Kunoichi: Lady Ninja (Hitoshi Ozawa, 1998)

The local Fry’s Electronics, where I buy most of my movies, has at least one row in the “action” section of its DVD shelves taken up by movies with titles like Lady Ninja Kaede and Lady Ninja Kasumi and even Ninja Pussy Cat. I assume that the Fry’s employees put these in the “action” section because no family establishment wants a section labeled “subtitled smut,” but the placement nearly counts as false advertising; there’s action in Lady Ninja... movies, alright, but not of the same kind as, for example, Under Siege 2. These discs started to invade American stores a few years ago, an inevitable consequence of digital film and cheap licensing, but Japan’s original kunoichi exploitation was neither digital, nor motion picture; it was literary. Futaro Yamada, a novelist whose works eventually spawned film adaptations like Shinobi: Heart under Blade and Makai Tensho: Samurai Reincarnation, basically created the genre in 1961 with his novel, Kunoichi Ninpocho.
Clip is NSFW

The first film, which I’ve never seen, was made in 1991, with subsequent entries released annually. I’ve witnessed – I don’t now that “watched” would be the correct word – a couple of the early films in the series, and can attest that they look not unlike other low-brow, low-ambition Japanese movies of the 90’s, shot on video or for the video market, with all of the bad lighting, fighting, editing, and erotica that accompanies. The eponymous ninpocho is the reason for the series’ popularity amongst cult movie fans; ninja magic tricks include such moves as deadly vagina bubbles and breast milk. Aside from the horrific, boner-deflating kitsch, the movies are actually rather dull.

But then there’s Kunoichi: Lady Ninja, the first of the series to see an official English language DVD release, courtesy of Tokyo Shock. Apparently the seventh of the kunoichi films and based on Yamada’s novel, Yagyu Ninpocho, Kunoichi: Lady Ninja seems less concerned with the trademark ninpocho than it does hyperactive camera work and visual effects. The movie opens with a narration over maps and faux-historical prints depicting the tyranny of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, whose allies in the Aizu region have vowed to kill all members of the Hori family after they reneged on an arranged marriage. The women of the Hori clan escape to a Buddhist convent, in no way stopping the demonic forces of Aizu from hunting them down. Seeking revenge, the women of the Hori clan enlist the aid of the famed ninja, Jubei Yagyu, and set off to kill their oppressors using their ninja magic, including such moves as the “nipple shockwave.”
Clip is NSFW
Clip is NSFW
From the point that Jubei joins the seven remaining Hori women, the plot becomes incoherently byzantine, with scenes that run off on their own tangents and digressions matched by rapid fire editing that leaves the audience in state of constant bewilderment. The movie maintains a certain air of self-gratification to boot; director/writer/costume designer/star Hitoshi Ozawa not only casts himself as one of the greatest swordsmen of Edo era Japan, he surrounds himself with beautiful women in various states of undress. Purely onanistic film-making is uninteresting; thankfully, Ozawa’s at least thinking a little bit about his audience’s needs as well.

As self-indulgent as the film’s plot, characterization, and length are, Kunoichi: Lady Ninja distills the only interesting element of the series -- pretty girls doing ridiculous, sexually charged ninja magic -- and mixes it with Hong Kong inspired wire-work, costuming by super-80’s mangaka Buichi Terasawa, and cinematography that resides somewhere between mid-90’s Miike and Peter Pau not giving a shit. The result is not unlike Terou Ishii’s Bohachi films, but less misogynistic, a high-pressure blood spurting, spastic and funny trip into an old Japan of sexy ninja girls, grotesque villains, and a male hero written solely for the gratification of the actor who plays him (not coincidentally, also the writer). Ozawa mixes all of the wildest visual elements of Hong Kong wire-fu, Japanese anime/manga, b-rate chambara films and pinku-eiga. Good film-making? No, but it’s fun.

Kunoichi: Lady Ninja also stars b-movie tough-chick Yuko Moriyama, frequent collaborator of Keita Amemiya, in a role besides an alien or a space faring bounty hunter. She’s also one of the few actresses to get away with not showing her nipples. I mention this because I like Moriyama, and her costume, and am happy that it stays on her for the duration of the film.

Not only is Kunoichi: Lady Ninja better exploitation than the recent glut of shinobi themed soft-core on the market, I think it’s probably the best of the series. It definitely carries the most visual panache and the actresses are gorgeous (I like the one who plays Ofue best). The Tokyo Shock disc includes video of the movie’s premier, during which Ozawa calls it a “b-movie amongst b-movies.” Can’t really argue with him on that.

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