Bright and eager young Rantaro (Seishiro Kato) leaves his parents (Shido Nakamura and Rei Dan), both struggling low-ranking ninjas-turned-farmers, to start training at Ninja Academy. Along with his best friends: lazy, snot-dribbling Shinbei (Futa Kimura) and poverty-stricken, sweet kid Kirimaru (Roi Hayashi), who babysits to pay his tuition fees and always has a toddler slung around his back, Rintaro studies the tricks of the Ninja trade. Coaching these boisterous boys are the likes of long-suffering homeroom teacher Hansuke Doi (Takahiro Miura), accident prone elder Denzo Yamada (Susumu Terajima) and Shina Yamamoto, head of the girls' ninja academy next door who constantly morphs from flatulent old granny (Tamako Nakamura) to glamorous ninja vixen (Anne Watanabe). No-one, not even the teachers, is entirely certain what she really looks like. Rantaro is not the strongest or even most capable little ninja at the academy, but what he lacks in stature he makes up for in guts. Which are exactly what he needs upon discovering the evil Usetake ninjas are out to kill elder classmate Takamaru (Takuya Mizoguchi) and his dad, flamboyant ninja hairdresser Yukitaka Saito (Takeshi Kaga) for some reason.
Cult Japanese maverick Takeshi Miike's latest family friendly outing annoyed some of his western fans still pining for the days when he made movies characterized by extreme violence and sexual perversion, even as it delighted Japanese filmgoers. In Japan Ninja Kids!!! wound up among the highest grossing films of 2011. Following in the footsteps of Miike's Shigeru Mizuki tribute The Great Yokai War (2005) and Seventies anime spoof Yatterman (2009) this is another live action adaptation of a Japanese anime series, in this instance Nintama Rantaro. Created by manga artist Sobe Amako, the show first aired on NHK in 1993 and continues to this day, part of an enduring tradition of child ninja stories including cult favourite Watari Ninja Boy (1966) and the more serious anime of Sanpei Shirato. By comparison the zany antics of Rantaro and co. are skewed towards slapstick silliness and scatological schoolboy humour. Sort of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, ninja style.
Oddly, some critics took Miike to task for playing up the film's animated origins, styling events like a live action cartoon with hyper-manic performances, certain characters in grotesquely cartoonish makeup and Tex Avery-esque sight gags with our young ninjas blown up or flattened like pancakes. Quite why they took exception to this aesthetic choice remains a mystery. After all, sobriety and realism have no place in a madcap children's comedy based on a cartoon. The film does carry a message typical of Japanese children's fare about persevering through hardship and the importance of friendship but Miike cuts through any treacle with his irreverent humour. The ninja mishaps are comedy gold as Miike gleefully sends up the stoicism of the martial arts genre. A tragic flashback becomes a campy musical number, an assassin intent on killing Yamada is told he must first sign the guest book, poor starving Kirimaru has a nervous breakdown trying to share three little fishes with an ever-increasing number of visitors, and Konnamon "the Friendly Ninja Trivia Commentator" literally pops through the screen to clue viewers in about certain ninja moves. He then asks characters to tape up the torn celluloid when he leaves.
Miike adopts the strategy of introducing new characters in every new scene till things get absurdly cluttered. On the downside this strategy of deliberate incoherence for comic effect is more likely to alienate casual viewers unfamiliar with the source. After the episodic first half centres entirely on Rantaro's misadventures in ninja school the plot kicks in late in the game. It comes down to a race the ninja kids must win in order to spare the Saito family from execution. For all the relentless nuttiness, Miike yokes a disarming degree of tension from the efforts sniper ninja Torukawa to shoot down a bad guy without killing his friend Rantaro. Bushy-haired, bespectacled child star Seishiro Kato is especially adorable but the film is really an ensemble piece and the cast attack their absurd roles with gusto.
Japan’s most controversial director, notorious for his dauntingly prolific output and willingness to push the boundaries of taste. Miike started working as an assistant director in the late 80s, before moving into making straight-to-video thrillers in 1991. He made his feature debut in 1995 with the violent cop thriller Shinjuku Triad Society, and since then has averaged around seven films year.