シュシュシュの娘（こ） 「Shushushu no Musume (ko)」
Release Date: August 21st 2021
Duration: 88 mins.
Director: Yu Irie
Writer: Yu Irie (Script)
Starring: Saki Fukuda, Ryoka Neya, Matsuo Yoshioka, Mayumi Kanetani, Shohei Uno, Arata Yamanaka, Arata Iura,
The shushushu onomatopoeia in the Japanese title of Ninja Girl is the swishing sound of shuriken thrown through the air. However, the titular character at the heart of this film is probably the least able shadow warrior one could find with shurikens not in her armoury and, even if they were there, she would probably not able to use them.
This is the comedy of Ninja Girl, the latest work by Yu Irie, a veteran director whose name has more recently been attached to many major mainstream films like Memoirs of a Murderer (2017). His film shows the least likely person taking a stance against conservative political orthodoxy. In order to make it, he had to turn to crowd-funding since no major studio would be likely back a story with subject matter critical of the establishment, especially not during the Covid-19 pandemic which is when this was filmed with a small team as a quick and fun pick-me-up for an industry afflicted by the cancellation of projects. Since it is an indie film, Irie returns to the cheaper rural locations featured in his earlier titles, like 2009’s 8,000 Miles (aka SR: Saitama Rapper), and makes great use of them to bring about a deliberately bumbling action film set in what looks to be a boring part of Japan defined by low-rise buildings, featureless fields, and winding roads.
The ninja girl we follow is Miu Komaru (Saki Fukuda), a timid and somewhat naïve young woman who lives on the edge of rural Fukuya City, Saitama. We watch her quiet quotidian routines and see her time is split between her work at Fukaya city hall, where she is snowed in by paperwork, and her home, where she looks after her bedridden paternal grandfather, her last living relative. While she is pensive and obsequious, he is a political firebrand who is at odds with the local government who have co-opted nationalist thugs and xenophobia to influence the area.
As you can imagine from Miu’s circumstances, she lives an isolated life but it gets lonelier when a kind-hearted family friend named Koji Mano (Arata Iura) commits suicide by throwing himself off the roof of city hall in a fit of despair after being ordered to doctor documents by his superiors to help the mayor pass xenophobic laws targeting foreigners for removal. Koji’s death leaves Miu devastated but her grandfather shows more steel by declaring they will get vengeance for Koji. How? Video evidence of the crooked dealings in the civil service exists, they just need to get the recording. This is where ninja skills are necessary. Specifically, Miu’s ninja skills for she is the last descendant of a family of ninjas. With this revelation shocking her out of her small-town obliviousness, Miu hops on her scooter and begins an offbeat adventure to battle the prejudice and dishonesty of those in authority as a newly-minted NINJA GIRL!
Told in a concise and pacey 88 minutes, Ninja Girl is something of a snarky attack on politicians, specifically, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party which is frequently dogged by scandals over dodgy documentation and ugly nationalism¹. Irie makes no bones about calling out how bad officialdom is by riffing on their real-world wrongdoing for the film’s antagonists. However, for a film with such serious subject matter – xenophobia, complacency, corruption, and violence – it deftly deals with it through deploying bathos by way of a ninja action film done in a realistic setting and revelling in all of the anti-climatic action that would create.
We chuckle as Miu gets her hands on some ninja training manuals and finds they only go as far as making the costume. We laugh at how, instead of flitting across rooftops, she scooters around country lanes and side streets in full costume in plain sight of fellow Fukuya city citizens. We guffaw at how she gets into action set-pieces with the gang of nationalist thugs during night-time ambushes and finds that her weapon of choice – a blowgun fashioned from a childhood toy – is ineffectual and her appearance does more to confuse her foes who are surprised to see a ninja running around in a contemporary setting. Running through these comedy moments is a sense of frustration and disappointment.
Miu’s initial disappointment as a ninja is compounded by her reliance on others and also a myriad other disappointments throughout the story like witnessing the mistreatment of immigrants, the least romantic subplot you can imagine, and losing loved ones. It is a noxious mix that would dissuade a normal person from fighting the establishment, especially when coupled with an underlying a sense of frustration we sense she has as, the more time we spend with her in her environs, the more we feel that her life is constricted due to her location – a town that is comatose rather than just sleepy – and the local population – small-minded venal people. This is emphasised by the film’s look – a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio that traps her in her surroundings. That she only comes to life and becomes energetic when she is by herself and crafting her costume and doing some ninja training, as seen in poppy montages scored to 80s-inspired music, shows how disengaged she is from her surroundings and other people.
However, despite these setbacks the story leads to a very pleasurable character arc where we see that the more disappointments she endures, the tougher she gets until she makes an active decision to change herself into a ninja terminatrix and initiates a laugh-out-loud funny massacre that left my jaw on the floor. It is nothing extreme in the ninja genre but in the confines of the film, the diffident girl gets some grit. Through her arc, I think we get one of the over-arching themes of the film: in order to make a just society, we have to do more than just sit back in complacency waiting for others. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I saw Miu as emblematic of your disconnected voter who is motivated by selfish empathy or too distracted by obligations to participate in civil society. Despite being generally aware, it isn’t until she brushes up against the malignant nastiness of her town and experiences disappointment that she is spurred into action. Once that happens, she drops her complacency and actively opposes the people menacing town and makes a difference. I think it is reflective of how people everywhere deal with life.
Whatever the case, we are always wishing the best for Miu, partly because the film portrays her as being on the righteous side and partly because lead actor Saki Fukuda’s pitch-perfect performance is irresistibly cute and endearing. Her hunched body-language and hushed speech give the initial impression of a woman with zero confidence whose bumbling ninja efforts are laughable but we root for her because she is loveable in her efforts at trying to break out of her shell and do the right thing and there are glimmers of hope such as when we see she is very good at adapting everyday things into the toolkit of a kunoichi – the delicacy of chikuwa is a great way to practice shooting blow darts. It is inspirational and funny to see how she works everything out for herself via YouTube videos and how-to guides. It suggests that even the most ordinary person can achieve something if they put their mind to it.
Like Miu, the power to make change is in all of us but only if we stay actively engaged in our community and with others. And this was the message for me in a bittersweet political satire where a young woman goes against the grain and battles to break out of a disappointing life and corrupt society to head to a brighter future.
¹ e.g. this financing deal from 2018 which saw land sold cheaply to a nationalistic school operator
Apologies for the length of the review. One last thing, Irie films a person departing this mortal coil or a country beautifully with the pan of a camera which starts with a person then returns to their position and shows their absence. In another scene, a character is tracked shuffling off into the darkness before panning back to Miu by herself. I found these two techniques really heart-breaking and I cried a little.