Nin X Nin: The Ninja Star Hattori (2004)
Nicholas Driscoll
March 17, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

Does this sound familiar? Okay, so there's this little boy, elementary school age. He's lonely, his parents don't pay much attention to him, he's bullied at school and he has the self esteem of a sad cat in a mud puddle. Then, whoosh! A strange-but-lovable (and magical!) fellow explodes into the boy's life, bringing with him humorous-and-cool powers and unending wacky hijinx. Through their thrilling (but not too scary) adventures together, the little boy learns to Believe in Himself ™ while averting impending disaster with incredible convenience. Set that story in Tokyo, Japan, name the little boy Kenichi, make the strange-but-lovable fellow a blue ninja, and you've got Nin X Nin: The Ninja Star Hattori.

Things are only just barely more complicated than that, but the storyline hits all of the clichéd childhood-fantasy trademarks with unerring regularity. Clichés, however, are a regular facet of most stories, and it's often less about originality and more about how a story is handled that equals the entertainment quality quotient. On this account, Nin x Nin isn't particularly impressive, but this manga-based ninja does sneak in enough fun to make it easily endured, if not enthusiastically embraced. And really, who wants to embrace a ninja?

Shingo Katori, the Cheshire Cat member of the pop-band phenomenon SMAP, is Kanzo Hattori, a ninja-in-training under a ricecake-loving bearded master of the Iga ninja clan. After years of training in isolation, Hattori is given his final mission in becoming a true ninja—travel to Edo. (Apparently the Iga clan doesn't keep up on the news, for they don't know that Edo became Tokyo a LONG time ago. Those silly ninjas.) Hattori's mission in Tokyo? Go, find a lord to obey, and not let anyone see him. Because, you know, ninjas are sneaky and stuff. Hattori finds Tokyo a bit larger than he expected, and then utilizes a very scientific method for finding a lord: using his "flying squirrel" technique to glide through a random window and prostrate himself in front of the rather stunned kid whose room he just invaded. (At this point, sharp-eyed viewers will be able to spot a SpaceGodzilla toy hanging out in the background of Kenichi's room—this is a Toho film, after all.)

Hattori is a weird character, a ninja that would do well as the host for a kid's TV program. His costume is a Smurfy blue, he has red swirls painted on his cheeks, and, when he is happy, he says "nin!" in a high-pitched voice. Depending on your tolerance for such things, he can either be rather endearing or downright grating. For me, Shingo Katori is a lot of fun. He has a magnetic screen presence and his talent at physicality and humor is strong enough that he can make the goofy ninja bit work. Katori is also so incredibly popular that Nin x Nin is sprinkled with references to his other work and even his real life so that ardent fans can spot them and squeal. For example, there's a reference to Katori's cross-dressing alter-ego, Shingo-Mama, whom he created for the SMAP television show and with which he recorded a hit single and the memorable catchphrase, "oha," which is a cutesy way to say "good morning." Hattori also develops a taste for mayonnaise on rice—a favorite snack of the real Shingo, if my students are to be believed. The fact that the Japanese DVD release includes English subtitles is likely also a result of Shingo Katori's English-loving image—he has a line of English conversation books on the market, for example. Another member of SMAP, the angular Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, also makes an appearance as another ninja. I think there are a number of special guest appearances, as several other ninjas seem to noticeably mug for the camera in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge manner, but I didn't recognize them. In the end, this movie could just as well have been titled "Shingo the Ninja."

Other performances are more mixed. Yuri Chinen gives a watchable but very uninteresting performance as the self-doubting boy of destiny Kenichi. Hattori's rival and ninja-turned-schoolteacher, Kemumaki, as played by the phenomenally popular cross-dressing comedian Gorie (listed as "Gori" on the IMDB, which is just wrong) is a real kick (yes, ninja-pun intended). Gorie pulls off Kemumaki's alternately sinister and caring character with admirable aplomb, all while wearing a hairdo akin to the Three Stooges—except uglier. Very impressive. Evil baddie Kurokage (erroneously listed as Karokage on the IMDB—good grief!), as performed by Takeshi Masu, a bad ninja who is poisoning (but not killing! Heaven forbid that ninjas actually kill!) all the other former ninjas he can, appropriately snarls and glares and flips around his faux-leather coat with much menace. However, even with his weird gray contact lenses and ability to run in dramatic slow motion, Kurokage is very forgettable. Kenichi's crush, the blind (and full-grown) Midori, is played by Rena Tanaka. Tanaka does have some acting ability (she was fun as a spoiled and ditsy beauty in Kyo no Dekigoto) and she is quite beautiful—this was the first film I saw her in, and I was immediately struck by her soft, almost feline features. However, she makes an unconvincing blind person. This isn't really her fault as much as it is the script's, however.

And here we come to Nin x Nin's greatest weakness—the story. Here there are holes as massive as they are numerous. In my opinion, a children's movie or a fantasy movie is welcome to have as many ridiculous, magical, or fantastic elements as it wants. In fact, I love such elements. I do in general, however, ask for consistency—something which isn't as valued in Japanese storytelling as in American. If a rule is established in a story, that rule should not be disregarded for storyline convenience. Here, however, consistency takes a beatdown in the name of lazy storytelling. It is established in the story that Midori is blind but is artistically gifted—if she can feel a person's face with her hands, then she can draw it. Later, however, at a crucial moment, she can draw the perfect likeness of the evil Kurokage, despite only briefly hearing his voice, and also despite the fact that he was in disguise at the time. Character consistency is equally of the Swiss cheese variety. Before Kenichi realizes that Midori is blind, he uses a ninja trick in which he ditches most of his clothing and then runs across a field in his briefs (something which I hope never to see again) right under her balcony. I don't know about you, but if I had a mad infatuation with a beautiful girl, my first notion would not be to toss my clothes to the wind and prance about in my BVDs under her watchful eye. Hattori's mission in Tokyo is the worst of all—it's never clear exactly what he is supposed to be doing, and he never does anything that bares any resemblance to training. The one very clear mandate—that to be seen by anyone except his adopted lord equals failure in his mission—is violated halfway through the movie when his rival, Kemumaki, spots him, and yet it is never even suggested that Hattori might have failed due to this bumble. Apparently there is an "except other ninjas" clause that went unmentioned. Furthermore, there are several plot threads that are snipped short before they can have any real meaning for the story, such as a fellow who coincidentally and regularly stumbles upon Kurokage's victims and the utter ubiquity of Happy Cola. There are so many advertisements and uses of Happy Cola throughout the entire film that I kept expecting it to play into the plot somehow, but it never does.

Plotline aside, the special effects of the movie are perhaps on par for an older TV movie from America. There is heavy use of greenscreening and frugal use of CGI. The ninja capabilities are usually achieved through a combination of greenscreening and fast-forwarding the movement of the characters—no actual martial artists seem to have been used in the making of this film. The technique comes off looking very cartoony, but unique, and it is fun.

Music ranges from sweeping orchestral themes that would present well in any American family adventure film, to grinding synthesized "bad-guy" tunes and uplifting electronica that almost would fit into a dance videogame. It's not always a complementary mixture of themes, but it does highlight the action of the scenes well enough.

Ultimately, Nin x Nin is fluff of an unremarkable sort. The characters are definitely charming, but this ninja is not clever, stealthy, nor deadly. I might recommend a viewing to the forgiving moviegoer, but considering import costs, one may as well leave ninja Hattori-kun unseen—that was his mission, after all.