Ninja Girl (2021) review [22nd Nippon connection]

Introduction

Yu Irie has a quite varied oeuvre as director. Not only does it contain soft-erotica (Cream Lemon 7 (2007), music-movies (e.g. 8000 Miles (2009), 8000 Miles 2: Girls Rapper (2010), and Roadside Fugitive (2012)), but also suspense films like the remake Confession of Murder (2017), Vigilante (2017) and AI Amok (2020). And now, by delivering Ninja Girl (2021), he adds a political satire to the list.

Review

Miu Karasuma (Saki Fukuda) lives in a small town near Fukuya city in Saitama. She works for the local government, but her position at work is complicated due to the opposition of her bedridden grandfather Goro (Shôhei Uno) to the proposed immigrant elimination ordinance.

One night, after returning home, she overhears civil servant Mano (-) confessing to Goro that he had to suppress and falsify public records for the mayor’s new ordinance. He keeps apologizing and underlines his decision to commit suicide the following day.

The next day, after hearing he will die soon, Goro tells Miu the family secret: she was born into family of shinobi. He orders her, from shinobi to shinobi, to find the video Mano hid, avenge his death, and expose the lies and racism of the city council. Yet, can she win from the mayor and his gang of corrupted civil servants?

Ninja Girl (2021) by Yu Irie
©Yu Irie & cogitoworks Ltd.

Ninja Girl offers a spin on the hero-narrative to deliver a quite decent political satire. The narrative beats of the hero-narrative are easily recognizable, but it is also evident that Irie has manipulated these beats to offer a subdued and slightly pessimistic commentary on the Japanese political system.

The structure of the narrative of Ninja Girl goes through two phases. The subtle repetition of imagery (e.g. her grandfather sending her on missions, Miu leaving on her scooter, something that complicates Miu’s current mission, and an unexpected helping hand) gives the first half of Irie’s narrative an episodic flavour – the episode of finding the USB-stick and the one of finding the password that will give access to his files.

After these episodes, Irie’s narrative transforms into a more dramatic but straightforward hero-like plot structure with twists that complicates Miu’s mission and her relationships with others and forces her to transform herself. It is this shift in structure that, in fact, allows the director to critique various aspects of the nationalistic discourse.

©Yu Irie & cogitoworks Ltd.

Irie immediately highlights the connection between nationalism – Mayor Koike’s “Japanese First!” – and violence. One night, the Takamine scrapyard, where many foreigners work, is attacked by ‘nationalists’ who demands that the boss to fire his foreign employees and inscribe himself into the ideal of Japanese ‘unity’. Not much later, Miu’s grandfather’s house is attacked by nationalist vigilantes. The house is ransacked, sliding panels torn, and the entrance defiled with the red-painted kanji ‘traitor of the nation’.

As the narrative unfolds, Irie also emphasizes the importance of lies for the nationalistic fantasy (e.g. foreigners do not pay tax). These lies are not only used to fuel the subject’s nationalistic fantasy but also utilized to strengthen the bonds between our nationalistic friends. Irie elegantly shows that what is deemed problematic within such nationalistic fantasy and accompanying discourse is the supposed enjoyment of the Foreign Other – they can enjoy without suffering, they have rights, but no duties. It is, in fact, by lamenting the supposed Other’s enjoyment, an enjoyment strictly forbidden for the nationalist, that the nationalistic subject can please himself with a shared phantasmatic ideal of unity, fuel his joyous hate for the Other, and celebrate his blindness to the pain and suffering that marks the despised foreigner.

©Yu Irie & cogitoworks Ltd.

Irie also highlights, be it in a somewhat indirect way, the hypocrisy that marks a society poisoned by nationalistic fantasies. The discriminatory violence against foreigners (especially east-Asians) often goes hand in hand with happy consumption of Other cultures’ cuisines (e.g. Italian cuisine).

Yet, while Irie’s narrative has an important cautionary message for its audiences, Ninja Girl lacks the edge that would enable its message to have a deep impact on the spectator. While the narrative twists are surprising and lead to a pleasant finale, these elements also unearth the superficiality of Irie’s social commentary. If Irie could have made the danger of nationalism and nationalistic and racist enjoyment on the social fabric more tangible within his narrative, Ninja Girl’smessage would have had more impact and its finale would have been more cathartic. 

The light-heartedness of Ninja Girl is mainly function of the signifier and the conversational flow. The smile that is put on our face is due to subtle surges of nonsensicality that ripple the flow of the speech interactions. Conversations are not only marked by around deadpan-delivered comical surprises, but are also often structured around the light-hearted tension between nonsense and sense (e.g. the discussion in the fabric store between Miu and Saeko (Ryoka Neya) about the colour of her yet to be made ninja clothes).     

©Yu Irie & cogitoworks Ltd.

For his composition of Ninja Girl, Yu Irie relies mainly on static shots (Cine-note 1). Yet, his composition is far from boring. The 4:3 aspect ratio enables him to play with symmetry and geometry and craft some visually pleasant moments within his composition. The subtle graininess that marks the imagery and Irie’s use depth of field, furthermore, heightens the visual pleasure of his composition. Moreover, by letting eighties music’s beats dictate the rhythm of certain moments in his composition, he adds some rhythm to his narrative and emphasizes the light-hearted nature of his narrative (Music-note 1).

This light-heartedness of the narrative is, nevertheless, counteracted by the rather bleak colour-design. The subdued nature of the colour-schemes, in fact, causes a subtle forlornness to seep into the imagery and the atmosphere it evokes. Can we argue, based on the colour-schemes, that Yu Irie has little hope that the fight against corruption and right-wing nationalism can be won? Winning a single battle does not equal winning the war.  

Ninja Girl is a political satire that will not fail to please audiences, but lacks the thematical punch to make a statement that will long linger in the spectator’s mind. Even so, Yu Irie’s Ninja Girl is well worth a watch for its elegant composition, Saki Fukuda’s charming performance, and its decent exploration of racism, corruption, and nationalism.  

Notes

Cine-note 1: In the second half of the narrative, Irie does start using more dynamic shots in his composition.

Music-note 1: Irie echoes his inspirations for this narrative by decorating certain sequences with Japanese traditionally inspired and western-inspired musical pieces. 

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