34 ninja can’t be wrong

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SEVENTEEN NINJA (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA, 1963) is the typical 60′s Japanese boom film in that:

1.) It’s GREAT.

2.) It’s noir-as-hell – painted in gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography.

3.) It’s also noir-as-hell because (from the gospel of James Ellroy) pretty much everybody in it is fucked. And…

4.) It does what the best shinobi cinema does, pits ninja-vs.-ninja in a world of samurai who would just assume see them all dead.

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Again… and we never get sick of this… the intricacies of the ninja way of life and its weight on the soul of the individual are central to the motivations. Characters are either looking to escape the shadow life, or embrace the dark too readily. Duty is tantamount, but who that duty is to is a major source of disillusionment, and in the end, was it all worth it?

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There are guys…

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There are girls…

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They’re not supposed to fall in love with each other but do. And actually being a human being for once, giving way to normal human emotions, is a cancer to the spartan shadow life the ninja clans needed their agents to live. The heart puts the team, the clan, and the mission in jeopardy.

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In fine ‘born to lose’ form, that mission is essentially impossible, but at the same time impossible to turn down. A vital political document must be rescued from the corrupt clan that stole it. The document has no value to Iga, they’re fighting someone else’s battle here, doing the dirty work with the twisted pride these gloomy movies so often leaned on as a plot device — duty and obligation as a combination of doing what’s ‘right’ and being hired to do something no one thinks is possible but somehow you’ll figure out. It’s like a shadow-hubris in a way, so common to films of this era.

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17N doubles that dynamic though. The conniving clan is fully aware the last of the Iga ninja have been assigned to retrieve the scroll, and have hidden the scroll in a ludicrously over-secure fortress occupied by a full garrison. Whereas the usual ninja commando tactics should work, Iga operatives keep getting caught and killed, one after another, due to the castle’s recently hired in-house anti-ninja specialist from rival Koga!

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In the 1980s, the American ninja films may have taken the hoods out of the feudal era and put them in modern urban environs, but the ninja-vs.-ninja device remained at the genre’s core. Shadow skills taking down hapless guards and run-of-the-mill thugs was always fun second-act fare, but the third act needs your hero and villain to be equally matched for the conflict to actually matter.

Sho Kosugi’s famous “only a ninja can stop a ninja” notion is just as present in the 60s films that inspired him, although more in a larger-scale tactical way. One clan’s ninja are hired as an anti-ninja solution in the way an area overrun by cobras might let lose an imported population of mongoose. The opposing ninja are not only a military threat, they are selling out their own brethren’s way of life, and their’s too by default.

And in the end, everyone is expendable. The snakes may be gone, but who wants a plague of mongoose? The best of all solutions for the samurai clans involved is all of these vermin kill each other off.

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17N is an all-star shinobi affair; Satomi Kotaro is the heroic young ninja stuck between a rock, a hard place and a harder place, while his clan leader played by Ryutaro Otomo suffers under the burden of command, especially when that role requires him to send his men to die. The shadow on the other side of the chess board is superbly rendered by Jushiro Konoe, no stranger to shinobi cinema as hunter (Ninja Gari) or prey (the Yagyu Secret Scrolls series).

Konoe’s ninja exterminator is as intelligent as he is ruthless, sniffing out planted agents and picking off spies with a yari spear like a mantis.

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Great moment here as he senses an intruder, who is armed with a nifty telescoping yari of his own.

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There are two emotional gears grinding against each other in this film. Otomo’s ninja leader positions his men like pawns, sacrificing 16 of them in an effort to put one in just the right spot for a surprise hit. It torments him to the point of self-sacrifice, he’s almost relieved at being captured and tortured, and clings to life only with the hope of seeing the gambit pay off.

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Then there’s the Romeo & Juliet angle, which by the end of the 60s boom actually became a bit tired, but this early entry did it well. Having a romantic couple come out of this bloodbath intact, able to leave “the life” behind and live as loving real humans is the ultimate reward above and beyond the dispatching of duties.

