The 1985 video game The Legend of Kage is one of my favorites of all time. It’s an extremely simple game: You run around forests and castles, killing monks and ninja with your double blades and shuriken until you’re done. About as basic a video game premise as you’ll ever get. I don’t think that I would love it as much as I do had I not seen Kosei Saito’s Ninja Wars (aka Iga Ninpocho aka Death of a Ninja aka Black Magic Wars) a few years prior, because the game bears a lot of the touches that make the film interesting. The Legend of Kage has firebreathing monks with those face-covering, conical straw hats we’ve seen so very many times. Its main character isn’t dressed like what Americans back then had become used to as the visual idea of a ninja from such magazines as…well…Ninja. Kage wears a short tunic, and he has long hair and no mask of which to speak. All the characters can leap almost the entire length and breadth of the screen. There’s a princess to be rescued from the evil bosses. There’s a temple that has to be assailed in order to do this. The game stands out for its uniquely Japanese fantasy elements, in my opinion. Sure, there were games that had similar components (if there were a video game trope more profligate than musclebound badasses rescuing someone/taking revenge, it was ninja/martial artists rescuing someone/taking revenge), but none harkened back so specifically to Ninja Wars (and bear in mind, up to that moment in time, I was only familiar with the works of Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Shaw Bros) in my adolescent brain to the point that I used to believe/fantasize that the game was adapted from the film (which is itself adapted from a 1964 novel by Futaro Yamada). And still, the film is one I find extremely difficult to both discuss and to love outside of certain facets.
Try to follow along. Evil sorcerer/blank-faced cackler/creepy uncle Kashin Koji (Mikio Narita) prophecies to gormless pawn/power-hungry lord/architect(?) Donjo (Akira Nakao) that whosoever wins the heart of the beautiful Ukyodayu (Noriko Watanabe), who is currently married to the even more gormless Lord Miyoshi (Noboru Matsuhashi), will hold the world in his hands. Easy enough, right? Kashin gives Donjo five “Devil Monks” (a blind one, a skinny one, a giant one, a woman one, and an acid-spitting (?) one who looks like the Asian Avery Schreiber) to help him achieve this goal by creating a love potion. Meanwhile, young ninja in love Jotaro (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Kagaribi (Watanabe in a dual role) profess their love for each other and perfect their ninja clan’s Crescent Dagger Technique. It turns out, Kagaribi is Ukyodayu’s twin sister (separated because she’s Christian[?]), and she’s kidnapped by the monks so they can extract her tears for the potion. Killing herself by cutting off her own head, the monks take the head from Donjo’s courtesan/wife (?) Isaribi (Jun Miho), plant it on Kagaribi’s body, and rename her Onibi (also Lady Hellfire). Things escalate from there.
The primary driving force behind Ninja Wars is the conflict between lust and love. Donjo lusts for power, and thus, he lusts for Ukyodayu (even though she’s gorgeous, we never quite get the feeling that Donjo is interested in her as anything other than a means to an end). He built Miyoshi’s castle, and that symbol of power and achievement is the chief characteristic of Donjo’s character. Donjo is allowed to have sex with Onibi like a blowup doll (thankfully, we never see this to my recollection). The monks are also filled with lust. One of them rapes Onibi in order to extract her tears for the love potion. They test out the potion on one of Donjo’s servants who immediately desires the blind monk, exposes her breasts to him, and leads him upstairs for a quick one (he gladly follows along, toying with her boobs the whole way). The female monk (I think) disguises herself as Ukyodayu (I think) and seduces Miyoshi in order to ensorcell him.
Conversely, Jotaro and Kagaribi have a very pure, even chaste, love for each other. After Kagaribi is killed, this love transfers to Ukyodayu in a damsel in distress kind of way. It’s their love that generates the tension of the story, and their ultimate decision at the film’s finale is the off-center (but still somehow fitting) punctuation to this expression. Ukyodayu is the center point between Jotaro’s love and Donjo’s lust (let’s never mind that both men more or less use her as a tool to fulfill their own needs, and even though she chooses Jotaro, there’s no real reason for it other than that he’s the good guy). Between these two extremes is Shinzaemon (Sonny Chiba), master of the Yagyu Clan. Shinzaemon knows that Kashin is evil, and anything he orchestrates is “wrong.” He doesn’t lust for anything other than justice, and he is on the side of the young lovers, because they’re virtuous and because their love is “correct.” The few times Shinzaemon shows up onscreen, it is to save Jotaro and Ukyodayu’s bacon and encourage them to continue along their righteous path. Thus, anytime the villains are onscreen, we know we’re likely to get something skanky, and anytime the good guys are onscreen, we know we’re going to get something puppy-love-esque.
There is a religious theme running through the film, focusing on the worthiness of Christianity in much the same way as just about every film dealing with Satanism/the occult does. The monks, and by association Donjo, are either atheists, Satanists, or pagans (maybe all three from the way they act). They serve the flagitious Kashin, who is portrayed as a quasi-omnipotent demigod, though it’s never stated that he’s anything more than a very powerful human. The centerpiece of the film takes place at a Buddhist temple, which the monks attack during some ceremony, burning it to the ground (this culminates, in slow motion, with the head of the giant statue of Buddha crashing to the ground). So, even Buddhism isn’t sufficient to defeat this evil. Kagaribi (and, consequently, Jotaro) is a Christian, and she wears a crystal crucifix around her neck. This crucifix inexplicably transfers to Ukyodayu (There may be two crystal crucifixes; Regardless, I thought Ukyodayu wasn’t raised Christian, but all things considered, this could just as easily be a further statement on the power of Christianity in the film). The crucifix burns Onibi as she attempts to beguile Jotaro. Ukyodayu winds up on an actual cross set atop a pyre in Kashin’s netherworld/otherworld, ready to sacrifice herself in fire. Jotaro’s decision to join her is simultaneously an expression of their love and an expression of the messianic dimension of Christianity. That this act touches Kashin is a testament to the film’s perspective on the subject, in my opinion.
For as much as there is in this film to admire (and the action sequences are sufficiently large scale, well-photographed, and well-choreographed), it really is a hot mess at the end of the day. This is the sort of film where characters will decide to do something, ostensibly in order to achieve their goals, but really it’s just to have another weird sequence happen. None of the characters are interesting other than the monks, and even they are only interesting for their peculiarities. The plot is a massive game of “Hot Potato” that never pays off. It only exists to bring the characters in proximity to one another. Ninja Wars is a labyrinth of a film, its convolutions leading to either dead ends or cliff drops. And like a rat in a lab maze, the viewer is prompted through the movie with the promise of a piece of cheese at the end. The only problem is that the egress of the maze just leads to another maze, and any cheese there is to be had is picked up, perfectly by happenstance, at random intervals throughout. So, you still get some rewards, but you’re never fully satisfied when it’s all done.
MVT: For all its myriad issues, the inventiveness and insanity of Ninja Wars really needs to be seen to be believed.
Make or Break: The assault on the Buddhist temple, while admittedly a tad overlong, really is wildly impressive on a variety of levels.