18 April 2013 | BrianDanaCamp
Historical swordplay adventure mixes real events with fantasy elements
My VHS copy of this film is titled RENEGADE NINJAS and was released by Prism Entertainment in an English-dubbed version that runs 108 minutes, which is 40 minutes shorter than the running time listed on IMDb. I'm not surprised by that, given how choppy and confusing the film is, as if huge chunks of the narrative were removed at random points. This version is also full-frame and slightly squeezed which means you get a tad more information in the distorted image than a typical pan-and-scan job, but not the benefit of a fully widescreen anamorphic image. Getting past all this, I was able to find in the film an occasionally entertaining mix of samurai and ninja motifs with some good actors and bursts of large-scale action and unpredictable twists overcoming the structural damage caused by the cutting and the often sloppy direction.
The setting is western Japan, the period is the early 1600s, and the main character is Lord Yukimura Sanada (Hiroki Matsukata), an actual historical figure who, to make a long story short, has a dispute with the reigning Shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, and recruits a motley band of out-of-work swordsmen and ninjas to join him in a campaign to get Tokugawa's head. At one point, Tokugawa sends an army to lay siege to Osaka Castle, which Lord Sanada successfully defends thanks to a newly-raised army supplied by factions opposed to the Shogun. One of Sanada's recruits is the legendary ninja, Sarutobi Sasuke, normally a character I've seen in animated ninja tales and the only one here who truly dresses and acts like a ninja on a consistent basis. He is seen employing tricks and seemingly magical means to confound his opponents, such as when he rescues a kidnapped Korean princess by summoning a cyclone and fighting off her guards in mid-air as the princess' palanquin flies up in the storm. There are cannons, armies of riflemen, and ample use of explosives. At one point, the ninjas locate an oil well and pump up enough oil to pour into a stream flowing past the Shogun's ammo dump and then set the oil on fire, with the usual explosive results. Special effects and well-crafted miniatures are used to bolster some of these scenes. It all ends in a most ahistorical manner, requiring interested viewers to make a quick trip to Wikipedia to learn the more mundane facts of how the actual Shogun reached the end of his days.
The only actors in the cast who were familiar to me are Hiroyuki Sanada (MESSAGE FROM SPACE, THE LAST SAMURAI), in the role of a Korean fighter who joins the group on the condition that they save the kidnapped Korean princess, and Tetsuro Tanba (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, THE SUBMERSION OF JAPAN, MESSAGE FROM SPACE), in the small role of an official. Where was Sonny Chiba when they needed him?
RENEGADE NINJAS is too much like other samurai films I've seen from the late 1970s and '80s, which tended to be less rigorous in their settings and tone and more attuned to an MTV sensibility, with a disregard for the more classic style common in 1960s samurai and ninja films. It offers an interesting storyline but I wish it had been made by a more skilled hand at this kind of production, like Kimiyoshi Yasuda (SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH) or Kinji Fukasaku (THE YAGYU CONSPIRACY). (Another director who would have been ideal for this project, Kenji Misumi, of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, was already dead by the time this film was made.) As it stands, I've never seen any other work by this film's director, Sadao Nakajima, who spent much of his career directing yakuza films for the Toei Company, so I don't know if he did a better job on anything else.