Super Ninja Doll, Go!!

Christine as Eriko reading Super Ninja Doll
I never did post a properly frivolous review of this flick when it first came out (2007). At the time, I thought that Retromedia had reached a new plateau in the art of the cheap-ass skin flick, so I assumed that everything from then on would be at approximately the same level.

Sadly, it was not to be the case. This was it. Since it does seem that the Bikini Movie as we once knew it is something of the past, I thought it would be a good time to wrap up this chapter in low-budget history. Time to move on to another medium. Things like this happen on an extended time scale. The value of the style of picture is as good as ever, but sometimes you have to move to another medium to find the audience again.

I do think that this one is the best Bikini Movie of the modern era and, within the extreme constraints of that genre, it actually does succeed in being a true B-movie that happens to have a healthy done of nudity in it.

The Opening

Christine Nguyen has the dual role of Eriko, the college coed and comic book nerd, and her favorite comic book heroine, Super Ninja Doll. The movie is an extended dream sequence, just like The Wizard of Oz. We meet Eriko in a nearly deserted college classroom. She is completely absorbed in the latest issue of her beloved comic book. She is reading the opening scene that has just been dramatized for us. The evil Tantella and her henchman, Gorath, has revealed her plan to invade the earth. Eriko is so caught up in the excitement of the story that she hasn’t even noticed that class is over and all the other students have already left!

Timeout!

OK, what the hell is going on?? Sure, the movie is an extended dream sequence but it seems so artificial and contrived that it is hard to imagine that a college student would ever be like that. In The Wizard the excuse for the dream sequence is that Judy got a bump on the noggin during a Kansas twister. She gets knocked out and dreams a fantastic adventure in which people in her black & white world re-appear in different forms in her 3-strip Technicolor imagination. That all made sense for Judy’s age and the circumstances, but what is believable about a seemingly normal college girl getting lost in a comic book fantasy?

Back to the Classroom

The trick of the film is how they go about making it believable. Christine works her hot little ass off selling it. Understandably, the entire supporting cast is right on her tail.

The easiest way to talk about the movie is to go with the assumption that Christine actually plays a delicate triple role. I’ve never seen this before in a skinflick. It’s a very sophisticated thing to do and a big part of the joke is that it is hiding inside a formula Skinemax show.

The existence of her hidden third role is revealed in the classroom scene that opens the film. And there are consistent clues as to what is going on throughout the film. Christine was terrific in the triple role, but it didn’t work unless she is also consistently supported by the other players and by Fred Olen Ray’s direction.

OK, you gotta understand that this movie is put out there by Retromedia. Their brand of skinflicks gets in all the required nude scenes and at the required pacing, but the fun part of it is that they are also homages to a retro genre of movie. Perhaps a lot of the viewers don’t pay a damn bit of attention, but I do. I sense that most viewers simply fast-forward between the nude scenes. Maybe that’s because the cable softcore formula is so narrow and so rigid that it has trained viewers to look only for what is expected, but I think the fun is to stay on the lookout for the unexpected.

Besides that it is based on the comic book/anime genre, this flick is also very much a homage to those 50’s si-fi pictures — those of the “invasion from outer space” variety. This retro picture is in that genre, but that is only half of its “retroness”.

The other half is adaption of the grammar of the retro era in filmmaking. The IFC ran a series of shows on Indie Sex about old films in which one of the pretentious critics referred to what she called the “hidden grammar” of the Hayes era (Hayes was the repressed dude in charge of the censorship board). In this era, which lasted about 30 years, films needed to be submitted to a formal censorship board before they could be certified as Disneyfied enough to be shown to a very repressed American audience. In short, everything needed to be G-rated.

What a bummer! The upshot was that the creative directors resorted to a secret grammar in order to communicate sexual messages but not so direct as to raise Red Flags that would be noticed by the censors. It was all a system of code words and symbols. Retro has brought that all back and in a very good way. Playing the old cat and mouse game is a lot of fun — as long the director is creative about it and the audience knows that the old game is on again.

Here’s one of many examples from the Hayes era. In the Hitchcock centenary year, the local retro theater showed all of Hitchcock’s films. Everything except the one lost German silent which hasn’t been seen in many decades. I also read some of the Hitchcock memorabilia which all added value to their festival.

