Stephen reviews: Wrath of the Ninja: The Yotoden Movie (1989)

wrathoftheninja_1Wrath of the Ninja: The Yotoden Movie [戦国奇譚妖刀伝 Sengoku Kidan Yōtōden] (1989)
AKA Legend of the Enchanted Swords; Yotoden: Chronicle of the Warlord Period; Wrath of the Ninja – The Yotoden Chronicles; Blade of the Ninja

Starring Keiko Toda, Kazuhiko Inoue, Takeshi Watabe, Tomomichi Nishimura, Masami Kikuchi, Kazuki Yao, Kaneto Shiozawa, Norio Wakamoto, Reizo Nomoto, Shōzō Iizuka, Ritsuo Sawa, Eken Mine

Directed by Osamu Yamasaki


Ninja action is awesome, right? Especially when there are lots of demons and illusions, and martial arts showdowns scattered around, right? The more the better, right? Well, sadly that’s not the case for Wrath of the Ninja which proves that you can indeed have too much ninja action in a movie, as hard as that is to believe. I think (hope) that this is the result of compressing down the longer original story into oblivion. The film version of Wrath of the Ninja is a compilation of the series, and it’s got all the usual problems of such a film cranked up to eleven.

The plot, what’s left of it anyway, revolves around three ninjas from different clans who each own a special weapon with a legend attached to it. They’re up against the commonly used historical figure of Oda Nobunaga, who was also the villain of Black Lion as well as other anime. Here, as is common in stories set in feudal Japan, Nobunaga is a demon bent on conquering the world. I think. I’m actually not sure what he’s after. The story doesn’t have enough time to bother with something as trivial as the objectives of the main villain. But whatever he’s trying to do, it involves the massacre of the protagonists’ hometowns, which obviously unites them in an unstoppable ninja team-up out for revenge.

wrathoftheninja_2It doesn’t quite work out that way, though. One of the heroes bails on the adventure and hides in a cave for a while, leaving the other two to deal with Nobunaga’s gang of seven evil ninjas on their own. I’d love to tell you why, but I don’t know. The plot, again, is so rushed that it doesn’t feel the need to explain why one of the main characters decided to switch careers from badass swordsman to ascetic hermit. It has something to do with hearing the legend surrounding their snazzy weapons. I think he was trying to give a massive “Fuck you” to destiny, but, again, the story leaves out all the pertinent details.

The three weapons are supposed to be united, but no one knows why or what for. So they go on a quest to find the Buddhist monk that can tell them the rest of the legend. That legend is a very intrinsic part of the story and a huge motivation for the characters. So it’s a wee bit unsettling that we never get to learn what that legend is. Instead, a very quick voice-over narration tells us that the characters tracked down the monk, heard the legend, and then went on their merry way to combat Nobunaga. I spent the whole “scene” thinking to myself that this was a pretty significant part of the plot, and maybe the audience ought to be let in on it. The film disagreed. And somewhere in the middle of that was when Sakon decided to hole up in a cave for the rest of the movie. Maybe the legend was just the film’s script and he realized how little it mattered.

Wait, someone thought those legs belonged to a boy?

Wait, someone thought those legs belonged to a boy?

As with any good ninja story, there’s a ton of subterfuge and backstabbing, but I really couldn’t decipher who was even on anyone’s side in the first place. Some army would get ambushed, followed by a different army getting ambushed. Whose army was doing the ambushing? No idea. Was it even the same two armies, or is there a third or even a fourth faction involved? No idea. And where were all those armies during the climax? I hope you’re not getting tired of this, but again, I have no idea. The entire film is just a montage of different ninjas killing each other. There’s no reason for it, and there’s no opportunity for the audience to connect to the characters. So I found myself completely unconcerned with the outcome of anything. When you can’t even care about a single thing in the film, it quickly becomes a very boring affair.

Some of those characters happen to show up more than a few times, and they’ve actually got names too, so I call them main characters. Don’t put to much weight on that term, though, as there’s not much else to distinguish them as important. There is some mild allusion to these characters having personalities, but it’s pretty obscure and uncharted territory for this film. The biggest example is Ayanosuke disguising herself as a boy. Maybe that’s what she’s doing. I’m not real sure on that either. Sometimes the other characters act like they think she’s a boy. Other times they know full well she’s a girl. The whole affair made me wonder just how anyone could look at her and not realize that she was a girl in the first place. So was I reading too much into the situation, or was this just another plot point completely abandoned in favor of some nameless red shirts dying at the hands of even more nameless red shirts?

wrathoftheninja_3To be completely honest, the action is pretty decent for the ’80s, and I feel kind of bad for not really talking about it when it’s pretty much the only thing in the movie. There were some cool looking monsters and some fun action sequences. If there was an actual story attached to it, it might have even been pretty awesome. But an hour and a half of random people you don’t know anything about beating on each other for equally vague reasons is a surefire recipe for boredom.

The series might well have had an excellent plot to back up the action and make someone actually care, but this film cuts out everything that could have made it interesting and leaves a vapid wasteland of unfulfilled potential. If you want to see nothing but ninjas having a massive slugfest, then give Wrath of the Ninja a try. But if you’re more in the mood for something that at least resembles a story, you’ll be better off looking elsewhere.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Avh1D665IAM

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