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Silliness is a superpower in The Ninja War of Torakage, Yoshihiro Nishimura‘s genre-fluid adventure about a man who thought he escaped the world of warriors, only to get pulled back in. A touch of Yojimbo creeps into the story, where our hero must please two rival clan leaders in order to keep his wife and child alive, but danger and intrigue are here just as ballast for a goofy, self-mocking streak that otherwise might not hold our interest for an hour and a half. American fans of gonzo Asian fare — who know the helmer/effects guru well from flicks like Tokyo Gore Police — will respond warmly at fests and on video.
The picture’s silly spirit is admitted early on, when our hero’s plight is set up: Torakage (Takumi Saito), a retired ninja who now lives a peasant’s peaceful life, is forced by the vicious Gensai (Eihi Shiina) to go steal scrolls that will lead her to ancient treasure. He is brusquely interrupted by an on-screen narrator — the man, wearing Coke-bottle glasses and ruffled-collar frippery, claims to be a Portuguese scholar of ninja culture; he drops in on occasion to introduce tools of warfare and explain bits of backstory via nicely done shadow plays.
While Torakage’s son is held hostage, he and his ninja wife must sneak into a realm governed by black magic, where a princess dressed in a kind of Pokemon-inspired vinyl getup (intentional anachronism abounds here) conducts human sacrifices in order to keep her slaves motivated. Nishimura offers side characters that would be horrifying in a Guillermo del Toro way in another context (one has eyeballs all over her head and wings made of scores of human hands), but — as with his more cartoonish action set pieces, like one in which fighters endure a kind of human pachinko game — he intentionally stops short of making these elements look real.
The effect is more antic than pulse-raising, with laughs coming both from the action and from occasional non sequiturs like a gag mocking Takashi Shimizu‘s Ju-on franchise. The growing sense that we’re watching a live-action comic book is cemented when Torakage’s family reunites for a climactic battle at the end, using goofy powers and devices in ways that clearly tease a potential string of ninja-superhero sequels to come.
Production companies: Nishimura Eizo Co., Ouendan
Cast: Takumi Saito, Eihi Shiina, Nana Seino, Kanji Tsuda, Yuria Haga
Director: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Screenwriters: Yoshihiro Nishimura, Jun Tsugita
Producers: Taizo Fukumaki, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Hiromi Suzuki
Executive producers: Tadashi Takahashi
Director of photography: Shu G. Momose
Production designer: Fumitaka Sasaki
Costume designers: Keiko Murashima, Aya Nakamura
Editor: Yoshihiro Nishimura
Music: Kou Nakagawa
No rating, 94 minutes
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