VN REVISITED – The Illustrated Sho Kosugi

Originally published January, 2010.

In the 80′s, Sho Kosugi posed for over 73 billion photos in full night gear, laden with weapons, in magazines like Black Belt, Ninja, even Karate Illustrated and Inside Kung Fu. Yet when it comes to movie and video game ad campaigns, you often see painted and illustrated images of him instead – many leaving a lot to be desired. Sometimes it was agencies not wanting to pay royalties to photographers. Other times it was unscrupulous art departments not having any legal right to use a Kosugi image whatsoever, but wanting the box office rub. Either way, some very interesting artistic mutations occurred…

It started in 1981 of course, with Enter the Ninja. Golan-Globus scooped the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s mega hit novel The Ninja with this exploitation gem (the American genre never recovered), for which Kosugi did some publicity photo posing. An air brushed version of what we’ll call THE KOSUGI KICK appeared on some of the posters (and VHS packaging), and soon after a retail poster we all had on our wall. The Kosugi Kick was henceforth knocked-off 15.3 trillion times, and you still see it today once in a while. The pose is one of THE lingering icons of the 80′s craze, perhaps the definitive image of the era.

The follow-up to Enter, and the movie that cemented “the ninja craze” as the big thing in martial arts (and martial arts cinema) for the decade, Revenge of the Ninja, had a pretty dynamite painted poster itself. What’s easy to forget about the superb Revenge is that in it, Kosugi made history – an Asian actor being the single male lead, and in only his second film in the U.S. In reality, Bruce Lee never did that, being co-top-billed with John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (although after his death, amidst the kung-fu boom, the campaigns changed to feature him much more).

Ironically the painted art has little-to-no resemblance to Kosugi, but damn what composition! Back in the day, though, we were tortured by the the ‘inauthentic’ details like the Western military knife tucked into his tunic, and the Chinese ‘kung-fu shoes’ in place of tabi. The fact that this supposed invisible assassin in concealing night gear has a red belt, chrome-finish weapons strapped all over him, and a huge family crest akin to a superhero’s chest emblem telling the world who he is didn’t bother us at all though… Such was the logic of 80′s ninja fans.

The fact that the American key art wasn’t Kosugi outright may have led to some of the mysterious variants overseas, like the below Franch-language market poster. Perhaps they really wanted to feature the star?

The above painting is based on the companion retail poster to the famous Kosugi Kick piece, seen below left. Why they didn’t use the original photo is anyone’s guess – couldn’t find the source, couldn’t meet on a price, didn;t even try…  Next to that is detail from the illustrated sleeve for the priced-to-sell VHS re-issue of Revenge, late 80′s-early 90′s. Even though there was a photo-based poster in the 80′s, used often in Europe, that same art didn’t make it to Spanish markets, evidenced by the painted version far right. All in all, there are remarkably few images used to promote this movie, but the versions of those few images are myriad.

Pray For Death was, for many, the last ‘good’ Kosugi entry in the craze era – a genuine piece of ninja-sploitation, surrounded by legends of ‘uncut’ gorier versions screened in dark corners of Europe and everything. While many thought Kosugi’s weapons and armor were downright silly, but it seems many (especially foreign ad men) thought it was pretty righteous:

No, Kosugi was NOT in Shaolin Fighters vs. Ninja (or Ninja Against Shaolin, or Ninja vs. Shaolin Guards, or Shaolin Fights Ninja, or any of the dozens of other versions and re-titles of the concept that were out there), but you sure wouldn’t know it from the poster above. More painted art was done for the taxing 9 Deaths of the Ninja, and again the foreign markets were on their own page with the key art. I guess when your movie looks like this…

…you’re tempted to hide it behind more craze-palatable images of hooded ninja, even if it means evoking the competition – Michael Dudikoff!

Strange to think of foreign ad artists toiling over these painted Sho Kosugi images, when in some neglected drawer at the offices of Inside Kung Fu, hundreds of amazing photos were sitting there, untapped. Exploitation films, however, have promotional resources akin to their low budgets. Campaigns turn around fast. There are language barriers between markets. Logistical and financial hurdles everywhere. So it ends up easier just to wing it and barf out some weird illo.

Chances are, the same box office take would have been made either way.

Read more:

Sho Kosugi: The Ninja fansite, with tons of galleries, including mag covers and movie posters.

S.K. Productions – Kosugi’s official website.

