For the past few years I've been blogging about the wonderful experiences I've had attending the New York Asian Film Festival. I'll continue to do so at the fancy (and friendly!) new digs of Unseen Films. In getting involved with DB and Unseen, I've had the privilege of watching an advance screening of one of the festival's selections, Ninja Kids!!! I won't call it my first report since that starts when the festival does. So let's call it report 0, a review of the film, with accounts of the screenings beginning July 1st on the way.
Subway Cinema has a reputation for putting more than the usual restrained art house fare in their New York Asian Film Festival lineups. When it comes to the Japanese portion of their menu, they avoid many of the cliché pitfalls that other New York organizations fall into: easily marketable trends (I won’t name names, but to any publication, store, or cultural institution that has brought attention to the Parapara Dance or an “Akiba maid café style performance,” you’re doing the culture a disservice!) and films aimed mainly at shocking and disturbing viewers. These take a back seat to commercial productions that are unpretentious and genuine parts of Japan’s entertainment fabric, but considered too local or trivial to be directed towards overseas audiences.
This year, Subway Cinema is highlighting one such film as its centerpiece presentation: Ninja Kids!!! It’s a slight children’s action comedy, which feels like the kind of movie that’s aimed at putting families in theater seats for weekend matinee entertainment. It is also directed by the infamous Takashi Miike, who’s left his mark with disturbing films like Visitor Q and Audition. It’s hard to imagine a film maker with a resume like that directing an adaptation of a nationally loved comic and animated television program (Nintama Rantaro, also widely unknown in the US) but he seems to keep things true to the spirit of the original material…With a few twists here and there, to be certain.
The movie starts out with a boy leaving home for a school that is to ninjas what Hogwarts is to wizards. The stage seems set for a fantasy quest of epic proportions. Yet, instead of the characters banding together to learn about themselves and unravel castle mysteries, a series of events that are silly, hilarious, and puzzling unfold according to a very offbeat logic. We meet some of the zany students (who by the way are all FREAKIN ADORABLE) and staff that populate the academy. Before you can guess what’s going to happen next, we enter the bewildering realm of Miike: meaning whatever catches the director’s whimsy goes.
After the introduction to the school’s daily goings ons comes the portion of the film one might expect to be filled with characters developing bonds and building up the courage and skills to face a great adversity. Instead, it is devoted mostly to a story about flamboyant hairdressing ninjas, told in part by one of them in the fashion of a traditional song. I am not sure how much of the story I actually understood, it was that bizarre. After this long diversion, things slide suddenly into final competition mode: the ninja kids versus a grumpier clan of adult ninjas in a race with stakes that are not all that high.
Throughout all of those proceedings, there are sight gags galore, many of them side splittingly funny and naughtier than what one finds in children’s comedies produced in the US. Bad guys are forever falling into holes, cartoonish bumps and pockmarks launch themselves off of faces, and the screen is occasionally ripped open by a guide who dispenses ninja fun facts before the scene is literally taped back together.
The film is far more laughs than action. Even when the final confrontation comes around, the villains are bumbling through and through, posing no more of a serious threat than Yatterman’s Doronbo gang. This probably owes to Miike’s reverence to the original series on which the movie is based (which also has the look of a comedy) and is reminiscent of Miike’s great adaptation of the old aforementioned Yatterman anime. One gets the sense that Miike really understands the material, jumping from visual to visual in a manner that really mirrors a hyperactive modern day anime aimed at short attention span generations.
While aimed squarely at kids, Miike also gives a wink and a nudge to grownup audiences, with self referential jokes, in a way that many Hollywood produced kids movies don’t, at least not very well. Look out for an army of Takashi Miikes, for instance, that appear as back up to the leader of the rival ninja school.
Like other movies directed by Miike, this one does not fail to confound. Despite the movie’s comedic tones, Miike at times spares no expense to make an action sequence look as slick as could be. And in case you are beginning to wonder how all of this eccentricity could add up to a movie for mainstream Japanese audiences, the message that lies in the conclusion has been a mainstay of traditional Japanese values for years: contributing to the team is more important than taking the individual’s path to glory.
If you have a high threshold for goofy and even thoroughly outlandish humor, you may want to spend one of your evenings at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival with the Ninja Kids!!!
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