Hey SHADOW HUNTERS, lighten up a bit, will ya…

If you were a young devourer of manga and anime in the 1980s, creator Takao Saito will always be the man who gave us Golgo 13. However in the mid-2000s the good folk at Animeigo released two early 70s live action films that adapted his manga Kage Gari, aka The Shadow Hunters, and that property has since gained a cult following. By reader request, we dove into the Hunters in its various incarnations.

Saito’s original 1969 manga introduced three freelance swordsmen — Jubei, Moonlight and Sunlight (or Moonbeam and Sunbeam depending on the translation) — who were basically the anti-ninja Three Musketeers. For Saito, shinobi, in the declining era of the Shogunate, were reduced to errand boys of the corrupt government, used to shit-stir and plant evidence damning the fate of lords whose land was of value.

Jubei, the trio’s leader, was a glum but driven butcher of ninja, haunted by having to second the hara-kiri of his own daimyo — a grade-school age child, the victim of a crooked political scheme enabled by ninja catalysts. After that, he hit the ronin road, sworn to slay anything in a ninja suit.

Joining the shadow-obsessed Jubei is Moonlight, the ace swordsman of the crew, haunted himself by the deaths of his wife and child in another ninja-fueled government shenanigan. With a face marred by a huge birthmark, Moon is often portrayed with that hair-over-one-eye deal so prevalent in Japanese character design.

Rounding out the trio is Sunlight, whose pudgy build automatically pegs him for comedy relief. But in this case, Saito tips the trope cart a bit and makes him an ironic ladies man of sorts. His wang is evidently a divining rod for back-stabbing kunoichi, as scenes like this are common:

So female ninja commandos “go commando” under their shozoku? Making mental note…

Despite the fact that Kage Gari is little more than ninja butchery in bulk, it’s a pretty damned fun looking manga. The devalued ninja of this series were less resourceful, less skilled than their earlier 60s ninja craze counterparts, and the law of inverse effectiveness was in full effect — the more ninja in a fight the less deadly they are.

Perhaps it was an allegory for the waning 60s boom and the impending 1970s, a decade not so friendly to our beloved hooded set. As B&W ninja noir fell out of favor, and the hooded heroes migrated and morphed to Saturday morning kids fare like Lion Maru and Henshin Ninja Arashi, the shinobi of the silver screen became more relegated to cannon fodder roles.

In 1972, while Tomisaburo Wakayama was starting his six-film ninja slaughter over in the Lone Wolf & Cub mines, Nikkatsu screen idol/recording superstar Yujiro Ishihara optioned the books for his own production company, producing two films back-to-back with similar tone… and voluminous ninja body counts.

Kage Gari (Shadow Hunters), and Kage Gari: Hoero taihô (Shadow Hunters II: Echo of Destiny) were rushed out in 1972 by director Toshio Masuda, known in the West for his work on Tora! Tora! Tora! (after avoiding a grim fate as a kamikaze pilot himself) and the animated Space Battleship Yamato films.

There’s a decidedly different tone of the films to the books, dictated by a variety of factors. Everything from the bland slate-like blue/grey tint of the contemporary film stock to the general underlying fatalism of 70s Japanese cinema is at work here. These are downer movies, and often the only splashes of color apparent therein are the ludicrous gushers of ninja blood.

In all the incarnations of this property, I find Jubei to be the least interesting of the trio, and its especially true here. Ishihara’s star status is completely lost on me, knowing him only from these films, where his low-key delivery borders on phoning it in. Despite some cool leather gauntlets and a sweet five-handed-handle katana, his swordsmanship is nothing to write home about, nor is the fight choreography and execution — especially in light of what was going on at the same time in the ‘Baby Cart’ films.

And his make-up becomes increasingly ridiculous…

The other men in the trio make up for it a bit. Moonlight is lifted right off the manga page. Mikio Narita, a personal fave for his portrayal of the evil wizard Kashin Koji in Ninja Wars, has the sort of physical presence that totally sells the calm, emotionless sword ace facing superior numbers, but secure knowing he’s the shit. Would-be ambushers who’ve done their homework on the Hunters set the most elaborate traps for him, too.

