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TELEVISION REVIEW

Girl power -- with a samurai sword

September 05, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

For those tired of or frustrated with the Disney teen-empowerment-through-music-and-fame message, "Samurai Girl" offers a welcome change. Based on the young-adult books by Carrie Asai, the three-part series premiering tonight on ABC Family may skew slightly older than shows on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon -- there is violence that results in death -- but it is, at heart, the familiar secret-princess story turned on its head, and yanked away from its Western European roots.

Heaven Kogo (Jamie Chung), the adopted daughter of a rich and powerful Japanese family, has reluctantly agreed to an arranged marriage with the son of her father's business partner, even as her beloved brother Hiko (Jack Yang) flees their luxurious but oppressive compound for San Francisco.

As luck would have it, that is where the wedding takes place, until it is interrupted by ninjas, yes ninjas, that seem intent on kidnapping Heaven. In the melee, Heaven's father is shot. When Hiko arrives to save her, he is killed, but not before passing on to her the family's precious samurai sword.

Confused and frightened, Heaven decides she can trust no one but Hiko's American friend, Jake Stanton (Brendan Fehr), except she doesn't know where he lives. With her family's bodyguards searching for her, Heaven crashes a party and befriends its hosts -- the sharp but sympathetic Cheryl (Saige Thompson) and her computer geek roommate Otto (Kyle Labine). Otto locates Jake, who turns out to be a samurai himself.

Whew. And all that is in the first 30 minutes. What follows is Heaven's attempt to find out who killed her brother and avenge him. To do this, she must transform herself into Samurai Girl, which she does with the help of Jake and against the advice of Severin (Steven Brand), a mysterious Brit-accented stranger who appears now and then with bits of vaguely menacing advice.

"Samurai Girl's" attempts to wed ninja culture, or at least the American TV version, with familiar dramedy material -- Cheryl and Otto could easily be characters on "Reaper" or even "Samantha Who?" -- is at times as uneasy an arranged marriage as Heaven's aborted one. You have an idea from the get-go that Heaven won't marry a man she doesn't love, so when the ninjas first appear, you don't know whether to laugh, cheer or scream. Hiko's death is shocking, but quickly makes clear -- this is not play kung fu; there will be blood.

Heaven's transformation into a warrior seems motivated more by time constraints -- she needs to be up to ninja speed in time for the next transitional scene -- than character or even plot. But Chung is lovely and fierce and if she is given to saying petulant-teen things like "You can't tell me what to do," she also manages to convey both an old-world guardedness with a modern can-do attitude.

As Jake, Fehr ("Roswell") seems a bit more jarhead than samurai, but that could be the buzz cut. Their romance seems inevitable and uninteresting, but the fight scenes are good and Thompson and Labine do a great job of straddling genres -- "Ninjas?" Otto asks, his confusion no doubt giving voice to many viewers too. "They're not real. They're like elves."

By the end of the pilot, the expositional clunkiness seemed to have smoothed itself out. Like Heaven and her friends, "Samurai Girl" seems to know what it's doing and where it's going -- imagine a family-hour version of "The Sopranos," only with ninjas and Meadow on a righteous quest for truth. It's not perfect, but it certainly is different, so why not just enjoy the ride?

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Samurai Girl'

Where: ABC Family

When: Today, Saturday and

Sunday, 8 p.m.

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and violence.)

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