Ninja Wars Review
Reading the blurb on the back of Ninja Wars’ sleeve doesn’t exactly inspire faith. The words “evil magician”, “beautiful princess” and “five deadly monks” leap out at you and suggest nothing more than generic trash. Indeed, the title itself is somewhat vague and non-specific, though hardly the kind of thing to get you investigating further. Yet Ninja Wars is an unexpected delight – certainly, it can be trashy and some of its eighties production values (wailing electric guitars, special effects which were once no doubt shiny and new but now appear decidedly creaky) may prove distracting, but this isn’t simply a flimsy means of whiling away a couple of hours.
That said, Ninja Wars is primarily a fantasy and we do get the promised princess, monks and magician. In a plot that borrows bits and pieces from both Macbeth and The Prince and the Pauper, Kashin the Sorcerer (Mikio Narita) corrupts Danjo (Akira Nakao) by promising to make him “conquer[or of] heaven and earth”. He intends to do this courtesy of a love potion to be used on Princess Ukyo (Noriko Watanabe), a woman whose hand in marriage will ensure such events. However, in order to do so he must kidnap her non-royalty, and newly trained ninja, twin sister (Watanabe again), and in succeeding invokes the wrath of Jintaro (Hiroyuki Sanada), another ninja whom she was to marry. Of course, revenge is never simple for the martial artist and so Kashin has five magicians of various skills with which to do his bidding.
It may be questionable as to whether this intentionally vague synopsis makes the film seem any more immediately appealing than the blurb on the disc’s sleeve, yet upon watching Ninja Wars its qualities become immediately apparent. Given the elements of Macbeth which find their way into the narrative it is perhaps unsurprising that Throne of Blood should come to mind, and whilst this is not a film to compare with Kurosawa’s classic (of course, there are few which can), it is work which shares some of its strengths. The opening shots of warring riders on horseback messily going about a battle clearly show that director Mitsumasa Saito has been paying attention to Kurosawa’s period pictures and their busy framing and use of weather. Meanwhile, Sonny Chiba’s extended cameo seems to be paying homage to Throne of Blood’s leading man, Toshiro Mifune, sharing the irascibility he conveyed in that role in particular as well as in The Hidden Fortress for the same director.
Yet Saito isn’t simply offering up nods to past masters (though Kurosawa still had one last classic in the form of Ran to come) and he shows himself to be a notable talent in his own right. His direction comes with a poise which allows him to skate between Ninja Wars’ constituent parts without it ever seeming disjointed. The martial arts sequences never feel simply tacked on to the central narrative or vice versa, and the same is true of the romantic subplot. And yet each is given due care and attention with Saito proving especially inventive when it comes to the former. As Jintaro sets about the five magicians we are treated to, amongst others, an underwater fight conveyed solely through colours and bubbles of air, and another which unfolds on a barren landscape in almost complete silence.
Of course, it must also be said that these scenes and other also belie certain exploitation qualities. One of the magicians has lethal projectile bile (presumably) as his forte, whilst the gore itself (decapitations and the like) is laden with the kind of über-red blood that it’s impossible not to feel nostalgic for. Indeed, this is a film which may very well escape audiences through its unexpected mixture of trash and art. Those expecting simply one may find the other too much of a distraction or interference to secure a full enjoyment. If, however, you take equal delight in both respectable Japanese cinema and the likes of the Baby Cart series or Lady Snowblood, then Ninja Wars may prove an enticing prospect in its combination of the two.
Ninja Wars comes to Region 2 DVD in fine condition. The picture is presented in its correct ratio of 1.85:1 and transferred anamorphically (something of a surprise in fact as most discs now favour the slightly cropped 1.78:1 ratio). On the whole the image is pleasingly crisp and for the most part clean. Some of the wider shots do suffer from not having the requisite clarity and there are occasional instances of flicker and artefacting, but these are moderate and in no way distracting. The soundtrack is likewise clean and provides the original Japanese mono (with optional English subtitles) over the front two channels. The only disappointment is the scarcity of extras as these amount only to original Japanese theatrical trailers for the film in question plus two other discs from Ventura’s Sonny Chiba collection: the wonderfully titled G.I. Samurai and Legend of the Eight Samurai. As with the main feature, the English subtitles for the trailers are optional.