Really fun write up and video of 9 Deaths of the Ninja.

If you think these paintings are a bit off, check out the stuff from Ghana!

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Film and TV April 19, 2014 at 1:11 am.

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VN REVISITED: Airborne combat in LEGEND OF KAMUI

Originally published June 2009

With the movie [now in wide release], I’m re-reading and re-loving Shirato Sanpei‘s second run of Kamui manga. The godfather of ninja comics debuted the character in 1964, then re-imagined the property as a more grown up and severe manga in the 80′s. Kamui Gaiden was a critical and financial hit, crossed-over into anime, and inspired [the live action film.] Eclipse Comics made history when they published a 37 issue run in the U.S. as The Legend of Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Story – the first such importation of a Japanese title to our shores.

Here are some terrific combat panels from that run. Sanpei really had a knack for movement, and loved these leaping and tumbling attacks. Despite the amount of dynamic action, you can still ‘read’ what is happening, clearly see the techniques at work and how the killing blows are delivered. Aspiring artists have plenty to learn here:

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The grocery list of things I love about this series is long indeed. Kamui is the archetypal skilled loner on the run, trying to leave behind his warrior life but needing those resented skills to survive constant pursuit. It’s a great structure, and over it Sanpei laid some emotionally challenging stories. You could never get too attached to a character, never too comfortable with a setting.

I also love characters with limited arsenals used in increasingly innovative ways. Kamui’s signature short sword and reverse grip technique dispatched 90% of his enemies. A few kunai or shuriken here or there, sometimes a grapple line, were pretty much it.

Eclipse released 37 issues total, starting in 1987. It was late in the ninja craze here, and rarely did the signature black suit appear on covers, so the title may have failed to find the audience it deserved. These gems can be found cheap on eBay, even in complete runs.

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The first translated story arc, an incredible parable of struggling fishermen and the inescapability of one’s destined trade, was later collected into two trade paperbacks by VIZ, with reduced art. I prefer the original [stand-alone issues], which often had liner notes on the historical subject matter or the artist’s craft.

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Posted in Books and Manga April 13, 2014 at 12:00 am.

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NOT DEAD!

There was a time I swore I’d never go longer than a week without a post, then it became 10 days, then two weeks, and suddenly without me noticing there’s been nothing new here for more than a month. That damn calendar crept up on me like a… like a what… like a ninja!

So where have I been? It’s way off-topic, but I’ll share anyway. The Outer Limits, that’s where!

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For the past year, it’s been my pleasure (and a HUGE labor of love) to design, photo-edit and mechanically execute this retro-TV entertainment book for Creature Features publishing in Burbank, CA.

March saw not only The Outer Limits at 50‘s triumphant release, but also a big marketing push, gallery event and three big signings. It’s devoured my free time, which ‘real life’ wasn’t leaving much of to start with.

What little time I had for Vintage Ninja was actually filled up with solving a technical problem that exposed potential for a catastrophic security risk. All’s well now, but man for a minute I thought we were going to lose all sorts of content here.

So triumphs and tribulations behind me now, I look forward to a lot more stuff going up here, but not before I take some self-prescribed time off from everything. I’m writing-off April, and will return with new posts in May. Lots of cool stuff on deck, too, from ninja tricycles to plastic forts, newly discovered vintage Japanese films to obscure 80s comics from Europe.

In the meantime, I’ll be recycling some gems from the past you may have missed, so those’ll be new to a lot of you.

Oh, and a couple of recommendations, too! Kurotokagi has new titles for the first time in ages. Seventeen Ninja II and the Japanese original of what most of us knew as Renegade Ninjas are both absolute MUSTS.

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I also highly recommend catching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s laced with themes of the reluctant warrior wanting to shed the covert life, fighting against shadow regimes and conspiracies within conspiracies. Familiar ground for us shinobi-cinemafiles.

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I hope you are all in good health, are getting out and enjoying some Spring weather and are keeping it ninja!

I’m heading off to Pismo Beach. See y’all in May!

KR

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Posted in Ninja Miscelany April 9, 2014 at 10:10 pm.

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To hood, or not to hood?

The book, and later film, of the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice was essentially the West’s introdcution to ninja, and a few widely scattered episodes of American television series like Kung-Fu, Baretta and Quincy notwithstanding, the next major step toward the 80s ninja craze was the mega-hit Shogun mini-series. Bond may have fought alongside ninja, but they never donned the iconic black suits and masks, so for millions Shogun was the intro to the classic ninja look.  (see our breakdown of a pivotal episode here)

Both the notion of shinobi as commandos using swords against guns, and the ancient ninja being a ‘cult of assassins’ were planted, and about to sprout in every  field of popular media.

