Futaro Yamada was the manga pen name used by author Seiya Yamada. Like many prolific Japanese writers, his body of work is labyrinthine but his most noteworthy achievement (certainly where ninjology is concerned) is his Ninpō-chō series of ninja fantasy books and comics, almost all of which have been adapted into films or TV shows of varying quality. One manga in particular, Ninja Tsukikage-shō (1962), inspired this week’s film – Lady Ninja : Reflections of Darkness (1996) – and while I’ve been unable to find an English version of Ninja Tsukikage-shō to compare it with the film, I somehow can’t imagine it was ever meant to be quite this strange. The film left me with my head spinning. As ever, I’ll try to examine as objectively as possible but it’s likely this one requires more research. Not only is it rooted in deep Futaro Yamada lore but it’s the sixth in director Masaru Tsushima’s series of Yamada adaptations (known as Female Ninja : Magic Chronicles) and I do wonder if I’m missing something by not having seen the others? Answers on a postcard from Japan please, since I’m not sure parts 1 – 5 even have subtitled/dubbed versions available? Luckily Manga Video in the UK put this one out in a dubbed version in the 90s and that’s the version I watched…
Reflections of Darkness starts out fairly normal if you excuse the “interesting” narration in the English dub (we’ll come back to this later). It’s set in the early Edo period and the Tokugawa Shogun Yoshimune has the Empire under austere conditions. He’s a major buzzkill and the arch-rival of Muneharu – a party-loving type who wants to be Shogun. Think Edo period Andrew WK. When Muneharu discovers that the outwardly puritanical Shogun has a secret vice and has enjoyed steamy BDSM sessions with at least three different mistresses, he decides to expose this to the public. The Shogun gets wind of these intentions and sends his advisor Kotoro to kill the three women so they can’t talk (because he’s such a nice guy). This sets into motion a typical plot in which two factions fight on a regular basis in an effort to either save or kill the mistresses.
Kotoro looks like he has an advantage because, quite early on, he ventures into a mysterious valley to enlist the four Ninja Sisters – Omoi, Oren, Orui and Ohan. They are a group of mystical mercenaries who dress in brightly coloured Power Rangers-y ninja suits and practice Iga-ryū style ninjutsu. What they don’t know hosd df is that party king Muneharu has enlisted some ninjas of his own, well-versed in the Koga-ryū style – the only style that can hold its own against Iga…
So far, so sensible, right? I mean, these are both actual classical schools of Ninjutsu appropriate to the period. The production design, costumes and sets all look reasonably authentic and the plot follows a traditional Japanese revenger narrative where everyone just fights until they all die… However, I feel like someone somewhere might’ve exaggerated when it came to portraying the various ninja techniques. Someone who really, desperately, urgently needed to take a cold shower.
To give you an example, one fight between a Koga Ninja and a female Iga Ninja here begins with them each playing magic flutes to cast spells. When the flute-off comes to a dead heat, the Iga ninja throws her flute and uses a ninja spell to turn it into a snake. The Koga ninja retaliates by trapping her in magic manacles and then unleashing “Koga Ninja Magic – The Third Leg!” at her. This means his penis pops out of his robes and keeps extending and extending until it’s an eight foot long rubber tentacle that penetrates the Iga ninja. She (literally) won’t take it lying down though. She shouts “Iga Ninja Balloon counters the Third Leg!” then begins puffing out air, at which point the rubber tentacle and its attached testicles inflate to an enormous size and explode all over the Koga Ninja who, of course, has to admit defeat because, well, his entire groin area has exploded all over him.
And this isn’t anywhere near all we get. Almost every fight follows this template. Some are quite entertaining – like when the “Koga Ninja Thin Ice” freezes an Iga Ninja and shatters her into pieces only to suffer the “Iga Neck Counterstrike” which means her frozen, detached head flies up off the ground and bites his throat out. Other scenes are just jaw-on-the-floor WTF nutso. The maddest sequence involves Theresa Lynn (an occasional American B-movie actress) as American Ninja Maria who rocks up to seduce the Shogun. First she screams “AMERICAN NINJA MAGIC – BEAUJOLAIS NOVEAU!” and squirts gallons of red wine from her nipples all over the Shogun, making him overwhelmed by lust. When he starts sexing her up, she uses “American Ninja Moonlight Images” to project the deed into the sky for all his subjects to see. Of course then Magic Lightning shoots it down, American Electrical Discharge beats Lightning, etc. Phew. This whole film is like the most messed-up, sex-mad game of Rock-Paper-Scissors you’ve ever played.
There is some actual fighting somewhere and a few more normally dressed ninjas appear for a brief yet cool scene in a room full of fire but, by and large, this has far more in common with the dire erotic ninja films of the mid-2000s (see my reviews of Lady Ninja Kaede and its sequel) than it does a legit ninja movie. Still, the “Ninja Celestial Balls” are fired from exactly where you think they would be and one of the final fights is fought with the female ninja in the nude so if you’re into that kind of thing, you’ll have a swell old time with this.
The tone is hard to get a hold of. I can’t tell how serious it’s meant to be. There are obviously some absurd sequences but there’s also a lot of very sombre dialogue about the lowlands and the mountains and all manner of poetic moralising. While it’s hard to care about the characters on account of everyone being kind of evil and corrupt, I feel like someone somewhere was taking this seriously, especially given the relatively high production values. The English dub on the Manga Video tape, however destroys any facade of sensibility and goes full camp. In the most insane twist of all, the narrator – who frequently chimes in with lecherous observations on the lady ninjas like “She’s the sexy one!” – is none other than Michael Lumsden, famous for playing Lloyd the Vet on long-running Radio 4 soap opera The Archers!
So yeah. A weird one. Perhaps when I have a few more points towards my ninjology degree I’ll brave the other entries in the Female Ninja : Magic Chronicles, although I have to admit that I find the whole sexy ninja genre a lot duller than it sounds. And yet it keeps running and running in Japan. The punchline of all this is that in 2011, there was a remake of Lady Ninja : Reflections of Darkness! Yes, someone liked it enough to do it all over again. I told you when I first started this blog… it really is ninjas all the way down…