Movie Review: Shogun’s Ninja

Posted: October 21, 2011 in Movie Review, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Ninja Bugeicho Momochi Sandayu (1980 Toei Company, Dir. Norifumi Suzuki)

You know, sometimes you can’t help but think that you’re watching porn even when you aren’t. That’s how I choose to start this review, because it’s the impression that at the forefront of my mind. It’s the music mostly, and the modern outfits. I mean it’s a movie that takes place in the 15th century and includes ninjas in clothes that look strikingly like modern camo. The music is so absurd that it hurts the movie, which is pretty absurd on its own. The music is early 80s rock-ish sort of J-Pop, and it make you fee like you’re watching a porn. I’m hardly in a position to bitch about rock music in a classic setting. I normally like that sort of thing. It worked in Ladyhawk and it worked in Legend so some degree. It can work, but it doesn’t work here. That’s hardly the movie’s only problem, I seem to remember lots of other problems, but the music always sticks in my head and I’m getting the intro written before we evens start the movie proper because I’m going to review this one in a way I haven’t reviewed in a while. Yeah, this movie is so screwy I’ve got to break down the plot and explain certain scenes in detail. We haven’t done this in a while, so put on your favorite Technicolor gi and let’s get ready to rumble!

Aren’t they neat? I had them installed on Tuesday.

The English title makes no sense, I just want to say that now. Right away, this thing starts funky with a guy telling his boss that he’s “created” two ninjas himself. He uses the word created, which could be a translation error but I don’t think so. The rest of this translation seems really good and not at all awkward, so I’m guessing that he did it in a lab or something. One has no ears, the other has no tongue and I’m guessing they had to split Abbey Normal’s brain. I guess they’re supposed to be the super baddies for this movie, but I don’t remember. Also… well… okay listen. I have a blind spot for Japanese names and they tend to slide right off my mind. It doesn’t help that we’re told who people are by subtitles that are themselves subtitled because I can read kanji like I can play the piccolo. So what I’m saying is that I won’t be using the character’s names because I can’t remember any of them. This isn’t like other times, when I refused, I simply cannot hold onto anyone’s names when I watch these. So I’ll call the ninja master Frankenstein.

Might as well JUMP!

So the conversation being Frankenstein and his boss ends and we cut to… what the hell is this? Samurai with windsocks on their backs? This doesn’t even begin to make sense. They’re only on screen for a second, while some voice over tries to give some historical context to the story that I feel will go the wayside once the plot kicks in. Actually, it doesn’t last that long, because insanity kicks in first. I’d like to describe it, but you’d think I was lying if I told you spears stick through the walls, but the guy jumps and stands on the spears until he’s on the ceiling and Frankenstein and his ninja monsters attack and kill him, BUT THAT JUST HAPPENED! By the way, did I mention we’re only four minutes into this thing? In four minutes we went from historical drama to batshit. Now here’s the funny bit, its only going to get worse from here.

Are they at the airport?

Okay, let’s talk about the plot really quick. There are a pair of daggers that everyone is going to be looking for. On the hilt of each dagger is half of a map to a gold mine, or a buried treasure or a stash of twinkies or whatever. It’s not really important, just that everyone wants the daggers. So to make a long story short (too late) that historical guy who got killed? Yeah they kill his whole clan except the son and a couple vassals. While the people are massacred, the porn music gets going in earnest and Syd came in to ask why IU was watching a Japanese snuff film. Sadly this required me to explain exactly what I was watching, which didn’t help even a little bit. Thing is, none of the historical BS matters because the movie has almost nothing to do with that.

For Japan, that’s pretty buff.

See, the son got away right? And he had one of the daggers, yeah? Okay, well 15 years later he comes back looking for vengeance or something. Thing is, Hong Kong Kung-Fu movies were VERY popular at the time, so he’s been hiding out in china, which necessitates him wearing Chinese clothes and using Chinese Kung-Fu because this flick is pandering on almost every level. The scenes of him doing kung-fu prove that only a minimal amount of research into what Chinese kung-fu looks like was done. Don’t get me wrong, the fights look pretty good, but it looks like someone who knows karate was told to try and approximate what Jackie Chan does. Also, the porn music is back, which doesn’t help anyone.

This isn’t the dancing part, he’ll dance later.

After running from the soldiers he just beat up, the son runs into his old friends who have created a resistance movement against Frankenstein and his masters. Here’s the interesting thing though, if not for the music and the kung-fu, this would be a pretty basic and probably fairly good historical piece. It wants to be, you can tell. It keeps introducing people with subtitles, giving them some historical context. The script was probably decent when it landed on the producer’s desk, but then he and the director just poured crazy sauce all over it and pages stuck together and the writing smeared and we go this… thing. The historical context is wasted, because we never really touch it in any significant way, and it only serves as a backdrop for the dagger plot. However, if not for the direction they took we’d never have Camo Ninja.


