suit here is very restrained (Casey finds it buried in an ancient ninja graveyard so it’s kinda scrappy looking as opposed to the shiny plated Yorai Bitsu).
Unfortunately, therein also lies a slight problem for some ninjologists. I have to admit, one of the things I favour about ninja movies over other martial arts styles is that extra layer of craziness. It’s not to say I can’t appreciate a perfectly orchestrated duffing up (of which there are many here) but when the word “ninja” is in the title, it promises something heightened. Adkins only wears the ninja suit for about 10 minutes of the movie and the weaponry – beyond Goro’s augmented manriki – is pretty straightforward. The very final fight in this film, with its fearsome athletics and echoes of Enter The Dragon, definitely stuns but I almost feel like it’s in the wrong film. I kept expecting more ninjing. At least Masazuka in the first film was dressed as a high-tech ninja throughout the whole movie and his showdown with Casey was pure ninja vs ninja.
But that’s all personal taste. The biggest issue I have with Shadow of a Tear, and the reason why – despite all its astonishing action – I can’t love it as much as the original is its treatment of Namiko. For one, her murder is a total Fridging and, even if you put aside the wider gender treatment issues of this, it’s lazy writing because it’s so familiar. For another, the murder is done offscreen which poses two problems: 1) The fact that I didn’t actually believe it’d happened the first time I saw it and questioned it throughout the whole film (therefore lessening the emotional impact of the vengeance mission). 2) The fact that it glibly disposes of a character who – thanks to the first film – we’ve come to genuinely care about. It’s especially tough because we only recently saw her saved from the brink of death at the end of Ninja and now she’s just casually ejected offscreen from the rest of the story. It didn’t feel right to me. It would’ve been easier to swallow in a brand new narrative with new characters because, while this wouldn’t remove the Fridging issue, Namiko was originally a strong woman and a bonafide fighter in her own right. We see none of that here at all. She just becomes a victim.
I guess, long story short, I just don’t think this should’ve been a direct sequel. There’s only a passing mention to the first movie anyway (when Lucas makes an offhand remark about Masazuka) so there wasn’t any particular need for continuity – instead it just opened more questions than it answered by doing this, which weakens the film. That aside, there is of course a ton to love here; from the cast – Adkins and a Kosugi together is just a huge treat for any ninjologist – to the first-class choreoraphy to the sheer novelty of seeing a totally serious, knowledgeable and brutal martial arts movie made on anywhere near this kind of budget. Shadow of a Tear is an essential watch, no doubt, even with my reservations. I just really hope there’s a third movie to come. Ideally it would take the cold brutality and tone of Shadow of a Tear but mix it up with some of the more red-hot stylised elements of the first one for a bowl of ninja porridge served at exactly the perfect temperature.