Kunoichi Lady Ninja (1998) Movie Review

Hong Kong period action films have long been notorious for over-the-top combat sequences involving plenty of wire-fu and head-spinning camera moves. Japanese period pieces, on the other hand, tend to be more uptight and somber productions punctuated by lightning quick swordplay and the now ubiquitous bazooka blood. The idea of mixing the two styles together had the makings of a very bloody and very entertaining picture, with one of the earliest successes coming in the form of the outrageously violent “Lone Wolf and Cub” series. A much less successful, but still entertaining attempt at this stylistic crossbreeding is the Japanese actioner “Kunoichi Lady Ninja.”

The film opens with a Buddhist convent being savagely waylaid by the demonic henchmen of a lecherous warlord, with the last seven nuns spared by the arrival of the convent’s ghostly patron. Intent on revenge, the nuns hire a mysterious one-eyed samurai named Jubei (Hitoshi Ozawa, the film’s director) to train them and awaken their hidden Ninja powers. Led by the spunky Ochie (Yuko Moriyama from the “Zeiram” films), the seven women commence the ambushing and killing of the warlord’s henchmen, leaving ominous notes for the warlord with each dead body.

It’s at this point that the film starts injecting a political-spiritual subtext in an attempt, I suppose, to legitimize what has up to this point been an exploitation film. It doesn’t really work, as the addition seems to be hashed together in random fashion. And given how meekly the first few demon henchmen go down, it becomes evident that the new subplot is essentially padding to bring the film’s running time to feature length.

Ruminating on plot details is missing the point, however, as “Kunoichi” is the sort of film made specifically for turn-your-brain-off-at-the-door style entertainment. To that end, “Kunoichi” has most of the requisite details: pretty women in various stages of undress kicking ass, furious earth-bound and aerial action, and of course plenty of blood spray. The film’s battles are frenetic, but so incoherent that it’s tough to see who got slashed and by whom. And since the side characters come and go faster than a “Star Trek” Ensign in a red uniform, it’s tough to tell who exactly gets killed at the end.

The warlord’s demonic henchmen are quite an eclectic bunch. There’s a giant dope wearing WWII-era biker goggles in feudal-era Japan, a one-armed albino swordsman with a bad case of arthritis, and a sexually ambiguous and flamboyant whip-wielding fop (reminiscent of Bunny Wigglesworth from “Zorro: The Gay Blade”). The warlord himself (played by Takashi Miike veteran Ryuushi Mizukami) is a piece of work. Dressed in kabuki make-up and flailing about like a Nancy boy, Mizukami’s sexually frustrated antics are a hoot.

One can only guess that the filmmakers tried to distill the best parts of Hong Kong and Japanese genre cinema into “Kunoichi”. However, an element of Hong Kong period action films that the filmmakers didn’t leave out is the campiness. The whole production is obviously put together with tongue firmly in cheek, and the film’s premise is solid enough, but the execution is played for laughs as much as for visceral impact. The wirework is of a quality that requires the viewer to chuckle, the sets look like leftovers from a Toho Studios monster flick, and the acting is an uneven mix of decent comedic timing and so-painful-it’s-funny melodrama.

And then there’s the plain silly stuff like fast-forward motion during combat and the combatants announcing the name of their next special attack during battle. Those names are the best part of the gag, with such howlers as the ‘Returning Echo’ (where the lady ninja absorbs an enemy’s energy attack through her private parts and literally vomits it back at them), the ‘Nipple Shock Wave’, and ‘Virgin Blood Attack’ (use your imagination).

We are also not spared the curious Japanese cinematic tradition of depicting the female characters in sexually exploitative manners. To the film’s credit, several of these sequences are handled in such a way as to generate a few genuine guffaws.

Thanks to the energetic battles, scantily clad ninja girls, and other assorted wacky characters, “Kunoichi” holds the viewer’s attention more than it probably should. There’s enough anticipation of what bizarre sight will come up next to convince you to keep watching. The story is non-essential to the success of the film, and even though it only weighs down the middle third, doesn’t get in the way of the fun.

Hitoshi Ozawa (director)
CAST: Ryuushi Mizukami …. Akinari Kato
Yûko Moriyama
Hitoshi Ozawa

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