Japanese Title: 忍たま乱太郎
Romaji: Nintama Rantaro
Release Date: July 23rd, 2011 (Japan)
Running Time: 100 mins.
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Soubee Amako (manga), Yoshio Urasawa (Screenplay),
Starring: Seishiro Kato, Roi Hayashi, Futa Kimura, Mikijiro Hira, Susumu Terajima, Anne Watanabe, Takahiro Miura, Arata Furuta, Koji Yamamoto, Renji Ishibashi, Yusuke Yamamoto, Rei Dan, Akira Emoto
Ninja Kids!!! was the second film that I saw at the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Festival 2013 and there was an audience made up equally of adults and kids. I felt everybody was engaged and laughed at all the comedic moments and even sniffed at the more emotional ones thanks to its good natured handling by director Takashi Miike.
Ninja Kids takes place in 16th Century Japan during the Sengoku period. We first see Rantaro (Kato) at home with his parents in a farm house. He is from a low-class ninja family. Things will change because Rantaro, upon his father’s recommendation, is heading to the ninja academy to train to be an elite ninja and raise his family in terms of status. “I’ll do my best” he cries before setting off.
The academy is somewhere deep in the mountains of the Kansai region. His journey is long and we see him running through blossoming cherry trees, a town and a forest and even in between a samurai battle but he eventually makes it to the academy which is a spectacular and colourful vision of fun packed with eager, fresh-faced children and CGI ninja shimmying up and down ropes and other obstacles that look like a lot of fun.
And this is how most of the film continues. Rantaro makes a lot of friends like Shinbe (Kimura), the son of a wealthy merchant family who has a nose that constantly runs and a case of narcolepsy, and Kirimaru (Hayashi), an orphan who lost his parents in the war who now has a job babysitting to pay his way.
Indeed we get to meet nearly all of the students as we see their training like throwing grenades, fighting, evasion and deception through disguise and all sorts of ninja gadgets but these kids will soon prove their worth when assassins from the Usetake clan target a fellow student named Takamura (Mizoguchi) who want to kill his father Yukitaka (Kaga) for leaving their clan to become a hair stylist.
A hair stylist? Yes. What makes ninja kids a comedy is the sheer absurdity of the situations.
Ninja Kids, or to give it its Japanese title Nintama Rantaro (which literally means Rantaro the Ninja Boy) is based on a popular manga series created by Sōbē Amako in 1986 which is aimed at children. It has been adapted into a TV anime broadcast on NHK from 1993 and an anime film in 1996 not to mention numerous video games. This is the live-action adaptation helmed by Takashi Miike. It has proven so popular that it has spawned a sequel due out this year and even an American remake is being negotiated.
The remake can happen because the humour and comedy are broad enough to translate across cultures. It is full of gaudy sets painted bright colours for strange characters with deliberately ridiculous make-up and costumes. Cross-dressing melodramatic ninjas with a love of being theatrical mix with bad ninjas but the nefarious villains are bad by way of being inept. They are truly physically hopeless and strange looking. As one character with a big head says “I’m a villain with a big heart…”
A lot of characters look absurd and so are many other aspects like ninjas eating hamburgers in 16th Century Japan and changing nappies in class, bursting into song and flying out of windows after a demonstration in lesson misfires. The teaching portion only plays a part for the first half as it shifts into a more traditional revenge narrative but with kids.
There are fights between kids and adults but there is never a sense of threat. Despite all of the real looking weapons it is all about the fun antics that kids get up to racing around in one set piece after another pelting adults with props and outwitting them. The adults for their part end up shaking their fists and nursing towering bruises. The final chase with a revolving set is an imaginative and thrilling ride. The physical comedy is alsways just behind all of the posturing inherent in something as serious as ninja battles as we see the venerable shadow warriors of legend lampooned. It is all very like an anime with exaggerated actions.
There is an over-abundance of action to take in visually, something that Miike is good at orchestrating. There is a lot of on screen text like lesson titles (“Lesson on cliff climbing”) and explanations about the tools of the trade. It unfolds in an engaging way and never chokes the action and is usually funny. There are a lot of details to take in from the highly detailed sets which is full of extras who feel like they would carry on with life even after the camera had stopped rolling. There is heavy use of CGI: CGI ninja doing impossible stunts, CGI shuriken thrown around causing hilarious havoc as people try to dodge them and CGI snot hanging from Shinbe’s nose like a bungee cord. There is also toilet humour which is something that never impresses me but even I was laughing at the squishy and icky antics.
For adults there are the more subtle bits of humour like seeing ninja teacher Yamada’s (Terajima) pride and displeasure in his students with the little nods and smirks he gives and the number of aghast looks that Takahiro Miura can bring in his portrayal of Doi. There is also a fourth-wall breaking ninja trivia commentator who literally shreds his way into sets to address audience and cast. It is really Seishiro Kato really steals the show as bespectacled Rantaro. He is absolutely charming with his looks of innocence and a lively and good-natured personality. Quite a change from his performance in For Love’s Sake as the young hot-blooded Makoto.
The energy on screen translated easily to the audience I was with and the laughter of the kids was uproarious and unrestrained and the adults, including myself joined in. Why not? The film is funny and it has a great message about showing guts. Miike has once again proven he can master any genre by making a great kid’s movie that can delight all who see it.