Golden Ninja (1966)
Directed by Tadashi Sawashima

Golden Ninja
Boken daikatsugeki ougon no touzoku
Starring Hiroki Matsukata (Den), Koichi Ose (Kichi), Yumiko Nogawa (Kozue), Masumi Harukawa (Kiku), Kunie Tanaka (Risuke), Kanbi Fujiyama

Toei Company, 90 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi (TV broadcast quality)

Forget the inaccurate English title -- Golden Ninja is no ninja movie, it's a screwball buddy comedy about a search for lost gold. There are some ninja-type bad guys, and at one point the heroes dress up in black robes and masks for a stealth operation, but ninjas certainly aren't the main subject matter.

At the end of the battle of Sekigahara, a pair of boys witness the three million ryo treasure of the defeated Toyotomi clan being stashed away on a beach, seeing a Toyotomi soldier kill his comrades to keep the gold's location secret. Twenty years later, the boys Den and Kichi are now imprisoned as theives. When word gets out that they know where to find the long-lost fortune, the magistrate releases Den and Kichi and orders them to bring back the gold, offering them a bullshit promise that they can keep half of it for themselves.

So off Den and Kichi go in search of their riches. Basically every seemingly trustworthy person they encounter along the way turns out to be a spy, working either for the government or the Toyotomi, including priests, innkeepers and a beautiful young blind woman named Kozue whom Den falls in love with. The problem is, Den and Kichi don't really know exactly where the gold is, they just kinda know where it might be. So all these spies and con artists are chasing two morons around for nothing. The farce is pretty entertaining for the first act, but then the plot gets so convoluted and stupid that it's not worth the mental exhaustion to figure who's fooling who and what the heck is going on. Likewise, the over-caffeinated Mancini-esque jazzy-caper soundtrack is fun for a while but starts grating on the nerves.

It's definitely a lesser effort from Tadashi Sawashima, who could usually pull off a "dumb buddies" comedy with far more style and wit. The lead characters aren't drawn well enough and there's not enough internal logic behind the search for the gold. There are a few inspired moments, like the dream sequence after Den and Kichi drink drugged sake. They imagine themselves (in a shared dream?) flying through the air and being chased by the murderous soldier from their childhood trauma, then they crawl around on his bloody face shrunk down to two inches tall. Crude bluescreen compositing achieves a wonderfully loopy effect reminiscent of Terry Gilliam animations. Later comes more inspired lunacy when an armed troop disguises their underwater approach by wearing duck decoys on their heads. And it's great to see the lovely Masumi Harukawa in a rare Toei jidai-geki appearance as Kiku, the scheming wife of the innkeeper. But these few virtues aren't enough to spare Golden Ninja from being a golden turd.

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