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The Romeo & Juliet angle begins the sequel film as well. SEVENTEEN NINJA 2: THE GREAT BATTLE (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA: DAIKESSEN, 1965 — aka Seventeen Ninja: Amunition and Ambition according to Paghat) sees Hiroki Matsukata take of the mantle of the reluctant man-of-Iga in love with a Koga kunoichi and burdened with an impossible mission.

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Ryutaro Otomo returns in the heart-heavy Iga leader role (this time as Hattori Hanzo) once again facing a heavily guarded fortress and an anti-ninja specialist. Rival ninja Ginza is particularly vicious and driven, perhaps having bought too into the notion that winning here might elevate him out of the shadows. Hanzo, meanwhile, knows they’re both in the typical no-win situation.

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The second film is a great watch, although lacking some of the subtleties of the first. It’s a more straightforward conflict — destroying a hidden arsenal of muskets that will tip the scales in a political revolt — much less of a soul-wringing chess game is played, although the black-hooded body count racks up the same.

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By ’65 the Japanese ninja boom was approaching apex, shadow skills on display from every studio and on screens big and small. This film doesn’t provide as much exotic gadgetry and arcane skills as its predecessor (or other genre entries of the same time) but the action is still fine.

I love Matsukata in anything. He was the first ninja actor I was exposed to, via Magic Serpent being a staple of Boston UHF TV’s Creature Double Feature in the mid 70s. In that film, he lost his head to a gigantic ninja boomerang. Here, it’s over a gal. What’s a ninja gonna do?

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The trick with these two very similar films is to not watch them back to back. Although the characters are different in name (and cast to a degree), the plot structure and dramatic devices are all the same, as are the bittersweet end results.

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17N 2 was a rarity for the longest time, even in Japan. A video release last year finally put it in the hands of long-curious shinobi-cinemafiles who were FINALLY able to devour it. Beyond that initial excitement, the sequel is a solid ‘B’ to the first and more innovative film’s ‘A’ in my opinion. If you didn’t know of the existence of the 63 original though, the 65 film would be amongst your favorites, and it should be noted you absolutely do not need to be familiar with the first to enjoy the second.

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Two movies, 34 ninja… what’s not to love?

READ MORE:

Weird Wild Realm‘s reviews.

Another review of the first film at Shades of Grey.

 

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Posted in Film and TV November 23, 2014 at 12:35 pm.

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Crude weapons from ENTER

Scored this odd publicity still, which is not in the usual press kits I’ve found from Enter the Ninja. It’s kind of a dingy, soft pic that may have been left on the cutting room floor somewhere.

But while the quality is nothing to write home about, there’s all sorts of prop weapon porn here!

(click the image to expand huge)

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While Enter was the movie that introduced the one-weapon-one-kill notion that ruled ninja movies in America for the next decade, it was produced before most of the standard ninja arsenal was being mass produced and sold outside Japan. The “Kosugi sword” would become widely available in a few variants via mail order and martial arts supply stores shortly after, and by Revenge of the Ninja the Canon crews could outfit an entire film from mass market merchandise.

But the Enter arsenals were all custom jobs and modifications, or re-purposed kung-fu weapons, like those wide-horned sais. You get a great look at how crude the swords were here, too…

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Enter sparked the ninja boom in the US, but it also cemented some of the BS notions that drive a lot of martial arts purists and ninjutsu historians crazy, too. Black suits were worn in daylight situations and red and white suits were essentially superhero outfits, missing only a big “N” shield on the chests. Fetishized archaic weapons were adopted in modern situations where a silenced pistol would have solved all problems, hardly the utilitarian practice that kept historical ninja alive during the feudal era. And non-ninja weapons like tonfa and nunchaku were used prominently, while nary a weighted chain nor black egg was to be seen.

But… nunchaku sold, and ninja-nunchaku sold even better. The very promise of the weapon made famous by Bruce Lee sold movie tickets as well, so there you go.

And while we’re on the subject, if you’re on Facebook I highly recommend following Vintage Nunchaku — great old ads and photos of an amazing collection abound. I’d kill for a pair of those hallowed Dolan’s Sports swivel-chucks!

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Posted in Film and TV and History and Martial Arts October 24, 2014 at 2:25 am.

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An open call for KOSUGI KICKS!

