Oh, Ninja Wars (1982, aka. Black Magic Wars), what a part of my youth you were. The likes of Ninja Wars, Pray for Death, and, yes, even American Ninja had me fashioning homemade nunchuks and ordering $4.99 throwing stars from kung fu magazines. I've still got a dubbed vhs copy of Ninja Wars somewhere, probably packed away next to my old copies of Shoguns Ninja and the Mystery Science Theater Master Ninja episodes.
Lord Donjo has his eyes on Lady Ukyo, who is married to his buddy Lord Miyoshi. Evil sorcerer Kashin offers to cast a spell over Lady Ukyo, making her Donjo's love slave... Okay, now bear with me, cause this could get confusing... Kashin sends his five henchmen to get Ukyo's twin sister, Kagaribi (Noriko Watanabe), who is a member of a ninja clan and getting all snuggly with their proposed next leader, Jotaro (Hiroyuki "Henry Sanada- Twilight Samurai, Royal Warriors, The Last Samurai). They kidnap her in order to get her tears for a love potion. She beheads herself, so they quickly switch her head with one of Lord Donjo's mistresses. So, now they've got a sort of puppet Kagaribi to make the potion from, and a body of Kagaribi/head of the mistress that runs away and tells Jotaro what has happened to his chick.
Jintaro vows some bloody revenge, but of course anybody can swear bloody revenge, it is another thing to execute it when you are dealing with five superpowered henchman and an evil sorcerer lurking in the background. Jintaro steals a pot they were going to make the potion in, and he prevents them from abducting Lady Ukyo. She in turn tries to clue in her husband, who doesn't believe the word of some ninja against his ally Lord Donjo... Bear with me, there's a little bit more... So, then one of the henchmen further beguiles Lord Miyoshi, making him go bonkers. Jotaro is aided by a mystery ninja gang and together they scrap with Kashin and his men in order to save Lady Ukyo. Recapping the story, it barely makes sense to me; bottom line is, eventually they all square off.
Black magic. Ninjas. Beheadings. Flying through the air. Boobs. Blood. Funky weapons. Cackling bad guys. Hunky heroes. The real shame is, it has all the exploitative fantasy action elements to be a good movie, but there is something in the pacing and acting that makes Ninja Wars a lot less fun than it should be.
Director Mitsumasa Saito (GI Samurai) works from a script based on the pulp writings of Futaro Yamada, who pretty much based his entire career on wild ninja action fantasies. If the storyline is barely comprehensible, the action direction could be best described as borderline coherent. It is one of those weird films where I can think of several memorable moments- Kagaribi's suicide by lopping off her own head, a henchman who projectile vomits poison, Jotaro's swinging attack from a tree- but the overall effect is so unfocused it drags pretty heavily. The characters are stock heroic and stock villain, when one scheme fails another appears, so despite all of the ninja shenanigans, it ends up being a bit of a bore. Sure, as a ninja-obsessed kid I loved it, but the film just doesn't quite cut it with the film geek connoisseur I've become.
One final note to those unaware- though this is touted as part of the Sonny Chiba DVD Collection and he is displayed on the cover, Sonny's presence is really only an extended cameo.
The DVD: Adness
Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Of Adness Sonny Chiba Collection, I've got Karate for Life, Karate Bullfighter, and Karate Bearfighter, and Ninja Wars doesn't quite live up to those transfers. Sure, it is a million times better than the old vhs, but it has some overscan/flagging error that will make it look pretty bad on more high end systems. The print is a bit grainy, but pretty solid and free form any artefacts. The color, contrast, and sharpness are pretty good shape. Again, it is a transfer I can live with, but not as technically sound as it could be.
Sound: Mono, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Hey, it's mono, ya' know? Doesn't bother me, and this is about as good as a mono track for an early 80's ninja film is likely to get. I caught a sub flub here and there, no more than a handful, like "noone" instead of "no one."
Extras: Liner Notes— Trailers for the Sonny Chiba Collection.
Conclusion: So, all of my childhood bias aside, Ninja Wars should be much better. You can take all of those ingredients to make a good fantasy/action/ninja film and slap em' onto celluloid, but, in the end, you've still got to tie them together into a halfway sensible and thrilling flick.
Of the films in Adness Sonny Chiba Collection (a must for martial film/Chiba fans), this belongs on the bottom of the list because of the lacking Chiba screentime and the quality of the film and DVD transfer. Now, it is affordable enough for die hard ninja film fans to give it a purchase, but I'll have to give this an overall "rent it."