I was not expecting this movie to have as much story as it did. From the previews it seemed like it was made for the purpose of including as many ninja fight scenes as possible, because ninjas are such a cool and popular mythology right now. Having seen the film, that’s probably still an accurate assessment, but it wasn’t completely ridiculous. Bad dialogue, yes. Way over-the-top violence and a plethora of fight scenes, absolutely. But it did have a workable plot, that made it as plausible as possible for the story to be believable, to keep the myth alive. (But if ninjas were real, wouldn’t we have seen or heard about them? No, because they’re ninjas! You never see them! They’re too awesome!)
Of course there is an incredible amount of violence and blood, but it’s cartoonish. All the blood is super red, and there’s way too much of it. I think some of it is even CGI. I kind of doubt whether you can really cut off people’s extremities in a single slice with a little ninja knife. But people can’t really literally blend into a shadow the way they do in the film, either. So it’s all highly stylized and fantastical. It’s like Kill Bill in that way.
Basically, the ninja clans exist (in secret) by kidnapping orphans and putting them through vigorous, relentless training until they are ninjas, then they hire them out as assassins. What if a child doesn’t want to be a ninja? Not a problem for the clans, since their law dictates that any traitor should be killed. “Betrayal begets blood,” they say. They also say, “weakness compels strength,” I guess meaning if someone else is weak, you have to beat/kill them, to show you’re stronger? I’m not sure, but it’s not a system with any room for grace or mercy.
Of course there is a child, (Kiriko), who doesn’t fit into this harsh world she’s trapped in. She can’t bear to watch the sufferings of others, so she secretly puts ointment on their wounds at night. She refuses to cut another boy when she beats him in a fight, and as punishment she is cut across the face and locked in a bamboo cage for days. Eventually she tries to escape, and is killed. And our main character loved her, and basically he is now out to destroy the entire Ozunu clan to avenge her. And also because if he doesn’t kill them all they will never stop hunting him down; he becomes a “traitor” himself when he refuses to kill another young captured runaway. Raizo is “the name [our hero] was given.”
Raizo. He. Was. Ripped! Are you kidding me?! How do you get a body like that? I don’t know how many of the stunts might have used cables and harnesses and stuff, but I don’t care, it was impressive. Especially the fight sequence in the street, when Raizo was being persued by his former Ozunu brothers, so they are all flat-out running against the flow of traffic and flipping over cars and stabbing at each other sideways in-between other cars and spinning out of the way at the last second. I know, it sounds really cheesy. But it was awesome. See for yourself.
Kiriko’s story is the most positive message in this movie, I would say. Raizo smuggles her water to drink when she is locked in the cage for taking another’s punishment upon herself. He says, “Kiriko, why?” and she resolutely responds, “Why am I in here, or why are you out there?” I loved that; rather than break down, whine or complain, rather than giving some emotional response about how she couldn’t bring herself to hurt another human like that, her answer assumes a certainty that her course of action is right, and that’s enough reason to follow it, and why isn’t he? Later, when she is making her escape, Raizo tries to talk her out of it, reminding her that their cruel clan leader will cut her heart out if she does. But she insists, “I have to.” Even knowing she will die, she cannot be swayed from doing what she is convinced is right. She would rather die trying to do the right thing than make the compromises she would have to in order to continue living with the Ozunu clan. It’s really inspiring.
Raizo’s quest to avenge her is brave, and his dedication and discipline in training is impressive. But he could stand to learn a thing or two from his girlfriend. The ultimate messages of this movie are that violence and killing can bring you peace, or that redemption is found through revenge. That’s a very common theme, but not one that Charles Xavier or the Bible agree with. Professor X says “killing…will not bring you peace” in X-Men: First Class, and Jesus says, “…do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. ” (Matthew 5:39). That seems almost impossible, especially if the slap is coming from a deadly ninja star. But Kiriko would have been brave enough to do it.
Many of the ninja’s Raizo kills are targeting an innocent victim. That seems noble. Is it justifiable to kill them, then? This is a puzzle to which I don’t have the answer right now. But I think it’s much, much harder to answer affirmatively as a Christian. I like what one of the (real-life) missionaries in End of the Spear said, before he was killed by members of the Waodani tribe he was trying to reach with the gospel: “Son, we can’t shoot the Waodani. They’re not ready for heaven… we are.” I hope I would be as brave as he and Kiriko were, if faced with a similar situation.