I'm convinced that something major went down behind scenes about halfway through the making of Red Shadow. The first 45 minutes or so are a hilarious send-up of every ninja story you've ever read, but the rest of the film limps along like an eagle that accidentally attacked a porcupine.
"Do you know what is the most important skill a ninja ever learns?" asks the Shadow chief, (Shall We Dance's Naoto Takenaka, who here mostly gets laughs with his wardrobe.) His student doesn't know. "Running away." This exchange was the central piece of dialogue in the previews for Red Shadow, which otherwise largely consisted of ninja being cool edited to techno. This is a highly accurate portrait of the first half of the movie. Red Shadow and his team - anachronistic leather mini-skirted female ninja Asuka, and unlucky-in-love Blue Shadow - embark on a series of missions they clearly don't take seriously at all. The music matches the director's flair for action perfectly, and he keeps it all walking the borderline between farce and badass without even giving us time to think how hard that really is.
Sadly, at the end of the second mission, the bottom drops out from underneath everyone. Perhaps the studio had intended to make a straightforward blockbuster of a ninja movie, and hired director Hiroyuki Nakano without actually having seen Samurai Fiction. Perhaps someone just pissed the writer off. Whatever happened, Red Shadow takes a crazy swing towards melodrama without bothering to clue us in; we're watching what is supposed to be a tragedy, and we're waiting for the punch line.
The film keeps us reeling in confusion by suddenly adding several new characters and starting a completely different court intrigue plot line. It isn't that this is hard to follow, just that we aren't given any reason to care until after everything is nearly wrapped up. Red Shadow himself is not nearly interesting enough to carry the film without his team, and the princess he's been teamed up with is so bland she just makes us appreciate the somewhat manufactured charms of the ninja chick.
Red Shadow eventually finds a decent villain and a few decent climatic action sequences. A little of the original energy does seep back in, but too little, too late. The mistakes here are so completely obvious that you wonder how everyone making the film could possibly have missed them. The more glaring the error, the more frustrating the bad movie that results.