Somewhere in the middle of these well-fertilized (pun intended) acres grew a burgeoning crop of serious martial artists studying actual ninjutsu — combat, spiritual and lifestyle traditions long removed from their feudal origins and practical applications, now finding new life in somewhat abstract ways in the modern world. But could they escape the often ludicrous imagery of the pop media ninja flourishing around them?

I came across some old book advertisements in a 1981 issue of Black Belt that reminded of this period.

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Note this ad for the mass-market paperback edition of Shogun, which sold in the millions both before and after the landmark TV event, is not from the original publisher Delacorte, but from martial arts publishing/distribution house Ohara Publications. This ad ran in Black Belt, Inside Kung-Fu and ilk, aimed at a martial arts community that was about to get drenched in a ninja tidal wave.

The airing of Shogun was followed by the release of Enter the Ninja in theaters, making Sho Kosugi the face of the cinematic ninja movement. But the martial arts explosion that ran concurrently to the entertainment media craze had a face of its own — Stephen K. Hayes.

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The same Ohara company was also running this ad for Hayes’ first book, which followed years of his magazine articles preaching the gospel of ninjutsu’s spiritual enlightenment, tactical thinking and practical self-defense. Legit, serious stuff, right?

Once in a while, though, he’d don a black hood, like a movie ninja, bridging the gap between media and martial traditions. The occasional publicity photo shoot in traditional shinobi coture was smart marketing by Hayes and team. Masaaki Hatsumi himself wasn’t above such fare with his profound publishing career in Japan, so why should the student be any different?

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Hatsumi, however, could more safely embrace the popular imagery of ninja because the product on movie screens in mid-1960s Japan was dead serious historical fare (that he himself had consulted on-set in some cases). And while the 60s boom in Japan obviously had its pop entertainment aspects, the 80s boom in the West tended more to the exploitive. It became big business — from turtle toons to mail order weapons. There were dilutions in quality — the movies got cheaper and cheesier and ninja-themed magazines more bloodthirsty.

See the difference between 1981 and 1987 below (and tons more at MA-Mags.com).

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Hayes donning a mask and hood put him a “NINJA”-emblazoned headband away from the same visual plane as Richard Harrison in Ninja Terminator. When a legit dojo swam in the same visual waters, training in gear that to the rest of the world was movie costuming, there was always the risk of eroded credibility and unflattering PR. If hooding-up was a necessary evil, which some of these folk balanced better than others, there was a price. It couldn’t have been easy maintaining legitimacy in the midst of such widespread exploitation.

I’ll say this, too… Nobody in the martial arts community has to deal with more public misconception and general pop culture baggage than the practitioner of ninjutsu. If you study kung-fu and it comes up in discussion with laymen, you might get a snicker or a crass Bruce Lee impersonation — “Oh, you mean all that ‘hhhwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!’ stuff?” The same happens with ninjutsu and people are assuming you’re some idiot who hides in the trees wearing black pajamas and a suriken belt buckle. They ask to see your blowgun, or to throw a smoke pellet down and disappear. You’re equated with toon turtles, Power Rangers and video game villains in the minds of a lot of these simps. It has to be a tough road, and I respect the hell out of anyone who puts up with it.

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I was never a student of ninjutsu, but being a karateka for a couple of years during my early 80s Junior High days, ninja-mania was unavoidable. I never drew a line in the sand between the martial and movie worlds, finding different levels of entertainment in magazines and books dedicated to both camps. Even if it was the hoods that caught my eye, what I always dug more about the Hayes and Hatsumi articles in Black Belt and Ninja was how different the techniques looked. Punches, kicks, takedowns, ready poses — they were distinct from the long-familiar karate and kung-fu.

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Maybe that contrast, the simple fact that there was finally something different on both the big screen and in the dojo circuit, was fuel enough for the ninja boom. It was the 1980s, a decade that craved distinction from any previous — punk, New Wave, Nagel prints, fingerless gloves, parachute pants…

And yes… ninja hoods. 

Keith J. Rainville — March, 2014

 

 

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Posted in Art and Advertising and History and Martial Arts March 1, 2014 at 5:50 pm.

