Monday, February 27, 2012

NYICFF ’12: Ninja Kids!!!

Rantaro’s folks are like most parents. They only want a better life for their son. They just think it will involve bombs and darts. To that end, the first grader is trundled off to a sort of Hogwarts for the deadly martial arts in Takashi Miike’s Ninja Kids!!! (trailer here), which screens during the upcoming 2012 New York International Children’s Film Festival.

The mere thought of a Miike film at a children’s film fest might sound distressingly wrong to those familiar with his more notorious films, like Audition. Nonetheless, Ninja Kids, based on a popular anime and manga series, really is quite kid friendly, while still being manic enough to satisfy the director’s cult following.

Rantaro supposedly comes from a long line of low-ranked ninjas. However, farming is the only work he has ever seen his father do. At considerable financial sacrifice, his parents are sending him to Ninja Academy, so he can make something of himself. The bespectacled young boy hardly looks imposing, but he is one of the better students in the problematic “Ha” class. He is smart and has heart, which is the most important thing according to the old and silly, yet still comically spry headmaster. As it happens, he will need those traits when the first graders become entangled in a Ninja power struggle.

It is a good thing kids have soft bones. Frankly, viewers will worry more about the old-timers Miike tosses around like rag dolls. It never leads to permanent damage though, at least on screen. To give parents an idea of the mayhem involved, when a character is hit in the head with a cannon ball, he just staggers about woozily. If you prize slapstick humor (and what’s not to like?), than Ninja Kids is your Citizen Kane.

Not that it really matters, but Yoshio Urasawa’s adapted screenplay is a bit thin, never really developing the rivalry with the Usetake clan. Of course, this is hardly a plot driven film. It is all about its young characters and cartoony gags. Fortunately, Seishirô Katô plays Rantaro with a winning charm and a toothy grin the camera loves. Hugely likable but never cloying, it is impossible not to buy into him.

Both kids and cult film enthusiasts should eat up Ninja Kids’ lunacy with a big spoon. It also celebrates the value of courage and teamwork in terms that should mollify stick-in-the-mud parents. Recommended as a high-energy crowd pleaser, Ninja Kids!!! (with three exclamation points) screens this Saturday (3/3) at the Cantor Film Center and Saturday the 24th at the Asia Society as part of this year’s NYICFF.