It is THE single most recognizable icon of the 80s ninja craze, practically a logo for the ninja boom in and of itself – and one that has endured for decades.

It is THE KOSUGI KICK!

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Shot in a Hollywood studio for the Enter the Ninja press kit, the double wakizashi-waving jumping kicking Sho Kosugi was painted over for the film’s movie poster, ad slicks and subsequent home video packaging. The only other official use of the shot was years later in movie industry trade papers during Canon’s interest-stirring efforts for American Ninja (both the recycled Kosugi Kick and a composited shot of Chuck Norris in the Ninja III: The Domination green ninja suit were used in such ads before the project was rebooted into the Michael Dudikoff vehicle).

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Note the subtle differences between the various ‘takes’ of the famed pose. The retail poster had a more upright quality with the head turned more to the side, while the airbrush movie poster art had compositional corrections in the arms and swords.

But the image had serious legs outside official usage. If photographers could realistically collect royalties every time their image was duplicated or directly lifted, whoever shot Sho that fateful day would be a billionaire.

Alas…

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From the original press kit. Note the lack of photographer credit or studio copyright.

The Kosugi Kick wasn’t an original idea, rather a carefully calculated effort to evoke the familiar image of Bruce Lee’s famous jump kick, primarily from a press still of The Big Boss, but with their own new stamp. This would be OUR jump kick.

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They took the all-too-familiar pose (an icon and virtual logo of 70s kung-fu grindhouse itself), added the soon-to-be-famous black suit and a couple of swords (and note they’re off-the-shelf samurai swords, not the “ninja-to” that would quickly follow as a merchandise juggernaut) and declared THIS IS THE 80s, LET THE NINJA DECADE BEGIN!

And so it did.

The Kosugi Kick was quickly cannibalized by video game companies for packaging and arcade marquees, cheapie toy manufacturers and myriad knock-off merch pirates, book and magazine cover illustrators, and so many more one can hardly keep track.

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But we want to! Or at least try…

Thus, our open call for help from you, our fan base who love this stuff as much as we do, but hopefully with more free time on your hands.

Below is the tip of the iceberg, images we’ve casually collected over the years in various categories. We want more! Send us whatever you’ve got that has a knock-off Kosugi Kick at the below link, we’ll follow this post up at some point with a major collection.

Email your Kosugi Kicks to Vintage Ninja

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Was the above book from the 1960s Japanese craze a prehistoric ancestor of our beloved Kosugi Kick? And just how many issues of the 80′s Ninja magazine featured a rip-off of the famed photo? Help us find out!

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Kosugi Kicks come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of chicanery. The pose is in Public Domain, so manufacturers re-render the pose in their own art style at will. But, you do also see some outright theft of the original Kosugi classic.

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We love seeing it in posters for other movies. Again it’s typically a knock-off illustration or painting, but sometimes they’ll use the real deal, like the Mexican lobby card for a kung-fu flick seen above. The fact that the home video packaging for one of the Master Ninja tapes (below) had to knock it off is a real head scratcher…

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Kosugi Kicks may date back to 1981, but they are still showing up in 2014.

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They take the form of delicate porcelain…

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…articulated action figures…

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…and not-so-articulated figures.

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Sometimes the pose varies, with a more upright stance and a bent leg here and there, but c’mon, we all know the inspiration for these images.

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Shower us with your findings folks!

Once again, that email address is unknownpubs@yahoo.com

 

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Posted in Art and Advertising September 28, 2014 at 2:38 am.

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My day at the Marxist ninja cartoon marathon…

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Dateline: Hollywood, CA — 9-14-2014

It’s not often I talk ninja cartoons with college educators, but today was the exception.

Jonathan M. Hall, a Japanese film scholar from Pomona College screened three episodes of Shirato Sanpei shinobi TV treasures at the storied Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of the LA Eigafest film festival. Interesting crowd primarily of academics, and me as probably the biggest ninja nerd in the room. Come to think of it, I’m usually the biggest ninja nerd in the room regardless of circumstance.

