Ninja Girl (Japan, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

In a montage stitched together by simple cuts that opens Yu Irie’s Ninja Girl, the quietness and elegance of a countryside landscape unfold in long and medium shots. True, clashing with the tranquility of the images is the accompanying jumpy electro-dance music that continues as the montage segues to a house and the introduction of protagonist Mui Karasuma (Saki Fukuda) outside in the midst of morning exercises. Also part of this montage and at odds with the tranquility of place are muted black-and-white archival sequences whose angles denote a clandestine camera and whose context is left unexplained. Yet the most discordant and disturbing element in this opening sequence establishing where Mui lives and cares for her ailing grandfather (Junpei Hashino) is the shot of a large sign that states “Yes to the Immigration Elimination Ordinance!” planted on green grass somewhere in the neighborhood like a “Welcome” sign. And just like that, too, the montage establishes the film’s dramatic conflict.

More specifically, the conflict lies in Mui’s grandfather’s staunch opposition to the ordinance and the lengths to which city officials including the mayor will go to stamp out or override such opposition to the passing of it. When a tragic event related directly to the ordinance strikes a dear family friend, who also works at city hall, Mui’s grandfather reveals to her the secret that they are a family of ninjas. He then assigns Mui the mission of avenging the family friend and blocking the passing of the ordinance. With this setup, Irie strikes a curious blend of the sociopolitical and genre. To be sure, Ninja Girl is more an eccentric, contemporary spin on the jidaigeki than an out-and-out political film. For one thing, for a film that deals with an anti-immigrant ordinance, immigrants are noticeably scarce and/or silent, with a couple of minor exceptions. By extension, barring one or two occasions, Mui herself does not come into contact with immigrants as part of her mission. But its fantastical and humourous approach to tackling anti-immigrant sentiments through Mui’s transformation into a ninja ends up laying bare the basic absurdity of such sentiments and the even more preposterous measures and actions taken by those who have and try to defend them.

From a narrative and structural point of view, then, Irie nicely parallels Mui’s trajectory from a mousy office worker who hardly vocalizes her thoughts on any given subject, including the ordinance, to a full-on fearless ninja, even in the light of day, and the intensification of city hall plotting for the ordinance, particularly the physical harassment of Mui’s grandfather and the owner of a scrap heap who employs immigrants. Such paralleling then sets up expectations for these two sides to have the inevitable showdown. But Irie presents Mui’s becoming a ninja in such a DIY small-scale, low-key, and affectionately bumbling nature that upends the convention of the showdown. However, this upending is itself upended, Irie surprising Mui as well as the viewer with not one but two showdowns. On a related note, it is through Mui’s awkward transformation into a ninja, integral to which is her witnessing of the evolution of measures and actions taken by city hall officials and their “Traitor to the Nation” henchmen to pass the ordinance, that the film’s satirical jabs are most impactful. And it is only through her wholeheartedly embracing the mission of becoming a ninja born from the very jidaigeki element of unquestioning loyalty to her grandfather, mixed with her own personal feelings about the ordinance, that such witnessing becomes possible and ultimately empowering.

Equally empowering and more serious in tone is another level of witnessing in the form of remembering or sharing historical knowledge that takes place in the film between Mui and her grandfather, as an updated interpretation of training between the apprentice and master. It is only in bits and pieces that one finds about the Karasuma family and why it is only Mui and her grandfather at home (for example, grandfather was a journalist, Mui’s parents divorced ten years ago). The viewer never gets a full detailed picture of the family history outside of some rudimentary facts. The secret of the family as ninjas is divulged much more quickly and extensively in comparison. Also in contrast are several instances of her grandfather speaking, however briefly, of the 1945 Tokyo air raids (in relation to the secret family book on ninjas) and, further back in time, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. As a response to Mui’s query of his strong opposition to the ordinance, he speaks of the massacre of Koreans in the wake of the earthquake, how Saitama was the northern limit of the violence, and never again should such violence happen. Following this particular scene between the two is the film’s most elegant passage involving the grandfather, entirely wordless yet bespeaks his strength of mind and conviction, which he also passes on to Mui.

And Mui ultimately tightens her grip on the responsibility that her grandfather is passing on to her, from the secret, the mission, and historical memory/knowledge, to self-belief. This unmitigated focus on Mui’s growth in character consolidates the film being more of a contemporary reworking of a jidaigeki as well as a rite of passage rather than a political tract on immigration in Japan. Nevertheless, with this film, Irie demonstrates the perennial usability and flexibility of the jidaigeki form for this day and age’s pressing sociopolitial matters.

Ninja Girl is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 15.