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NYAFF '11 REVIEW: Ninja Kids!!!

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World Premiere

Even to the most ardent of fans, it’s not easy to stay up to date with the machine-like prolificacy of Takashi Miike (85 films in 20 years). He seems to have a new movie out for every time one of our politicians lie. Miike is also diverse in his choice of projects. He turns in the filthiest, most perverted splatterflick one day; then submits a regale, stately period drama to the Cannes Film Festival; and then he goes and makes a sophomoric children’s movie with snot jokes.

Ninja Kids!!! is the live-action adaptation of a long-and-still-running anime series called Nintama Rantaro—it’s been on the air for as long as Late Night with David Letterman—which is sort of like the comedy version of Harry Potter with ninjas instead of wizards. Rantaro is a kid enrolling in his first grade at Ninja School. Becoming a first-rate ninja is the dream of his parents, who are low-rate ninjas turned farmers (my favorite gag in the movie: Rantaro and his dad likes to play a fatherly game of catch with a ninja throwing star). As soon as he arrives, of course, things aren’t exactly all standard class procedure. It’s a school full of weird students, weirder faculty members, and just general all-around insanity. Pretty soon there are rival ninja clans, gangsters, hairdressers, a masked sniper teacher, and an all-out ninja foot race.

Playing Rantaro is nine-year-old actor Seishiro Kato, who’s an unrecognisable face to the rest of the world, but a massively popular figure in Japan thanks to a combination of TV roles, his prominence on popular commercials and ad campaigns, and also his already booming pop idol career. Kato dubbed the voice of Max for the Japanese release of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, but Ninja Kids!!! will be his actual debut in a lead starring role.

Five minutes into Ninja Kids!!!, it’s clear that Miike saw the project as less of a live-action interpretation than a literal production of the anime using live actors. He’s less concerned with an enclosed narrative than he is with cramming as many of the anime’s outrageous characters into the movie as time allows, causing ten different plots to start at the same time, and not all of them get resolved. To achieve the feel of a live-action anime, Miike utilizes CGI and green screen to replicate anime-style gags: everytime someone delivers a punchline, everyone else does a pratfall.

Occasionally, a Ninja School teacher will rip open the background to step out and give a lecture of whatever ninja weapon is being used in the scene. It's cute.

Miike also uses special effects make-up that are basically masks to make the adult actors look exactly like their hand-drawn counterparts. Like if someone made a live-action Mickey Mouse movie with Disneyland mascots, but even more bizarre than that, because these monstrous-looking characters with exaggerated features appear alien, and yet we’re supposed to regard them as people.

Often when filmmakers are adapting cartoons or comic books, we hear about how they had to figure out how to make certain things “work in live-action.” That problem didn’t even seem to register with Miike at all. This is a level of faithfulness to the source material that so few would dare to attempt. The word fearless is assigned to Miike a lot, often due to his no-holds-barred depiction of violence, but it should apply to things like this, too. Maybe it’s because of his work ethic that has him jumping from one film to the next, but there doesn’t seem to be anything that Miike won’t put on film—and know just how to put them on film.

This is a children’s film, but anyone who’s seen any of Miike’s other kid-oriented output—Zebraman, Yatterman, The Great Yokai War—knows that he likes to keep them just weird enough to have adults be mesmerized by what’s going on, while still innocent enough to be appropriate for little children. Don’t be surprised if you can’t help but laugh out loud when the ninja master steps on dog poo while dodging enemy attacks.

"Ninja Kids!!!" is playing on Sunday, July 3 at NYAFF and again on Saturday, July 9 at Japan Cuts.

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Jul
03
2011
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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