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Re-re-re-(re?)-Enter the Menkos…

Super pressed for time lately, but I will leave you all with another nice selection of vintage Menko cards. These seem to be Fujimaru-themed, with plenty of the loose dot patterns, off register color and dodgy third-party artwork that make these things so damn cool.

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Collectibles February 15, 2014 at 12:53 am.

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In LION MARU news…

Medicom has released two new sofubi of Kaiketsu Lion Maru and Tiger Joe, designed by Bear Model.

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Not in love with these myself, as they are a bit too detailed and modern in their sculpts. Sofubi are supposed to look like kids toys from the 60s, with soft details and primitive paint jobs. These are actually a bit too skillfully executed for the genre…

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Also found some nifty publicity images from KLM and Fuun Lion Maru on tumblr:

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A reminder that Vintage Ninja is indeed on tumblr, too — Lucha vs. Ninja: Who Will Win? This is a shared stream from this site and From Parts Unknown, as loaded with cool vintage masked wrestler stuff as it is shinobi. I reblog/repost a lot of related material from others, and revisit some older stuff from the VN archives there too, so it’s worth added us to your feed.

 

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Posted in Film and TV and Toys and Statues February 1, 2014 at 2:57 pm.

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Lessons of the past may prevent the apocalypse!

Think back to the early 80s. Remember how all of a sudden every mail order company had magazine ads for TONS of ninja merch? How were all these vendors able to pounce so quick on a trend and stock so much product in between releases of Kosugi films and Hayes books?

Well, quite a bit of it was recycled inventory (or new casts from mechanical tooling and designs of  previously existing items), altered with a fresh coat of matte-black paint and hastily stenciled NINJA logos. Sais, nunchaku, Chinese-style throwing stars stamped with Bruce Lee’s face — all hold-overs from the kung-fu boom of the 70s — now given new life as “ninja gear.” It didn’t stop at kung-fu stuff either, as modern police batons, farming sickles sold in pairs, “Rambo knives” and even wooden boomerangs were hastily shinobi-fied for the new fad’s fervent market.

The same sort of spike in exploitive face-lifting of old weaponry has been happening again this past 18 months or so, although somewhat less apparent to the martial arts world, as the stuff is largely marketed to a more mainstream audience – zombie fans.

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Thank goodness we have all these color-coordinated sharp-pointees available so all the WALKING DEAD cosplayers can save us from the apocalypse!

Take the same machetes, cheap copies of special forces daggers, fantasy and pirate blades inspired by hit movie series of the past decade, and anything else littering Chinatown smoke shops and cruddy swap meets, then just cover the steel with gloss black paint, spatter some red for simulated blood, make the handle or wrapping the most garish neon green you can find, and blammo — instant anti-zombie arsenal! At least half-a-dozen companies have ‘zombie fighter’ offshoot inventories of their usual offerings, and thus a thousand knock-off lines.

Skulls, bio-hazard symbols and grunge fonts have replaced the silhouetted ninja and kanji, but the execution is remarkably similar. Anything can and has been zombified – logic-be-damned – from shuriken, tantos and Naruto-knock-off kunai to survival hatchets, pistol crossbows and BB-guns. Can lime green Thor hammers and Captain America shields with skulls all over them be far behind?

(If any of you find a green Cap shield anywhere, I’m soooo a buyer!)

Plenty of samurai and ninja gear has been re-released in green lately, too. Katana were the first big items out there, a proven commodity courtesy of The Walking Dead. The bio-hazard tsuba are rather inspired, too. Then it gets rather silly, seeing as a lot of ninja weapons are close quarters fare, or small projectile weapons designed to carry poisons. Hardly threats to mindlessly chomping cannibals that can only be stopped by a crushed cranium.

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Bayonets with laser-pointers, Rambo knives in zombie couture and shuriken that look more like band logos than viable projectiles are probably not going to get you through the Z-outbreak.

Come to think of it, a lot of ninja skills are rendered moot in a word where Romero-model zombies plague the earth. Quiet movement, evasion, survival skills sure, but disguise, illusion, fear and taking advantage of superstitions, mind-games and whatnot… all pretty useless against the shambling hordes. And best trade that blowgun for a suppressed carbine, too.

But again, this stuff isn’t being produced based on logic or originality. They’re using and re-using what they’ve got on hand from previous crazes, regardless of how sound Max Brooks would find it.

