‘House of Ninjas’ brings the secret ancient warrior clans to modern Japan

Ninja are cool. They’ve always been cool. They are the Japanese equivalent of cowboys, outlaws and spies all rolled into one in Western history and pop culture.

They’re trained in stealth and deadly martial arts. Kids in Japan grew up throwing shuriken ninja stars made of plastic like kids in America grew up playing with plastic guns.

We know them from their black costumes with faces covered except for their eyes.

Ninja have been the subject of countless Japanese movies, including as silent spies and assassins in chanbara samurai films. And, they’re usually depicted in stories set in Japan’s history. Except for in a new Netflix eight-episode series, “House of Ninjas.”

The series is set in Japan today, and focuses on a ninja clan, a family that used to operate for a secretive government agency that used teams of ninja to fight crime.

But the Tawara family gave up their ninja duties six years ago after an assignment led to tragedy. The father of the family tried to keep his wife, daughter and son from the shinobi (a more traditional and formal term that the family prefers) life but they dabble with their ninja skills anyway, whether to surreptitiously shoplift at the supermarket or steal artifacts from a museum only to surreptitiously return them a few days later.

But the Tawara family is drawn back into the ninja life when Haru, the second son, falls for a woman who turns out to be a reporter investigating a series of mysterious deaths. The Bureau of Ninja Management convinces them to work together again to battle an ancient rival ninja clan, the Fuma, whose leader has been recruiting followers as a religious cult.

“House of Ninjas” is notable for its seamless blend of traditional Japanese culture with contemporary issues and crime-fighting. The story line is as much about family values and relationships as it is about sneaking around battling bad guys. Its cast, including Kento Kaku as Haru, is excellent and believable, including the acrobatics of the tightly choreographed fight scenes.  Kaku is also one of the executive producers and writers for the series. 

But the creator of “House of Ninjas” is Dave Boyle, who also wrote and directed for the series. Boyle is a Utah native who’s made a series of independent films about Japanese and Japanese American community and culture. He’s even tackled complicated family stories before in a 2009 film, “White on Rice,” about a Japanese salaryman who moves to live with family in California. His last film was a 2014 noir detective film, “Man from Reno,” which was about a Japanese mystery writer who comes to America to take a break and finds herself caught in a murder plot.

“Yeah, that’s always the first question people ask,” he said with a laugh in a 2009 interview. “So, what’s with the white guy making a movie about Asians?”

Despite being white, he comes across as being attuned to Japanese culture. As creator, director, writer and producer of this series, he proves he’s more than up to the task of creating a story that is deeply Japanese and still meets the modern storytelling needs of a streaming media age. Having “House of Ninjas” on Netflix is a big leap for a filmmaker who’s always worked the fringes of Hollywood and screened his content at film festivals across the U.S.

“House of Ninjas” is a gripping, action-packed and still emotionally engaging series that should capture the same fans who streamed the hit Karate Kid reinvented spinoff “Cobra Kai” and made it a hit with its martial arts action and roots in family dynamics, as well as “The Brothers Sun,” a more violent but completely likable series about a Taipei mob family that chockfull of great writing and dynamic fight scenes.

Both those series are also on Netflix, and make for a bingeable triumvirate with “House of Ninjas.” After all, ninja are cool.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *