In feudal Japan the benevolent Lord Ugata and his wife are betrayed and murdered by Yuki Daijo (Bin Amatsu) and his sneaky ally Orochimaru (Ryutaro Otomo). The latter is both a ninja master and wizard and transforms himself into a dragon to wipe out Ugata's army. Fortunately a magical giant bird flies Ugata's little son to safety. Years later the boy, Ikazuchimaru (Hiroki Matsukata) grows into a dashing hero trained in wizardry by his wise old master. Whilst tangling with a gang of evil ninjas, Ikazuchimaru happens across a girl named Tsunade (Tomoko Ogawa) whom he discovers is searching for her long-lost father. When they return to consult Ikazuchimaru's master they find him poisoned by former student Orochimaru who has fled the scene. Before dying the old wizard clues Ikazuchimaru about his royal heritage. Whereupon our brave hero sets out to pit his magic skills against the villains, their ninja army and formidable dragon.
Unlike Japan's most notable studio Toho, Toei Films rarely dabbled in monster movies (kaiju eiga). Certainly science fiction, horror, superheroes and anime featured heavily in their output (indeed, the studio dominated the latter two fields) but on the whole they left giant monsters stomping Tokyo to their better-funded rivals. The Magic Serpent was Toei's only notable kaiju film. It handily doubled as a period ninja film made, as evident from a children's chorus that plays over the opening credits, with a family audience in mind. Much like the studio's Watari Ninja Boy (1966) released the same year. While The Magic Serpent was never released theatrically in the US the film was purchased by legendary exploitation distributors American International Pictures for screening on television where it won more than a few fans. Some have since speculated that The Magic Serpent might have been a significant influence on George Lucas given certain aspects of its plot resurfaced in Star Wars (1977). Among them the old mystic betrayed by the student that crossed over to the 'dark side' and a plot twist unmasking one villain as the heroine's father. Lucas, a noted fan of Japanese samurai cinema, famously lifted ideas from Akira Kurosawa's classic The Hidden Fortress (1958). So it is not impossible.
Stylistically The Magic Serpent foreshadows a great many techniques Toei later employed in their numerous sentai (superhero) serials in the Seventies: eye-catching pyrotechnics, breakneck action choreography and especially ingenious editing. While the monster suits will strike many as inferior to those crafted by Toho special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya, the creature set-pieces are no less engaging and staged sparingly. What is more the optical and miniature effects are inventive, colourful and charming. Among the standout moments: a ninja decapitates Ikazuchimaru whose head laughs maniacally, Orochimaru surfs a cel animated cloud, the film shifts into black and white with the arrival of Ugata's ghost, and our hero is attacked by flying doors. Tetsuya Yamanouchi crafts a distinctive style of fantasy film that was ahead of its time and would not catch on until the Hong Kong New Wave in the Eighties and the Japanese films influenced thereafter. A specialist in ninja fare, Yamanouchi did not direct many movies. His other notable works include two feature film outings for Mitsuteru Yokoyama's ninja superhero manga Red Mask (1969) and, interestingly, Hong Kong movie moguls the Shaw Brothers' mythological fantasy Na Cha and the Seven Devils (1973). More than anything The Magic Serpent benefits from expert editing that makes the comic book-like action sequences really pop. The film has a frenzied pace sure to thrill children and older action fans alike. It moves so fast and packs so many lively, ingenious set-pieces that the lack of substance is not really a problem. Nevertheless a few plot twists lend the film a pleasing moral and emotional complexity. It also ends on an interesting left-leaning note, unusual in fairy tale films, that champions working class tenacity above feudal heritage.
Hiroki Matsukata makes for an affable hero. A staple of chanbara films and later yakuza fare, the actor enjoyed on last bright shining moment in Takashi Miike's brutal but internationally-acclaimed samurai saga 13 Assassins (2010) prior to his death in 2017. Instead of the usual tiresome revenge driven martial arts hero, the plot makes a point to pinpoint Ikazuchimaru's altruism as an all round good ege always willing to lend a hand. The whole cast invest the fairy tale story with utmost sincerity. Something vital towards maintaining a sense of wonder. Taken as a fairy tale, pure and simple, The Magic Serpent spins an enchanting yarn.