Widely touted as Japan’s leading ‘cult’ director and the mind behind Rhythmcircus’ lowest scored film to date, Seiji Chiba has once again wasted little time in bringing us his seventh film to feature ninjas both in its name and history-neglecting plot. The inappropriately and unimaginatively titled Ninja Battle is certainly an improvement over its straight faced predecessor Ninja Girl (as if it could possibly be worse…), however this tacky tale of treachery and tricks is abundant with his trademark flaws, and lacks the saving graces of unintended hilarity and well choreographed action scenes of previous pictures.
After an expository set of credits lays the historical framework of rival ninja clans vying for control, we find a woman tied, gagged and screaming next to a dead body. The heroine is Sawa, a low ranking Koga ninja, and her apparent victim Yoshimori, a Iga ninja who had forced her to betray her own clan after he had captured her. After three Iga ninjas find their dead comrade, a backwards tale of bluffs, double bluffs, lies and betrayals unfolds as the trio try to obtain a secret document hidden somewhere with the layers of the female ninja’s consciousness… and her kimono.
In all honesty the story is leagues above Chiba’s previous outings; offering a well cut up narrative structure, twists upon twists and characters with surprising amounts of depth. There aren’t any annoying comic relief ninjas fanning it about, it isn’t offensively sexist and it doesn’t drag years beyond the modest running time. Likewise the acting is surprisingly stepped up; monologues and lines are delivered with conviction and even the over the top poisonings (some of which are meant to be fake) are done without inducing unintended laughter.
That said what still makes it almost entirely without recommendation are the poor production values. Even with visually impressive establishing shots here and there, when the film begins in the same fucking cave used by Chiba time after time in his oeuvre you know nearly all expenses were spared. Location funding is a bitch, sure, but the lack of better looking costumes, few instances of fake blood and a stabbing effect accomplished by positioning the weapon behind its felled opponent suggest even more corners are being cut than ever before. Furthermore, despite being called Ninja Battle, fight scenes are few, far between and forgettable, hardly surprising seeing that Versus action choreographer Yûji Shimomura appears to not have returned to offer his expertise this time around.
What distinguishes this from the cult films it would likely be paired with is it isn’t unintentionally humorous, eccentric or filled with subject matter that is in anyway transgressive or shocking. If anything it accomplished exactly what it set out to do, just not very well, and whilst the end result may not be unwatchable, it traverses the line of ‘so bad it’s good’ and top quality to a level of extreme boredom, arguably becoming the hack director’s most uninteresting film yet.
This is the third of Seiji Chiba’s productions that I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through, and when you can recognize a piece of rubble, clothing or prop at a millisecond’s notice you know that’s too many. I hereby vow that if I choose to review a few more of these I will write a book on the lasting impression they have left on me. I already have a title: “How I Learned to Press the Record Button on My Camera A.K.A: The Films of Seiji Chiba”.
Words > Graham Ashton