The portrayal of Sunlight is where the versions of the property vary the most. Ryohei Uchida‘s movie Sunlight departs from the chubby-guy trope of the manga, instead channeling a straight up lascivious 70s porn star, evidently with the manhood to match. Despite being a total schlub, women (ninja or otherwise) are all over him, and he’s the only one of the three to display common emotions like joy, anger and lust.

Of course the lust part gets him into the most trouble, and sometimes a kunoichi has to be put down in a giallo-like wardrobe malfunction.

Both films rest in plotting waters I kind of despise, truth be told — complex machinations that wind up killing off the non-principal cast but end up being a lot of work and lives sacrificed for nothing.

The first film has the Hunters chasing after a document that will allow the Shogunate to snatch a gold fortune from an unstable territory. As things go, neither side really deserves the reward in question, but much of that gets forgotten in the wake of Jubei running into the former love of his life, played by the stunning Ruriko Asaoka (Goyokin, Incident at Blood Pass), who’s even more self-loathing than our hero.

The second film sees the crew escorting a huge cannon through ninja-infested trails, only to realize if it doesn’t fall to the shadows it’ll end up in the hands of the no-good government, so they blow the whole thing up — the cannon, the script, the overall moral of the story — boom. And all at the expense of another great beauty, pinky violence starlet Junko Natsu.

(If you want to see the Echo of Destiny story done right, any version of The Wages of Fear is great, but I’m particularly blown away by William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.)

There are familiar themes to the old ninja genre in the two live action films: any attempt or even the suggestion of domestic stability or bliss results in innocent blood being shed, the path of the sword can never be abandoned, etc. But laid over that ground is something you notice the more you watch 70s films — the deconstruction of the 60s ninja boom. All the resourcefulness, arcane arsenals and innovative shadow arts that made heroes of Goemon, Saizo, Juzo and Tonbei are now gone, replaced by an overwhelming willingness to surround a hero and wait your turn to run at him belly exposed, fake blood bag at the ready.

The early 70s saw a slew of declining cinema stars retreat to exploitation films and television series, hacking the previous decade’s mega media fad to bloody pieces in seeming bitter resentment.

Yes, there are ninja tricks in Shadow Hunters, and there are swinging stunts and acrobatics and exotic weapons like the sickle and chain… but as a whole, competence has been sacrificed for quantity. The ninja attack in cowards’ numbers, running around in broad daylight in silly black pajamas unable to hit the broad side of a barn with a bladed weapon. By the second movie, the ninja gangs are actually smart enough to try to run away, and entire fights are spent by Hunters pursuing former combatants trying to flee the scene.

They also get caught in their own traps. Like, A LOT!

When cinematic ninja turned this corner in the 70s, everything degraded. The historians and martial artists were no longer on set. Wardrobe had to crank out dozens and dozens of cheap suits and the lack of tailoring showed. Budgets wouldn’t allow for adequate retakes so you see hoods coming undone during action scenes, and everything looks like it was just pulled out of a package, with pressing and fold lines apparent all over. Nothing seems to fit well and no one seems to have coached the extras and stuntmen in how to tie their friggin’ holds. These things drive me nuts…

For the most part, these shinobi are merely hooded swordsmen willing to sneak around and stab a foe in the back. But they’re not even good swordsmen! The more lackluster the heroes’ skills were on screen, the more bland the choreography, the more it had to be covered up by downgrading the ninja even more. At least when Lone Wolf mowed down ninja and Yagyu troops, he had the gun-and-blade-laden cart, plus Wakyama’s sword skills were enough to sell the audience on a single man surviving sustained combat against 100 or more opponents. Shadow Hunters has none of those advantages.

It’s a shame because there are some great locations and action set-ups for sure.

And a nice and grisly double-face-burning gimmick when two shadows are captured:

There’s enough good for me recommend these films, especially if you dig that 70’s vibe of Lone Wolf and Cub, Demon Spies, etc.

