New York Asian Film Festival ‣ シュシュシュの娘
The 20th anniversary New York Asian Film Festival takes place August 6th through August 22nd both with both virtual and in-person screenings for more details click here
It feels like the single biggest joke in Ninja Girl is just how dry it is.
Whatever tone one might expect from a comedy about a young girl who discovers she comes from a long line of ninjas and undertakes a mission to fight against a racist anti-immigrant ordinance, director Yu Irie seems determined to not give you that. Until very, very late in the game this movie is so deadpan that it borders on outsider art.
Don’t be fooled by the sweet new wave sounds and dancing that kicks things off;
All of which probably makes it sound like I’m a bit more down on this movie than I actually am; once I adjusted my expectations and acclimated to its tone, there was much to appreciate. But the movie is absolutely going to be something of an acquired taste.
The story is actually not that much more complex than the description above; Miu (Saki Fukuda) works in the City Hall of Fukaya, a meek office drone that barely anyone pays attention to. Mano (Arata Iura), a co-worker and friend of the family, is coerced into forging some documents to push the racist initative through and commits suicide out of guilt. Miu’s grandfather Goro (Shohei Uno), a former reporter on his deathbed, tasks her with embracing her ninja legacy and tracking down evidence Mano hid that will unravel the whole corrupt scheme.
Perfectly fine setup; weird execution.
It is, perhaps, not surprising that Miu turns out to not be such a great ninja to start with (for starters, most of the family Ninja How To manuals were lost in a fire, leaving her with just a guide to costume making), but what might throw the movie off-balance for some is just how long she stays a terrible ninja.
Despite her sick moves at brief intervals throughout the movie and her sense of ninja style (the Chuck Taylors are a nice touch), for the majority of her screen time Miu is an (intentionally) wan presence. Shuffling, practically mute, her gaze pointed at her feet at all time, Fukuda gives a performance that is impressive in its recessiveness, but can occasionally make the movie as a whole feel a bit driftless.
Driftless, perhaps, but never dull; for instance, thus far I’ve completely failed to mention the rival ninja who constantly shows up to steal Mui’s thunder; or the hilariously awkward romance between Mui and an almost equally awkward (if more outgoing) guy named Tsukasa (Mutsuo Yoshioka)who starts giving her rides everywhere. The movie is short enough and has just enough moments of Kaurismiaki-style deadpan humor between the thin spots to make it a relatively smooth ride to the third act, which (besides only being like 10 minutes long), goes a long way toward ending the movie on a high note.
What’s interesting about that is just how much of Miu’s character arc takes place offscreen. You think it’s going to be the story of her slowly coming into her own but instead the evolution from milquetoast loser to dedicated badass happens in the space of a scene transition. Which, like so much about the movie, is odd, but also strangely endearing.
(But if you’re worried there wasn’t going to be a training montage, feel free to breathe easy)
And whatever else can be said about the odd tone, I’ll give the movie this: it absolutely ends on its biggest laugh, a final encounter with the rival ninja that has a payoff too good to even hint at.
In lieu of revealing the ancient secrets of ninjutsu, at one point Goro merely tells Miu “Trust the vibes”. And honestly, that applies to the film as a whole. It might not be what you’d expect or even want from a movie called Ninja Girl, but if you’re willing to trust the vibes, there’s some genuine fun in store.