Camo ninja is the leader of a clan of Ninjas that are old friends of The Son’s slaughtered clan. He is also awesome. In the early days of retroflix, he was the unofficial mascot of the blog. Watching Camo Ninja turn up and give that strange, laugh, seemingly without context, always cheers me up. He’s a magical bit of insanity that lifts the movie above the level it sinks itself to. It’s still stupid, and the tone and inclusion of kung-fu elements greatly damage the revenge story the script wants to tell. This is uneven, dull in parts, insane in other parts, but hey, at least we get Camo Ninja, right? It’s actually really interesting to watch this movie again because my memory was balls to the wall insanity. The reality of the movie is a decent plot progression, ruined by moments of pure nuttiness, that are themselves ruined by long stretches of… like… story and stuff.

Nothing interesting happens here.

Anyway, back to the story. The Son and his band are ambushed by Frankenstein’s crew. Now remember, Frankenstein has the official backing o the shogun, or at least the local daimyo, so he has samurai in matching outfits and ninjas in gray pajamas. The Son only has Camo Ninja, a small band of friends and a porn soundtrack that kicks in whenever his side is winning. The action sequence of the ambush is pretty good, or would be if sound effects and music weren’t so damn goofy. After a little while a lot of the fighting of this scene turns into stuff we’ve already seen. Sadly, we only saw it a couple of minutes ago, the action here is a bit repetitive.

Oh look! A subplot that doesn’t go anywhere.

While Camo Ninja and company fight the crew, The Son fights Frankenstein and Abbey & Normal. His fight would be good if anyone told them that Kung-Fu involves more than rolling on the ground to evade your enemy’s strikes. This fight becomes a big cock tease anyway as the combatants are constantly interrupted by other fighters who are killed or run off having done their flow breaking job. This leaves the main fighters saying “Right, um, where were we?” right before another interruption comes in. The upshot is that Frankenstein captures The Son and a ridiculous torture scene ensues in which you nevedr quite get the idea he’s being beaten or harmed. This is one of those movies that should have gone further in one direction or another. If we’re making a goofy ninja flick, make it really goofy and stop with the historical context stuff. If a historical movie, make it actually historical and cut the porn soundtrack. You can still have the basic story, you can even have The Son fight a room full of girls armed with spears as he effects his escape, but go one way or the other. Having a tale in which people either are or are presented as historical figures when the hero survives a 90 foot drop, on his back, into a moat is foolish.

Gonna tickle you!

So anyway, The Son finds out his friends are going to be boiled in oil and decides to go save them. Now I know what you want to know, does he save them sensible or silly? Silly, very silly and of course not before two pointless suicides happen. Sadly, another flow breaking moment comes and the silly of the suicides is undercut by something that was probably in the script. Frankenstein and crew yell at the peasants after the two deaths and intimidates them for a while before The Son shows up. And boy, does he show up. He comes up, out of the river, like a shot from a Vietnam movie, complete with dagger held in his teeth, and charges the shore where the execution is supposed to take place. The thing is, it’s so clear that there is in no way enough water in that part of the river to conceal him. He’s maybe ankle deep as he runs forth from the spot he was laying down in. As he starts killing baddies, explosions just start bursting on the beach. I had to go back and watch again to discover that while I blinked or shook my head at the porn music, there was a shot of a guy throwing something that I think we’re supposed to believe was a grenade.

No really, it’s just six inches of water. Ninjas can hide in anything.

And then Camo Ninja explodes from the ground and saves The Son again. Why he came up from the ground? I have no idea, he just does. It doesn’t matter because a minute or two later he’s shot by rifle men who then turn their guns into the watching crowd to prove how evil they are, causing a full fledged riot. The thing is, people just keep showing up to help in the fight, all of the fights so far have been like this. Guys on horses just show up to help the rioters get at the samurai, Camo Ninja just shows up to help The Son fight, Jet Jaguar can surely be only a few moments away from turning up as well. During the riot, one of the guys The Son came to save gets killed anyway, and this leads to the apex of silliness. I’m not even going to try and describe the scene that happens at the funeral pyre, I’m just going to embed a video and hope it doesn’t vanish before you read this…

That’s supposed to be a funeral pyre he’s dancing in front of, he’s supposed to be in emotional torment. Those are the names of his friends written on those planks of wood. This should be the moment where we know he’s about damn ready to kick ass and chew bubble gum. Instead it’s just Hiroyuki Sanada being impressive with his movements and silly with his tone. And then Japanese Moses shows up and gives him the standard “You can do it Sailor Moon” speech before a training montage starts. Oh, but this isn’t a proper training montage, gone are songs like No Easy Way Out, and instead is something that sounds like a love song. One of The Son’s friends falls, presumably to his death, but Japanese Moses won’t let them save him or go find his body because… leadership? We either never see him again, or his hair grows really long when he returns because it looks to me like some other guy has shown up to fill the roster. If I could remember the names better, I might know who is who.