But, I, and everyone I’ve shown them to, typically come away with one thing when watching them — damn do these dudes need to lighten up!

They are so despondent in the damnation that is their blood-soaked lives, so co-dependent and miserable in their ways of ninja butchery, the morose-ness is almost comedic. In the midst of a theme song that can only be described as “loungey” or even “boozy”, they ride off into the sunset while grumbling monologues of poetic depression in the guise of stoic perseverance:

We shadow hunters are nothing but ruthless beasts.

We have nothing more to lose.

We bare our fangs to survive… but is this life?

We are the stray dogs from hell.

We are Shadow Hunters… we would go out tonight but we haven’t got a stitch to wear…

You don’t want your friends chuckling and doing Morissey impersonations as you’re showing them a ninja movie.

The tone of a 1992 made-for-TV reboot was much lighter…

You know you’re in a different mindset when Jubei is a young hunk who actually cracks a smile now and then!

I don’t have much by way of hard data on this reboot, nor have I seen it subtitled, but the cast is full of familiar TV faces — Hiroaki Murakami, Renji Ishibashi, Takeo Chii.

AND!!! It has my absolute favorite trope of television ninja fodder — salmon-peach and mustard-beige colored suits! So many TV shows use these improbable color schemes for their mass-produced shinobi. Here at least the beige colors blend a little with some drab fall forest backdrops, but when you see a night fight with pinky/orange-clad commandos, it can only be Japanese primetime TV.

The ninja action is decent, if not guilty of all of the gripes from the movies above. Japan Action Club juiced it up with a lot of rope swinging stunt work, too.

Jubei being a radical departure from previous versions aside, Moonlight is rather similar, albeit missing the trademark facial splotch. Sunlight on the other hand is a real dandy here, with a colorful wardrobe to match his lady-killer personality.

The plot seems to be from the same source material as Echo of Destiny, with the cannon, but sans the cross-country stuff. Probably allowed them to keep the production in one spot, this being a TV budget and all.

Two more permutations of Shadow Hunters have eluded me so far: A 1983 Fuji TV remake starring Tatsuya Nakadai (!!!), and a 2011 manga reboot by Kenji Okamura (Lycanthrope Leo), with character design more along the lines of the original.

When you look at the overall census of Kage Gari permutations over the decades, its no surprise there’s a cult following. Maybe the manga are out there in the ‘scanlation’ realm? The long-out-of-print Animeigo DVDs are real collector’s items now. I totally get that. If you love the Lone Wolf & Cub flicks, these are close enough in tone and style to be happening in the same universe.

But man, do these guys need a hug.

 

NOTE: If you’re hunting down the Hunters, don’t confuse the 1964 Toei film Ninja Gari (aka Kage Gari, The Ninja Hunt, Ninja Hunter, The Shadow Hunt, and more) with Jushiro Konoe and its 1982 TV remake with son Hiroaki Matsukata. These are GREAT films, but not the same property at all.

 

THANKS: To Ichiban for some timely data, and Jessica Amada Salmonson always.

 

READ MORE:

Paghat the Rat Girl’s review at Weird Wild Realm

Nicholas Rucka’s review at Midnight Eye

Yujiro Ishihara’s museum page to the first film (Japanese)

Yujiro Ishihara’s museum page to the second film (Japanese)

 

8 ninja vendors I accidentally found on Etsy

I had never even been on Etsy before last Christmas, when a friend who practically lives on there turned me on to some jewelry crafters for Christmas gifts. So while there, I did a quick “ninja” and “shinobi” search and what do you know!

Most of the below vendors sell on eBay and off their own sites as well, but as I found them all on Etsy in one fell swoop it’s there that will serve as a gateway.

Bakezori — Need a custom ninja suit in the Japanese historical tradition? Is that even a question? Well, check out Bakezori — well reviewed by martial artist, historical reinactors and cosplayers alike.

