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"Wrath of the Ninja": New History - Now With Monsters!

In the 1990s, as anime began to demonstrate its popularity on home video American distributors started releasing whatever they could lay their hands on. Thanks to the early success of exploitation titles like Fist of the North Star, their only criteria seemed to be that there was plentiful bloodshed. With a few notable exceptions like Ninja Scroll, today most of these otherwise lackluster properties languish in obscurity. One such title is Central Park Media’s Wrath of the Ninja, recently dusted off for a special edition re-release with previously unseen footage.

Demons beware, with which 1989′s Wrath has much in common. Both feature supernatural ninjas battling for control of turbulent 16th century Japan, excellent animation and extreme violence. Unfortunately the similarities extend to humdrum characters and a razor thin storyline.

What sets Wrath apart is the modestly clever way in which real historical figures and events are woven into the fantastical plot, sort of like the backstory about the founding fathers and freemasons in National Treasure. In fact viewers would do well to brush up on this chapter in Japanese history beforehand, lest many of the finer details be lost on them. Disappointingly, rather than seamlessly combining the real and unreal the film simply slams to a halt from time to time to deliver what sounds like a high school lecture. Which is also reminiscent of National Treasure, although at least Wrath has no odious comic relief character. In fact there’s little humor of any sort, making for a very dry film.

The key selling point of this edition is the inclusion of the previously unavailable Wrath OVA miniseries, along with the truncated movie version released earlier. I’d like to say that the extra half hour adds valuable depth, but mostly it’s tedious exposition concerning minor characters. If you already have the previous release you’re not missing much.

Deadly AND fashionableThe story opens in 1580, when the bloodthirsty warlord Oda Nobunaga was mounting a brutal campaign to bring the entire country under his control. Only in this reality he is a half-demon, and employs the shape shifting ninjas of the Oboro clan and bizarre monsters to destroy his enemies. When the young Kasumi ninja Ayame’s family is killed by one of his rampaging beasts, she sets out on a quest for vengeance armed with a sacred sword said to destroy evil. Knowing she cannot succeed on her own, she soon allies herself with the ninjas Sakon and Ryoma, both of who also wield magic weapons.

The movie version retains its adequate original dub. All the characters are pretty flat though, and evoke little sympathy from the audience. There’s no personal drama to speak of until a hint of romance late in the film.

Our heroes are all steadfast courageous types, with only Sakon getting any greater development. Although he shares his comrades’ goal, like Han Solo he’s skeptical of methods he deems suicidal and cautions Ayame to reconsider the value of revenge. Ayame herself has little emoting to do, save for the truly ludicrous scene in which she grieves inconsolably over the death of Ryoma’s kid sister Kikyo, despite having only just met her hours earlier. Relationships move so fast in the anime world it’s even hinted they may have fallen in love (!). It’s little wonder otakus are drawn to anime heroines.

The villains are simply sneeringly evil, but at least they are distinguished by interesting powers like mind control and teleportation. In human form the Oboros look curiously like Duran Duran members, and when transformed resemble grotesque mutant insects. Apart from one, who apparently morphs into a blob of lime Jell-O.

Like Basilisk the fights have strong choreography, although it is exaggerated in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tradition. Many contests end gruesomely with brains splattered or intestines eaten, the latter of which I could have done without. On the lighter side one magic attack utterly fails to harm its beautiful female target, and yet conveniently vaporizes all her clothing. Let’s see Copperfield do that.

Creepy monsters aside, Wrath has great art design that pays careful attention to period details, such as Nobunaga’s massive, ornate Azuchi Castle. The animation is impressively smooth for the key scenes, although some shortcuts are taken elsewhere. I think I saw the same three generic ninjas get killed at least half a dozen times, but then ninjas all look alike to me. Unfortunately this edition seems to use the same transfer as the previous release, and it’s a little washed out. Still, given the film’s age it is holding up well.

Ayame was unprepared for the halitosis of the undeadOn the other hand the limp soundtrack sounds dated and terribly dull. Some effort is made to incorporate traditional Japanese music cues, though the result is far from historically authentic.

Unsurprisingly the extras are rather limited. The art gallery contains a few stunning promotional posters, but consists mainly of random screen captures. The “Historical and Cultural Notes” offer some interesting background information that will greatly enhance the viewer’s understanding of the film. For example the weapons our heroes wield are analogous to the three sacred items the gods bestowed upon Japan’s imperial family, which they are effectively fighting to restore to power. It would be great to have a commentary track with a history professor, although he’d probably need a lot of sake to sit though the corny monster scenes.

Pretty though it is, it’s hard to offer much of a recommendation for Wrath of the Ninja unless you have a Japanese history test coming up. I suppose huge Basilisk fans may find something to like. Personally I’m eager to go visit some of the historical landmarks featured in the film to see if they really make reference to zombie armies or gateways to hell. That would make for some great souvenirs.

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