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Saturday, April 13, 2013

RED NINJA: THE MOVIE 3 Film Collection (1967)

How cool would it have been to grow up in a country and culture where they actually made decent and fun live-action kid's shows where the heroes were ninjas and it was explicitly stated up front that the heroes killed their enemies? That's just what Japanese kids got when Toei's KAMEN NO NINJA AKAKAGE ("Akakage, the Masked Ninja") debuted, and its over-the-top and often anachronistic content went over big with the audience. And while us round-eyes were no strangers to crazy Japanese live-action superhero fare — thanks to daily after school airings of ULTRAMAN, JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT, SPACE GIANTS, and SPECTREMAN — Akakage's show never made it to the States, presumably because of its (mild) sword-related violence and the occasional gruesome deaths of its villains. (A nasty immolation springs to mind.) Too bad, because its creator, manga legend Mitsteru Yokoyama, already had a massive fan following in the States thanks to GIGANTOR (though that American iteration did not credit him as its creator) and capitalizing on the popularity of that animated giant robot cult favorite might have gotten some American distributor's attention (though the show would have definitely required some cuts here and there for violence).

Yuzaburo Sakaguchi as stylish ninja Akakage.

Yeah, the stuff the Japanese found suitable for children would never have flown here in its uncut form and that's a shame because Akakage — whose name translates as "Red Shadow" — is a hero very much cut from the same wholesome cloth as our own homegrown Lone Ranger (complete with mask that barely obscures his features yet somehow allows him not to instantly be recognized). He's dutiful, extremely capable, kind, loyal to his friends and the good guy feudal lords who employ  his services, and he rocks a bitchin' hairdo and stylish red scarf, so he's a perfect role model for impressionable kiddies. Plus, he kicks truckloads of ass!

A typical day at work for Akakage, and he isn't even impressed with himself.

Aided by his partners, cheery veteran ninja Shirokage ("White Shadow," played by Fuyukichi Maki) and kid ninja Aokage ("Blue Shadow," played by Yoshinobu Kaneko, kid brother of fellow child actor  Mitsunobu Kaneko of JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT renown), Akakage fearlessly takes on all manner of weirdo cults, sorcerers, assassins, thieves, and even giant monsters, with tons of mayhem ensuing in the process, all in steadfast service to keep Japan safe and free. And while the series may not have aired in the U.S., a number of theatrical films were cobbled together from multi-episode arcs of the show and dubbed for release in English-speaking countries. I have no accurate information when that would have occurred but by the sound of some of the familiar actors voicing the characters, voice actors I recognize from scores of Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks that played theatrically and on TV in the U.S. from roughly the mid-1970's through the early 1980's, I'd guess they were released international around 1980 through perhaps 1982. That would have been the perfect time in which to capitalize on the public's fascination with ninjas in the wake of hit low-budget movies like the American-made ENTER THE NINJA and REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Those films particularly captured the imaginations of kids who were too young to get in to see the R-rated thrills contained therein, so the movies made from the old Toei ninja kiddie show was just the thing to scratch that itch. Renaming Aokage as "Watari" in an attempt to cash-in on the name recognition of the character played by Kaneko in the very popular 1966 kid's fantasy film WATARI THE NINJA BOY — a film I'm not sure got much release outside of Japan, though it did play in Italy — and naming at least two of the films after Watari, the movies were unleashed upon an international audience and only made it to American video shelves three years ago. Being a fan of Japanese superhero shows and also being familiar with the image of Akakage after years of seeing him in magazines and items bearing his likeness at conventions (though I did not then know his name), I picked up the DVD on a whim because it cost less than ten bucks and listed itself as containing three movies. A bargain, right?

Well, released under the title RED NINJA, the DVD is a two-sided collection that allows American viewers our first good look at Akakage and his pals, and I have to report that it's a pretty mixed bag. The material's TV origins are readily apparent and I don't see that aspect being a problem for those of us of a certain age who were raised on this kind of program, but modern audiences may be put off by the perceived cheapness that was part and parcel with live-action Japanese superhero shows of its era. Also, the episodic nature of the strung-together serialized installment can cause the narrative to just go on and on and on, which can lead to tedium in spite of there being a lot of action. And when viewed in a concentrated dose, Akakage's adventures come off like one brain-dead action set-piece after another, while the already minimal and kiddie-simplistic plots become more or less beside the point.

As for the characters, I really, really liked Akakage and would be willing to see the rest of this series in its original form. His partners, the elder Shirokage and the tweener Aokage, form with Akakage a potentially interesting "three ages of the ninja" dynamic, but that aspect is not really explored, save for Shirokage occasionally teasing or chiding Aokage for being an undisciplined kid (he doesn't really mean it). Shirokage's a lot of fun, being uncharacteristically cheerful for an  elder master of over-the-top ninjutsu, and his signature move is to whip out a huge kite that he and Aokage often ride into the sky to give battle against ridiculous airborne foes. Aokage, as expected for a show of its vintage, is another in the very long line of incredibly annoying child characters in Japanese fare. It's definitely a cultural thing (or at least it used to be) and it's particularly grating to the sensibilities of most American fans of this genre. Aokage, while a capable ninja warrior and spy, is often portrayed doing broadly-cutesy and "funny" things, sometimes in fast-motion accented with "wacky" music, and those antics bring the narratives to a dead halt. While the series was a wild, over-the-top melange of superhero adventure stories, ninja and samurai tropes, giant monsters, and quest/mission tales, the forced humor just does not fit in with the rest of the ingredients.

When taken at face value for what they are, Akaage's adventures can be acceptable cheesy fun, but I recommend breaking each film up into twenty-minute segments and watching them in such increments over the course of a few days rather than in one sitting. That way they don't become tedious and you won't be subjected to Aokage's buffoonery in saturation doses.

But the one thing the potential buyer of this set needs to know is that while it bills itself as containing three movies, that's not exactly the case. Side A of the sole disc contains NINJASCOPE: THE MAGIC WORLD OF NINJAS, which introduces us to Akakage and his teammates, while Side B features WATARI THE CONQUEROR and WATARI AND THE FANTASTIKS. The snag here is that the latter two are exactly the same movie, with the only difference being that they have different titles. My theory on this is that perhaps that film went out to different territories for theatrical release under different titles and the issuers of this DVD set didn't bother to note that they were the same movie. Either that or the company knew what was up and didn't care, figuring that the cheap price of the item would mitigate the dishonesty. Whatever the case may be, if you buy it, you only get two movies. And of the films on the disc, I'd say the dual-titled film on Side B is the more entertaining one, though NINJASCOPE does include a giant fire-breathing toad monster that's about a notch or two better than most of the creatures found in one of the era's Daiei Gamera series. Smoke a few bonghits and kick back a few beers, and they're an okay way to kill some time.  

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