Among them, a group of horny Hitchcock historians got interested in how he got sexuality onto the screen in this difficult time. A good topic was “phallic images in Hayes era Hitchcock.” To take one example, in an early version of the picture that was to become North by Northwest, the couple was on the run from both the authorities and the bad guys but they hated each other. Complicating matters, they were handcuffed together! Hitch got to the point where it was night and they needed some sleep. He couldn’t just show them getting into bed together. Not then. When that moment came, he showed just enough to indicate that they were about to get into bed but then the camera veered off and settled on a tall lit candle!! The audience had to figure out what is really happening in that bed from that clue. That’s the hidden grammar: the audience needed to know the game was on because Hitch could not show what was really happening. At the time, everybody realized that and knew how to read the code.

When the festival came to the real North by Northwest it was clear that the censorship board of the late 50’s was as strong as ever. In the final scene, the couple was finally happily married after surviving the ultimate 2-hour Hitchcock adventure. They were on the train again and on the way to their honeymoon. Hitch was pissed that he couldn‚’t even show the happy couple sharing the same berth, so he needed a cut to signal what was actually going on. In the final moment, just as Cary Grant was pulling his new Hitchcock Blonde into the berth with him, Hitch cut to an exterior shot showing the train penetrating a mountainside tunnel!! Everyone in the modern audience burst out laughing because it was now obvious what Hitchcock really had on his mind. The “hidden grammar” was no longer hidden.

Cracking the Code

I can tell you that Retro is playing the same 50’s game with us — and the reason is the same. Mainstream America is as repressed as ever but many of the details are different. When a director wants to go there, he only has the option of being creative about it. A good director can have some fun with it.

Here‘s the problem. He wants to make a comic book fantasy movie, but as one of those “adult” (softcore) titles. But adults never get so deeply involved in the fantasy world of the comic book for that to be realistic in any way at all. At that level, it’s just plain stupid. But that’s not happening.

The only sort of person who would ever get so totally lost in the fantasy world of the comic book are kids. Yes, they do it all the time. They easily lose themselves in their imaginary worlds until we finally beat that trait out of them.

But there is an obvious dilemma. This is an adult movie not a kid’s movie. Unlike the G-rated kids who populate the Disneyfied world of family entertainment, this movie has to also work as a Skinemax softcore title.

Christine does it with the generous help of the hidden grammar of the Hayes era, updated to 21st century issues. The hidden third role is Eriko as a juvenile. I would say that her fantasy age is no older than elementary school age — way underage. At that age, kids can drop into and come out of their fantasy worlds effortlessly. In this movie, however, the twist is that the underage Eriko fantasizes about sex all the time!! That’s the appeal that this comic book has to her. She makes that very clear toward the end of the classroom scene.

Now, her vivid imagination makes perfect sense.

Mainstream America is still so repressed that we can’t even suggest that underage girls can have sexual fantasies just like regular people. You can’t possibly just come out and say that in the uncreative explicit style of contemporary movies, but you sure as hell can pull out an old trick from the Hayes era to suggest the verboten. It is the same old cat-and-mouse game that Hitchcock played with the censorship board many decades ago. It’s absolutely more fun this way.

Finally, here’s how the classroom scene works. There are two halves to the hidden grammar. The first half is that the college instructor treats Eriko exactly as if she were really an elementary school girl who has been caught daydreaming. And she plays it back! She’s as docile and obedient and apologetic as you would expect from a little kid.

Eriko in school

In this day and age, a college instructor can’t talk to a student like that. Before he’d even reached his car, she would have used her cell to sic the football team on him. That’s reality, but you wouldn’t have a movie that way.

The second half of the hidden grammar comes toward the end of the scene. According to Skinemax’s rulebook, it is now time for Christine’s first gratuitous nude scene. To get it going, another student comes back into the room. One of the few consistent negative comments that I’ve seen is that this girl, played by one Kitty Katsu (I never heard of her either!), is that she looks disturbingly underage.

Kitty in pigtails

But that’s the whole point!! Think about it!!

The first half of the hidden grammar is that the others “see” Eriko’s fantasy age and we must infer her fantasy age from their behavior; the complementary half is supplied by Kitty. She objectively looks underage but she is a classmate of Eriko’s. Eriko sees her as an age-appropriate playmate. That must mean that Eriko’s fantasy age must agree with what appears to be Kitty’s objective age!

