Ninja Wars
Japan 1982
Directed by Mitsumasa Saito.

Hiroyuki Sanada is Jotaro, master ninja, on a quest to revenge his ninja girlfriend, whose head was put onto another woman's body by a group of evil demon monks.

The Sengoku era, Japan's age of war, lasted roughly from the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate to the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, essentially the entire sixteenth century. During this period rival Daimyo threw their armies against one another, vying for Imperial recognition and the claim of rights to hold the supreme post of the land. It was also a time when well trained Ninja mercenaries could re-attach severed heads and vomit a suffocating, sticky paste to kill their enemies. Or at least, such is the world of Sengoku as presented here.

Ninja Wars is a big budget, bizarre, epic fantasy, hung around a framework of historic incidents and characters. The villain is Matsunaga Hisahide the infamous schemer. His clan, along with the Miyoshi clan, were responsible for assassinating the last Ashikaga Shogun. For this, he and his clan were persecuted by Oda Nobunaga because they were seen as potential rivals for the Shogun appointment. However, Matsunaga was able to come to terms with Nobunaga by giving him a special tea ceremony item, both of them enjoying tea very much. Matsunaga then turned his attention to his old allies the Miyoshi and attempted to consolidate his power over them. Over the course of the conflict, he burned down the famous Todaiji Temple of Nara for his own aims. It is for this act, more than anything else, that for which he is remembered today as a detestable villain. He switched allegiances again later on and plotted to kill Nobunaga, but the plan failed and Nobunaga's troops stormed Masunaga's castle and brought his miserable life to an end. Still, he did not die before he was able to defy Nobunaga one last time. Nobunaga demanded his head, and along with his head another special tea ceremony item on his possession. As Nobunaga's army penetrated the castle, Masunaga committed seppuku, and ordered that his head be removed, attached to the tea item, and blown up together with gunpowder. This was done, depriving Nobunaga of his prize.

This film does not show Matsunaga's head tied to a tea item and blown up with gunpowder, but if it did, such a scene would fit perfectly with the sort of action that does take place here: heads are decapitated with reckless abandon, some almost floating to the ground because of the aerodynamic qualities of the still-worn conical hats. Bodies stand for minutes on end even after losing that important appendage, spurting blood like a lawn and garden sprinkler system. And we do see the all important tea item, the one which he legendarily took with him to his grave: the Hiragumo, or "Spider Tea Kettle." And it is the Spider Tea Kettle which features prominently in the story, almost becoming a character in and of itself.

The conflict between Matsunaga (referred to here as Matsunaga Danjo) and Miyoshi begins here because of the love of a beautiful woman -- Ukiyo Daiyo, Miyoshi's young bridge. Matsunaga Danjo wants her in a bad way. Then, dark thunderclouds herald the appearance of the evil sorceror Kashin Kogi, who floats in cross-legged. "Whoever has the love of Ukiyo Daiyo, will win the world," he whines, and Matsunaga's interest is suitably piqued. She doesn't love Danjo, however, but that's no problem to the sorceror, who suggests a plan of making an aprodesiac for her to make her fall in love with him immediately. Matsunaga, always thinking with his smaller head, readily agrees.

But what Kashin Kogi didn't explain was how to make the aprodesiac, which is somewhat complicated. First of all, he has to summon his five evil demon monks, who hang around the castle acting weird all the time. Then, they make the potion, which requires Matsunaga's famous Spider Tea Kettle. Oh, and it also requires the tears of Ukiyo Daiyo's identical twin sister, when shed while being brutally raped.

So here is where our hero enters: young Jotaro (Hiroyuki Sanada), a ninja, who loves and plans to marry the twin sister, named Kagura Ibi, who is also studying to be a ninja. It goes without saying that the evil demon monks capture her, she decapitates herself, the monks decapitate a serving girl and switch the two heads, then rape the body of Kagura Ibi which now has the head of the serving girl, and collect those tears. The aphrodesiac is complete, but then the body of Kagura slips out with the Spider tea kettle, and delivers it to her love Jotaro, telling him the whole story. She dies, and he vows to save her twin sister Ukiyo Daiyo. The monks are after him, to get the kettle, and after Ukiyo Daiyo. He is after her as well, to protect her, and eventually to take the fight back to the demon monks themselves.

But Jotaro cannot succeed alone. In this he is helped by a mysterious ninja in black, who we discover is none other than the famous swordsman Muneyoshi Skishusai Yagyu (Sonny Chiba). Everyone seems suprised when he removes his mask, but come on, with eyebrows like that, it can only be Sonny Chiba. The historic Muneyoshi Yagyu may have been serving Oda Nobunaga at this time, and is reknowned for developing a powerful style of swordfighting, which later so impressed Ieyasu Tokugawa that the Yagyu clan entered into the Shogun's service and quickly rose in prominence. Muneyoshi Yagyu is the grandfather of Jubei Yagyu, who is even more famous than his father. Stories abound of Jubei's alledged ninja exploits, centering around a ten year gap in the historic records of his career. He is easily recognizable by his eyepatch. Sonny Chiba has played this character, too, on TV as well as in film.

So the minions of Kashin Kogi are vomiting their suffocating poison across the land, and only the young ninja Jotaro and master swordsman Yagyu stands between them and their evil plans. The monks learn that Ukiyo Daiyo will be at Todaiji temple, and plan an abduction. To distract attention from their true aim, they launch an assault on the temple and burn it to the ground. Todaiji temple really did burn down in 1567, and on Matsunaga's orders, too. Of course, it has been rebuilt, and can be visited today, though the Buddha currently installed there is not the full size of the original, which in the film, as is typical for Ninja Wars, also gets decapitated. Jotaro launches a daring rescue, lugging around the spider tea kettle all the while. In the end, whoever wins the love of Ukiyo Daiyo does in fact win the world, if 'winning the world' actually means to die a fiery and horrible death, at any rate. That's the trouble with these obscure prophesies, they're so hard to understand, sometimes.

This is an epic but deeply weird film, weird in a way that American epic films never are. The demon monks in their fantastically oversized hats and ninja magic, the evil Kashin Koji, who never walks anywhere when he can float just as easily, and the head of Kagura Ibi, which, when placed on the body of the serving girl, becomes known as Lady Hellfire, together leave the viewer spellbound, awestruck, and, frankly, not just a little confused. But fantasy films that are as creative and exciting as Ninja Wars are hard to come by, and in that respect this movie is a gem. Watch out for the appalingly bad dubbing on the English version, and the occasional edits that make you wonder just how much of the movie you are really seeing. For example, at one point Jotaro is squaring off against the demon monks and he throws some powder at them and runs. The very next instant, he is thanking Yagyu for his timely arrival and the monks are nowhere to be seen. I had half a mind to edit in a title card which reads "DARING LAST MINUTE RESCUE AND ESCAPE SCENE MISSING" between the two. Whether this kind of clumsy editing is in the Japanese version I don't know. But the film is entertaining enough that I'm willing to track it down and watch it just to find out.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.

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