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Ninja War of Torakage, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Ninjas and other nuttiness."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's not fair to say one either digs Yoshihiro Nishimura or one doesn't, because his output as a director can vary wildly even if the general style is the same - the awful "Zombie TV" comes from the same part of his brain as the very fun "Helldriver". He often makes movies to give himself a place to put some of the crazier make-up/effects ideas he has and let some crazy action and goofy comedy rip, which isn't always going to result in great art. "Ninja Torakage" is actually one of his more grounded productions, and it's still kind of nutty.

It is narrated by Francisco, a "Portuguese" scholar of the ninja who really doesn't even look a bit Caucasian, who tells us of the Homura clan, at the time led by the ruthless Gensai Shinonome (Eihi Siina), who in order to get her hands on a scroll that can unlock a lost treasure kidnaps the son of Torakage (Takumi Saito), once the greatest ninja of the clan but now retired to farm with his wife Tsukikage (Yuria Haga), a fair ninja herself. Obviously, he will be seeking a chance to turn the tables, but that will be difficult between a corrupted cult, the sheer numbers Shinonome can send against him, and the lurking presense of Onimanji (Kanji Tsuda), a rival ninja whose son is practically feral.

This is the moment where I'd often wink and say "or something along those lines", but even when indulging in a fondness for weird detours, Nishimura has made something where the desire to tell a story squeaks ahead of the desire to show what kind of crazy things he can create. Surprisingly, there's relatively little really strange effects work to it - really, just one weird monster - although there is plenty of way over the top gore in the fights' aftermath. It gets bizarre at times, no question; Nishimura is the kind of filmmaker who will get an image in his head and always think "how do I create this with practical effects and makeup" rather than "how do I justify this story-wise", and so the script opens doors to the absurd while the crew behind the scenes gets busy. Fortunately, Ninja Torakage has a look that embraces its low-budget artifice, feeling about halfway between a backyard production and something polished enough to play theaters even if Nishimura is also the guy called on to do special-effects makeup for major Japanese blockbusters like Attack on Titan.

The cast often seems to be at the same level as the rest of the production - they seem to be having a good time and are never really bad (or at least, never out-of-step with the rest of the film), but are also not exactly turning in the most subtle work of their careers. Eihi Shiina, in particular, does not care about nuance at all, screaming he way through the movie as the megalomaniac warlord (war-lady?); it's what works for the movie, though it's miles away from her chillingly controlled work in Audition. Meanwhile, Takumi Saito plays his master ninja as enjoyably laid-back; there's the occasional flash of how he can be a dangerous guy when he wants to be, but most of the tiime there's both mastery and relative peace to his semi-relaxed attitude. Yuria Haga does something similar, while Kanji Tsuda does the sort of set-jawed, I'll-prove-I'm-on-your-level thing that rivals like Onimanji always do.

These guys and the others that fill out the Homura army do a fair job when it comes time to fight, although mostly because there's an enthusiasm to the action. Still, the presense of Nana Seino in a small role kind of highlights the difference between Nishimura's brand of action and the really amazing stuff: You look at what she did with Sion Sono in Tokyo Tribe or Mamoru Oshii in Nowhere Girl - along with some pretty great stunt choreographers - and Nishimura doesn't quite just have his actors hacking randomly at each other with their swords - there's energy and good use of space - but those scenes aren't quite given the same love and attention to detail as the effects.

But, then, that's what Nishimura does, and this is one of the times when he's got good enough collaborators that the energy comes out as a positive. "Ninja Torakage" is one of those movies made with at least an eye on the westerners who like campy Japanese action, but it's also pretty watchable for reasons beyond laughing at the silliness.

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originally posted: 08/26/15 10:08:02
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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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