One of the least-seen yet most-loved ninja films of the VHS era, Sakura Killers blew me away as a kid but has been lost to the void over time. It took me a while to track down a copy since it’s never had an official DVD release and, when I finally got hold of the old UK VHS tape (in Oxfam of all places), I feared that its obscurity must mean it wasn’t actually very good after all. I mean otherwise… someone would’ve re-released it, right? WRONG! SAKURA KILLERS IS AWESOME!
The opening scene sets the tone, as a pair of ninjas break into a building. They cartwheel and frontflip and do the worm at high speeds. They climb up the wall backwards. They slash, stab and strangle the guards and steal a Betamax videotape. Unfortunately, they’re evil ninjas from the Sakura Organisation and the all-important videotape is now in the wrong hands. What does this mean? “A lot of trouble for a lot of people” apparently. It’s never entirely clear what’s on the tape (some kind of secret formula) but – this being the 80s – the Russians are very interested in the content and the Sakura only too willing to sell it.
The Sakura Organisation are a little like the Japanese Zaibatsu in that they’re a bunch of super-corporations whose sinister political machinations are as mysterious as they are threatening. They use ninjas to do their dirty work and these are some proper dirty ninjas too. There’s a brilliant ninja training scene where the best student duffs up the others then bows to the master to assert his victory. The master, rather than offering a simple “congratulations”, kicks him in the face, tells him “I offer pain not praise” and then stabs him. If you don’t stop to question the logic of a ninja school that kills its best pupils, this is clearly serious business.
Enter The Colonel (played by 1950s Western legend Chuck Connors), a grizzled old dude in a baseball jacket and sunglasses who lives on a ranch, shoots trespassers and seems to exist purely to protect America from foreign evils. Who does he work for? AMERICA. No, but really? AMERICA. Specifically? AMERICA. It’s all you need to know. He hires a couple of random meatheads he refers to as his “agents” to fly to Taiwan and retrieve the stolen videotape and, aside from a couple of literal “meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenes where the Colonel updates us on world events, that’s all we see of him. Although he does find time to deliver a curious monologue that compares Ninjutsu to golf…
The bulk of the film follows an 80s buddy movie template as the Colonel’s agents Sonny (Mike Kelly) and Dennis (George Nichols) bumble their way through Taiwan on the Sakura trail. At times, it plays like a travelogue as they spend their time going to restaurants, making asinine small talk and admiring the various tea customs of Asia. They even have time to watch a boat race but eventually all this horsing around leads to their being attacked by ninjas and they realise they must up their game. Luckily, Dennis knows a girl who works at the tea shop whose father is a ninja master (phew!) and he’s quite happy to give up the ancient secrets of Ninjutsu to these two goobers if it means saving the world.
Once they’re up to speed – via a training montage so joyful I could’ve cried – they somehow acquire two of the absolute coolest ninja outfits imaginable and get ready to kick glorious ass. I mean, you can’t help admire Sonny and Dennis for their fashion know-how if nothing else. Their master told them they must cover their faces with masks. I assumed this would just mean the usual ninja hoods but no… these guys get themselves Oni Noh masks! Devil ninjas! I think I actually shrieked out loud at the reveal of their costumes. They throw a smoke bomb and turn suddenly from regular guys into these:
There are obviously some qualities to Sakura Killers that are naff and amateurish but there’s so much heart, it’s hard to hold these against it. The two leads are ropey actors – they deliver their lines like they’ve got a mouthful of marbles – but they look the part, have a lot of charisma and fight like they’re on fire. They’re also unique as ninja heroes because they really are believable as a pair of regular American chuckleheads and this is a big part of the film’s appeal. It’s a classic escapist fantasy – if these schmucks can be ninjas, anyone can – it’s actually achievable!
Even some of the bizarrely mundane elements work in favour of the overall enjoyment, like the obsession with filming carpets or spending time with characters as they laze about drinking Sprite and getting their hair blow-dried. I don’t want to give it credit for ineptitude but there’s almost a No-Wave Cinema feel to it at times. You get a feel for the workaday grit of 80s Taiwan that’s like actually being there… but with added ninja floor shows every five minutes.
And boy, there is a LOT of ninja action in this one. The fighting (rumoured to be choreographed by the legendary Wang Yu, who some claim co-directed Sakura Killers) is all over the place in terms of picking a martial art but it looks phenomenal, focusing on gratuitous gymnastics, light-speed acrobatics and insane ninja magic. We get one of my personal favourites – the burrowing ninja! – as well as a ninja who can disappear and replace himself with ten straw ninjas to obfuscate the enemy. The final fight is one of my personal favourites ever, featuring the two American agents, the deca-locating bad guy and one awesome lady ninja in a pink suit, all going for it at once.
With all this happening you can forgive stuff like slight plotting and atrocious dialogue. I did wonder, given the high level of repetition in the latter (ie: Dennis telling Sonny the food in a restaurant is “pretty good” three times in one conversation, or the famous “we’d like to ask you some questions… we think you can help us with the answers!”) whether it was improvised and apparently it was. Mike Kelly popped up on IMDB a couple of years ago to tell critics that it wasn’t worth trying to poke holes in the script “cause we didn’t have one!” He also adds that he had the best time of his life, which is evident in the sense of fun that permeates every frame of Sakura Killers.
For sheer value-for-money, there aren’t many films that offer as much ninja mayhem nor devote themselves so slavishly to making it look as nutty. There’s also an incredible synthesiser score by “William Scott” (a pseudonym?) that blends traditional Japanese melodies with 80s instrumentation (what I wouldn’t give for this soundtrack to be released in full!) and the film’s lean runtime means nothing wears out its welcome. Although, to be fair, I could have probably watched five hours of Sonny and Dennis’s antics in Taiwan and still not been bored, I loved it so much.
Sometimes you can judge a ninja film by how it answers the question posed in almost all of them: “What’s a ninja?” In Sakura Killers, this answer is as no-nonsense as the film itself: “They kill people.” That’s really all you need to know.