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Mumon: The Land of Stealth
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by Jay Seaver

"Nutty ninjas and savage satire."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: When attending a genre festival, find the movie by Yoshihiro Nakamura. It will often be relatively unheralded, either because he's not as outrageous as fellow very productive Japanese auteurs like Miike or Sono, or because he's not adapting something that has already found a fandom across the Pacific, but it will almost certainly be one of the best films there. Such is the case with [I]Mumon: The Land of Stealth[/I], and on top of that, it's one of Nakamura's very best. It looks every inch the silly bit of ninja action from the start, but there's a biting criticism of capitalism lurking underneath, so that when it comes to the fore at the end, the audience shouldn't be surprised, but it still hits a bit harder than expected.

As it opens, it's September 1579, and the ninjas of Iga are battling again. They're not really enemies - ninjas are too much the dedicated mercenaries to really hate the rival clans - but fighting is what they do, and being on top leads to the best jobs. Heibe Shimoyama (Ryohei Suzuki) recognizes it as a stupid exercise, but it should be relatively harmless; his clan's fortress is well fortified. At least, it seems that way before Mumon (Satoshi Ono), whose name means "no door", crashes through and then steps aside because he was only paid to make an entrance - at least until he's offered a better deal. The he returns home to his wife, Okuni (Satomi Ishihara) who is refusing to let him into their modest house until he makes good on what he he promised when he kidnapped her from her hometown of Aki. Meanwhile, in Ise, Nobunaga Oda's plans to unite the kingdom are blocked by Iga, but who wants to fight a province full of ninjas? Instead, he sends his son Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen), to keep them busy by building a fortress. They figure, fine, we can just tear it down when we're done.

It's a whimsical, silly series of events, adapted by screenwriter Ryo Wada from his own novel Shinobi no Kuni, and the filmmakers deliver a lot of poppy, bubbly scenes that serve as a fun contrast to how dour this sort of period film can be. There's a skewed logic to how scenes play out, with the ninjas coming off as simple folk with simple needs, almost refreshing in how they outright avoid tying themselves in knots. In a way, they're almost like children, and there's great hay made out of how these fearsome warriors are kind of goofy, with Mumon easily admonished and pushed around by a woman who is technically his prisoner.

The particularly entertaining title character is in fact the exemplar of it; he's so cocky (with reason) about his skill as Iga's best ninja that he can be absurdly laid-back and push aside any concerns about actually hurting anyone for missions that don't require it. Satoshi Ono gives an extremely winning performance as Mumon, spending most of the movie with a twinkle in his eye and a sunny disposition that never seems put-on, and he moves with a casual grace during the action scenes, making everything so offhand that it doesn't register as violence even though it also never looks like he's tapping at something and having it fall over. He plays the part with a bit of a funny voice, but it makes a fine pairing with Satomi Ishihara's serious, well-bred Okuni. They're fun together because they always have this sense that they are impressed with each other's clear view of the world, and it's only enhanced when an orphaned ninja boy played by Katio Tomita starts dropping into their scenes. In contrast, Ryohei Suzuki's Shimoyama seems almost burdened by his intelligence and ability to grasp something larger; he's not quite a samurai born into a world of ninjas, but he's got an anger and frustration in him that he and the filmmakers keep low-key, but always present.

Nakamura and the effects crew create action scenes that match the personality of the character and the film, with wire work that makes Mumon feel lighter than air, and just slightly less whimsical action for the rest. There are moments during a number of sequences where they make the same running joke about three times and it never fails to turn what had become a somewhat tense moment into a laugh. A fun disco-pop soundtrack adds to the feeling - it's fast and loud enough to set a pace for the movie that's always pushing forward, especially during a battle, but also delightfully cheerful and anachronistic, adding to the sense of fun and parodic silliness.

And that's where the true, sharp brilliance of the movie reveals itself: While it's playing out as light, goofy parody, Wada and Nakamura are seeding ideas that have a bite to them, and as some characters plot and Okuni demonstrates frustration that her husband's people don't have the same sense of honor that everybody else does, they're setting the stage to make a point that this kind of aligned self-interest which has served the ninja so well for so long is ultimately hollow, and if one is only interested in what someone will pay for, there's nothing to hold one together, and what looks like a community can collapse. It's still funny as this is making itself clear because Nakamura handles that material well, sneaking more serious elements in smoothly and able to make an emotional payoff work when the film has been avoiding that. While he absolutely goes for bluntness in a few spots at the end, it's earned, and he's got a wink or two left.

It is, then, the sort of brilliance we really should expect of Nakamura by now, oddball genre martial with a solidly humane core. "Mumon" is an effervescent, entertaining movie before everything else, but it's got enough brains and heart behind the jokes that it should stick with anyone who sees it far better than would be expected from the silly premise.

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originally posted: 11/14/17 13:48:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Yoshihiro Nakamura

Written by
  Ryo Wada

  Satoshi Ohno
  Satomi Ishihara
  Yuri Chinen
  Yusuke Iseya
  Jun Kunimura

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