This first article is a discussion for the second season of Chiba's hit series SHADOW WARRIORS produced by Toei in Japan. This will give fans an idea of what to expect from this second series.
NOTE: THE ENTIRE SECOND SEASON IS REVIEWED ON COOLASSCINEMA.COM. CHECK THE LINK AT THE BOTTOM FOR WHERE THE REMASTERED & SUBTITLED DVD's CAN BE PURCHASED...
Following the success of KAGE NO GUNDAN, a second series was sent into production. Although not quite as lavish or ambitious as the previous series, the second season was, in some ways, a darker affair and was also a variant on the hit film, YAGYU CLAN CONSPIRACY (1978); a movie which also had its own television spin off bearing the same name and also featured Sonny Chiba in the starring role. While series two is extremely violent at times, the blood doesn't flow as often as it did in season one. There is also less fighting and more emphasis on character than what was found in the first show. That's not to say KAGE 2 is a boring series, quite the contrary. In fact, the last two episodes of KAGE NO GUNDAN 2 features enough fight scenes and suspenseful moments for several shows combined.
There are at least two fight scenes per program and although some shows are better than others, the general comradiery between the main characters is more profound than on the first show. Here, the group of Iga are shown as more of a family unit with the younger members looking to Chiba's character as a fatherly figure in addition to his role as leader of the Shadow Warriors. The character of Shinpachi is often having to keep tabs on his young Iga disciples as much as he is the movements of the bad guys featured in each segment. Season two also seems to be more cohesive than season one. Not a bad thing, but whereas the first series revolved around the hunt for Hattori Hanzo and the various storylines for the Iga ninjas, KAGE 2 never strays from the central plotline lending the story more depth and sense of purpose.
I have only seen half the episodes of KAGE 1 and am only basing this on what I have viewed thus far although I have seen the whole of series two uncut. Also worthy of note is the recurring characters or actors portraying similar roles from series to series. Chiba plays a descendant of Hattori Hanzo in most of the five series. In KAGE 2, however, he plays a totally different character entirely--Tsuge Shinpachi. Viewers will also notice from series one to the end, the increased screen time of actor Hiroyuki Sanada. By the time KAGE NO GUNDAN 3 rolled around, Sanada got equal, if not more screen time than Chiba.
Famed comedienne Kiki Kirin plays Orin in KAGE 2. A lonely and love starved owner of a bathhouse. When Shinpachi takes over the accompanying restaurant, it's love at first sight for Orin. Her comic moments that often appear near the beginning and ending of each episode are some of the most memorable aspects of the show. She also plays a similar role in KAGE 1 only there she is a hairdresser but has a similar infatuation with Chiba's character. In series three, she is Chiba's boss and again, runs a bathhouse. Only here, her depiction is more crude than before. Her character in KAGE 2 even gets a couple episodes that revolve around her participation resulting in the Shadow Warriors having to come to her rescue. Her scenes add an extra level of substance to this predominantly serious action-drama series.
The level of exploitation is raised substantially from series one. Plentiful nudity is in abundance as are a bountiful number of well endowed Japanese women. Whereas series one had lots of "flat land" KAGE 2 has a plethora of "hills" on display from one show to the next. Seeing so much nudity is a bit of a shocker considering this was a network television program. And that's not even mentioning the level of violence which is sometimes very high despite the lesser quotient of blood used for sword strikes. The action scenes, while not always as plentiful as those of KAGE 1, are beautifully staged and feature fine stunts pulled off by the stars themselves. In the first series, Chiba used a two handed, double sword style which added a unique dimension to the choreography. He dispenses with that for KAGE 2. That would seem plausible considering Chiba is portraying Tsuge Shinpachi and not Hattori Hanzo and if he fought in the same manner, it would draw attention away from the character he was trying to build.
One thing that becomes conspicuous as the series progresses is the sudden disappearance of some cast members. Some of these are explained as they return later on but some others aren't seen while the show focuses on other members. Possibly some of the cast were also busy with other endeavors? Regardless, most everyone gets at least one episode to shine for the audience to show what they can do.
Overall, series two as a whole is a more enjoyable experience (at least for me) when compared with the first season. The characters are built in a sitcom-like fashion and the viewer is drawn into their plight due to the often praiseworthy scriptwriting. There are occasions where plot holes enter the mix, (some of them more glaring than others) but by and large, KAGE 2 is bolstered by a knockout opener and an amazingly action packed, suspense filled final two episodes. With enough great episodes interspersed throughout, the small sprinkling of lackluster showings never threaten to derail the remainder delivering a fine piece of Jidai-Geki ninja adventure for the small screen.
DVD availability: www.fareastflix.com
A Japanese box set without English subtitles is due out in Japan on November 21st of 2008.