Oh… and zombies aren’t real. There’s that… But it doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to stock up on fun toys!

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The overly “extreme” Klingon-like close-quarters implements above lack the penetration or crushing power necessary to do the job, and all those barbs and hooks can just get a shambler tangled up on top of you. But dude… they’re like so metal…

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On the other hand, narrow stiletto-like swords, tactical spears and elongated trepanning hammers are quite viable in the fictional worlds of Romero and Fulci.

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And if a ‘zed’ does get ahold of you, a two-way hatchet/hammer combo or elongated stabbing spike with triangular blade are essential hold-out pieces.

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Zombie taget boards are awesome, especially when sold with a pile of cheap-ass throwing knives! The piece on the right is positively sublime, with its inclusion of the robotic monsters from the vintage Republic serial THE PHANTOM CREEPS.

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But these take the cake! Life-sized rubber dummies filled with fake blood, and there’s even a SHOCKWAVES-esque Nazi zombie. Hell, I’d throw shuriken at these for fun, neon green or otherwise.

We’re living in future-camp-in-the-making, people, mark my words. Just like the now nostalgic 80s, in 20 or 30 years we’ll look back at all this anti-zombie gear as so dated, so of this period, it’ll be just as kitschy as a ‘ninja’ fingerless glove or Japanese-fusion Nagel print.

I wonder, will someone start a “Vintage Zombie” site at that point?

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There’s plenty of exploitive cinematic reference to hone your “Z” skills, too…

 

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Posted in History and Martial Arts January 26, 2014 at 2:34 pm.

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NINJA II now widely available

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Was it really four years ago that I wrote this gushing review of Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine‘s throwback NINJA?

Ninja was to the more widely known Ninja Assassin what Deep Impact was to Armageddon or Tombstone to Wyatt Earp – a cheaper, more exploitive and ultimately more enjoyable alternative to a bigger property. Ninja Assassin aimed for a mainstream audience, and largely missed. But worse, with its overly-digital post-Matrix aesthetic it also missed the expectations of the frontline genre enthusiasts. In short, it kinda pissed off old guard martial arts movie maniacs, and us ninja geeks.

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The one thing I felt super guilty about in my dislike of the more-style-than-substance Ninja Assassin was not showing the proper love for Sho Kosugi‘s return to the screen. I supported the flick when it was in theaters, but have never returned to it, and in reading this site you’d hardly knew it existed. However, that guilt is now blunted somewhat, as Adkins, Florentine and, well… A Kosugi… return in Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear!

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Kane Kosugi, that is. All grown up, pretty damned ripped, and looking A LOT like his pop!

As was with the first film, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Writer David White (who also scribed the superb Undisputed 2 and 3) spins a soundly-structured revenge plot that takes advantage of Thailand filming locales, weaves in some genuine ninja lore, but mostly gets the hell out of the way so the fights can take over.

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We’re reunited with Casey and Namiko, now living happily and rebuilding after the dojo-pocalypse of the first film. Things are looking good. Then he goes and gives her a medallion as a symbol of his commitment.

A medallion.

Seriously, he gives her jewelry.

Giving jewelry to a loved one in a martial arts movie…

GOOD IDEA CASEY, WONDER WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT???

By the chiseled-in-stone laws of  the genre, Namiko is immediately killed, launching Casey on the vengeance trail so he can of course eventually slaughter the men responsible, then look down at the pendant, circle of blood now closed and whatnot, and cue the end titles…

And dammit I LOVE these movies and this team for doing this! They don’t hide from the old conventions, they embrace them. This crew is determined to not let the world forget how damn SIMPLE it really is to make a fun martial arts movie.

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Casey’s quest for justice begins with some high-kicking rehab at the dojo of old family friend Nakabara (Kosugi), and even though he seems to know a whole lot about the drug cartel responsible for Namiko’s death, shifty couriers are discretely delivering un-marked packages to him, and he has a goatee, Kane’s obviously not the actual villain of this movie, so yeah, bonding time!

Now here’s where Ninja II drops the awesomeness like carpet bombs!

Nakabara knows three things: 1.) Namiko’s wounds are the result of the signature chain weapon of a ninja-gone-bad named Goro. 2.) this same Goro is running drugs out of Burma, a land heavily populated by stuntmen waiting to have their asses kicked, and 3.) some 75-odd-years-ago, Japan’s fabled “Last Ninja” Fujita Seiko trained a squadron of WWII shinobi and unleashed them in the jungle, where they wreaked bladed havoc on the Allies and hid a bunch of arsenals, just like THIS MAP shows!

