Ninja Dragon, The
Japan 1990
Directed by Go Nagai.

In modern day Japan, Ninja heroes defend a high school girl from men who bite people's faces off and aliens from outerspace.

When someone gets their arm ripped off and bright red blood spurts from the gory stump before the opening credits or even the first line of dialog, you know you've got something special. And what you have here is anime artist and writer Go Nagai directing a live action movie for the first time. Go Nagai is famous for his manga series CUTEY HONEY, DEVILMAN, and various giant robot series. He is also well known for the strong violence and nudity in his anime films. In this move to a live action movie, one might well expect the same sort of elements to predominate, and the opening scene does seem to meet those expectations.

But something happens on the way to the rest of the film. Or to be more precise, nothing much happens at all -- and that's the problem. The Ninja Dragon can best be described as the story of the High School aged daughter of a Yakusa leader and her Ninja chauffeur. Of course he isn't a ninja when he's driving, and in fact he's the most idiotic looking moron I've ever seen. But of course this is his 'Clark Kent' disguise, and when, halfway through the film, we learn that he is the Ninja Dragon, well, not even my cat was suprised.

The young girl, Shinobu, is given a bell pendant which, when rung, summons the ninja to her aid. This movie could have been a great christmas special, where everyone at the end could have started up a round of Auld Lang Syne and a young girl could learn that "Every time a bell rings, a ninja kills some things."

Anyway, it turns out that this fat Yakusa leader named Ranjuji has decided to take over, and he and his two henchmen, a woman who wears tight red dresses and fires a submachine gun, and a sunglasses wearing, arm-ripping-off Terminator type, kill everyone and kidnap Shinobu. (This all takes place after about half an hour of what could have been called Driving Miss Shinobu). The chauffeur transforms into the Ninja Dragon, summons a couple other ninja companions, and goes to rescue the girl. Apparently as part of the transformation, he must also perform a soliliqy the length of which would make Hamlet shudder, about how his family has protected the Momochi clan for 28 generations, ever since the time of the Iga war of the sixteenth century.

When the heroic ninjas arrive at Ranjuji's hideout, they find all is not what it seemed, and in fact Ranjuji and his henchmen may not be 'men' at all, but demons. In the middle of all this dramatic ninja fighting action, the female henchman and a female ninja square off against each other -- and immediately start wrestling. Out of nowhere, a mat appears on the floor and on the walls of the room they are fighting in. Inexplicably, both of them don spandex outfits. It is completely bizarre, and really just silly, but I guess that's what you get when you hire two pro wrestlers to be in your film (Cutey Suzuki and Rikiya Yasuoka). No doubt Go Nagai was desperately trying to find a place in the film where they could wrestle each other, couldn't find one, so put it in anyway.

It's hard to say what could have saved this movie. Probably if it was an anime, none of the films shortcomings would have been apparent: the acting, the special effects, the costumes. The Ninja Dragon did remind me why I like live action fantasy films so much more than anime, though, which is: Live action fantasy is much, much harder to do. Let me rephrase that: it's much, much harder to do well. In anime films, think up something, and it can be done. There is no limit to what you can show, to what you can do. The only limit is in the imagination and creativity of the writers and artists, and no matter how complicated the action of a story becomes, they need never get any help from anyone else. Live action, however, is a different story. You can imagine anything you want to, but transferring that to the screen is another matter entirely and takes a certain amount of ingenuity, skill, and teamwork to do it right. That's not to say I don't enjoy anime -- I certainly do, but in general if someone were to do a live action version of a popular anime, I would be inclined to like the live action version much more -- Tsui Hark's incredible version of Wicked City being a case in point.

The Ninja Dragon was kind of fun to watch, but ultimately disappoints. Too many pointless scenes in the beginning, cheesy special effects, a ninja wrestling match, and an ending ripped right out of the pages of John Carpenter's The Thing, add up to a lackluster freshman effort from director Go Nagai. Perhaps with a larger budget and a better script, Go Nagai's next live action film, if he chooses to make one, will come closer to the energy, visual excitement, and style of his justly famous manga series.

Rating: Not Recommended (Not Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.

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