Question: “Who the hell are you?” Answer: “That’s what I want to know.”

Thus concludes the first battle of Ninjai: The Little Ninja, during a chapter best summarized in haiku:

Little ninja man
faces demons with his sword
death in the forest.

Ninjai is a tiny ninja. Whether he is merely very young, or just very small is unclear. He wanders alone sure of his abilities, but unsure of his origins. One thing of which he is acutely aware, however, is the constant presence of demons. Though they appear as normal ruffians to us, this lad nevertheless sees them in an entirely different light. On his travels he will surely encounter numerous demons, barriers between him and self-knowledge.

Initial viewings of Little Ninjai’s first few chapters left me unsatisfied. The story begins slowly and, frankly, isn’t particularly interesting. Ninjai crosses several landscapes and, after encountering the two forest bandits, makes his way to a village. There is discussion amongst villagers about a warlord named Takagawa (not to be confused with Emperor Tokugawa), though a few episodes pass before any real action arises.

But things pick up swiftly by about the fifth or sixth episode and from there Ninjai makes up for its sub-par opening.

Besides the drawn-out exhibition the series has a couple quirks, the most notable being characters’ speech and diction. Ninjai, our tiny hero, speaks with an excruciatingly patient, nasal Queen’s English yet most of the people he encounters from chapter 3 onward speak with an American accent.

Although Ninjai is inspired by Japanese martial film and culture, chapter 2 contains a shocking, blatantly racist portrayal of an Asian. Despite the two forest bandits from chapter 1 speaking with mashed London/Australian accents, the buffoon encountered here squawks botched Rs and Ls down a path animators haven’t tread since Bugs Bunny. Maybe I’m oversensitive, watch for yourself:

But I digress. In the end Ninjai overcomes its flaws and my essentially, nitpicky details. The animation by producer/creators, the Ninjai Gang is of rather high quality for a financially-limited project, and there are even talks about turning this into a feature film. If that works out, they hope to boost the quality of all the animation, paying extra attention to details of weaponry and precision character movement during the fight scenes.

Good examples of the martial arts animation can be found in Chapter 5, when Takagawa first learns of Ninjai’s presence and the pace of the series starts to quicken. Given the warlord’s propensity for violence, there is a good deal of bloodletting via sword, ninja star and, later, some sort of carnivorous quicksand lizard. But sometimes – in contrast to the jarring, hyperactive fight scenes – the settings tend toward the sparse, emphasizing and reflective of the pre-modern Japanese reverence for nature.

While the animation deserves plaudits (it bears a slight resemblance to a budget version of Aeon Flux) and the story is pretty good, the dialogue does remain a bit weak. On the upside, I don’t think this is such a travesty and I don’t gather the Ninjai Gang would be too put off by such criticism. Aside from the pointlessly obscene character in chapter 2, I’d consider Ninjai suitable for youngsters (to a point…it is a violent ninja story, after all).

Check it out at Ninjai.com and (hopefully soon) in a theater near you.

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