Ninja Kids!!!: Film Review

A delightfully anarchic children’s film that adults will adore.

Taking a respite from recent solemn samurai epics, Japanese action master Takashi Miike creates his most joyous effort in children's films yet.

BUCHEON, South Korea -- Following the exploits of three boys who attend a school for ninjas, Ninja Kids!!!is an action-and-effects-packed carnival of all-out silliness directed by Takashi Miike and written by Yoshio Urasawa. As if craving a holiday from recent solemn samurai epics like Hara-kiriand 13 Assassins, the director has made this his most happy-go-lucky outing, even among his children's films. There is no sexual innuendo as in Yatterman, no unalloyed evil like in The Great Yokai War, no dark, Freudian subtext as in Zebraman2-- just an episodic train of gags delivered in the nutty manner and chaotic tempo that's faithful to its manga and cartoon roots. Every frame is astir with so much zany activity that one is easily swept along by the excitement, even if the characters or situations make no sense whatsoever.

In Japan, nostalgia and curiosity will push viewers of all ages to see this live-action adaptation of Rakudai Ninja Rantaro(Loser Ninja Rantaro) by Soubei Amako, a manga that ran in a newspaper for 26 years and was dramatized into a long TV animated series. Miike's name carries more weight in overseas sales, though the delightful child cast makes this a top choice for kidfests and family channels.

Rantaro (Seishiro Kato) comes from a grassroots ninja family but his parents (Shido Nakamura andRei Dan) hope the boy could rise above his station. So they send him to the elite Ninja Academy. The situation is not unlike Harry Potter first arriving at Hogwarts: The simple boy makes friends and is initiated into a world of magic tricks by eccentric teachers. The only difference is, the magic and the mystique associated with the ninjas' ancient arts of ambush, camouflage and weaponry are gleefully deconstructed. Their weapons couldn't pass Q.C. standards in a third-world toy factory and the skills they're taught wouldn't even faze the burglars in Home Alone.

Paced as if the film is rolling on fast-forward (accelerated by frenetic use of wipes in editing), the viewer is constantly bushwhacked by objects and people that fly, lunge and crash out of nowhere and into everywhere. The slapstick is interjected with excited commentaries, expositions and even a flashback in the form of a cabaret number.

It gets even harder to keep up when subplots multiply and overlap over some brouhaha about the Saito ninja family who deserted their clan when they found their calling as hairstylists. To free them from hereditary bondage, Rantaro ends up racing against the clan's head Uzutake (Akira Emoto) to ring a temple bell on hill.  After a trying mid-section overstuffed with people and incidents all squeezed into one cramped set, the final stretch delivers both the thrill of a cross-country chase and visual pleasure of wide-open vistas. Logistically, it deploys the entire 80 or so cast members in elaborate action sequences and ends on a perfect feel-good note of camaraderie.

Miike captures the unstoppable spirit and enthusiasm that can only gush from a class of 10-year-old boys. The monstrous make-up and clownish acting of the headmaster (Susumu Terashima) and most adult roles contrast with the spontaneous behavior of the child cast, making the latter's guilelessness even more endearing.

As the boy with average aptitude trying to live up to his parents’ expectations, Kato livens up his ordinariness with just the right amount of spunk. But the most lovable character is Rantaro's classmate Shinbei, the gluttonous merchant's son played by bushy–eye-browed Fuuta Kimura, who has a stylized way of scoffing, snoozing, drooling and driveling that goes hand in hand with the playfulness of his CGI-rendered snot and saliva.

Wonky-looking sets and props belie the professionalism of the production. Extremely brisk cinematography and editing achieve the hyperactive mood required without compromising technical precision.  Even costumes are a colorful fusion of traditional period clothing with the contemporary concept of school uniforms as each color denotes a different grade.

Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival
Production companies: A Warner Brothers Japan release of a Sedic International production.
Cast: Seishiro Kato, Roi Hayashi, Fuuta Kimura, Susumu Terajima, Takahiro Miura, Shidou Nakamura, Rei Dan.
Director: Takashi Miike.
Screenwriter: Yoshio Urasawa.
Based on the manga by Soubei Amako.
Producers: Misako Saka, Shigeji Maeda.
Executive producer: Touichirou Shiraishi
Chief producers: Atsushi Terada, Hiroshi Hattori.
Director of photography: Nobuyasu Kita.
Production designer: Youji Hayashida.
Costume designer: Chieko Matsumoto.
Music: Yoshihiro Ike.
Editor: Kenji Yamashita.
Sales: Shochiku
No rating, 101 minutes