A big-budget, live-action adaptation of a long-running animated TV skein, Takashi Miike’s “Ninja Kids!!!” largely earns its exclamation points. Bursting with a joyous energy that propels its pint-size protagonists through a rapid-fire succession of slapstick gags, each more outrageous than the last, the manically inventive pic treats the supernatural education of children more irreverently than the “Harry Potter” series. Given the widespread currency of ninja movies, pic registers as less culturally insular than Miike’s other manga/anime-based kiddie extravaganzas, such as “Yatterman” and “The Great Yokai War,” granting it a stab at farther-reaching international exposure following its July 23 Japanese release.
As Miike’s serious samurai opuses grow bleaker (“13 Assassins,” “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai”), his madcap fantasy outings skew more whimsical and lighthearted. Here, focusing on the extremely likable, bespectacled Rantaro (child star Seishiro Kato), along with his classmates and teachers in the first grade of the Ninja Academy, the helmer gleefully pulverizes the sanctimonious seriousness of “Karate Kid”-type pedagogical exercises while anarchically celebrating team spirit. Rantaro and his friends send lethal projectiles whizzing in all directions, faculty members materialize in flashes of light, and comely young women morph into fat, flatulent old ones.
Whenever the pic depicts the mischievous anarchy of the classroom, the pace and humor never falter. But once the action locks into a complicated plot involving a ninja-descended hairdresser (Takeshi Kaga) whom Rantaro and friends defend against hired assassins, the going gets denser, as subplots thicken and characters multiply, culminating in an arduous race to ring the bell at a mountaintop Buddhist temple.
The animated TV show itself was derived from a popular manga and, from the very beginning, Miike takes full advantage of manga’s exaggerated compression of time and space. Racing through the countryside to his first day of school, Rantaro watches gliding eagles circling a cliffside, dodges the swords and arrows of warring armies, traverses busy city streets and pauses to admire a butterfly-dotted landscape, all in a minute and a half.
The exaggerated abstraction of anime informs every aspect of the school. The classes are color-coded, Rantaro and his first-year classmates garbed in bright blue, while successive grades wear more muted tones of pink, green, gray and blue. Villains from rival ninja clans are instantly recognizable by their artificially caricatured features, sporting grotesque coiffures, protruding teeth or huge heads so heavy that their owners tip over at key moments. Even relatively realistic gags take on surreal, cartoony aspects, such as when patently fake red protuberances sprout on the noggins of beat-up characters. Amazing feats of ninja derring-do are followed by very down-to-earth pratfalls.
Miike enjoys suddenly shifting gears, playing with varying degrees of self-conscious artifice. The hairdresser sings his story to the accompaniment of finger cymbals amid a shower of falling petals. In the middle of an action scene, a one-eyed “friendly ninja trivia commentator” bursts through the suddenly paper-thin background to offer explanations of various technical terms.
But it is the kids who own the movie, their dynamism exploding the frame as they pile into rooms or cause foes to fall through ridiculous booby-traps. Expertly directed and choreographed, they never come off as falsely precocious or cloyingly cute, as the three main boys (Kato, Ro Hayashi and Fuuta Kimura) manage to inject real personality into their clearly delineated comic roles. Vet thesp Susumu Terajima as the gruff headmaster and Takahiro Miura as his sympathetic younger colleague provide perfect foils for the artless ebullience of their charges.
Expensively cheesy f/x, including blatant compositing of fanciful background elements, weave their own peculiar spell, while Nobuyasu Kita’s less gimmick-dependent lensing grounds the film in burgeoning nature.