Conventional knowledge says that 1993’s absolutely bananas Super Mario Bros.—which respectively cast Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as color-coded, mustachioed plumber brothers Mario and Luigi—was the first live-action videogame feature film. Everyone hated it and it was seen as a key bellwether of what these movies could expect in the future. It was a surreal mess that had little to do with the game it was supposedly based on, was a tonal freakout (“like something out of a fetishist fever dream,” according to our Jim Vorel) and worst of all, it was a box office Bob-omb. With the benefit of hindsight, the much-hated film (that single-handedly ended the feature careers of directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel) now enjoys some ironic appreciation. What hasn’t been adjusted over time is its status as the original, first-ever live-action videogame movie. But that honor has always belonged to the much better Mirai Ninja, a film that preceded Super Mario Bros. by half a decade.
Some may know it as Mirai Ninja, others as Cyber Ninja, Robo Ninja or Warlord. Though it’s hard to find no matter which title variation you’re searching under, the message is clear enough: This Japanese movie is about some sort of semi-mechanical ninja, probably sometime in the future when such an awesome thing could exist. Premiering at the Tokyo International Fantastic Film Festival in October of 1988 alongside films like Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma’s War before a December release, the Namco film was an adaptation of the side-scrolling shuriken-slinging arcade game of the same name, from the same company.
This kind of corporate synergy may have been one of the major factors in making the film so much like the game in question. The other would be the man at the helm: Writer/director Keita Amemiya, making his feature debut.
Amemiya’s known not only for being a prolific filmmaker but for designing some incredible, fantastical suits and characters for films, TV shows and—yes—videogames like the Onimusha series and Shin Megami Tensei IV. He’s a tokusatsu staple, which means that he’s adept at creating the kind of vibe and style found in the masked heroes of ‘60s and ‘70s Japanese TV: Kamen Rider, Ultraman and Super Sentai...which would be Americanized into the Power Rangers. Half of those could reasonably be described as “cyber ninjas” already, so it’s not like Mirai Ninja needed to break a lot of aesthetic ground. At least not as much as a film that was, say, trying to convince us that mushroomy Goombas are really tiny-headed dinosaur dudes in oversized David Byrne suits.
And yet, with its princess-saving plotline, Mirai Ninja actually has a few things in common with the misadventuring brothers Mario, though its cyber ninja gets further and further away from them in quality with ever mechanically-enhanced step. Mirai Ninja sees the mysterious masked Shiranui (Makoto Yokoyama), resurrected as a badass cyborg swordsman after being injured in battle with robots, reunite with his brother Jiromaru (Kunihiko Ida) in order to save Princess Saki (Eri Morishita), the defiant daughter of a local royal, from the evil overlord Kurosagi Shikigami (Masaaki Emori)—the very man whose forces brought Shiranui back…and stole his soul.
It’s an over-the-top little battle between good and evil, with some commentary thrown in looking at the increasingly parasitic role technology plays in peoples’ lives. There’s also a blood-draining oak tree, a ticking clock timed to an eclipse and a ludicrously large cannon. But mostly, it’s a cyber ninja running around and cutting the heads off of intimidatingly black, insect-like robots on his way to the Big Bad. Straightforward. The film’s high-level writing understands the narrative link between side-scrolling, level-based gameplay and action films like 1978’s Game of Death, where Bruce Lee ascends different tiers of a pagoda guarded by unique minibosses.
And Mirai Ninja is indeed a tokusatsu film: Its hero and myriad members of its Quirky Miniboss Squad are decked out. Shiranui’s indigo outfit is topped with a red-eyed, crane-crested helmet. His heels expand into jump-enhancing pistons. His first major foe is, like the game, a fox-headed giant with a carapace-like design and imposing posture. Evil robo-general Shouki (Mizuho Yoshida) is a stark ivory-and-gold samurai topped with a tangled pyramid of tubes and wires, that can sometimes look like Predator dreadlocks and at one point stab right through a dude, leading up to a grimacing somen mask. Raimei (Shohei Yamamoto), Kurosagi’s “Bishop of Darkness,” is a wonder to behold: Kabuki makeup, a collar that could belong to Princess Amidala and what look to be giant, spindly crab legs reaching out in place of angel wings.
Bright colors compliment these heightened, inviting designs to lure us in like the flashy idle intros of arcade cabinets in attract mode. The cyberpunk-meets-Sengoku aesthetic is consistent both internally and with the game itself, giving the scrappy humans’ wood-and-metal guns and pneumatic katanas an endearing handcraftedness when compared to the cool, detailed miniatures that make up its building-based mechs. Samurai walk around with digital telescopes, earpieces and power level indicators—the latter of which is activated by yelling, which means we get a scene of a whole row of dudes showing off their pipes. But mostly, Mirai Ninja often feels like a low-fi version of Star Wars that’s even more honest with its influences, peppering The Hidden Fortress with laser blasts, explosions and magic.
The film echoes the look of the game’s levels, from the opening forests and barren hills—with the baddies’ spaceship hanging out on the horizon—to the final confrontation in Kurosagi’s creepy chamber. The game’s finale, where Raimei and Shouki fight Shiranui with ghostly bursts of energy and multicolored bolts of lightning, culminates in a small cutscene that Amemiya replicates almost shot-for-shot. Rather than totally misunderstanding its source in service of turning a massive cultural item into the requisite blockbuster, the original videogame movie actually shows a strict faith to its material.
But beyond the look and even, to some extent, the narrative design of the game—which can be somewhat mapped directly to a film, depending on the genre—Mirai Ninja excels at keeping up with expectations in aspects that are more essential to its form: Dialogue, acting, the framing of the camera. The fixed-camera side-scroller left limitless room for Amemiya to work, and he gives us melodramatic close-ups, epic sunset shots and ample time to appreciate the physical performances of its cast and the oddball geometry of his sets. He also gives us lines that are both fittingly fantastical and hilariously grounded.
“I beg you to forgive me, Master, I may have been carried away by a senseless fantasy,” Raimei tells his dark lord. “I only wanted to please you by creating the perfect mecha ninja and presenting it to you on your birthday tomorrow.”
Such a thoughtful guy! We should all be so lucky to have a Bishop of Darkness like him.
While the action is just as amusingly cheesy as its buckwild storyline, it’s still all of a very entertaining piece. It’s solid samurai schlock, enhanced by bits and bobbles of fantastic and sci-fi design. In fact, where many videogame movie odds and ends take away from the core concept, Mirai Ninja’s cinematic details enhance the original experience. We get a late title card, those great ‘80s electricity bolt VFX, lots of exploding robot heads, an all-time death sequence and some committed stunt performers. One guy does a front flip into a rock, spine-first. Budget be damned, Mirai Ninja gives its arcade game depth while never abandoning its adolescent awe.
This trailer from when Mirai Ninja finally came to the U.S. on VHS is the kind of flavor it brings to the table:
At just 70 minutes, the first live-action videogame movie is one of the shortest and sweetest, and it deserves its rightful respect as the progenitor of the subgenre. If Mirai Ninja had truly been allowed its place in the historical canon of videogame movies, it would have set a far better standard of success to which modern adaptations could refer. Its adaptive fidelity, its consistent tone and sense of fun, its narrative and aesthetic structure—throughout, the film lays a more solid, replicable foundation for the videogame movie than Hollywood’s first effort. Later movies would slowly learn how to implement that nebulous “spirit” of games into their adaptations, whether that be through Mortal Kombat’s character design or Ace Attorney’s maximalist visuals. But a cyber ninja confidently started it all, long before two confused plumbers warped from Brooklyn to Dinohattan.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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