What do you do with a half-dozen mail-order ninja suits, some black eye-liner, a few friends willing to tumble around a public park like idiots and a heap of public domain films?
Well, in the 80s if you were Godfrey Ho, you made two million movies comprised of newly filmed ninja-frosted kung-fu fights cut into older crime dramas to fill running time, and duped unsuspecting video store patrons into taking home drek with derivative titles like Ninja Terminator and Full Metal Ninja.
And… if you’re Meagan Rachelle, Ed Glaser and the crew of Dark Maze Studios, you take those very same elements and a couple of Mill Creek dollar-store DVD box sets and go to town, creating the astute and award-winning parody shorts Ninja: The Mission Force.
Oh the pain we all endured back in the day when we got burned by yet another alluring ‘cut and paste’ title with even more alluring shiny package art, only to be crushed by the yellow and pink-clad assaults to all things shinobi-sacred these films delivered. But time, some popular viral memes and the efforts of sites like The Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles have fostered a hindsight appreciation of one of the most shameless exploitation cinema chapters of all time. And now Dark Maze has taken things one step further…
Ninja: The Mission Force is in the MST: 3K / RiffTrax mold, cutting new footage into old films, replacing original audio with comedic overdubs, etc., but with a perfectly dialed-in homage to the head-slapping bat-shit craziness that were the signature elements of Godfrey Ho’s ninja-verse; headbands that literally say “ninja” on them, ridiculous eye make-up on all the male actors, Garfield phones, toy robots delivering VHS death threats, silly fights in public parks, spinning costume changes and jump-cut disappearances and yes, plenty of scenes of new footage characters “interacting” with old footage characters via phone, mail, expositional slide shows etc. and so forth.
N:TMF goes above and beyond when they cut their Ho-esque ninja gags into some genuine classics like Orson Welles’ The Stranger, Night of the Living Dead and The Magic Sword, mainstream fare like John Travolta’s The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and in fine snake-biting-its-own-tale fashion some public domain ninja-sploitation like Ninja Death and early episodes of The Master.
I salute Dark Maze on their decision to release the webisodes as ‘seasons’ on actual physical DVDs, packed with exclusive extras and cased in package art that hones back to the days of battered VHS. Order them directly from Dark Maze here.
I also salute them on their cool-ass logo, an homage to the old Canon Film’s lock-up. These folks clearly get it, and deserve our support!
And yes, I am a grumpy old “Herbert” who still likes his physical media and watching shit on a real TV from a comfy chair instead of on the interwbs, so bite me!
Tags: Godfrey Ho, Ninja: The Mission Force
I reposted this fantastic publicity still of Maki Fuyukichi as Tonbei the Mist from Greg Newman over at the Facebook “The Samurai” Group.
Got a lot of attention, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit a 2009 article we did, exposing Australia’s #1 ninja folk hero to North American audiences unfamiliar.
(originally published June 2009)
Once upon a time, there was a ground-breaking Japanese TV series called Onmitsu Kenshin (or Onmitsu kenshi), starring Koichi Ose as Shintaro, wandering samurai detective protecting his half-brother the Shogun from various conspiracies and assassins. It was popular in Japan, but when the series shifted gears and integrated ninja as both friend and foe, it blew up and as The Samurai became an international sensation.
International? Sure, it had a HUGE English-speaking fan base! How could you forget in 1965 when those early seasons were dubbed into English and aired on TV daily? Remember when Ose did that promotional tour, greeted by thousands of screaming fans at the airport ala The Beatles? Remember how each subsequent season got more and more popular, with more and more ninja action? Wasn’t it great how they were syndicated for decades after, followed by other dubbed shows like Phantom Agents! Does anyone still have their officially licensed plastic swords they got for Christmas, or the wildly popular Shintaro trading cards?
No… Drawing a blank…
Well, that’s because it all happened in fucking Australia!!!