I wasn’t joking about the Japanese Moses thing.

The Son gets the second dagger and told how the daggers lead to the big rock candy mountain that everyone wants, and he promptly lets the daggers get stolen by some girl they have hanging around with them. In a turn of events that makes my headache, Hattori Hanzo told her to steal the daggers. The girl doesn’t want to be pulled between to allegiances and asks to be killed. Japanese Moses says he’ll kill her, only The Son argues, because heroes are like that in these movies. They’re so used to disagreeing that they will fight their buddies if given no one else to fight with. As a result, The Son kills Japanese Moses and gets a “Well done lad” for his efforts. Thenc a tree explodes into flames and falls over. This movie is weird.

Tree. Explodes.

So the girl runs off, gets information about when and where The Son and his vanishingly small crew and get their own back. The Chinese girl The Son met in China comes to help him, and we’re more or less in for a long action sequence that begins with the worst archers on earth not being able to hit a guy who is spinning around on a rope. Yeah, he’s hanging on a rope, and spins around, and they fire arrows, and they can’t hit him. A man who’s rotating in place is one thousand times harder to hit than a man who is standing still. Well known fact, it was on Myth Busters and everything. There are points in the spinning that I’m not even sure it’s still a person up there, and not some kind of mannequin or doll or something.

Just… what the hell?

The ensuing fifteen minutes of action are okay, but not nearly as effective as they could have been. Again, mixing the Chinese style of kung-fu movies and the Japanese style of samurai movies would have been a hard task on the best of days, and this was nobody’s best day. The two styles don’t really meld well and they never actually gel here. I’m through bitching about the porn music, but it doesn’t help. The constant influx of fresh help also doesn’t help. After trying to steal the daggers, Hattori Hanzo shows up with a platoon of black pajama’d ninjas to help The Son and company. But The Son and friends looked like they were winning, there is no need of a cavalry, they were doing fine. Okay, a couple of the friends and the Chinese cutie got killed, but that just went to show that this was serious. The sudden extra help requires The Son and Frankenstein to ride of to another shooting location in order to finish the fight alone. Okay, they take Abbey and Normal with them, but that’s to be expected. Besides, The son dispatches them with one stroke anyway.

Hey guys, does this look awesome, or just silly?

So The Son kills Frankenstein and instead of using the two daggers to fun and army, or buy a summer home or even secure a 401k, he throws them into the ocean because… nobility? I don’t really know. There was a guy who was all, “Gimme the knives” and he was like “No! Ima throw ‘em in the ocean” and the guy’s like “Oh, well, okay then.” And that makes no sense. I guess since he’s seen the map, he remembers the place where Curly’s Gold is kept and can find it later when he wants it. And then the movie just sort of ends. Well, no it exactly just ends. He throws the daggers and he and the last girl left in the movie ride off on a horse at the sea shore and everything will be alright now I guess. I don’t know, I think this is just a screwy movie.

Now THAT is badass.

This isn’t a terrible movie, and I can see someone really liking it, but for me it falls short of the mark. The drama is undercut by the crazy and the crazy is put off by the long stretches of drama. Still, this isn’t exactly bad, it’s just not as good as it wanted to be. You can get the dvd and see how you feel. You probably won’t hate it if you’re into this kind of thing, but just remember that it is indeed this kind of thing and that it’s a bit goofy. Let’s see how it scores, let me watch a certain Prince movie again as a comparison. Hmm, yes I’d say…

Official Score:
15 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

What? You thought I just came up with those numbers? No, that’s how it compares to Graffiti Bridge. I have to watch every time to make sure I’m comparing properly. That’s why it can sometimes take a long time to get a new review out, it’s not the writing that’s the problem it’s re-watching that movie to recalibrate the scale. I’ve done 137 reviews (including this one) and scored each of those movies against Graffiti Bridge. And I’ve watched it more times than that, so I’ve seen Graffiti Bridge a lot and each time it weighs down my soul a little more. Le’t have one more shot of Camo Ninja.

Ah, that’s the stuff.

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