If you’re into beheadings, lurid sex, warrior monks that vomit yellow slime and ninja tricks galore, look no further. Ninja Wars (Iga Ninpo-cho) has all of the above, and then some. It’s one of a long line of commercially successful action/adventure/fantasy pulp projects that came out in Japan in the late Seventies and early Eighties, starting with Makai Tenshō and including Satomi hakkenden. Of all of them, Ninja Wars is my least favorite, but it’s got a heady mix of ingredients to keep most fans of this stuff quite happy.
Like Makai Tenshō, Ninja Wars was a production of the Kadokawa company, who also published the books both films were both based on. Said novels were penned by bestselling author Fūtaro (sometimes Kazetaro) Yamada, who wrote something like thirty novels in the same sort of shared universe, each involving magic, ninjas, sex, and samurai intrigue. Makai Tenshō had a Christian martyr returning from the great beyond to lead an army of the undead against the Shogunate, and Ninja Wars has … well, ninja wars. What you see is most definitely what you get.
The plot: Lord Donjo (Akira Nakao) has eyes for the lovely Princess Ukyo, and is willing to do anything to win her over. Yes, even enlist the help of the infamous sorcerer Kashin Koji and his five magic-wielding warrior monks. Koji’s plan is as whacked as they come: Use a sacred ceremonial teapot to brew a love potion from the tears of the princess’s twin sister. One sip of the stuff and she’ll be tearing her clothes off—and in one of the movie’s raunchier scenes they rope a rather homely maidservant into demonstrating just how effective the stuff is.
As luck would have it, Ukyo’s twin sister Kagura isn’t just any old twin sister, she’s a lady ninja— kunoichi, that is—and she has a mean way with a knife. In a cliché later appropriated by endless anime, we see her dashing through the forest slicing at treetrunks which only fall over after a dramatically appropriate pause. Her ninja boyfriend Jotaro (Hiroyuki Sanada, also in Hakkenden and Makai Tenshō) comes to the rescue when she’s attacked by Kashin’s gang of goons, but even a fine young specimen of ninja-hood such as he isn’t enough to ward off their deadly Vomit Spray and Flying Guillotine Attacks.
Things get even nastier once Kagura’s dragged into Kashin’s castle. Rather than let herself be turned into their slave, she slices her own head off (without even needing a knife; talk about slick ninja tricks!) … only to have Ukyo decapitated and her head placed on Kagura’s body, with geysers of blood painting the set in the process. This also has the nasty side effect of transplanting their souls: Kagura’s spirit now inhabits the body with Ukyo’s head, and vice versa, which leads to no end of fun and games when a very pissed-off Jotaro comes around to kick acres of ass.
You can probably guess that Ninja Wars is not in the same category as The Hidden Fortress or Sabu. Heck, it’s hardly in the same category as Zipang, come to think of it: it makes that movie seem tame and logically coherent. It exists to dish out lurid sex, violence, gore, magic, outlandish martial arts, bizarre weapons, and inadvertent laughs. But it certainly isn’t boring, and I suspect the main disappointment for most people primed to see it will be that Sonny Chiba’s presence in the movie (he gets third billing) is essentially an extended cameo. For the most part it’s Sanada’s show, and he does a redux of the same boyish charm he put on display for many of the other ninja/samurai movies he did around this time.
Ninja Wars was director Kôsei Saitô’s follow-up to Sengoku jietai, and has a good deal of the same energy and style. One of the best scenes in the movie, an extended sequence where a Buddhist temple is burned to the ground, is all the more impressive when you realize there was no miniature work involved: they burned down a scale replica. The rest of the movie is just as lavish in its production design, with eerie and sometimes downright expressionistic sets (especially in the head-spinning finale). Ironically, the big downside for me was some of the fight sequences, which are even more wire-fu happy than the most punch-drunk Hong Kong flick.
Yamada’s books (and the movies derived from them) usually centered around real people, albeit with the author taking enormous fictional liberties. Iga ninpocho was no exception; Kashin Koji and Donjo did in fact exist, and some of the plot elements (such as the aforementioned burning temple—in reality the Todai-ji, which was incinerated in 1567) are pulled right out of the history books. The best example of this sort of thing, for me, remains Shogun’s Samurai; it embellished, yes, but black-magic head transplants and vomit attacks were not part of the picture.
Ninja Wars actually has a bit of a history with me; it was one of the first movies I actually bought with my own money, back when my local video store was having a $1-each shelf-clearance sale. I snagged an English-language dubbed copy of the movie, and after watching it I got the impression that if I could see it uncut and undubbed it would be more worth my time. Over a decade later, here we are. It is what it is.
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