Maverick Japanese director Takashi Miike may be accused of many things, but standing still is not one of them. Having slowed down somewhat since the fifteen films he released in 2001 and 2002 alone, he is now down to a humble two films per annum. If the quality of last year’s brilliant 13 Assassins is any indication, the slower pace certainly suits the man, with the younger focus of Ninja Kids!!! joining Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai in his 2011 quota.
Rantaro (Seishiro Kato, Zaitochi the Last) is a young boy born into a lowly ninja clan, and enters the Ninja Academy as per his parents expectations. Rantaro begins to make friends at the school, until one day a killer appears in the house of Yukitaka Saito (Takeshi Kaga, Zero Focus) and his son, 4th grader Takamura (Takuya Mizoguchi, Masked Rider Den-o Trilogy). They now run a popular store, but were once members of the Usetake ninjas. With the same Usetake ninjas out to kill them, it is up to the kids of the Ninja Academy to help save them.
Based on the long-running manga Rakudai Ninja Rantarō (Failure Ninja Rantaro) by Sōbē Amako, Ninja Kids!!! (忍たま乱太郎, Nintama Rantarô) was in fact one of two films released in Japan this year based on the same source, the other being the animated Gekijouban Anime Nintama Rantarou Ninjutsu Gakuen Zenin Shutsudou! no Dan from director Masaya Fujimori, who did last year’s kawaii film You Are Umasou. Miike takes many of the sensibilities of the manga and animated genre, and translates them into a live-action setting, much as he did with 2009’s Yatterman. As with a number of such adaptations before it, Miike attempts to replicate the look and feel of a comic on screen, and this typically fails because the two are very different mediums. Yet Miike is far more successful with Ninja Kids!!! than Yatterman simply because he isn’t as caught between the adult and child worlds as he was with that patchier entry. This time he is aiming purely at a younger audience, and the results are a lot of fun.
Ninja Kids!!! is a bit like Harry Potter on acid, regularly breaking the fourth wall and skewering many of norms of typical fantasy tales. An exposition ninja sporadically bursts through the painted backgrounds to explain a plot device or piece of ninja weaponry, even involving himself in the narrative on several occasions. Embattled ninjas have giant plum-sized bumps on their head, and CGI drool and snot serve to add to the comic book feel of the piece. With all of the colour cranked up to 11, this is a live-action comic book in the best sense, made by someone who innately understands the conventions of the medium.
The film may look like it was made on the fly, with wobbly sets and outlandish costumes, but this is a slick production, carefully crafted to maximise fun levels. The plot, for what it is, doesn’t really appear until at least halfway through the movie, but by then Miike has completely constructed his cartoon world, with all the wonderments that a larger budget enables him to do. Miike has continually managed to play with virtually every genre in the playbook, and the only question remaining after Ninja Kids!!! is where he will go next.