Bingo!!

It’s the hidden grammar of repressed filmmaking at work. We are not allowed to “see” Eriko’s fantasy age objectively, so we must infer it from her acting, from others’ reactions to her, and from her reactions to others. It’s just like the 1950’s; we have to decode the message.

Christine’s hidden third character must be inferred. On the surface, we see two actresses well into their 20s do a softcore love scene. In our imaginations, we “see” Eriko’s fantasy life on screen.

What do you think is going on here? It’s up to you!!

Eriko suggesting a much younger age

And just like the 50’s there’s good reason. If they did it the mainstream (explicit) way, they’d have hired a child star to play Eriko as a juvenile, but Fred would be in jail by now. It’s not worth it. No way! You have to signal that the old game is on again: Christine is playing two ages simultaneously. She is an adult for all the nude scenes, but she is a child in service of the story — not the nudity.

The difference is that modern audiences have been trained (a.k.a., dumbed down) so that they are used to having everything explained to them. They are not used to reading between the lines to infer what isn’t on the screen. That is the downside of explicit. Sneaking in a bit of 50’s grammar into a 21st century movie only increases the obfuscation. That’s cool. It’s very cool.

OK, all of that sets the movie into motion. We just need to get a few more details.

The MacGuffin

We now can sit back and relax; the mystery is solved and can watch how Christine does it. We next meet with Eriko when she returns home after her day of college.

Eriko stripping at home

When she opens her copy of the comic book, she is flabbergasted to see that a real person is trapped inside it!

Syren trapped in comic book

It is Syren, who has been improbably cast as a great scientist that the evil Gorath has imprisoned inside the imaginary comic book world.

She is getting really pissed. This scene helps suggest that the movie has gradually moved from reality and another step into Eriko’s fantasy world. If that doesn’t tip the balance, the next scene certainly does.

Eriko passes out from the shock and we next see her inside her dreamworld. We meet Super Ninja Doll herself.

Super Ninja Doll entrance

Now we have left any pretense of living in the real world and are now entirely inside Eriko’s imagination. Eriko is now naked (good thinking, Fred) and it’s time to reveal the MacGuffin.

True to any good MacGuffin, it doesn’t really matter what it is. The main thing is that the fantasy Eriko has totally identified with the superheroine and imagines that she must personally take on Super Ninja Doll’s special mission to earth. She must live out the story that she began reading about in the classroom.

Boy o boy, she is now the little kid who is re-enacting her favorite comic book! Eriko has regressed to a much younger age and has identified with the heroine in only the way that that a young kid can do. Only a kid can do this, but only an adult can do the nude scenes.

After she explains her mission, Super Ninja Doll symbolically hands Eriko the magic vibrator that she can use to summon her super-identity.

Super Ninja Doll's magic vibrator

She is instructed to bring her super-identity out whenever she needs her help. It’s an “adult” twist on the old “this is a job for Superman” cliche.

The Bureau of Scientific Strangeness

Now that little Eriko/Super Ninja Doll is on the case, it is time for her to head over to the Bureau of Scientific Strangeness. Agent Canola (Ted Newsom) is in charge. He’s the perfect man for the job.

Eriko walking to Bureau of Scientific Strangeness

By now, Eriko has fully transformed herself into the underage version of herself — at least the male fantasy version. As she walks into the Bureau, notice her costume and the music. She is still dressed in the Catholic schoolgirl’s uniform that we saw in the classroom but now her hair has subtly changed from the adult cut that we saw in the classroom...to pigtails (Notice that Kitty wore pigtails in the classroom scene). This gives her an even more juvenile look than her costume alone suggests. The new music suggests an earnest young girl out on her big adventure.

This is a cool scene. It is an homage to a particular genre of those 50’s Sci-Fi “invasion from space” movies. The normal (adult) version always features a stereotypical leading man — someone like Paul Drake or Jim Phelps. But in the children’s subgenre, the hero is the kid! The kid is not in the movie just for “human interest” — someone who the kids in the family can relate to. Rather, he is the key character. I’m talking about those “pod people” movies in which the kid inadvertently witnesses the aliens abducting someone or that he alone recognizes that his parents are no longer “like themselves.” In this subgenre, the little kid is the only one on earth who knows that we are being invaded by aliens! He has the responsibility of saving the entire planet.

