Red Shadow (2001) Movie Review

Hiroyuki Nakano’s “Red Shadow” is a rather oddball picture. It’s not exactly a samurai film, not really a ninja film, and sure as heck doesn’t try to be an authentic martial arts picture. So what it is? I guess you could call it parts slapstick and parts…something else.

The point is, it’s very hard to categorize “Red Shadow,” a film set in feudal Japan and concerning 3 ninjas (two men and a woman, with one of them being the Red Shadow of the title), that go on various missions to stop feuding lords from, well, feuding. And along the way, there is comedy, action, betrayals, deaths, torn loyalties — and oh yes, a large helping of techno music that towards the end starts to resemble the theme from “Mission Impossible” way too much for a litigious lawyer’s taste.

It’s very obvious director Nakano and writer Mitsuteru Yokoyama weren’t going for realistic here. The film’s first 40 minutes is played exclusively for laughs, with a mild love triangle between the 3 ninjas — Red Shadow, Blue Shadow, and the female Aska — that inevitably comes up when you put two male and one attractive female character in the same locale for too long. Of course Yokoyama and Nakano are as comfortable writing believable romance and any sort of adult situation as I am speaking Japanese — which is to say there’s zero believability.

What you have here is a movie drenched in instrumental techno that, although it’s odd to hear at first, actually becomes an integral part of the film. The music works, and I’m as surprised as anyone that I liked it. The action, on the other hand, is a little unbalanced. Red Shadow and his ninjas have abilities that range from superhuman skills like scaling walls and disappearing at will to being thrown around and beaten down by other ninjas without much of a challenge. It’s all done very erratically, which might explain why the film ended on such a weak and less-than stellar note. To say that the climactic swordfight is lacking would be too kind — it is laughable.

And I can’t help but still wonder why Aska, the female ninja, is required to wear fishnet stockings, a very short mini-skirt that rides up her thighs, and leave her face exposed while her male counterparts wear what looks like futuristic versions of army commando fatigues with masks to hide their identity. I guess in feudal Japan a female ninja is supposed to look like a slut. Aska does use her sexuality in an early scene, but that, too, is played for laughs. And if Aska is supposed to be a ninja, why is her first combat instinct always to kick a man in the crotch? That strikes me as the first “combat move” of a non-skilled female fighter, doesn’t it?

Of course, “Red Shadow” is much too silly and off-the-wall to worry about such inadequacies anyway. The major plot involving the feudal clans are rather timid and uninvolving, and for the most part we watch the 3 ninjas climb walls, duke it out with other ninjas, and look, well, ninja-like.

There is a twist around the 40-minute mark that threatens to turn the movie dark and somber, but this never happened — or at least the filmmakers didn’t have the heart to go through with it. The movie quickly returns to its don’t-take-this-seriously-because-we-aren’t mode, which at this point seems like the appropriate way to go.

As an action film, “Red Shadow” doesn’t quite work. Yes, the ninjas seem to be able to fly at will, but they all seem to be lacking in ability at crucial moments — say, when they’re fighting other people. Red Shadow in particular doesn’t seem to be much of a fighter, as he’s constantly being beaten, trapped, ambushed, and knocked around. “Red Shadow” is definitely not for anyone expecting an all-out samurai/ninja/swordplay fest. Although there are quite a number of swordfights, they are choreographed more as stunts. Elaborate stunts, but stunts (re: fake) nevertheless.

“Red Shadow” is definitely a new kind of ninja film. Rather this is a good thing or a bad thing is open to an individual’s interpretation. I wasn’t especially blown away by the film’s strange vibe, although I did enjoy my stay. The visuals are very nice to look at, and the ninja scenes are very smooth and fluid. The comedy, as well, is mostly funny.

Although I still have to question why a female ninja, despite being trained since birth to be a trained assassin, is still required to wear a mini-skirt and what looks like fishnet garter belts…

Hiroyuki Nakano (director) / Mitsuteru Yokoyama (screenplay)
CAST: Masanobu Ando …. Akakage
Megumi Okina …. Koto-Hime
Kumiko Aso …. Asuka
Jun Murakami …. Aokage
Naoto Takenaka …. Shirokage
Fumiya Fujii …. Ranmaru

Buy Red Shadow on DVD