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HOT DAMN! Cue the travel montage…

Casey heads out into the jungle, finds an old cache of leather-and-canvas-era ninja gear and the storming of the requisite enemy compound is on.

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Goro is played by Shun Suguta, a veteran character actor of over 100 films, including Ichi the Killer. He knows how to pose and gesture like a deadly lunatic, and is pretty damned great as the master of the barbed manriki chain.

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Casey kills a pile of guards, has a brutal fight with Goro’s right hand heavy, then disposes of the villain amidst the light of a burning drug empire. Case closed…

OR IS IT?

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It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Adkins and Kosugi were cast together for a reason, and after a big surprise reveal the final chapter of Shadow of a Tear sees them tear each other apart, trashing room after room, alternating arsenals and exotic flying spin kicks in equal amounts. Absolutely great! One almost nostalgically roots for Kane here, and I swear if he had his rocket-assisted weapon-laden Huffy from Pray for Death, Adkins would have been toast!

Once again, Florentine and friends deliver a hybrid of two distinct eras of martial arts cinemas — weapon-centric ninja combat of the 1980s and the high-kicking spinning and jumping combo-based movie kick-boxing that ruled the 1990s. Both are retro by now, and the heart and soul of each period is retained, and embellished with some modern touches. One modern crutch they NEVER lean on though is the ubiquitous and utterly contemptible shakey-cam. No jittering camera trickery to hide the casting of non-martial artists or overwhelming digital fixes that for many of us have ruined fight scenes in modern action cinema.

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The purists (aka haters) out there will complain that either the ninja stuff ruins a perfectly good kick-boxing movie, OR that the kick-boxing ruins a perfectly good ninja film. Obviously I come from the ninja side of things, and if there’s one complaint with Ninja II it’s that it leans a lot more to the 90s side of things than the more 80s-centric first film.

In fact, one could almost edit out the ninja elements entirely and still wind up with a conventional martial revenge film. Perhaps an Undisputed-related script was retro-shinobi-fied here? A bit of a shame, as the idea of the Fujita Seiko legacy, powering up with antique WWII gear, etc. is so damn great I wanted it more at the center of the film.

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Historical images of the fabled “Last Koga Ninja”

The reality, however, is that combining the shadowy ninja visuals with the more contemporary unarmed combat makes these movies a whole lot easier to market to worldwide audiences, and as these are genuine indie movies they need each and every sale.

So VN is officially giving Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear 5 (Ninja) Stars. It’s an essential purchase for any ninja movie buff.

It’s really important we all support this movie, too. It does well enough, we’re that much closer to a fourth Undisputed getting funded. By purchasing and spreading the word, you’re not only rewarding the filmmakers who worked their asses off here, you’re checking a YES vote towards old school movie martial arts, towards holding the camera still and letting legit screen fighters and skilled choreographers do their thing. And you’re not letting the 80s ninja craze be forgotten.

Misters Florentine, Adkins and Kosugi… THANK YOU!

Buy Ninja II on Amazon in Bluray or DVD formats.

Available to Netflix streaming subscribers here.

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I have such insane love for this press still from REVENGE OF THE NINJA…

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Posted in Film and TV January 16, 2014 at 11:56 pm.

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My review of TED AND HIS 46 RONIN, illustrated mostly by pictures from other films…

Listen up Universal execs! I know exactly what’s gone wrong with your version of 47 Ronin. It’s not a lousy script, minority backlash, a star past his drawing prime, source material un-relatable to the mainstream, or even competition from the Hobbitses like all the critics have been telling you.

It’s lack of commitment.

Let me ‘splain here, beginning with this startling un-ronin-y photo from a testosterone-amped 90s exploitation western:

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What would alarm, or outright offend, more — a movie about the gunfight at the OK Corral wherein they got the costumes, environs, props, speech patterns, hairstyles, etc. 100% legit but then fudged the historical truth to sculpt more of a story they wanted, OR a sci-fi version of the same wherein the OK Corral is on the moon, laser fire is exchanged, Wyatt Earp flies around on a jetpack, the Clanton gang are lizard men AND they too fudged the historical facts to sculpt the story they wanted?

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Were critical historians paying more scrutiny to the details of a supposedly more credible film like Spielberg’s Lincoln than they were in the accuracy of the stovepipe hat worn in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and other famous portrayals?