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Anyway, there I am seeing two episodes of Sasuke (1968) and one of Kamui the Lone Ninja (Ninpo Kamui Gaiden, 1969) on the big screen. One of the primary motivations behind this site’s creation was frustration of being a product of the 80s American ninja craze and never having the superior Japanese source media of decades previous available. Now, I was seeing these anime classics in a bigger and better format than any TV-glued kid in Japan ever did.

In a pre-show lecture, and post-show Q&A, Hall discussed the unique background of Sanpei – trying to live up to his father, a fine arts painter raising a son in tumultuous waters of left-wing politics and Marxist movements. (take a minute to Google some of this socio-political stuff if you want, I had to…) Somehow Sanpei comes out of it doing kamishibai performance art then manga and anime, replacing the marching proletariat with masked ninja.

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SASUKE in manga form and the DVD box set we’ll never see over here because life sucks…

Sanpei never looked to samurai or large scale feudal-era military action as a source for content of his epics, but rather redefined ninja as warriors of uncanny skill that despite living a brutal, lonely and disenfranchised existence became what millions of Japanese youth idolized. His shinobi were decidedly of the lower-class, victims of the system around them and oppression from a privileged minority above, but they had the tremendous strength and resolve to live-on as outcasts and loners — rebels even to their own kind and hunted for it. They were fantasy refuge for young kids struggling through school and office workers stuck in cubicle farms.

It also didn’t hurt that they had cool-ass exotic weapons and espionage gadgets right at the same time the James Bond movies went super-nova in popularity.

But it seems to me Sanpei was somewhat above the 60′s Japanese ninja boom. Sure, it can be argued that his Ninja Bugeicho manga, starting in the late 50s, was the compass of both editorial theme and a standard of excellence for a lot of the comics, cartoons and movies that would follow en masse, and yes, the offspring of that series — Sasuke and Kamui — were hugely popular and influential. But I think he would have created those properties regardless of whether ninja were popular mass media or not. Hall pointed out that the legendary GARO magazine that originally carried the Kamui manga, had a circulation of merely 80,000 per month, tiny compared to the more popular juggernauts that sold 4-5 million per week. GARO was a publication by artists and intellectuals for artists and intellectuals, and if the ninja explosion had never occurred he probably would have found an outlet in those niche-market pages anyway.

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But ninja did explode in pop culture, and four-plus decades later are a household word on every continent, have been redefined by American exploitation cinema, again by animated turtles and then again by video games and so on and so on. Hall’s presentation had a slant of exposing the political roots of fictional ninja to audiences more familiar with Mortal Kombat and Naruto, and indeed most of those on hand were seeing the 60s craze media for the first time. There was some surprise in the audience at how layered and emotionally complex even a kids cartoon could be, and universal shock at how violent and brutal they routinely were. One of the Sasuke episodes ends with a pack of copy-cat children trying to duplicate the ninja kid’s explosive tricks, and blowing themselves to death in the process, leaving a weeping father to bury the charred corpses.

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You don’t have to go far to find R-rating-level violence and gore in KAMUI… this sequence is from the opening credits.

That very quality is likely what kept these series off American shelves in the 1980s, when otherwise, anything ninja was squeezed for every dollar it could yield. Both series were rife with children wielding bladed weapons, innocents being killed, bursts of hyper-violence and despondent anti-heroes walking off into the gloom of night knowing tomorrow would only bring more of the same. While Japan’s parents were evidently fine with their kids watching such after school, there’s no way that stuff was going to play in the States.

However, chunks of Sasuke and Kamui were actually licensed for release outside of Japan in the 80s. English dubs found limited priced-to-sell VHS releases under names like Kiko-Boy Ninja and Search for the Ninja, and episodes were included with Remco’s Secret of the Ninja action figure play sets. The pictures were rather wretched quality then, haven’t aged well, and will likely never see the light of day in any sort of remastered official release.

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Back-of-box art from a low-resnt VHS release of KIKO-BOY NINJA, recorded on EP on on elf those featherweight bargain bin tapes, so yeah, NOT the best quality. And if you’re under 30 you have no clue what I’m talking about here…

The entire run of Kamui was syndicated to TV in Mexico and South America under the title Kamui: El Ninja Desertór, and I believe both series saw the light of day in Italy as well. Then of course VIZ released The Legend of Kamui, albeit at the end of the craze. Most of us back then didn’t even realize it was a ninja comic based on the lack of black hooded assassins on the covers, plus tastes were changing. It was a good thing too late to be the ‘super-ego’ the craze had needed all along.