In the 1950’s it is always a little boy. Little Tommy goes to the only neighborhood authority figure he knows and tries to get help. Someone like the officer on duty at the local police station! That’s right,Tommy and this one cop are going to save all of earth!

Unlike the adult version of these movies, these are not to scale at all, but they are very much to the scale that a child would experience. To the child, the local police is on the correct scale. In the comparable adult movie, our hero inevitably turns to a superior authority figure like Gen. Morris Ankrum of SAG to lead American forces against the aliens.

Well, when little Eriko resolutely marches into Agent Canola’s office, she is paying homage to those 50’s dramas. Agent Canola recognizes his immature but dead-serious visitor. I suppose he recognizes that it must be Tommy’s kid sister from the 50’s.

Eriko with comic book

Notice how both agents put on their best behavior while in the presence of their little visitor. Agent Canola is plays it just as seriously as his young visitor, but gently mocks her as well. Both agents play it the way that elementary school teachers act while the kiddos are around. They address each other formally (e.g., “Mr. Fort”).

Even as Bureau agents, they are skeptical. Eriko has no choice but to bring the superheroine out.

Eriko summons Super Ninja Doll

When she appears, the agents become believers. They help Super Ninja Doll identify the scientist in the greatest danger.

Marsha in newspaper

But that is not the only thing on their minds. Just as soon as Super Ninja Doll leaves, they revert to their normal adult selves. After putting on such a nice act for their young visitor, the very first words out of their mouths were:

“Would you have sex with that?”
“In a heartbeat!!”
“That makes two of us!”

Mr Fort and Agent Canola

It was all an act. They were normal horny guys all along.

Wow. In my first viewing of the film, I ”got” the joke and I couldn’t even tell you how happy I was that Fred had finally broken out of the skinflick ghetto. For once, he was doing a real B-movie that can be appreciated on those terms. It just happens to have a generous helping of gratuitous nudity mixed in.

I was thrilled to see that it was actually possible to go Ebert on what is being presented as nothing more than a “formula” softcore title. I was beginning to see that the unfortunate reputation that skinflicks have is now being twisted into part of the cover. No one would ever suspect that the dialog is actually being used to say something subversive. Viewers have been trained to fast-forward to the nude scenes. It was brilliant.

Back to the Action

Super Ninja Doll leaves the Bureau of Scientific Strangeness with another homage to the adventure shows of the 50’s. The staging of the scene reminded me strongly of Commando Cody’s departure scenes in Radar Men From the Moon. I expect that The Adventures of Superman is more accessible.

Super Ninja Doll getaway

Super Ninja Doll flies to her new destination, but before she reappears she has changed back into her doubly-secret identity.

At this point Retro is having some fun with that whole “secret identity”schtick. The conventional usage is that the hero adopts a secret identity so that he/she can mingle with the “normal” people without a chance of being recognized. But that is old. The first instance that I know of in movies was The Mark of Zorro (1920). Douglas Fairbanks’s character assumed the secret identity of a rich guy’s spoiled son who has just returned from Europe.

Douglas Fairbanks as wimp

That character was nothing but a wimp, so no one would ever suspect that he is secretly Zorro, the hero of the working class and opponent of the elite.

That convention got us through the “soft-spoken, mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper” era.

Eriko’s doubly-secret identity takes it to the next level. As a kid who has a sex fetish of her own, she uses her doubly-secret identity to prod her new girlfriend (Marsha, the nuclear tuna fish expert) into doing a little g/g scene with her!!! She is in full doubly-secret regalia, complete with Catholic schoolgirls uniform and those pigtails. Her secret identity is not the college student, who doesn’t exist in the fantasy sequence.

Eriko meets Marsha

In the setup to the g/g, Marsha actually says to her:

“That’s enough out of you, you naughty little schoolgirl!
“I think that you need to be punished!... and I’m going to punish you!”

The doubly-secret identity is now serving a new purpose! She is now using it to suggest the little bondage scene that little Eriko has also been daydreaming about! Since she wants to be the sub, she can’t exactly give orders to the hot nuclear tuna fish expert from within that type of character.

After that g/g and the following g/b/g we are back on track to shoot the last act of the adventure.

