Fantasia 2011: ‘Ninja Kids!!!’ earns its three exclamation points as a light-hearted romp

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Ninja Kids!!! aka Nintama Rantarô

Written by Yoshio Urasawa, based on the manga Rakudai Ninja Rantaro by Soubee Amako

Directed by Takashi Miike

Japan, 2011

This year the Fantasia Film Festival have been running screenings they call “My First Fantasia” to encourage the next generation of obsessed film geeks. The screening of Ninja Kids!!! was an unofficial extension of those screenings with a good third of the audience around ten years old.

There was a lot for them to enjoy in Miike’s colourful adaptation of Amako’s gag manga. Mixed with the slapstick and the poop jokes was a naive but touching story of a young boy from a very unsuccessful Ninja family learning what it takes to be a great Ninja.

Between the over-sized glasses of our hero Rantarō and the wacky Ninja school setting, there is a whiff of early Harry Potter to the film, mixed with buffoonish villains in Dick Tracy make-up.

The Harry Potter comparison fails in three areas. First, Ninja Kids!!! earns its three exclamation points as a light-hearted romp. There are conspiracies, but no real danger. Second, the film lacks a Hermione. There are girl Ninjas but they are trained apart from the boys and are presented as mysterious and unknowable. The headmistress of the girl’s class is either an extremely gassy, extremely old matron or an extremely young and beautiful femme fatale. The young Ninja boys are unsure whether they should be attracted to her or repulsed and even more confusing to Rantarō and his pals is that they are not sure which to be attracted to and which to be repulsed by.

(Sadly for young female film geeks, this is a boys-only adventure. Girls can peek into the “He-Man Woman Hater’s Club” but they are not invited to take part in the fun except as the occasional nurse.)

Finally, the film lacks the focus of Harry Potter in favour of piling gag after gag, character upon character as if Miike tried to cram all 46 volumes of Rakudai Ninja Rantaro into one film. Miike is still introducing new characters 90 minutes into the 100 minute film!

In fact, the film plays like a story told by a ten year old, filled with fart jokes, odd digressions, non-sequiturs, jokes told and and repeated and retold and sometimes told backwards and characters casually introduced on the assumption that you already know them. (At one point, when re-introducing a mysterious sniper Ninja, the film flashes back to a sequence that it never showed in the first place.) It is the odd film that is so filled with distractions that at times the film becomes distracted by itself.

While this is an over-caffeinated and hyper-glycemic Miike, it still makes you wonder if that isn’t the secret to all his films – that this master of excess is simply telling stories that a naughty ten year old would enjoy and telling them like a naughty prodigy. And when you try to point out to him that sometimes “less is more,” he replies with the baffled pedantic logic of elementary school that less is not more, MORE is MORE.

If you are looking for a film to convince your favourite nephew of the greatness of Fantasia, you could do worse than Ninja Kids!!!, but your favourite niece may wonder why no girls are allowed to have fun and this is most definitely a film where the unfocused parts, while frequently brilliant, are greater than the cinematic whole.

Michael Ryan

Visit the official Fantasia Film Fest website

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