Spout Mavens Disc #14, Part 12 of 13: Shorts! Volume 3 - Too Many Ninjas?

Climactic Death of Dark Ninja
Director: Peter Craig
US, 13 minutes, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

A Ninja Pays Half My Rent
Director: Steven Tsuchida
US, 5 minutes, color
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

At the outset of reviewing two ninja films, please forgive me, if you will, for being a samurai guy.

Yeah, they’re pushy and elitist and, in the manner of most of the rest of mankind, they are often simply drunken, woman-slapping, craven beasts. But every once in while, one of them steps out, does something unbelievably heroic or cool (more often than not against the general grouping of pushy, elitist, drunken, woman-slapping samurai that aren’t heroic or cool). And when they finally do their heroic, cool bit, it’s usually out in the great wide open, where everyone can see and learn from their awesomeness and die by their godlike skill with the blade.

Not like ninja.

Sneaky, creeping, shadowy bastards, the lot of them. I guess it hurts them as a species that ninja have never really had an auteur in their corner like the samurai class had Kurosawa. Well, except for those Eastman and Laird guys, but they had to make their ninja heroes not just mutants and not just teenagers, but turtles as well in order to bring international attention and fame to them. And, looking back, the lack of a Kurosawa figure leading ninja into battle through the movies didn’t really hurt them at all, since everyone around me today seems to think that ninja are the bee’s knees. No kid wants to be a samurai anymore, but they all want to be ninja. Again, ninja did this through stealth, getting through to the public through what are largely considered children’s media (though we know that’s not really true), instead of through the front door and boldly out in the open like the samurai.

It’s not surprising, though, that ninja really started to pick up steam in the ‘80s – that most superficial of times (if you don’t count today), where backstabbing and shadowy behavior truly solidified their status as the bread and butter of the big business world (those two characteristics have always had an iron grip on politics). Sho Kosugi was there to lead the path on video, Frank Miller and those Turtle guys in the comics, and every third toy seemed to be a ninja engaged in some form of sinister sneakiness. And let's not discount the massive influence of Snake-Eyes from the G.I. Joe TV show, comic series and toyline. Ninja sort of seemed to the mid-to-late ‘80s what spies were to the ‘60s, albeit on a more minor scale. Unlike spies in the ‘60s though, the TV never got filled with successful ninja-led series – except those omnipresent testudinians-- nor did ninjas ever gain a truly Bond-like hero either. Why? Because it’s hard to become a lovable assassin, and its especially hard when you are shadowy and weaselly and obscure most of your features except your eyes. It can be done, but please don’t prop up Elektra as such a character; she’s sort of cool -- mainly with Miller working her strings -- but she is mainly a pain in the ass.)

Me? I never took to the ninja set, and I suppose it’s quite obvious from what I have written thus far. But most of my friends seem to be quite enamored of them, and so it came as little surprise to me when I stopped to reflect upon a couple of those old pals while I was watching one of the two ninja-related films on Shorts! Volume 3 titled A Ninja Pays Half My Rent. Chiefly, it is because the style of this film is directly reminiscent of the antics preferred by those two old pals, and I even had to check out the credits of the film halfway through to make sure that this wasn’t a ninja-style film attack from one of them in particular, since both have spent time in and out of Hollywood working on short films and the occasional feature. Alas, while the mood was certainly right for them to have been involved, it appears they were not.

But it is definitely the sort of story they would have worked out, having some average doofus being forced into finding a new roommate (his old roomie dies from a grapefruit squirting accident, rarely fatal we are told, but still…), and finally settling on taking in a shadowy, lurking assassin to meet the bills. The humor doesn't try to go too far, though really, given the truncated running time, how could it? Just a quick set-up leading to the introduction of the ninja, a series of swift blackout gags portraying both the difficulties and the sometimes awe-inspiring charms of having a ninja as a roommate, and then... well, that's a surprise, and while nothing earth-shattering is going to occur in such light fare, Rent is a fine example of a film where the makers clearly understand exactly the point where they don't overstay their welcome. It's almost enough to start to warm my anti-ninja heart...

Also playing havoc with my stance on this subject is the other ninja-related piece of the DVD called Climatic Death of Dark Ninja. Unlike the more absurd first offering, Climactic could really take place in our world, and I must point out that there are no "actual" ninjas to speak of here. This film, a bit more ambitious (and presumably personal) than Rent, though still very definitely of a comic variety, is actually about the making of a film called Climactic Death of Dark Ninja and the various problems that don't just merely arise in this story, but rather, have plagued the production since its erstwhile teenage director corralled his ragtag group of friends and neighborhood kids into shooting the film long before we meet up with this group.

Please see beyond a couple of the stiffer performances by the young amateur actors and try to view their stiffness as more of a natural quirkiness, and you will find greater enjoyment in the piece. There is a definite weird charm at play here -- fans of insider joking about amateur filmmaking geeks will especially get a jolt out of this (i.e. those types of geeks themselves, including that pair of old pals of mine and, to a lesser degree, myself) -- and it would be a shame if you wrote it off early. Climactic pays off well by following up on a couple of key jokes laid out in the beginning, so sticking around for the full thirteen minutes rewards the viewer. If it seems, after following the shorter first film, that this one drags a bit, that wouldn't surprise me, but do stick around all the same. The length is actually perfect, and while after the first viewing I was fairly neutral regarding the whole enterprise, subsequent takes found me warming up to it, taking its loony charms to heart. Those darn ninja have sneaked up on me again.

And so, what do I do? Admit I have a problem? Surely not an addictive one -- it's only two short films -- not a series of features. If it were more prolonged a bout, I might be worried about my non-ninja stance. Maybe I simply had a minor Grinch-like torrent of emotion, and allowed for some tolerance in my formerly implacable stand against ninja of all stripes. And maybe it is a wish to still be hanging around with those two old pals of mine, launching into all sorts of trouble playing spy games and occasionally engaging in some guerrilla filmmaking. Maybe, at the great and considered urging of one pal in particular, we would even try to make a mini-ninja epic of our own.

I, of course, being a control freak, would probably then insist on gumming up the works by introducing a samurai into our film. They wouldn't like it, and would probably talk me out of it, but what else am I going to do? Gotta class up the joint somehow...

[I should point out that in my references to ninja throughout this piece, I am speaking in a broad sense about current popular notion of the ninja, not of their actual history or presence in the real world. My apologies to true ninja everywhere. You sneaky bastards…]

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