Monday 12 October 2015

Anime REVIEW: Ninja Slayer From Animation

Ninja Slayer From Animation

Once upon a time if you ever had a completely over the top idea for an anime series, Gainax were probably the people you needed to give a call though. Times change though, and following their breakthrough success with Kill la Kill most anime fans will probably agree that Trigger are now the first ones that spring to mind (though in a fairness, a sizeable portion of their staff is ex-Gainax anyway). So when it was revealed that the schlocky cyberpunk ninja novel series Ninja Slayer was getting an animated adaptation, Trigger felt like something of a perfect fit. An original net animation (ONA) which was broadcast via the Niconico streaming website, Ninja Slayer From Animation ran for a total of 26 episodes, with each one averaging about 15 minutes long. It will however be receiving a television airing in Japan sometime in 2016, with the episodes re-edited in what will likely be a 13-episode block.

A fight sequence
A typical Ninja Slayer fight sequence

In the cyberpunk metropolis of Neo-Saitama, the wife and child of salaryman Kenji Fukido are killed in a ninja turf war. While grief-stricken, Kenji is possessed by Naraku Ninja - a ninja spirit that craves the death of all evil ninjas. Combined with Kenji's thirst for revenge, this creates Ninja Slayer - a near-unstoppable fighter who has vowed to destroy all ninja. As the connection between Kenji and Naraku Ninja's minds grows, so does Ninja Slayer's strength. 

With help of journalist hacker Nancy Lee and the psychic ninja Yamato Lee, Ninja Slayer travels the city taking down any evil ninja in his path. Throughout a series of explosive battles he slowly becomes closer and closer to his final goal. Laomoto Khan, the leader of Soukai Syndicate - a criminal organisation that rules over the city.

Nancy Lee
And here's where your budget went

When viewers switched on Ninja Slayer for the first time, very few of them were probably expecting the second coming of Inferno Cop - Trigger's very first outing as a studio. The fact they share the same director in the form of Akira Amemiya was probably a tip off, but the promotional material and opening credits (set to the very catchy "Back in Black", which has no relation to the AC/DC song, by Boom Boom Satellites) presented this show as a retro-looking piece of 80s anime nostalgia with neon colours and interesting character design. And while the show does have a level of that charm to it, much of the animation actually comes in the form of static models bouncing around a backdrop like a badly animated flash cartoon. It came as a pretty big surprise to me in the first episode, and honestly I wasn't quite sure how I was supposed to take it. Ninja Slayer already takes a completely straight-faced approach to it's sheer ridiculousness, so was this a way of it visually poking fun at that as well. This is the main problem with Ninja Slayer - exactly what it wants to be seems very open to interpretation. Some will defend it as some sort of very witty parody, while others quickly toss it aside as a cheap show that fails to be funny. Meanwhile others just think that the guys over at Trigger are being massive trolls - it wouldn't be the first time it's happened.

Yamoto Koki
Psychic ninja powah

But if what it was doing was trying to recreate the magic that made Inferno Cop so hilariously wonderful, it fails miserably. One of the key factors to Inferno Cop’s success was that the episodes were about three to five minutes in length, the perfect duration for paper cut out animation to feel appropriate. Ninja Slayer episodes are about three times the length of that, and also mix in a sizable amount of proper (albeit flash) animation too. This results in episodes that are severely unbalanced – they aren’t “so cheap that it’s funny” because they’ve clearly also had a reasonable amount of effort put into them, and they aren’t well animated because of these ridiculous segments. The show is seemingly trying to get the best of both worlds, but the two simply can’t coexist together in the way that Trigger wants them to. 

The episodes themselves are largely standalone stories, most of which see Ninja Slayer facing off against a ‘ninja of the week’ but do include a handful focusing on some of his allies instead. Character development is pretty thin on the ground – we only get very brief glimpses into Kenji’s background and his internal struggle with Naraku Ninja (who he seems to be resisting to keep some semblance of control) it told rather than outright shown. Teenage psychic ninja Yamoto Koki is a little more interesting (and is the main star of one of the show’s best episodes), but her appearances aren’t frequent enough to save things. The blonde and buxom Nancy Lee is a more regular co-star and, while perfectly capable of putting up a fight, is mainly there to provide fan service. Whether it’s being tied up or candid camera angles, you can bet that the scene in question involves Nancy. It’s fan service at its tackiest, which while might act as a deterrent for some actually fits rather well with the grimy 80s vibe Ninja Slayer has going on.

True darkness dresses in purple

But for all its problems, there is some level of enjoyment to be had with this series. Even if the shamelessly cheap fight sequences grow old very quickly, other quirks such as the ninjas politely greeting each other before battle remain somewhat amusing. And while praising the actual flash animation in regards to quality might be overselling it a bit, it does have some charm to it that fits the tone and aesthetic of the series. If the whole show had been done in that style there would probably be less to say about it, but I’d argue that it would be somewhat more memorable.

Finally there’s the character designs, which show a great deal of imagination that is unfortunately squandered on static models. The term ‘ninja’ in the traditional sense is used very loosely in this series, with most of Ninja Slayer’s opponents taking monstrous forms that are usually more ridiculous than the last. Though the fights rarely have any real variety to them, at least with the ninjas you never know quite what you’re going to get each week. It also helps the really big bads – such as Laomoto Khan and the high ranking Dark Ninja, stand out all the more as they’re more traditionally ‘ninja’ in design.

A Bebop-lookablike Ninja
Hey Bebop, you're in the wrong show!

Ninja Slayer From Animation is quite a difficult series to pin down. One can't deny it's sheer energy and over the top nature, but the intentionally cheap nature of the series doesn't serve a clear purpose. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it a commentary on the inherent tackiness of the source material and the genre? Whatever the answer is, it's a joke that gets really old quickly and simply isn't suited to a series of this length. This is a show that has flashes of fist-pumping moments that you can't help but shout "YEEEART!" with, but are lost mostly lost among a dull narrative where very few fight scenes (or even episodes) are especially memorable. If there was one thing Trigger should have taken away from Inferno Cop, it's that it's brevity was the source of its comedy and its success.

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