Julien Neaves, Editor
Plot: Armed with his mystical Dragon Sword, ninja warrior Ryu Hayabusa joins with a dogged reporter, a private eye and an ex-mercenary to protect his girlfriend Irene Lew and combat a conspiracy to summon an ancient evil.
Context: One of the coolest parts of growing up in the late 80s and early 90s was playing video games on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). And one of the coolest NES franchises was Ninja Gaiden (Ninja Ryukenden in Japan, literally Legend of the Ninja Dragon Sword). During this time period ninjas were already soaring in popularity, so being a ninja-themed game was points right off the bat. And the trilogy of games also had rich and detailed stories with full cutscenes (the very first to do so) and totally addictive (if at times frustratingly difficult) action gameplay. Definitely a great one.
Fast forward to present day and I see a post about a 1991 Ninja Gaiden OVA (Original Video Animation) on Facebook group The Golden Age of Anime 70s 80s and 90s and I was like, “What?! I didn’t even know this existed!” It was released solely in Japan, which would explain why it is so little known in the West. As a huge fan of the NES series (FYI I like the original arcade version and have never tried the next gen games, though they look great) I just had to check it out. So, I found it on YouTube and gave it a looksee. With a mild SPOILER ALERT here’s my review:
Review: Those unfamiliar with the NES games may be wondering if knowledge of them is necessary to appreciate and enjoy the Ninja Gaiden OVA. And yes, reading minds through the internet is my mutant superpower. Please keep it secret. And to that concern, I would say game knowledge is not critical to enjoying the anime, though it is helpful. The main hero Ryu returns along with his love interest Irene and the character US Army Special Forces operative Robert T. Sturgeon from the second game Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos. And the story is set after the events of the second game, which saw Ryu prevent the warlord Ashtar and Evil Demon King Jaquio from using the titular sword to open a Realm of Chaos and unleashing an army of demons. And an artifact of an ancient evil called “The Demon” does feature as the film’s McGuffin. But new audiences should be able to follow the story along well enough to get by.
And speaking of the story, it is a weird one, and for some reason unnecessarily complicated. I will not spoil it, but I will say I would have preferred they had kept it relatively simple and cut out some of the filler. There is an entire scene where a scientist/industrialist named Ned Friedman announces a cure for cancer, holds a press conference and then says nothing. It goes nowhere and has no other impact on the story other than letting people know something is odd with old Ned. And there is a subplot of Ryu having some sort of telepathic link with a mysterious little girl that is never actually explained. He already had to rescue Irene (he is frequently rescuing her in the games) from the forces of evil, so the girl just seemed superfluous. There is also the investigation of Friedman and another scientist named Professor Bucky-Wise (wherever they got that name, they should carry it back) which often dragged down the pacing of the fantasy action OVA.
So, yeah, the story is not one of the strong points here. But the OVA does capture the video game characters pretty well. Ryu’s ninja stoicism and undying loyalty to Irene translates over and his look is faithful, though I disliked that we never see him with his ninja hood and mask on like in the games. The closest we get is having just the lower half of his face covered, which looks more like Strider than the star of the Ninja Gaiden games. And Irene, a CIA agent in the games, runs a curio shop in the film, and though she still knows how to use a gun I found her less assertive and capable than her videogame counterpart. The abovementioned Sturgeon is now a private eye, and he is cool enough. He is joined by two new characters, his spunky reporter girlfriend Sara and his partner, jovial ex-mercenary Jeff. The trio is fine, but we spend way too much time with them talking and talking and not enough with Ryu and/or Irene, the stars of the show.
The animation is passable, but there is a blocky, washed-out quality which makes it look kinda cheap. And you can’t blame the time period, because this was three years after the iconic Akira which showed just how much could be accomplished in in the anime arena. Thankfully, one thing the film does get right is the action. It is the type of over-the-top, blood-gushing anime violence that I so enjoy, especially from the 80s and 90s.
We get to see Ryu slashing some white-masked baddies, demons in a variety of shapes and sizes, and a hulking demonic creature. It would have been fun to see him use some of his secondary weapons and magic from the games, but it is a minor nitpick. Sturgeon and Jeff also get in on the action with some demon-slaying gunplay. I would have liked some more action set pieces and the final battle is somewhat anti-climactic, but otherwise it is a good time.
So, that’s it for the Ninja Gaiden OVA. Not the best anime video game adaptation, but a decent enough one. It would have been interesting to see one of the games directly adapted as they are already so cinematic, but I appreciate the effort made here to do an original story.
Editor Jules’ Score: 6.5 out of 10
Have you seen the Ninja Gaiden anime? What did you think of it? Here’s the link to watch it on YouTube and you can check out more great classic anime content below:
Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.