If any Japanese movie ever deserved credit for inspiring Chinese variations on its theme, it would probably be a toss-up between Zatoichi and Watari the Ninja Boy. While the influences of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo on Chinese language cinema are easily identifiable, it is only Zatoichi and Watari who have actually had Chinese language productions made to capitalize on the demands of that market.
It also makes me wonder at what age the Japanese used to force their children to learn obscure history and complicated literature. The sort of kids I imagine would most enjoy Watari The Ninja Boy are the ones that would be least likely to actually follow the plot, which involves feuding ninja clans in the Iga province and a double-agent who is playing both sides for reasons that are never really explained (at least not in the movie, I’ve never read the comic, which this film purportedly adapts faithfully). Watari, a little kid who’s got awesome ninja power and his grandpa show up and investigate, uncovering a child ninja training camp and a gang of six master ninja working directly for Joko, the evil mastermind.
Really though, Watari The Ninja Boy is a movie in which ninjas fight each other. These fight scenes range from fairly standard illustrations of fantastic abilities which utilize wires and jump cuts to almost surreal combinations of live action and animation. Watari fights animated cat eyes, lightning bolts, and moths, while his actual physical enemies are made up to have red, green, and yellow skin, imitating quite literally the coloring of the manga artwork. There’s also some remarkably violent moments for a children’s film, particularly when Ryutaro Otomo as the villainous Joko throws his rope dart through three people and pulls it out as they all spurt blood like geysers. All of the death, especially those of children, seems quite at odds with the cute song-and-dance routines.
Child star Yoshinobu Kaneko seems like a real trooper, but he was already somewhat exposed to the pressures of film making when he appeared in this film. He would also play a major role in the “Aka-Kage” television series after this film, which is also quite a wild display of fanciful ninja antics. In fact, Kaneko’s work in Watari and “Aka-Kage” went over so well with Japan’s neighboring Taiwanese audience, that episodes of “Aka-Kage” were spliced with new footage filmed by a Taiwanese director to create the pseudo sequel The Magic Sword of Watari, also known under the title Golden Boy and the Seven Monsters.
The Watari brand name did not last, but it’s the only other property I know of besides Zatoichi to have the honor of Taiwanese film makers crafting such an unabashed knock-off. And besides the unofficial sequel -- actually (I’m really not kidding) a Momotaro (Peach Boy) themed movie -- The Dwarf Sorcerer, also about a super powerful martial arts kid, clearly takes its cues from Watari The Ninja Boy. That’s right: a silly movie about people fighting inspired yet sillier movies about people fighting. But give credit where it is due. Watari has more visual creativity than most movies that claim that virtue and no other.