Not here, NOOOOOO. Why would Americans want to see dozens of hours of Republic-serial like ninja warfare dubbed into perfect English? Fuck it, we’re fine with direct-to-video bullshit like Full Metal Ninja and Seven Lucky Ninja Kids. Give us turtles and leave us alone, we don’t want any of those historically credible martial arts espionage epics here. No way.
OK, bitter rant subsides for now – to the point.
TONBEI THE MIST!
If Shintaro was Japan’s (and fucking Australia’s) Lone Ranger, thenTonbei was the Tonto. Played by career ninja legend Maki Fuyukichi - who would go on to the Watari the Ninja Boy live action film, play White Shadow in Masked Ninja Akakage, Henshin Ninja Arashi and dozens of other TV and movie shinobi roles – Tonbei was sort of half ace-in-the-hole / half comic relief.
Sure, he was Shintaro’s shadow – scout, spy, saboteur – but the character was so prone to capture and to showing up at fights just as Shintaro put the last ninja down, he became the butt of some unintentional humor.
Either way, Maki’s ‘man of Iga’ is a hugely important character in the development of the genre. Born in the mold of more serious ninja fare like Shinobi-no-mono, he was there to show off outre tools and arcane spy gadgets, give clinics on commando tactics and shadow skills, and get in all sorts of cool ass reverse-grip sword fights.
So, we’ll be looking a lot at both The Samurai and Tonbei the Mist in coming months, and Maki was such a prolific ninja regular, he’ll be turning up constantly. Consider the below images a primer, and seek out the now out-of-print season box sets of the show on DVD. The best source of info on both the original Japanese show and it’s success in Oz can be found here.
As of season 2, Tonbei was a regular sidekick to Shintaro, and could call in additional ‘Men of Iga’ as needed. Some of these actors left a bit to be desired in the skill and physicality departments…
The producers learned early on that getting at least one or two mission-gear costume sequences in per show guaranteed ratings.
Well used cramped sets – sneaking around and battling other suppa in the rafters above or the crawlspaces below houses were common sequences.
Maki had great overtured posing and expressions. This pose, where he’s flinging shuriken at the camera’s POV (actually just an empty handed arm motion with whooshing foley) happened two or three times a show.
And would be followed by an immediate, often grisly result. Check out that shuriken right in the mouth! Ow…
“Historically accurate” gear, right out of secret scrolls and Hatsumi books, was often featured. Many episodes had Tonbei giving another character informal clinics on such gadgetry.
Arcane techniques abound as well. Here, Tonbei spreads dust in a hallway to give away the trails of nocturnal invaders.
He was a master of disguise, too, as this Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces get-up illustrates. Kinda gross, actually…
However wide his shadow skill set, Tonbei’s real job was getting captured by the enemy. He did his job well, he did his job often.
Tonbei in suspension bondage, while a supposed damsel in alleged distress just fine. This is no isolated incident, it happened like every third episode.
He often forgot to pack his Ninja Net-Proofing Spray, as well.
Amusing as the ‘sidekick-in-peril cliches’ become over the seasons of The Samurai, there are just as many great ninja battles, commando raids, trick weapon duels and other shinobi staples to keep things real. I absolutely love this series, and all jokes aside, if there’s one property I truly resent discovering now instead of in the 1980′s, it’s this one. And it was already in English! What’s the excuse???
REVISED: A company in Australia called Siren Visual has released an immense 30-disc box set of the dubbed series, complete with retro trading cards!
Two feature-length films has made the trading rounds under the stiffly translated title “The Detective Fencer.” (I’d have called it ‘Samurai Sleuth’ LOL) The movies are a step above the show in production values, and deliver a relentless barrage of ninja combat. Highly recommended!
Tags: Maki Fuyukichi, Onmitsu Kenshin, The Samurai, Tonbei
This amazingness from the mobile “cinemas” of Ghana, Africa is on eBay right now, for a steal, too!
Plenty more goodness here, as well!
