In a bleak, post-Trump reality wherein nationalist hogwash has pervaded casual discourse, Yû Irie’s Ninja Girl reflects the kind of right-minded rhetoric that the world could do with more of. It also, unfortunately, realizes the kind of facile, lightweight logic all such binary idiocy is founded upon, and so its preschool-level sermonizing doesn’t land with much oomph. The film concerns a Japanese community seeking to enact xenophobic legislature under the auspices of Covid safety protocols, an early-film bit of election propaganda signage reading “Yes to the Immigrant Elimination Ordinance.” The film’s sweeping condemnation of this sentiment comes in the form of ineffectual outcast Miu (Saki Fukuda), a pencil-pushing government bureaucrat who, after her grandfather elucidates the ethical evil of the ordinance and the family’s enduring legacy as moral warriors, internalizes her crisis of conscience and subsequently becomes an expert markswoman of poisoned blow darts who seeks righteous vengeance upon the bigoted hometown cronies. There’s also something of a love (tri)angle to the whole thing, but it’s so superfluous as to be easily left unmentioned were it not for its shoehorned but notable coda. So, mentioned; moving on.
The result is undoubtedly silly, but it’s not initially without its own campy potential. Early on, the film seems like it might work as a send-up of the weirdo-with-a-purpose genre flick, as if Miu’s lifelong mousiness might spontaneously erupt into full (playful, of course) psychopathy along the way. And there’s a bevy of stuffy, suited-up mouthpieces of hive-mind regionalism, casually evil enough to engender dreams of municipal carnage from so disposed viewers. But such pleasures represent only a dream for Ninja Girl, one that quickly fades as things skew more toward outre comedic shlock a la Napoleon Dynamite, a film whose meme-ready character could never have been leveraged to the ends of socio-political commentary). This mode comes replete with a light EDM-backed training montage, as Miu drinks some presumably protein-rich goop and becomes a slight master of straw-assisted assassinship, and some sweet Spaghetti Western musical stylings during a climactic reckoning sequence. And the whole thing is shot in some washed-out color or another, further muting any sort of playfulness the film so obviously seeks to embody. And just in case the intended tenor ever gets away from the viewer, there are multiple interludes of Miu practicing some goofy ninja moves on her back patio.
It’s all sweet enough, and it’s admittedly tough to shit on a film so earnest in its moral rectitude — especially in an era where such common-sense decency can’t be taken for granted. But there’s no denying the odd pairing of Ninja Girl’s palpable (if bottom-barrel) didacticism with its overt cartoonishness, perhaps most fully realized in the aforementioned coda when Miu’s skeezy, one-time love interest is eye-stabbed for his wrong-doings, before Family Guy-style tumbling down a hill, including multiple cuts; there hasn’t been a worse such sequence since the WOAT-contender Lone Survivor. Still, that film reminds that jingoism is always more evil than any easy rejection of it, and so Irie’s film at least situates itself on the “right” side of what’s essentially the same coin. But in a present reality where such blatant degeneracy as xenophobia has found ample space to thrive and proliferate, and especially when a filmmaker isn’t accomplishing much from a formal or intellectual perspective, you have to do better than shooting down such ills with a blow dart. The stakes, depressingly, just can’t be left that low.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.