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SO… some four decades later there we are in a packed theater, marveling at the brilliance that was Shirato Sanpei. The themes of the lone warrior fighting the good fight despite the societal machinery around him resound just as strongly. I mean, who hasn’t idly fantasized about just saying F-this to the gigantic soul-grinding world we know we can’t change, packing a sack of shuriken and living out in the woods with your pet falcon? We all have, right? Right?

Keith J. Rainville

This 1:6 figure of the manga KAMUI is likely the closest I'm getting to the Lone Ninja lifestyle.

I’d live the minimalist lone-ninja-in-the-woods lifestyle, but then I couldn’t buy stuff like this vintage 1:6 manga KAMUI figure, so nope…

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Posted in Film and TV September 17, 2014 at 1:44 am.

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Some crazy rare vinyl on eBay right now!

You people are lucky as hell that I’m kinda broke right now, cuz for once I’m actually sharing some gems I stumbled across on Evil-Bay…

Check out this sofubi of what the seller describes as a “monster ninja” (I read this as “villain”) from Gekko Kamen:

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He’s like a giant version of Savitar!!!

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I have only a passing familiarity with ‘Moonlight Mask’ — who goes back to live action in the late 1950s, the cusp of the 60′s ninja boom in Japan. This 10″ vinyl ninja dude, however, is from the early 1970s anime reboot. But man is the sofubi ever on-model to classic TV ninja from the decade previous. A lot more so than the trippy anime that inspired it.

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Here’s a shot of the line-up via Skullbrain.org. Derivative designs harkening to Devilman, Kikaida, etc., but hey, monster in fedora for the WIN!

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Bid on him here.

Then, there’s this guy:

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I know, right?!?!?!?  That sword…

This manga version of Sarutobi Sasuke currently resides somewhere in Saudi Arabia.

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Bid on him here.

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This is another series I’m not especially familiar with, however I do have a beater VHS of the dubbed version Ninja: The Wonder Boy in the to-be-watched stack.

Happy hunting kids, enjoy my period of eBay inactivity while you can…

 

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Posted in Toys and Statues September 7, 2014 at 12:59 am.

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Can anyone ID these figures?

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Scored these tiny (they’re less than an inch tall) figures some time ago, still unable to ID them so we’re putting this out there, asking for help.

No markings whatsoever, so they might be out of a capsule machine? Or they’re part of a playset, being so tiny. I suspect these are knock-offs of a better-molded original, too.

They have articulation at the heads, shoulders and hips. Some have open hands for accessories but man, they’d be tiny…

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This l’il ninja is why we picked up the lot. The head sculpt is reminiscent of the second version of Storm Shadow from GI Joe.

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This sort of skull-headed robo-skelleton dude is my fave of the bunch. Who cares about a scuba diver or pilot when you’ve got a Deathlok-esque cyborg on your team…

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Any help would be appreciated y’all. Many thanks!

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Posted in Toys and Statues August 25, 2014 at 11:14 pm.

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The Art of Deception

In the face of the death of physical media, DVD and Bluray packaging continues to be, let’s say… inventive… in its methods of persuasion.

Hey, deception was a legit ninja skill, right?

As ninja movie fans we’ve all been duped by shinobi-fied covers to VHS or DVDs of vanilla kung-fu fare shamelessly retitled “Ninja-something-or-other.” These, however, step the game up a notch — one ninja movie camouflaged as another!

Note this new label for the Scott Adkins vehicle NINJA, deliberately biting on the much wider known NINJA ASSASSIN.

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Who can keep either of these 2009 films straight anyway, just buy them both!

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It’s one thing for an indie movie to “align itself for marketing shorthand” to another bigger film coming out at the same time, but THIS is another story altogether:

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This recent overseas label for the Hiroyuki Sanada / Conan Lee slugfest NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN strives for recognition and relevance from the video gamers of the world by shamelessly crowbarring-in a stolen rendering of Sega’s Kage-Maru from Virtua Fighter.

