“Nin X Nin: Ninja Hattori-kun” belongs in the recent trend of Japanese cinema translating popular manga and anime properties to the big screen with a wink and a nod. Unlike their American counterparts, the Japanese take the approach that ninjas and girls in skimpy outfits who fight crime can’t possibly be taken seriously, so it’s best to just stick the tongue in the cheek and run with it. To a certain extent, this worked with “Cutie Honey”, and worked even better with Takashi Miike’s stab at family comedy, “Zebraman”. The latter film managed a noticeably easier mesh of comedy and the surreal, offering up a pleasantly entertaining (albeit much too long) movie.
“Ninja Hattori-kun” is less surreal than “Zebraman”, and doesn’t seem quite as aware of its inherent kitsch factor as “Cutie Honey”. Also, despite the promise of ninja action (it is a movie about a ninja, after all), there’s actually not a whole lot of action in the film. There’s a ninja battle at the movie’s climactic sequence, but it’s mostly ruined by the director’s insistence on stopping and starting the action in spurts to accommodate the film’s awkward scripting. The ending is also ruined by an attempt at “universal truth” plotting, the same thing that made “Cutie Honey” something of an unintentional laugher at the end of its run.
Much of “Ninja Hattori-kun” is actually a PG family picture about Kenichi, a school kid with emotionally absent parents, who has no self-confidence. That changes when Hattori (Shingo Katori) literally flies into his bedroom window and offers himself up as Kenichi’s servant. You see, Hattori, along with his father, is the last of their kind — the Iga Ninja. Although the movie is set in present day Japan, Hattori and his father lives out in the countryside, where they make a home inside a cave behind a waterfall. Sent into the city to take his final test, Hattori is ordered not to show himself to anyone but his Lord, lest he fail in his quest to become a real ninja.
In the city, Hattori spends his time hiding out from Kenichi’s parents and getting addicted to mayonnaise on rice while Kenichi is off at school. Meanwhile, sinister ninja Kurokage, who belongs to a rival ninja sect, is going about town beating up his fellow ninjas, who have all since retired into normal routine life.
“Ninja Hattori-kun” stars Shingo Katori, a popular singer in Japan. Katori does fine in the role, not that he’s asked to do a lot. The character spends much of the film mugging for the camera and racing to and fro hiding from people. As mentioned, the movie’s only real action scene takes place in the Third Act, when Hattori has to battle Kurokage with help from ex-ninja Kemumaki, who has since retired to become a teacher. As luck (and convenient plotting) would have it, Kemumaki is also Kenichi’s new teacher (the old teacher having gone on maternity leave), which offers up opportunity for Hattori and Kemumaki to renew their rivalry, the two men having known each other from the past.
Directed by Suzuki Masayuki, “Ninja Hattori-kun” is wall-to-wall special effects, and nary a one looks realistic enough to past the smell test. But as the movie is based on a popular cartoon, and has declared itself as a spoof on ninja movies from frame one, less-than-realistic special effects and CGI work plays right into the filmmakers’ hands. Even so, one does wish the effects could have been better instead of relying almost exclusively on obvious green screen work. The film’s best effects moments are when Hattori disguises himself in whatever surrounding he’s in. The rest of the time Hattori is bouncing about the screen like Wile E. Coyote — only less convincing.
As a comedy, “Ninja Hattori-kun” elicits some chuckles, but that’s about it. It’s not overly funny, and the film’s stab at “fish out of water” comedy seems perfunctory. At one point, Hattori asks if the news reporter in the TV lives in the TV, reminding me of the Unfrozen Caveman skit that Phil Hartman used to do on “Saturday Night Live”. The news anchors are also involved in another running gag: one of them is a woman who just stares blankly at the camera, while her male partner delivers the news in an ultra serious, ultra mechanical monotone voice. This is very creepy, but definitely not funny. The other running gag is for a soda drink with a silly name that runs out of steam around the 20th time the filmmakers tried to squeeze comedy out of it.
The film’s family elements work slightly better, mostly because there seems to be an earnest attempt at teaching the kids in the audience a lesson about believing in one self. The first hour is almost exclusively devoted to Kenichi’s problems, which ends with him using a ninja trick to win a game of (and I’m just guessing here) kick the can, thus winning over his antagonistic schoolmates. If you were looking for an uplifting, innocent family drama to convince your kids to believe in themselves, the first hour of “Ninja Hattori-kun” should do the trick.
As popcorn entertainment goes, “Ninja Hattori-kun” doesn’t completely stink up the joint. Without a doubt, there could have been much more actual ninja action, or at least more attention paid to the ninja plot. The film oftentimes feels like an Afterschool Special that ran off the track when someone got the bright idea to add ninjas into the mix. There’s a lot of ninja posing and faux ninja action, and what should have been the film’s climactic ninja battle turns into 20 minutes that are so poorly paced they seem like 2 hours of dead air
Suzuki Masayuki (director) / Fujiko Fujio, Maggie (screenplay)
CAST: Shingo Katori … Kanzo Hattori
Rena Tanaka … Midori
Gori … Kemumaki / Sato Sensei
Yuri Chinen … Kenichi Mitsuba
Shirô Itô … Jinzo Hattori
Keiko Toda … Taeko Mitsuba
Kazuyuki Asano … Kentaro Mitsuba
Takeshi Masu … Korakage