Friday, January 25, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Ninja (2009)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Not to be confused with Ninja, Ninja, Ninja, or Shinobi

Master Takeda's (Togo Igawa) dojo is the last true progenitor of the fighting style of the Kouga ninja, but one that has been adapted into a more honourable kind of philosophical teaching, because who'd want an evil ninja as their movie hero. Takeda also keeps the Yoroi Bitsu, a chest containing the nearly-sacred armour and weapons of the last true Kouga. The sensei is progressing in years, and it will soon be time to choose a successor for his position. Two men are in the final running  - the adopted American orphan Casey (Scott Adkins) and Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara). As is tradition in this sort of film, Masazuka is a total jerk, but instead of going the equally traditional way of trying to put his rival into an undeservedly bad light, he just loses it completely one day and tries to murder Casey in front of the whole dojo, a clever move that sees him banished forever.

On the plus side (for him), Masazuka can now begin to adapt the ninja style to the modern world, using some technical gimmicks to reproduce age-old ninja tricks and/or stuff he liked in Splinter Cell, and starts a career as a professional assassin for a powerful secret criminal society in New York. Said society is the kind of society that is so secret, it brands its members with its sign right on their breastbones, and so powerful, it consists of one rich guy and a bunch of thugs wearing partner-look leather jackets. But hey, whatever gets you through the night.

Things could stay rather peaceful for everyone Masazuka isn't trying to kill, but once the day comes when Takeda finally is going to make Casey's status as his successor official, the evil ninja returns to Japan to make a scene. Takeda immediately sends Casey and his daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii) - yes, of course she and Casey are in a state of undeclared love - to the US, supposedly so they can keep the Yoroi Bitsu safe, but clearly also to keep them out of harm's way when Masazuka's obvious attack will come. Not unexpectedly, Masazuka kills Takeda and the rest of the dojo the following night.

Now, Casey and Namiko have to keep the Yoroi Bitsu safe, survive the onslaught of Masazuka's secret society buddies out to get them, escape the police who make them responsible for various murders because all the non-stupid cops must be on holiday, and finally cope with Masazuka himself once he arrives back in New York. Nobody ever said being a ninja is easy.

When it comes to contemporary (mostly) direct-to-video action directors in the USA, Isaac Florentine is a bit of a throw-back to the middle to late 80s with a preference for filming martial arts based fighting scenes in ways that actually let his audience see what's going on, and letting his movies hang together through more than semi-ironic winking.

Ninja, of course, takes many of its ideas and basic plot beats from the curiously beloved sub-genre of US low budget action that concerns the adventures of - white unless they're Sho Kosugi - ninjas doing what action movie ninjas are wont to do. It's not a sub-genre I'm personally very nostalgic for (witnessing middle-aged Franco Nero pretending to be a martial artist will do that to you) , but Florentine's film does its thing so well nostalgia isn't necessary to enjoy Ninja.

Obviously, I do highly approve of Florentine's project of not making action sequences boring and actually showing us what's going on in them without giving up on dynamic camera work (though I could go with a little less slow-mo/sped-up edits). There's a really beautiful flow to most of the action scenes, with the actors' bodies and the camera working together in what I often think is the more bloody (and therefore entertaining) version of the same thing a classic film musical does. Of course, you can do this sort of thing only well when you have actors you don't have to replace with stunt doubles for every shot; they at least need to be able to pose a little. Fortunately, that's where the talents of Adkins, Ihara and a horde of stuntmen playing henchmen come in, as well as Akahiro Noguchi's fight choreography. Mika Hijii does get a few convincing fight moments in, too, but unfortunately, the film does rather tend to make her "the girl", so she doesn't kick ass as well as the men and is of course in the end kidnapped by the main bad guy, something the poor actress knows well from her role in Garo. At least she is allowed to project some personality, has some chemistry with Adkins, and isn't helpless as much as out-matched.

Apart from that weakness, there's little I don't like about Ninja: it's a film that treats its silly ideas with utmost seriousness without ever feeling the need to make fun of them or apologize for them to the audience, has some outstanding action scenes (my favourite would probably be the fight in the subway), decent acting-acting and brilliant physical acting, and is excellently paced. Plus, despite having been shot in low budget mecca Bulgaria, it puts some much appreciated effort into making things feel authentic. It's not normal to find actual professional Japanese actors one might even know from film or TV in their own country in this sort of thing, nor is it typical to hear them speak actual Japanese among each other or accented English with their own voices, yet it is exactly the level of care and respect this demonstrates that makes Ninja so great.

Well, that and lots of scenes of Scott Adkins kicking people in the face.

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