Seiji Chiba is one of those ‘cult’ directors whose output is (in)famous for one particular genre and as such is probably enjoyed by a rather niche audience. From what I’ve seen to date, he clearly likes his ninja films; specifically those of the short, low-budget variety. Ninja Battle, originally titled Iga no Ran, Kousoku (‘Rogue Ninjas: Abduction’), is one of a series of period ninja-themed movies that he directed from 2005 onwards. It’s a series that also includes ‘The Rogue Ninjas’, ‘Warring Nations, The Rebel Ninjas’ and ‘The Fugitive Ninja’...see a theme developing here?
This period of his work is concerned with the story of the historical conflict involving the Oda and Koga ninja clans and the subsequent fall of the Iga province (as depicted in the above titles and the previously-reviewed Kunoichi: Ninja Girl).
Ninja Battle is not, despite what its title might suggest, an action-packed film. To its credit this means it avoids being a meaningless gore-fest, having only a few short moments of swordplay and violence. Instead it focuses on clan politics, double-crosses and hidden agendas that come with rival ninjas infiltrating their enemies’ ranks. It’s less exciting for sure, but is perhaps more intriguing. In theory at least, it should be.
Although I felt misled by the choice of English title, I must admit a plot-orientated ninja movie is a refreshing change from the typical strings of action set-pieces. I’m assuming that the full extent of the back-story is found in the accompanying instalments (unreleased in the UK at the time of writing) but there’s just enough exposition to get a grasp of the current state of affairs: two Iga ninjas discover a dead comrade and a female Koga ninja bound and gagged in a cave and, after some interrogation, the cast’s respective motives are revealed.
In true Chiba ninja movie tradition these events happen in the familiar cave and surrounding woodland and the quality of both soundtrack and cinematography leave a lot to be desired. The camera work itself is cheap, dull and murky – not helped by the fact that most of it takes place inside the aforementioned cave – but this isn’t much of an issue since the story is mostly dialogue; it’s fortunate then that the performances are surprisingly convincing with one or two relatively well-known names. The events are punctuated with flashbacks that inject some welcome complexity and sophistication to the whole affair, so in terms of acting and editing it’s not too bad.
The core theme of ambiguous, hidden loyalties brings out the espionage rather than action-orientated aspects of the ninja genre, and that’s where the majority of the film’s entertainment value lies. I suspect they’re not particularly historically accurate, but the covert assassination methods that the ninjas employ (poisons and concealed weapons mostly) are still surprising and fun, and they provide some twists to a plot that would otherwise simply consist of a few ninjas in a cave talking... which is what the majority of the film amounts to.
Sadly Ninja Battle feels like a component part of a greater whole, so you can’t help but feel you’re missing out on the bigger picture. It delivers respectable performances and some semblance of a storyline but is hampered by its short duration, amateurish screenplay and shoestring budget; what it lacks in action it tries to make up for in plot, but that fact is not the saving grace you might expect it to be. It’s unable to free itself from tongue-in-cheek B-movie territory and the fun factor of those plot twists fades all too quickly after the credits started to roll.