KAMEN NO NINJA AKA KAGE ("Masked Ninja Red Shadow") is a Japanese superhero series I described as "a lively and colorful fantasy action series from when those things were the exception rather than the rule" when I touched on it in this entry. It's also a period piece, but way more sci-fi tinged than you'd expect a chanbara show to be. When I first heard that there were English dubs of AKA KAGE, my initial reaction was "Sign me up!" Now I've seen one, and, well...
I stumbled across this release on Amazon a few months ago, and I couldn't resist it. I'd never picked up any of those movies in what we prefer to call "collector's circles", but ten bucks wasn't bad at all. Alas, the price seems to be so good because this appears to be an unlicensed general release. How funny is it that Navarre Corporation shut down BCI as they were making inroads to respectability with quality, licensed releases, and then turns around and finances a company responsible for this sort of thing?
(If anyone has proof that Toei was involved with this release, please pass it along.)
But legal issues aside, what about the movies themselves? Well, ignore the ill-informed reviewer at Amazon (shocking, right?), because there are no widescreen versions of any of these flicks. Why? Because these "films" are all individual episodes edited together to form a narrative. And I bring this up so early because that is the single biggest problem with the only one I've finished, NINJASCOPE (THE MAGIC WORLD OF NINJAS). Stringing together TV episodes to make a movie is profoundly unsatisfying to me as a viewer, because it throws the pacing straight to hell. I enjoyed the individual segments of NINJASCOPE, but pasting them together and calling it a "movie" tempers my enthusiasm. Shows like this are, by their nature, repetitive. Heck, that comfortable series of rituals is a strength! It just starts to feel tired when they get trotted out again and again without a break. This might work better if it filled a TV movie time slot, where the commercials would provide natural breaks, but that's not an option on the DVD.
There's also the little matter of the English dubbing. Make no mistake, I am a huge fan of the "Hong Kong dubbing", but it's a little more problematic here. The HK dubs are almost uniformly stonefaced serious, and usually, that's fine. Not always skillful or 100% accurate, but fine. However, AKA KAGE is a show that is lighthearted, and it needed a dub that reflected that sort of tone better. IF this collection had gotten picked up for American release, it might have gotten a new dub via Titra or the folks responsible for JOHNNY SOKKO. Ah, I can dream, can't I? It's all academic, since this never darkened U.S. shores back in the "good old days" as far as I can tell. I don't have an insight into why, except perhaps that it was too lengthy even in this edited form.
Aka Kage, or Red Shadow, whichever works best for you, is the main hero of the action. However, there are two other super ninja - Ao Kage (Blue Shadow) is a little squirt sidekick, and Shiro Kage (White Shadow) is the older ninja who doesn't display an affinity for basketball. Sorry, obscure joke there. The villains are suitably colorful and interesting, including the giant monsters that pop up. Trouble is, you can't disguise that they wander in and out of the story with little rhyme or reason the way things are structured.
I haven't watched the other two films in this set yet, and there is a whole additional backstory about them that I'll save for when/if I review them. I can tell you two things from the snippets I previewed : 1) the dubbing is worse and 2) they are longer. Oh dear.
I can't really recommend this release, as it is both unauthorized and I didn't care for it as much as I would have translated episodes of AKA KAGE. But, if you think you can get past the pacing difficulties and less than appropriate dubbing, it's worth your time to check out NINJASCOPE. It is the best English language version available of this stuff.