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Ninja the Monster
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by Jay Seaver

"Better than the title, if not up to the title's potential."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Director Ken Ochiai was unusually candid in his Q&A after this film, and one of the things he mentioned was that Japanese movies like "Ninja the Monster" are made with more than an eye toward the foreign market, opening on maybe five screens back home and hoping to make more money on home video elsewhere, and one can feel it straining for accessibility and against budget.

It takes place in 1783; after the last war, the government has exterminated the ninja clans, as there is no need for entire clans of assassins and spies in peacetime. That is why the samurai Hikojuro is carrying a message from Nagano to Edo, a job previously reserved for ninjas, although what he encounters would challenge any sort of warrior. Some time later, another party is following the same path - Princess Koh (Aoi Morikawa), set to become a councilor's concubine in exchange for aid to prevent a famine, along with a retinue of samurai led by Choemon (Soko Wada), along with one other bodyguard, Denzo (Dean Fujioka), a bit of a mystery, though a skilled swordsman. As they reach the area where Hikojuro disappeared, the locals say that they should not approach the forest, but Nagano can't afford the delay.

The image of the ninja has become fairly well-established in pop culture over recent decades, which really never mad a lot of sense, considering that they were meant to be the invisible assassins of feudal Japan. Ochiai, writer Akijiro Dobashi, and their crew never put Dean Fujioka in a black bodysuit and bandana, and it's admittedly kind of odd: For all that, in real life, ninja were feared because they could be anyone and anywhere, Fujioka playing Denzo so low-key seems to leave something missing - we never see Denzo as an underdog, but he also lacks the aura of invincibility.

That's part of how the film looks and feels fairly flat - not bad, per se, just a bit underpopulated in some areas, clearly indicating the limited budget that the filmmakers have to work with, although it falls short of hampering them: The camera is pointed at beautiful things when they're outside, and the sets and costumes are fine, if kind of off-the-rack, but there's very little that's distinctive. Aoi Morikawa feels rather muted as the Princess, and many of the others in the cast seeming to be very one-note without regard to what's going on with the other actors or elsewhere in the movie.

On the plus side, the monsters are pretty great when we get a look at them, although it limits the action to something more FX-based than the actual swordfights you might want from a movie featuring samurai and ninjas. They are cool designs, lighter than air but having mass to them, and the filmmakers do well in making it feel like the ninja and monsters are on the same screen.

Taken all together, Ochiai does a fine job of making a horror/monster movie, with some cool moments and interesting designs. It just can't help feeling like such a targeted product rather than a movie someone wanted to make in some ways, neither a scrappy passion project or a big production. Short and capable, it's not a bad risk, but not a classic of any sort.

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originally posted: 09/15/15 12:08:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ken Ochiai

Written by
  Akihiro Dobashi

  Dean Fujioka
  Aoi Morikawa
  Sohkoh Wada

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