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Levels of responsibility, and expectations of such respect for ‘truth,’ are proportional to the heir of legitimacy presented by the filmmaker. This is what allows musicals like Chicago and Robin and the Seven Hoods to be enjoyed in their own context parallel to more serious fare of the same theme like Boardwalk Empire and Mob City.

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But no film, from any era, country or status of director presents history as 100% straight. It’d make for a tearfully boring film, and the purpose of said media is to entertain. Historians will tell you that even with the best of intentions, My Darling ClementineHour of the GunTombstone and Costner’s Wyatt Earp are Hollywood, not history.

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Chushingura has been adapted even more than the OK Corral incident and the lives of its legendary participants, and with the same swinging pendulum of historical accuracies vs. dramatic liberties.

But while an American version of this complex political and cultural tale that ends with the mass suicide of its heroes was ill-advised from the start, (as was mixing a Westerner into the otherwise Japanese cast under the ‘half-breed’ cop-out) the idea of selling a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic with feudal Japanese trappings to worldwide audiences was not only noble but financially sound. When it was released, I adored Kadowkawa’s magic and creature-infused post Star Wars version of Satomi Hakkenden known to us as Legend of the Eight Samurai, and it had crazy legs on VHS in multiple languages and markets. So why not unleash something similar now, in a market primed by everything from Crouching Tiger to Game of Thrones?

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I won’t climb a soapbox on the soiling of sacred Japanese tales here, nor spout on the yet-another-white-guy-shows-the-native-culture-how-their-warrior-tradition-really-should-be-done bullshit. There are thousands of gallons of venom already spewed across the internet on those subjects. Instead I’ll take somewhat of a 180-degree turn. I think to avoid such criticisms, 47 Ronin should have been MORE fantastic, more over the top, had more of an international cast and not have been set in a straight up Japan but rather a vague “martial world” ala the Hong Kong liquid sword epics.

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If Keanu Reeves is your lead, then you’ve already told history to go fuck itself, soooooo… don’t sweat the history, don’t make it look and feel – in general seem — “right.” Instead, make it more surreal. Have the tatoo’d skeleton guy as one of the 47 too, and introduce his pal the chain-weilding emancipated slave from the Ivory Coast, then a Portugeese gun runner straight off the Black Ship and his steam-powered robot show up, followed by an unfrozen caveman or Viking berserker next to a topless Chirstian nun who slays vampires by lactating holy water.  Yes, there would be vampires. And tons of other yokai and Japanese mythology. Then Hercules shows up and they all fight reanimated skeleton warriors… and man does that time-travelling Wyatt Earp’s Laser-Colt come in handy!

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OK… cool… but MORE PLEASE!

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Plenty of nice ground work was laid for historical fantasy, here, too. The “Dutch Island” formed of Western pirate ships where outre gladiatorial games are held was pretty sweet. The gathering of magical swords to give the 47 an edge over superior numbers was also a good notion. The gigantic silver samurai guy (actually closer to what you wanted from The Wolverine) was excellent and the dragon at the end looked absolutely great! It’s the best Japanese dragon FX ever put on screen. 

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But again, none of it was taken far enough — more pirate-freaks, more magic sword powers, and was the giant samurai just an animated suit of armor? I couldn’t tell, and that’s a flaw in a fantasy epic. And don’t stop at one monster at the end, dammit, go full Magic Serpent and have Keanu transform into a giant toad, big-ass-spider (not to be confused with THE Big Ass Spider) or fiery bat monster for a combined kaiju/martial arts climax.

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This scene with 47 RONIN’s FX??? Ho-lee-sh*t!

47 Ronin should have jumped deep deep DEEP into the impossible fantasy. Instead, it sort of just waded in the safe shallow end while keeping enough traditional fixtures intact to make trouble for itself. This lack of commitment allowed the haters, while likely never even seeing it, to accuse the film of fingering both history and chambara cinematic traditions in the bung hole, for the sake of being a big American star vehicle. It was born behind this 8-ball and never recovered.

Being fully submerged in the insane fantasy waters would have gotten 47 Ronin off that hook, and maybe then the audience for this movie wouldn’t be rolling its collective eyes at the idea of friggin’ NEO taking a Tom Cruise-level piss on jidai-geki while looking over their shoulders for the imminent arrival of Bill S. Preston, Esq. in a phone booth.

