Shinobu is a young female trainee ninja at the Ninja Academy. As part of her training, she must complete a difficult task. From 1000 choices, she chooses #412: steal panties from a high school girl’s bedroom. The girl’s house she chooses is Kaede’s, an earnest and kindhearted girl appropriately worried about passing her own (far, far more normal) exams. Shinobu enters her room believing herself (ninja!) invisible to Kaede; she is not. Discovering this, Shinobu breaks down and calls her companion, Onsokumaru, a hawk. Onsokumaru is not a hawk. He’s a floating yellow ball with, at this time, wings. Kaede points this out to Shinobu’s surprise. (He’s also the headmaster who tasked Shinobu with this mission, except while wearing a beard. Shinobu does not realize this. For many episodes.) Onsokumaru teases and goads the girls, especially Shinobu—affecting at one moment the attitude of a cigarette-smoking ladies man—and after some argument Kaede ultimately sympathizes and grants Shinobu one pair of her underwear. This endears Shinobu to the other girl instantly (and later to the point of “more than friends, less than lover friends”) and chaos, cute girls, and Onsokumaru reigns.
Okay, wait. There isn’t much remarkable ten years later about Ninja Nonsense. (Or, Ninin ga Shinobuden, for the punning original title: ni(2) x ni(2) = shi(4).) A screwball comedy produced by Ufotable in 2004, and based on manga by Ryoichi Koga, it’s very goofy and a little perverted. It has two cute girls in the classic tsukkomi (average high school girl, Kaede) and boke (airheaded ninja-in-training, Shinobu) pairing. There is fanservice, yuri joking, absurdity, and self-aware parody. Its most distinguishing feature—aside from an indistinguishable army of male ninjas in Shinobu’s school—is the floating, shape-shifting yellow ball, Onsokumaru, who drives the show with his scenery-chewing self-absorption and perversity. More to the point, Onsokumaru’s Japanese voice, Norio Wakamoto, and his English voice, Sean Schemmel, are the high octane fuel that gives Ninja Nonsense a place as one of its decade’s finest, funniest, comedies. (It also features a trademark Ufotable claymation ending sequence with a terribly catchy song.)
So it is a little remarkable. Even now, with so many manic comedies filling the calendar, catering more and more to specific tastes, there is little that is such straightforward, well, nonsense.
Ninja Nonsense parodies a lot, or pokes fun a lot, especially at ninja stories. And its ecchi nature traveled even in its day a very well-beaten path. But it spends most of its time delighting in its randomness. Much today in the artform, in a sort of post- era—after the downturn, and a decade and a half of unparalleled production—takes for granted deconstruction and self-awareness. Not that this is a bad thing. I’ve enjoyed a good many silly, smart, self-aware comedies just in the past year. Some with lasting appeal (the colorful lunacy of Witch Craft Works or the clever gamesmanship of D-Fragments), some more exhausting (Noucome, from 2013, never quite admitting whether it’s satire or parody).
But in somewhat of an older tradition, Ninja Nonsense is more simple gag comedy, mixed with peculiar situational scenes (either for being off-the-wall, or quaintly normal). It’s not far off from Ufotable’s previous title, also a comedy, the excellent but more sincere superhero spoof, Dokkoida!? It’s a style prevalent in some harem comedies of the past, and oddly more often now in so-called girls-doing-nothing, 4-koma-based, shows today. For up-to-the-moment contrast, two absurd Summer 2014 comedies in these molds show more affinity to Ninja Nonsense: the du jour girls-with-guns camp of Survival Games Club, and a self-aware harem romp, Invaders of the Rokujyoma!?; the former with a shoujo-zine pedigree and the latter content with normal modern pandering to trope, neither peddles in perverse innuendo. (Recent short-form shows, such as Teekyu or AiMaiMi, also follow the tradition and are perfectly apt. But they are insane.)
That’s now. A decade ago? At that time, and as with so many titles in the Ten Years Later feature, it’s nine, or eight years ago. I didn’t see a lick of Ninja Nonsense until Right Stuf’s release began in July, 2006. And probably hadn’t heard of it until they licensed it, sometime in 2005. My perspective on the show, then, was primarily through what was still a default option at that time in the North American anime industry: the English dub. It’s still my default perspective on the show today. The most convincing and outrageous vehicle for New York-based actor and director, and wild man, Sean Schemmel; some of the purest and immediate chemistry from a comedy duo, with then NYAV Post regulars Zoe Martin (her signature cynical “ordinary girl”, Kaede) and Emily Blau (deep in the bubbly, ditzy side of her surprising range, for Shinobu). For pure comedy dubs it remains one of my favorites, and the best in the genre the New York-based NYAV Post, with directors Marc Diraison and Michael Sinterniklaas, has produced.
It was with some guilt how late I was to appreciate the Japanese side. Wakamoto I was more than familiar with—original creator Ryoichi Koga intending him for the voice of Onsokumaru was unsurprising, natural even, to learn—but the incomparable Ayako Kawasumi as Kaede and the always endearing Nana Mizuki as Shinobu (her casting influencing Shinobu’s direction as much as or more than anything else) almost require a listen. It is impossible to go wrong with either menu option.
And that’s a lesson of taking a look backwards to the middle of the previous decade. A time when an already fine production was supplemented by a more-than-equal English counterpart, and presented with engaging extras (a Shinobu headband in the first volume; a chipboard box with Onsokumaru stress ball and Koga’s bonus mini-manga) and well-apportioned glossy-printed production and translation notes. All at $29.99 MSRP per volume, x4. Which is to imply that the economics of the 2002-2007 bubble make it difficult—but not too difficult—to know which releases by which companies actually made sense. Ninja Nonsense was one of the last full series Right Stuf would dub. Given similar titles licensed today its likelihood for a dub if produced and released now would be far from certain. If it were Right Stuf’s current Nozomi imprint, it would be nil. It’s an accessible comedy, but it can be a somewhat specific one, catered to and pandering towards established adult fans. Its ecchi parts are more cheeky than risque. It’s absurd (and a little scatological) more than it is broad, and in love with puns. A lot of puns. It never had too wide an appeal, and that may not have changed now.
We got more than we deserved sometimes, but the circumstances were so different, before legal streaming, before widespread HD, before the crash, that, ten years later, we talk of these things as if dispatches from a past archaeological age. (Shouldn’t really. The latest edition of the show from Nozomi was from November 2013. Go on, buy it.)
Brought into the strange world of the Ninja Academy, Kaede has weird adventures with Shinobu, Onsokumaru, class-president Sasuke (almost the only named member of the identical masked male members of the school), Shinobu’s younger magic-wielding sister Miyabi, a crocodile-ninja named Devil, and Izumi, a rival female ninja school instructor who may or may not have had a thing with Onsokumaru. There is a mushroom hunting, young love, a typhoon, a Christmas episode, and a last episode that tries not to be a last episode. It’s all much more funny than that all sounds; or as funny as you think it does if you are open to anything that sounds half as absurd.
Best comedy released in 2004? I don’t know. Best Onsokumaru then, or any other time in history? Probably.