The Ninja War of Torakage (Japan, 2014) [JFF2015AU]
It has been a while since I have seen a new film by Yoshihiro Nishimura. Ever since the entertainingly excessive Helldriver (2010), he’s been off my radar despite new ventures like Zombie TV (2013) and his entry in The ABCs of Death (2012). I have enjoyed his special make-up and prosthetic work from the cult classic The Machine Girl (2008) to his more recent work on Sion Sono’s schoolgirl splatter/condemnation of female glorification flick Tag (2015) and the infamous Attack on Titan films (2015). Now, we have his latest directorial effort, The Ninja War of Torakage, a ninja adventure which seems to hint that Nishimura has gone in a different direction after his revered gore flicks. But as it turns out, The Ninja War of Torakage still retains his signature elements of bizarre humour not to mention scenes of blood and gore.
Takumi Saito stars as Torakage, a legendary ninja of the Homura clan, who is currently retired and living peacefully in the countryside with his wife Tsukikage (Yuria Haga) and son. Happily bonding with numerous poop jokes and playing in the fields, their time of peace comes under fire when Shinonome (Eihi Shiina), a former master of Torakage, takes his son hostage and forces him and Tsukikage on a mission to steal the Golden Scroll from the cult leader of Yagen, Rikuri (Kanji Tsuda). So, Torakage and Tsukikage once again don their ninja gear, but during their mission, Tsukikage is captured by the Yagen cult. What’s a ninja to do?
The expectation of a Nishimura ‘ninja film’ would be a gorefest, but surprisingly, there’s so little gore by the director’s standards that it feels kind of strange to witness. Sure, the film starts off with a ninja battle with blood squirting out of their necks (per usual for a Nishimura film), but after that, there’s very little blood in sight. Fortunately, it was a great choice since one of the main themes of the film is family. The bond between Torakage, Tsukikage and son is funny, warm and poignant at times – even the poop jokes that the family exchange are more amusing than annoying and the son’s reaction to the jokes is priceless. Nishimura ably compensates for the lack of gore with his unique brand of bizarre humour and boundless creativity. Also, his storytelling skills have improved since the pacing is faster and the narrative is amusingly told via a European narrator called Francisco, who provides backstory on ninja culture that both tears and honours the genre.
Speaking of creativity, the action scenes in The Ninja War of Torakage are initially typical of ninja fare – ninja stars, use of trampolines for high jumps and flips, fake deaths, blood spurts and so on. But when the main plot starts, the action scenes become massively insane in scope and hilarious (intentionally) in execution. There is a minor, yet understandable, criticism of Nishimura films that his action scenes mainly consist of back and forth hitting, with very little to no actual choreography. But here, imagination saves the day. There is an action scene involving Pachinko that must be seen to be believed and one that references Iron Man (2008) that had me laughing my ass off. There’s also an action scene that involves surfing on a long village street, using coffins as surfboards and another scene that features an unorthodox use of a ninja star. Yes, it’s as uproarious as it sounds. Sure, there is some bad CGI but since the film is not to be taken seriously, the attempts at humour (implied sexuality included, courtesy of Yuria Haga) are hilarious.
Speaking of the cast, some of the performers surprised me while others played to their strengths. First is Takumi Saito. When I first saw him in movies like the teen vampire grindhouse romance Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl (2009), I thought he was just a pretty boy with no personality. But then I saw the low-fi robot flick RoboGeisha (2009), where he was more engaging and had fun as the villain. Then I saw the romantic comedy musical For Love’s Sake (2013), and I thought he was hilarious as the dopey third wheel. The same went for the video game adaptation Ace Attorney (2012). But in The Ninja War of Torakage, he showed convincing courage in his action scenes and fatherly love in the bonding moments. Having a little bit of heart and emotion in a film like this is incredibly rare. It may not be a lot, but it’s something that the audience can latch on to.
Yuria Haga (last seen in my guilty pleasure of 2014, Girl’s Blood) is fine as Tsukikage and her action scenes are good, particularly when she’s game for the more risque humour. Eihi Shiina, like her villainous role in Helldriver, not only chews the screen, she devours it with one mouthful and it is again so spectacular to behold that not even cult film stalwart Kanji Tsuda can keep up. Masanori Mimoto is great as the tough renegade and rival of Torakage while Nana Seino hams it up as Mimoto’s partner with a metal claw as her weapon. The two have a good fight scene together as they take down ninjas in a single take. Nishimura’s cronies (Maki Mazui, Hiroko Tashiki, and director Takashi Shimizu in a cameo) are all amusing in their small roles.
The Ninja War of Torakage was a very enjoyable experience that made me think that Nishimura is more than just a gore specialist. The film ends with a great “To Be Continued” tag, and I eagerly await the sequel.
The Ninja War of Torakage is showing as part of the Japanese Film Festival 2015 Australia which runs from October 14 to December 6. See the festival website for screening times and venues.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.