To the best of my knowledge, the whole idea behind ninja (the plural of which I’m pretty sure is “ninja,” in the same way that the plural of “moose” is “moose”) is that you don’t see them. They are “invisible” assassins, skilled in the arts of stealth, camouflage, and murder. But what do I know? I’m gaijin. If you were growing up in America in the Eighties, however, ninja were highly visible, at least in pop culture. There were ninja comic books (Grendel, Whisper, et al), magazines (Ninja, Ninja Combat, and Spirit Of Ninja, among many others), television series (The Master, natch), and films too numerous to mention.
My friends and I looked up to the martial skills of Sho Kosugi in Pray For Death as much as we lusted after Lucinda Dickey in Ninja III: The Domination (which also featured Kosugi, though even with his guy-liner, he could just never attract us in the same way), and we even wrote a “screenplay” (yes, that really should be in quotes) for a ninja movie we were going to shoot on video. Thankfully, it never came to fruition, but that didn’t stop us from buying cheap-ass shuriken and darts and whipping them recklessly at any object made out of wood that would stand still long enough to let us. We all dreamed of owning our very own ninja uniform (the best ads for these, in my opinion, came from a company called Asian World Of Martial Arts, Inc), but they were simply out of our (more specifically our parents’) price range, and we were too uninventive and too unresourceful to just make our own (then; today I could probably whip up a kickass ninja outfit in minutes, were I of a mind to, and no, I’m not of a mind to). But I would wager we derived more pleasure from simply fantasizing about being ninja than most actual ninja ever got from being ninja. I would also wager that any self-respecting ninja reading this review (ha!) would be more than happy to take that bet.
A giant and a lady in a red dress (pro wrestler Mayumi Ozaki) unceremoniously (and violently) kill several yakuza. Okay. Shinobu Nindo (Etsuko Shinkoda), daughter of prominent yakuza boss Takeo (Ikkô Furuya), has a dream wherein she is saved from villains by the three Ninja Defenders: Suzuka Hatai (Matsui Tetsuya), Jun Saruwatari (Cutey Suzuki, significantly also a pro wrestler), and their leader Ryu Momoji (Kenji Otsuki). Ryu hands Shinobu a dragon bell, which will glow and ring when she’s in danger to bring the Ninja Defenders to her aid. Meanwhile, Gô Ranjuji (Rikiya Yasuoka), begins his play to take over the yakuza’s rackets for the entire Kanto region. But there’s something odd about him and his cohorts (y’know, the giant and the lady).
The Ninja Dragon (aka Legend Of The Shadowy Ninja: The Ninja Dragon aka Kûsô-kagaku Ninkyô-den: Gokudô Ninja Dosuryô) is the first (in fact, the only) live-action feature directed by manga artist/author extraordinaire Gô Nagai. For my money, Nagai ranks up there with the best of the talents in manga/anime, and though he rarely gets the sort of accolades afforded to Miyazaki and Tezuka (at least not popularly in this country), I like to think he is just as influential as either (and if that statement doesn’t get me in trouble, nothing will). As I seem to so very often state, I am by no means an expert on the life and works of Nagai, but his oeuvre is singular in how groundbreaking it is (at least to me). One of his most popular creations, Cutie Honey, concerns a girl who can transform into a variety of take-charge women, the process for which involves her becoming stark raving nude for a few moments at a time. Or take Kekkô Kamen, about a superheroine who doesn’t wear a stitch of clothing aside from her mask and all the sadomasochistic misadventures she gets into. Or Mazinger Z (initially known in the United States as one of the Shogun Warriors line of toys from Mattel under the name Mazinga and slightly later as the titular anime character Tranzor Z) which standardized the template for damn near every Super Robot/Mecha show to follow straight on to today.
Nagai loves pushing the boundaries of acceptability. He loves delving into transgressive material, but even at his most outrageous, his work (what I’ve seen) is always entertaining. Despite his sticking to certain generic contrivances, there is always something onscreen which must be beheld, not simply looked at. This film is no different. It is extremely lean in the story department. The characterizations are non-existent. But there’s a building up of weirdness beginning from the very first scenes, and once the inevitable showdown hits, Nagai removes all the stops (or more precisely all the stops he could afford to remove) and releases the hounds, so to speak.
Like a great many of Nagai’s narratives, this film deals with prophecies and fate. Characters are chosen to be leaders or warriors by forces beyond their control. So Shinobu is given the dragon bell, a talisman that marks her as special, someone whose destiny insists that she be protected over others. By that same token, Shinobu just wants to be a young girl. She wants to experiment with smoking, go shopping, ogle boys, and so forth. It’s the struggle between these two forces (service to a higher power on one side, personal satisfaction on the other) that has driven stories like this one for decades. It is also a very Japanese idea. Their culture (or my understanding of it) is built on an idea of honor in service to a group harmony which is supposed to provide a person’s ultimate satisfaction. To give one’s all to their employer is tantamount to the attainment of (private) happiness. Ryu and the Ninja Defenders embody this facet of selflessness for a common good. Conversely, Shinobu is taken out of her complacent comfort zone, and she has to deal with what that does to her life. Unfortunately, she never truly grows as a character in the film. Her arc is hinted at, but it is never explicitly depicted, and this is an aspect shared across the board in this film.
The film has other ideas that are teased; themes like maturity, personal responsibility, and so on, but none of them are developed. They are tinsel on a Christmas tree and little more. In fact, The Ninja Dragon is strictly surface-level on the whole. It is a pure entertainment, since it has absolutely no other purpose whatsoever. But on that level of amusement it modestly succeeds. Despite the broad humor seemingly endemic to most Asian genre films (and whatever you do, do not watch this film with the English dub on, as it will actually make you dumber, though I’m sure, being good little cinephiles, you would never dream of watching this in anything other than the subtitled version), I never found myself bored. Needless to say, I was never elevated, either, and though I don’t think this is one of Nagai’s best products, it also isn’t wholly offensive. This is a decent time-waster, and sometimes that’s all you need.
MVT: Nagai wins the MVT spot. This is his baby, and it bears his stamp all over it. That it doesn’t reach the heights of some of his other work is most likely a result of the obviously tiny budget of the piece. But the film still has its share of the bizarre and the quirks on which Nagai built his reputation.
Make Or Break: The Make for me is the “spontaneous” pro-wrestling-style melee that breaks out between Suzuki and Ozaki. It’s so out of left field while still being enjoyable and just a little sleazy, you can’t not like it.