Tags: Five Element Ninjas, Ghana movie posters
Superbly sculpted and detailed 6-9″ figures from Toy Crowd (2001) of Shiranui and Shouki from the 1988 effects-romp we know as Cyber Ninja. I dig these toys as much as I do the film, an indie that spends its modest budget it all the right places – costuming and character design. The ambitious effects come off more like Tokusatsu TV than epic cinema, but you can’t fault visionary creator/director Keita Amemiya for flying too close to the sun.
Tags: CYBER NINJA, Keita Amemiya, MIRAI NINJA
So I was having dinner with my pal, the uber-talented Rafael Navarro, and we were musing on what a ninja would look like if drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby. He whipped this off on a napkin, and seeing as I was footing the bill, I swiped it for myself!
Love those Kirby-esque square fingers!
This inspired Raf to spend a night rendering some better-realized shinobi more in his own style in a proper sketchbook, and here they are — A VINTAGE NINJA EXCLUSIVE!
Watercolor brush pens and a rough-tooth paper stock make for some beautifully expressive lines here. Love these, but I especially adore this dynamic dropping sequence ending in the requisite 3-point landing!
Raf has been a go-to illustrator for me for seemingly forever. A few years back I collected ten years of Mexican wrestler art he did for my magazine and books over at FPU in a nifty tome called Lucha Noir: The Complete Rafael Navarro in From Parts Unknown.
Score a copy here.
Little known fact – American Ninja is the only 80s boom film to have properly licensed mass-produced merchandise.
These grocery store / pharmacy register tchotchkes were obviously for kids, despite being branded with the an R-rated film’s imagery. A “two-penny-toy” manufacturer called Fleetwood produced these in 1985, along with a blowgun target set and a Masters of the Universe-scale generic ninja figure with similar card art.
Interesting that they carry the logo of the decidedly non-kid-friendly film studio Cannon, meaning Fleetwood actually paid to use the American Ninja monicker. Can’t think that they sold any more of the these than they would have by saving those fees and going with simple generic ninja art.
I dig the sketchy brush art used on the decals of the rubber suction shuriken. The hollow cheap plastic knife was molded off a popular piece of training equipment common to dojos in heavy rubber form.
This rubber stamp set shows more of the above art, influenced by both Enter the Ninja and GI Joe‘s Storm Shadow I imagine.
Think they paid Michael Dudikoff anything for his name and likeness?
Tags: AMERICAN NINJA, generic merch, Generic toys, Michael Dudikoff
(originally published June 2010)
Meiko Kaiji in ninja gear? Swoon!
Found these caps years ago in a sadly defunct blog (German if memory serves?), but they also floated around various newsboards for a while. The Female Convict Scorpion and Wandering Ginza Butterfly star had a stint on the long-running Oedo Sosamo TV series, and man did those expressive eyes ever work in a hood! Wow…
For the unfamiliar – and as a lover of 70′s and 80′s Japanese action TV I HIGHLY recommend you become familiar - the Oedo Sosamo / Onmitsu Doshin property spans around 18 years of prime-time TV, TV specials and theatrical releases. Think of it like a chambara version of The Untouchables or even The Mod Squad, with a who’s-who of genre stars filling in roles of shadow-skilled secret police patrolling feudal Edo. Kaji was just one of many kunoichi cuties and blade-weilding honeys featured.
The female’s role in the team would always be disguised info gatherer and undercover intelligence, but when the gloves came off, they’d have short sword in hand ready to throw down.
Needless to say, if a female villain ever showed up, it was the kunoichi’s job to take her out. You don’t want your handsome leading men cutting women in half, no matter how much they might deserve it.
Read more on the gorgeous and enigmatic Kaji at Cult Sirens.
Tags: Meiko Kaji
(originally published July 2010)
There may not be a more beautifully shot ninja film than the 1964 artistic gem Kaze no Bushi (aka “Warrior of the Wind”). The set-bound cinematography is great, the use of natural light in the lush exteriors approaches astounding, there are fights that look like nothing else in the genre, even the blood is gorgeous.