The Last Act

The confrontation with Tantella and Gorath provides the opportunity to underline the reverse gender roles that are consistent throughout the picture.

It turns out that Marsha’s boy-toy (Voodoo) isn’t exactly being the Man of the Hour. At the first sign of trouble, he hides behind the nearest skirt he can find! Together with our hilarious villains, they portray a world view in which the only active agents in the universe are the women. Among the villains, it is Tantella who is the “Little Caesar” of the pair and Gorath represents her mob. The force of good is our superheroine and her mission to earth is to protect all the important scientists. They are are also played by women: by Syren and by Beverly Lynne, the nuclear tuna fish expert. In a real sense, the guys in this universe are only the playthings. The women call the all shots and take all the actions that matter. That is the twist on the 1950’s role stereotypes in which the men had the adventure and the women made the coffee.

The movie races to its happy conclusion, thanks to Marsha’s giving Super Ninja Doll enough sex to find the energy to defeat the evil Tantella and Gorath.

The Hidden Movie

In this humble little skinflick, Christine’s triple role depicts three facets of the same person. First, we briefly meet the character as a young woman, safely enrolled in college. Since she is the only one old enough to have all her 2257 papers in order, she has to be the only one who lives in the real world. But the heart of the movie is the extended flashback to her elementary school years. Since we want to go there, we go there directly, trusting the audience to follow along without the clumsy baggage of explicit mainstream moviemaking.

The central character is the preadolescent Eriko; in this way we see what the young woman was like in her early years. We learn that she was very sexual even then. Via the young Eriko, we also meet her childhood fantasy figure.

A young girl’s dreams and aspirations are revealed by the type of idealized fantasy she imagines. Her implicit choices say something about the child that she is and the adult that she has now become, thanks to Christine’s portrayal of two ages at the same time. In only in that backhanded way, we find out about the young adult who is already enrolled in college.

Sure, the film uses the grammar of the retro period of movies, but Eriko’s adventure is brought right up to date. She dreams of a world that was very different than the one that actually existed during the Hayes era. To see the contrast, we can go back to the grandmomma of them all, the “Wizard” itself. It was very much a product of middle America and the Big Content of the era. The “Wizard” is still memorable for the fantastic adventure that Judy leads us through, but there is no denying that the root of that was her wish to get out of that exciting world and return to the security of home. She just wants to go back to her black & white Kansas.

Judy never did leave that world for the glamor of 3-strip Technicolor permanently. Technicolor was just a teaser. Later, in Meet Me in St. Louis the story is all about how great it is to spend your whole life in the safe, predictable, and uneventful midwest and not risk moving to the Big City (New York) in search of new opportunities and new adventures.

How different is little Eriko’s fantasy life! It is so cool! She imagines a world that is the exact opposite of the real world of the Hayes era. In that world, only the men have the aspirations and adventures, while the women wait and hope that the man of their dreams (e.g., rich, brave, adventurous, etc., whatever) will come into their lives and take care of them for life. Ugh!

No, no, Eriko dreams of a world in which only the women create and solve the problems. The women are the only agents; the guys are reduced to the women’s playthings and/or subordinates: The exact opposite of the fifties!! For a contrast, check out that fantasy si-fi picture I referred to in the “Cat-women” comment, Donovan’s Brain. As the men have the fun of playing the mad scientists, the women (represented by Nancy Reagan in her most convincing role) serves them coffee.

Eriko will have none of that!! She wants to be right in the thick of the action! The problems of the world are hers to solve. That is how she will grow up. Wow. We aren’t Kansas anymore.

This a far more successful update to the classic comic book genre than what mainstream can do for us. Retro really understands retro. The mainstream companies have more than all the money in the world to remake a comic book, but that actually makes it more difficult for them. Instead, they can only make another safe, big-budget movie that is populated with the same stock blockbuster characters that their audience is used to. In a comic book blockbuster, they share the names of comic book characters but mainstream cannot bring themselves to recreating the universe of the original comic book.

They ought to be embarrassed to see how much better the Retro is. It has the conventions of the old-time comic book but updates it to make the heroine a sexual figure and it makes women the only active agents of the story.

I suppose this is the last great picture in the Cinemax/DVD series, but perhaps it will find a fresh life on the internet. I hope so.