As I’ve mentioned before, one crucial theory of Ninjology is that the given answer to the perennial question of “What’s a ninja?” is often a way to gauge the quality and style of a film. Here, when a student asks his master “What is this ninja?” he’s told “Um, I’m not familiar” and perhaps that reveals a little too much about Five Element Ninjas… It’s a Shaw Brothers production directed by studio mainstay Chang Cheh and starring most of the famous Venom Mob so you can expect a certain level of quality and budget at least. However, it’s from 1982 by which stage the Shaws’ dominance was already on the wane. Exciting, younger production companies with new styles were taking the baton and somersaulting away with it. Sadly, for me, a lot of the early 80s Shaw movies feel dated and a little tired by comparison to both their peers and their own 70s output (much of which remains timeless) as they tried to chase trends they didn’t quite understand and superimpose their indomitable style onto them. Here, they have a crack at ninjas and while it’s certainly a valiant attempt, Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Superninjas) is not among the genre’s finest. The plot is convoluted and pretty terrible. It takes such a long time to even establish who its protagonist is (this isn’t entirely clear until some 40 minutes in) that it’s really hard to invest any emotion in him. I tried to put together a scene-by-scene synopsis but, as a writer, it gave me an actual headache how scattershot and unstructured it was. Basically, there’s a school of valiant Chinese martial artists and a bunch of shady Japanese ninjas vying for dominance over “The Martial World”. They start out by playing fair and holding tournaments but it all goes dark when the mysterious “Five Element Ninjas” kill almost all the school’s best warriors. To make it worse, a female ninja spy (nicknamed “Nuisance”, which arguably sums up Chang Cheh’s attitude to having to write women into his stories at all) infiltrates the school using her feminine wiles (she plays the flute and wears sexy fishnets) and sends information back to her fellow ninjas, which leads to a storming of the school. A massacre ensues and leaves just one survivor – Chin Hau – to defend the honour of his dead brothers and master. Of course, only a ninja can kill another ninja so Chin Hau travels into the woods, gets training from some kind of Ninja-Yoda type and joins a troupe of poncy long-haired ninjutsu practioneers who look like they’ve stepped off the worst Manowar LP cover ever. This is all dragged across an overlong runtime of 1 hour 44 minutes. The pacing is wildly off rhythm. You get nearly half an hour of constant dueling right at the start and then an endless section where nothing happens beyond “Nuisance” trying to seduce a bunch of dudes. When Chin Hau gets his ninja training, this too goes on forever, with a monotonous voiceover telling us dry historical information about ninjutsu until we can take no more. A disclaimer at the start of the film says all the action is based on real techniques and information from ancient Japanese texts but I don’t know how much of this is true. I mean, how many people wore gold lamé jumpsuits in the olden days anyway? Which brings me on to the only truly awesome part of the movie. The Five Element Ninjas themselves. We have GOLD ninjas, who have spinning hats with razor-sharp edges and reflective surfaces that blind their opponents. We have green WOOD ninjas who hide en masse inside fake trees and then spring out and scratch their enemies to bits with metal claws. We have WATER ninjas who wear blue suits and do all kinds of splashy Wuxia acrobatics. We have FIRE ninjas who wear red and carry flares that emit flames and pink smoke. We have EARTH ninjas who can burrow underground and are kind of a burnt sienna colour. I mean, this is all epically cool. The first time we see them in action is phenomenal. Unfortunately, it blows the elemental load too soon. We get all five elements going through their techniques in the first 30 minutes of the film and then they don’t appear again at all until the final 20 minutes when we see them do exactly the same stuff as before, only this time while getting their asses to handed to them by Chinese Manowar. As a result, only the first time really holds any true spectacle. The other problem with ninjas this cool is that you desperately want them to win. I mean, they’ve put in the effort, got the best techniques and the raddest costumes. They deserve victory, damnit! By contrast the heroes in this film are awful. They’re smug, they dress badly, they have terrible hair and they laugh to each other in a really douchey way every time they kill a ninja which, frankly, is uncalled for and not very sportsmanlike. This is a major problem as it means the emotional beats never connect. It’s all just fighting for no reason with victories that are more annoying than glorious. Sure, the violence is very bloody (guys get torn limb from limb, one dude fights ninjas with his guts actually hanging out down his leg the whole time, swords go in tons of places where they shouldn’t) and the action is nicely choreographed for the most part but Five Element Ninjas really doesn’t hold its own against most early 80s ninja films made either in Hong Kong or America. By combining the classic Shaw-style martial arts tropes with this new wave of ninjing, it comes across a bit like an old 70s rock dinosaur trying to release a punk record. The aesthetic is there and they’re trying their best but the rawness, the excitement and the heart’s all missing. They just don’t have a grasp of what made ninjas fresh and exciting.