Ninja Wars (1982) is one of those bizarro movies of the VHS era that you may remember renting but have probably since dismissed as just a bad dream you had about goo-spitting devil monks and ninja romance in Feudal Japan… Surely a film like that couldn’t be real? The truth is, Ninja Wars would probably be less strange and easier to follow if it had all been a dream. This is one impressively surreal ninja film and trying to unravel its meaning is probably a mental exercise you could do in order to achieve a suitable state of zen for actual ninja magic. Oh, it also won three Japanese Academy Awards (!).
Ninja Wars opens with a voiceover asking “Why do men fight?” before introducing a fight-happy badman called Danjo. He’s a high society type who’s obsessed with Lady Ukyo (Noriko Watanabe), the Shogun’s daughter. Ukyo’s married so Danjo’s outta luck until Kashin The Sorceror appears on his doorstep one night in the middle of a thunderstorm… According to Kashin, who has a somewhat heightened sense of drama, “Whoever wins the heart of Lady Ukyo shall rule over Heaven and Earth!” Danjo pledges to achieve this at all costs and Kashin provides him with five evil magicians who can help him brew a guaranteed-win love potion in a special “spider teapot”.
Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Jotaro (Henry Sanada) and his girlfriend Kagabiri (Noriko Watanabe). “Wait, what? Noriko Watanbe? But doesn’t she play Ukyo?” you may think and you’d be right. It takes a confusing few minutes to figure it out but Kagabiri is Ukyo’s long-lost twin sister who was abandoned by the Shogun when she was a baby (no explanation as to why – I guess he just likes chucking babies away?) and has been living and training with ninjas ever since. She has some pretty impressive ninja powers including the production of something called “the moon sickle” which seems to be a super-sharp blade that she can craft between her fingers using light. She’s also happily in love with Jotaro so no prizes for guessing that there’s trouble ahead…
In the middle of a romantic frolic for our happy couple, Danjo’s five evil magicians rock up, serve some trash talk, fly around the trees and spit gallons of bright yellow devil goo all over Jotaro, burning his whole face off. They also kidnap Kagabiri and take her back to Danjo’s palace of evil.
We learn that the recipe for Kashin’s love potion involves the collection of tears from Ukyo’s virgin sister as she’s raped by the magicians (I don’t write this stuff, don’t blame me)… EXCEPT Kagabiri escapes her fate by CUTTING HER OWN HEAD OFF. The magicians, not to be deprived of a good raping, decapitate one of Danjo’s courtesans, swap Kagabiri’s head onto her body, put the courtesan’s head onto Kagabiri’s body, bring them both back to life and rape the newly re-headed Kagabiri, collecting her tears (along with 10 mysterious herbs) in the spider teapot. Also, Jotaro’s not dead after all (“a ninja is good at playing dead” his master explains!).
Yeah, this is where the film becomes entirely incomprehensible. For a while, three characters are walking around with Noriko Watanabe’s head on and it’s impossible to follow who’s whom and why anyone is doing any of this crazy shit. Obviously, Jotaro seeks revenge when he finds out about the head-swapping and – at long last – some actual ninjas get involved. Besides a dead one hanging from a tree at the start, we don’t actually see any ninjas until 40 minutes into this unholy mess and, when we do, they might as well not be there. There’s a ninja with huge 80s rock star hair who may be important but you’ll have long stopped caring by the time his shock identity is revealed.
The weirdest part of Ninja Wars is that, far from being a DTV cheapie, it’s lavishly produced. It boasts a spectacular swordfight scene in a burning temple that gets razed to the ground as the violence escalates. The lighting, art direction and cinematography in this sequence are all first rate and it’s not surprising that all three won Academy Awards (as baffling as the film’s content may be). The soundtrack is great too, loaded with haunting flute pieces that lend an ethereal air of portent.
If you can endure the incoherence and the inherent misogyny of the plot, your patience will be rewarded with a few scenes of mystical mayhem. There are Lone Wolf style decapitations with gallons of arterial spray, the goo-spitting devil monks do a lot of flying on wires and most of the action has a psychedelic feel to it that’s genuinely unsettling. There were a couple of times, while watching it, that I felt my sanity starting to wobble. If you’re anything like me, these nightmarish scenes are the ones you’ll remember years later when you think Ninja Wars is a good film and you’ve forgotten how slow and nonsensical it is for the most part.
The mind-melting finalé takes place in Hell and is about as close as any ninja film has got to evoking the work of Ken Russell. I haven’t got a clue what it all means – something about love and war? – but there’s no denying its visual impact. Beautiful and hallucinatory as this climax may be, however, I finished Ninja Wars with the distinct feeling of being short-changed. There’s really only a few minutes of footage where we see recognisably dressed ninjas and the fighting – aside from the temple swordfight – is mostly just dudes on wires flinging themselves around trees. There’s mysticism and magic galore but no real martial arts brutality on display. I’m pretty sure that if you asked director Kôsei Saitô what he was trying to achieve with this, he’d probably say he was making a romantic drama. Which is fine, but if you’re seeking a movie with serious ninjing in it, these Wars won’t leave you feeling victorious.