Keita Amemiya caught my attention with his character designs for Capcom’s Onimusha games, but I failed to realize that I’d been something of a follower of his for years. An old issue of Dave Halverson’s “Gamer’s Republic” featured a gushing review of his odd monster/alien/chanbara mash-up, Moon over Tao, which easily beats out any of the recent wave of digital-video B-movies coming from Japan for sheer entertainment. It doesn’t leave me feeling dirty, either; I cannot say so for flicks like The Machine Girl (Noburo Iguchi, 2008).
I wanted to see that movie for years, and by the time I finally procured it I knew Amemiya’s reputation as an artist for video games and manga and even other fantasy and science fiction flicks. I also found myself in possession of his first live-action film, Cyber Ninja (Mirai Ninja/未来忍者). What I didn’t know about Cyber Ninja was that it is probably the first example of a feature length video game commercial, a much too-long advertisement for a Namco arcade game that never made its way into American pizza parlors and miniature golf course arcades.
Cyber Ninja did receive a (bad) localization and release on American VHS in the late eighties or early nineties, on the tail end of the “ninja craze” that made Sho Kosugi a comfortable, if undignified living for several years. The bad dubbing and ludicrous visuals make it suitable for homebrewed MST3K sessions, but, in its defense, it deserves some credit for its low-budget insanity.
The opening title card reads “Once upon a time… In the Distant Future…” The screen fades into a shot of the sky, with old fashioned Japanese war banners bearing a red, ersatz crest. A young lady, Princess Saki, we learn later, sits in her camp wearing a white kimono and warrior’s headband, surrounded by her generals, all decked out in hakama and chonmage haircuts. The next title card says something about the Suwabeh clan trying to save Princess Saki from the Dark Warlord and his mechanical ninjas. Another cut to the aforementioned mechanical ninjas standing in a row on a hill, a shot of the Suwabeh samurai, now wearing plasticky head-gear, and a matte-shot of what can only be described as a Japanese castle wall on treads with some Star Wars guns poking out of the front.
This is when we know that we’ve got a winner of a movie.
All hell breaks loose at this point, and hell looks a lot like Japanese Sentai and Tokusatsu television shows. The Suwabeh clansmen have swords into which they load ammunition, which makes the swords light up when stuck into a cyber ninja in a way that must make George Lucas feel just a wee bit litigious. Ugly optical printer effects fly across the screen. Stagey choreography fills each badly composed shot. And then a major character dies. Oh, and Princess Saki gets captured. But the fallen hero’s younger brother, Jiromaru, is on the case, willing to do anything to save Princess Saki and avenge his brother. And a mysterious cyber ninja with no allegiance to the Dark Warlord has offered his help, while the Suwabeh clan plans to shoot a huge gun at the Dark Warlord’s castle.
If Cyber Ninja sounds entirely rote, you must have watched at least one movie from the past century of film making. But a plot description does little justice to some of the funnier low budget effects, particularly the sci-fi toy models with embellishments of feudal era Japanese architecture. The clash between the austere wood and plaster of Edo-era design clashes with the plastic and rubber of the films typical sci-fi setting in a way that the actual cyber ninjas, even with the silly way they run (they hold their arms up and wide apart, Crane stance style), can not hope to match.
Cyber Ninja also boasts a few moments of nice fight choreography and some funny, weird monster costumes, but rarely rises above the level of what one might expect from (as mentioned) afternoon programming on NHK. The few moments it does show promise, but it’s ultimately boring and unfortunately bloodless. You know how video games are a lot less fun when you’re not actually playing them? This movie is a lot like watching somebody else playing a video game. You might look up once or twice to say, “Oh, that was neat.” In the case of Cyber Ninja, you’ll probably laugh while you say it. But, really, you will say it.
Keita Amemiya, for what it’s worth, did make good on the promise of cheap and cheerful exploitation, just not with this movie. Yet I can’t help harboring some affection for something so harmlessly banal, especially now, when there are games that have cut-scenes that run longer than the whole of Cyber Ninja.