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With added fantasy elements, I have much fewer Keanu issues with the marketing on the right.

BUT, I will say this: Hiroyuki Sanada was great. He’s ALWAYS great, and carried much of the film. Were Sanada the lead, and 47 Ronin a subtitled import ala The Promise (in which he also starred), House of Flying Daggers or Curse of the Golden Flower it might have actually made more money in the States. Certainly would have merited an underground fan base akin to that of Ashura, DororoShinobi: Heart Under BladeGoemon and the like. If it had a more shameless exploitation vibe like Man with the Iron Fists it might be finding a modest audience. Or if it was a big budget video game instead of film in the first place, it would have Onimusha level visibility.

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Instead, it’s a $175 million dollar debacle for a Hollywood studio, and people LOVE to watch those tentpoles fail. 47 Ronin seems to be taking its place as the half-breed Japanese contender to John Carter, and like that film, it deserves a fairer shake and better box office. I mean come on, it’s no Lone Ranger

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Dude? Dude… DUDE!!!

If you’re thinking of going to see this thing, despite the wrongness, despite the shortcomings, know that it’s worth it for Sanada and the dragon on the big screen alone. But hurry up, the clock is ticking on dog…

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Abdullah the Butcher wants YOU to see better Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada fare like ROARING THUNDER, TWILIGHT SAMURAI, RINGU and SUNSHINE, or he’ll stick a fork in your head!

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Keith J. Rainville — 12/29/13

 

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Posted in Film and TV December 30, 2013 at 3:58 am.

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Things you can buy ME for Christmas – Part 2 (and beyond)

So yeah, man did the month of December sneak up on me in the dark with a piano wire…

This was planned as three individual posts, but today is the first day I’ve been able to breathe in three weeks, so here it all is in one big session:

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Henshin Ninja Arashi vintage kid’s pop-up book

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Understood it’s a rare item, especially in this good a shape, but I just couldn’t swim in the ludicrous waters of pricing the Japanese seller wanted for this, and shipping from Japan is always a total bone. However one of you more affluent readers could put a little eBay search time in and make me a happy, happy camper this Christmas.

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These Japanese pop-up books are ambitious as hell with the gimmick graphics. Multiple layers, intricate illustrations. Just awesome…

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But let’s face it… none of us are rich, are we? Didn’t think so…

So for the more frugal shopper there’s this Cannon Films Ninja III: The Domination press kit, with some awesomely 80′s art on the cover. These are somewhat common in Hollywood memorabilia shops, or at least they were — that whole thing where you see something all over the place until you need to buy one in December, and whatnot…

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I’m going to hold out hope for a truly wealthy and generous Japanese reader though. This plastic promotional advertising bank from the 60′s ninja boom over there NEEDS to be on my mantle!

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Described in a Yahoo! Japan auction as “Mitsubishi Color TV Takao ‘DENSHI NINJA’ figure (MANDARAKE HENYA)” — this is a 5″ promotional item from 1968 that would have been in retail stores on top of TV displays. Maybe you got one for the kid if you bought a new TV?

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A non-retail toy like this is ludicrously rare, even in Japan. After being listed in the Yahoo! Japan site it made it’s way to our eBay for a week or so for big bucks, then disappeared before the auction ended. Maybe Santa-San scooped it up for me???

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On a more domestic front, here’s a great item from our own 80′s boom — a Sho Kosugi knock-off t-shirt!

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The sketchy art here is swiped from the ‘iron claws’ poster a lot of us had on our walls back in the day. Unfortunately, vintage t-shirts have a competing market of hipster douchebags looking for ironic wardrobes, so the prices on such fare are just too much. If you spot such a piece on eBay, or in a trust-funded boutique in Williamsburg or Silverlake, and it’s less than $50 I know a stocking that needs stuffing over here. Oh, and size 7xxxxl-mega-gargantua, please.

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Well, if these suggestions haven’t inspired you to empty your wallets and throw some ninja crap my way… honestly, don’t sweat it. I’ve probably got enough (read: TOO MUCH!) shinobi swag over here as it is.

I’ll leave you with a final image, a nice Christmas memory of where it all started for me — my haul of Asian World of Martial Arts ninja goods circa 1984. That was a good year, and I still have some of that stuff!

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Have a safe and happy holiday everyone!!!

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Posted in Collectibles and Film and TV and Toys and Statues December 22, 2013 at 12:24 pm.

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