In case you haven't noticed, I have a thing for Takashi Miike films (Visitor Q, 46 Okunen No Koi, Zebraman 2, Crows Zero 2, Crows Zero, Sun Scarred). It's not easy to keep up with his work as often only the more decent, arthouse-safe releases are finding their way over here, but there are a couple of worthwhile exceptions. Nintama Rantaro (Ninja Kids) is one of the best Miike films to have graced our screens in the past couple of years, though chances are slim that it will win him many new fans, safe a few bewildered children.
If you've seen enough of his work you know it's impossible to pinpoint any typical trademarks. Miike keeps reinventing himself with each new film, honing his skills and perfecting his experience with each new try. Then again, if you've seen enough of his film you'll start noticing that Miike borrows a lot from his earlier work too. Nintama Rantaro owes a lot to Miike's own Yokai Daisenso remake, a film targeted at a younger audience but with enough weirdness to keep us adults (ugh, that sounded awful) entertained.
Nintama Rantaro is a manga/anime adaptation that borrows a lot from the original material. I've never been fully exposed to the manga and/or anime so I'm not sure where exactly Miike's weird mind comes in, but it's clear enough that this is not just a straight adaptation of the original work. The film follows Rantaro, a young boy who enlists in Ninja school. One can never start too young when training to become a master ninja and his farming parents are more than willing to help the boy in his quest to achieve greatness. Together with his classmates Rantaro sets off to learn the tricks of the trade.
The first half of the film is mostly made up of sight gags and comedic sketches, the second half incorporates a short story arc about a ninja race between Rantaro's clan and a competing ninja school, where Rantaro tries to reclaim the freedom of a couple of recluse ninja hairdressers. Yup, you read it right. It's safe to say that you don't need to take this film too seriously.
Nintama Rantaro is an extremely bright and colorful film. Rather than rely too much on CG, Miike goes all fake plastic and grime. It is executed quite efficiently though, so you won't get any 80s Shaw Bros flashbacks, although the odd sweeping mop is used to fake someone's hairdo. Whatever CG there is, is functional and actually quite classy. It's clearly not a cheap film, though I'm equally confident that Miike is one of the best directors out there when it comes to putting a budget to good use.
The soundtrack truly betrays the film's target audience. It's filled with fun and positive tracks, though as a whole it's a pretty forgettable affair. The music is there to highlight the playful, feel-good atmosphere of the film and nothing more. It's pretty easy to ignore though and Nintama Rantaro is not the kind of film that would benefit from a complex or demanding soundtrack.
The acting, as you would expect, is way over the top. The kids are fun and look damn cute in their tiny ninja outfits while the adults are wearing too much make-up for their own good. Still, it's a total blast. Seeing Susumu Terajima as one of the head masters is hilarious, especially as he seems to be carrying his old yakuza attitude with him. Those familiar with Japanese cinema will find many funny cameos scattered throughout the film, the greatest one comes from personal favorite Naoto Takenaka. It's always a joy to see him pop up, even when it's just a small cameo part.
If you're hoping for a decent storyline you're bang out of luck. Nintama Rantaro is all about fun and games. The film is an everlasting string of jokes, sight gags and overall weirdness, and that it does marvelously. With this many jokes not all of them are funny, but a surprisingly big amount is, providing almost continuous laughs from start to finish. Miike's tone of voice is just spot on, making for the most cinematic fun I've had in weeks.
Nintama Rantaro is the perfect example of demented Japanese kids entertainment that's weird enough to appeal to adults, at least those with some memories of their lost childhood. Miike proves once again that he's versed in as many different genres as you can throw at him, at the same time demonstrating he's always keen to perfect his skills while incorporating previous experiences. Nintama Rantaro is a barrel of fun, virtually unmatched by any other 2011/2012 film out there. It's a prime Miike film, though probably a bit too Japanese to appeal to a big audience. Still, if you're into Miike's weirdness this is a definite must-see.