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But they re-color him black so he looks more like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden.

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Us non-gamers will also recognize Ryu Hayabusa from his hit indie film Alien vs. Ninja!

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Oh, wait… no, that’s right… NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE IN ANY OF THESE MOVIES!

Laughable as this chicanery, these hijinks, might be, I do love the idea of Virtua Fighter (and even Matrix) fanatics possibly getting duped, then being subjected to some old-school ninja fare that was… ewww, shot on FILM… that those of us longer in the tooth would consider superior.

If only a small percentage of those victims stick with it, maybe some new fans of old-school ninja media are born?

HA HA HAHAHAHAH HA! Made myself laugh… Like anyone under 40 is going to buy physical media!!!

In fact, ignore this whole post.

I’m going to go fool around with my abacus and listen to player piano reels.

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Film and TV August 8, 2014 at 12:06 am.

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Some ARASHI manga goodness…

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I may just love the illustrated version of Henshin Ninja Arashi more than the much better known tokusatsu version…

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Kamen Rider and Cybog 009 creator Shotaro Ishinomori‘s manga slightly preceded the Toei TV show, although what would have had more production lead time, a TV series or a manga publication? Bit of a chicken-and-egg deal there…

Either way, the B&W page yielded a much darker and more savage transforming hero, with creatures more akin to yukio-e demons than sponge-suited monsters-of-the-week. 

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I really love his use of silhouettes with the outré hero design, too. He’s often as monstrous as the beasts he’s protecting us from.

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Everything in the manga was just one or two steps more demented and spooky…

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Violent as hell, too!

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Such awesome stuff. And there a half-million scanlations of this classic out there too, so go find it! Well worth your time…

…as are several past features we’ve done on Henshin Ninja Arashi!

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Posted in Books and Manga July 22, 2014 at 10:43 pm.

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An obscure old gem back in print!

If you’re a dinosaur like me, then you still dig physical media and package art when it comes to your video library. To that end, I’m a regular customer of the Warner Archive DVD-On Demand service. Tons of great titles, especially if you’re into 60s and 70s made-for-TV sci-fi and horror fare. Not so much by way of martial arts films or classic Japanese cinemathough, save for this nugget which was just made available:

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The 1959 animated feature Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke was given an English treatment by MGM and released a year later as Magic Boy. There may have been some low-rent video tape releases of this, but I believe this is the first time a clean, crisp digitally mastered version has seen the light of day, and in its original 16×9 aspect ratio, too.

From the Warner press release:

MAGIC BOY (1960) Magically-gifted boy Sasuke lives in peace, deep in the forest with his animal pals and his elder sister, Oyu. After their forest sanctuary is violated by a demon witch who devours one of Sasuke’s animal companions, he vows vengeance. Leaving the forest, the boy sets out to master his magical gifts by making a pilgrimage to the home of the wizard, Hakuunsai. While Sasuke learns the ways of magic, Yakusha, the demon witch, terrorizes the countryside, and Sasuke works to complete his training in time. Magic Boy aka Shunen Sarutobi Sasuke is a classic piece of anime history — the first full-length animated feature produced in Japan to reach the shores of the United States. With much of the original storyline left untouched and centering on pop culture staple hero Sarutobi Sasuke (think Bomba the Jungle Boy crossed with a ninja), Magic Boy is an enchanting precursor to decades of imported Japanese ani-magic. 16×9 Widescreen 

I’m sold!

Order MAGIC BOY online here.

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Posted in Film and TV July 12, 2014 at 12:20 am.

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VN’s own 4th of July Tradition…

…we take a look back at AMERICAN NINJA!

There’s no better way to celebrate the birth of the USA than by looking back at a low-budget exploitation flick based on a Japanese martial art, produced by Israelis, shot in the Philippines.

READ ON, FELLOW PATRIOTS:

The seminal film reviewed by us here.

Who was the real “American Ninja” - Dudikoff, Kosugi or Norris???

Read Matt Wallace‘s take on American Ninja 5 here.

See the amazing African version of the movie poster here.

And check out some licensed merchandise for kids here.

Happy 4th!

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Posted in Film and TV July 4, 2014 at 1:10 am.

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