Review: Five Elements Ninjas

Yes, even Hong Kong’s venerable Shaw Brothers Studio tried to capitalize on the ninja craze of the 1980s.



The very novelty of Five Elements Ninjas’ premise—good, old fashioned kung fu clashing against the guile and cunning of Japanese ninjutsu—should have made it perfectly suited to my cinematic tastes; after all, I usually adore such cultural mash-ups (see also: Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, Heroes of the East, Duel to the Death, Sword of the Stranger). Unfortunately, I found it somewhat difficult to get invested in the story: the protagonists are nearly indistinguishable from one another (and not just because they dress identically; the majority of them are killed off—quite messily, I might add—before their personalities and motivations have been properly developed), the conflict is driven by a combination of coincidence and incompetence, and the action scenes focus more on exotic weaponry and gadgets than on convincing fight choreography.


Still, the movie isn’t totally irredeemable: the overall tone is delightfully campy (it would be inaccurate to call the underlying themes of bondage and S&M “subtextual”—“borderline pornographic” would be a far more appropriate descriptor), the special effects are charmingly old-school (especially the frequent—and rather obvious—use of reversed footage), and the villainous Kenbuchi, self-proclaimed "King of the Ninjas," serves as a genuinely memorable antagonist. I can’t wholeheartedly, unironically recommend Five Elements Ninjas, but it’s an entertaining enough diversion—albeit a definite guilty pleasure.

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