Two years after holding his own against genre heavyweights in Akai Kageboshi, Hashizo Okawa returns to the ninja fold as one of the most human protagonists to ever dawn the hood. It is difficult to describe his journey from complacent layabout to reluctant hero and beyond without giving away too many spoilers, so I’ll try not to ruin anyone’s pleasure at discovering this film. Suffice to say his portrayal of bored womanizer Shinzo goes places emotionally you won’t expect.
The under-achieving Shinzo is constantly beset by women with different agendas, from a shifty kunoichi to a noble princess with a secret. Women are the primary catalysts in his development as a hero, and get him into all sorts of trouble.
And a brutal ninja spy as a rival doesn’t help matter either.
Shinzo is a shadow-skilled agent himself, but the tactical mindset and task-driven disciplines of a ninja fail when it comes to matters of the heart.
Kaze no Bushi was directed by Tai Kato, known for his Toei yakuza films. He certainly didn’t approach this ninja film with the typical genre slant. The conventions of shinobi cinema are present, but not leaned on or hidden behind. There’s some experimenting here (most of which works, although when it doesn’t it really doesn’t), and for every typical creep down a hallway there’s a scene you won’t see in any other ninja movie.
Kato didn’t seem especially interested in night scenes, which would be a problem in any other ninja movie. These superbly shot exteriors and multi-depth set pieces are so well executed, you just don’t miss the typical ninja environs.
The high-point of Kaze no Bushi is this unforgettable (although brief) fight and flight scene amidst a maze of rocks on a beach at dusk. Subdued orange light, wide open spaces contrasting with a scurrying, tight pursuit amid jagged terrain, it’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t think of another ninja action scene this damn pretty.
I love this style of head wrap. Its as common as the ‘stingray’ style hood and other oft-seen mask styles, but in this grey tone, you can really see the technique.
As unique and masterful as Kato was here, his best accomplishment in Kaze is what he does with his lead man. Shinzo is perhaps the most human and emotionally credible hero of a ninja film I’ve ever seen. He has flaws, feels rage, shame, hurts from losses. He’s in a situation way over his head and way beyond his years of experience, and knows it. Multiple times he can take an easier path, but doesn’t. He’s a different guy by film’s end, and that’s what a good movie needs to do to it’s main. The human factor here is great.
Kaze no Bushi is on an artistic level above the genre in many ways, as unique as Samurai Spy and every bit as visually striking. It’s not an action powerhouse like Mission Iron Castle or a fun exploitive flick from the Chiba era. Kaze is more of a lush painting.
This is an adaptation of an original novel by Ryotaro Shiba, also responsible for Castle of Owls (another half-decent ninja film, if I recall). Curious to know if the superb ninja films live up to his written words, or if there was a generation of Japanese reader who rolled their eyes at these movies like we often do here.
Tags: Hashizo Okawa, KAZE NO BUSHI
Not a problem. Last post was specific to the Kosugi doubling images, but here’s the remainder of the French lobby pics from Enter the Ninja.
Don’t know about you cats, but I was totally in love with Susan ‘Dirty Mary’ George.What a career for her!
Not that Franco ‘Django’ Nero‘s prolific career has been anything to sneeze at. But let’s face it, he was no Mike Stone when it came to the action scenes here…
Israeli actor Zachi Noy was absolutely great as The Hook, too.
Tags: Enter the Ninja, Franco Nero, Sho Kosugi, Susan George, Zachi Noy
These French-language market lobby photos for the 1981 release of Enter the Ninja are a bit different than the American marketing and press photos, mainly in that they reveal close-ups of Sho Kosugi doubling for one of the red ninja from the initial training battle sequence.
Kosugi next to what is likely Mike Stone in in the red ninja suits that would inspire Marvel Comics’ The Hand and myriad 80s action figures.
This is a great look at the interesting construction of the hoods.
Kosugi and Stone worked their asses off out in those Philippine woods, doubling in both star and soldier roles.
Tags: Enter the Ninja, Sho Kosugi