Gaucho Ninja Leather — Where Asian World of Martial Arts meets the fashion runways of Spain, check out Gaucho Ninja Leather’s coture-grade leather tabi!

Ninpo Mart —  I salute weapon-smiths who offer non-lethal variety training gear, and by non-lethal I mean I won’t kill myself using any of it. Probably. Anyway, this is the first place I’ve ever seen rubber training claws.

Siamurai —   “Siam-urai”… see what they did there? Siamese-fusion Tokyo street fashion, a modern version of ancient Japanese dress, or Hammer pants of a less shiny variety? You be the judge. Man, these are so beautiful.

Shinbudo – Know what a $400 wooden sword looks like? I didn’t either until I started poking around at the jaw-dropping wood work and transcendent craft at hand here. Amazing training lumber!!! Make sure to go to their main website for more…

Shinobi Gear — More sharp-pointees in safer rubber for training, including rare, obscure and exotic tools you don’t usually see in the typical dojo.

Ronin Minatures — Great selection of gaming-style 1/32 ninja and samurai figurines, both painted and raw lead. Gorgeous sculpts, and they really did their homework.

Terrible Weapons — Get out your damned credit card right damned now because weapon-smith Jason Blakey is now offering 3D-printer replicas of Lee Van Cleef’s pendant from The Master! I was the first kid on my block with one, be the first on yours…

Happy hunting…

Kosugi and Van Cleef in Japan

One of the great head-scratchers of the 80s American ninja boom was the NBC TV series The Master, created by Michael Sloan but driven by the one-man craze-catalyst that was Sho Kosugi. On one hand its very existence spoke to the magnitude of ninja’s popularity in 1984, but its utter failure coming at the same time as Kosugi’s departure from Cannon Films can be interpreted as the premature beginning of the end for the boom period.

The Master failed to convert new audiences, and was, quite-honestly, often cringe-worthy to even the staunchest ninja geek. Much of the country never even saw the full run of 13 episodes. I was growing up in New England at the time, and with the Celtics on their way to a championship that year, Larry Bird was pre-empting Max Keller at every opportunity.

Two years later, Trans-World Entertainment would release the series as two-episode clam-shell and hard-shell VHS to the rental market, mildly disguised as “movies” under the title The Master Ninja. Within the next two years the rest of the globe was devouring dubbed or subtitled editions in German, Spanish and a host of other languages.

I’m the most intrigued by these kanji-subtitled Japanese versions:

What must the audience raised on the likes of Shinobi-no-Mono and contemporarily enjoying Kage No Gundan have of thought of this strange American product, what with its traditionally-garbed ninja using archaic weaponry in modern America? Were the stock-in-trade TV villains like greedy land barons, suburban crime lords and small-town evil industrialists harping on the likes of farmers and single moms something that even resonated with the Japanese? Did the action scenes, tailored to American audiences fetishizing signature weapons straight out of mail order catalogs and expecting high-arcing spin-kicks instead of the low-crouched Bujinkan-inspired choreography of the home product impress the Japanese at all?

The home video versions of The Master hit the market at about the same time as the IFD/Filmark stuff from Hong Kong started flooding video stores with titles like Ninja Terminator and Full Metal Ninja. The craze was burning out prematurely, but for NBC and Trans-World they were finally making back their investment with international video sales.

As for the North American market, the riffed-upon versions served up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 1990s were actually seen by more of an audience than any other iteration. The funky “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit sung by the robots remains one of the more beloved moments of that increasingly legendary show.

I wonder if the MST3K home video releases were imported into Japan…

Wait… WHO rented Cannon their house?

If you weren’t able to make the Revenge of the Ninja CD signing event in Januar,y the score and exclusive event print are now available via mail order, all signed by ROTN director Sam Firstenberg, stunt coordinator and silver-masked ninja double Steven Lambert, and composer Robert J. Walsh (CDs only).

Order the ROTN CD from Creature Features here.

Order the 11×17 limited edition print from Creature Features here.

The newly remastered ROTN soundtrack is just great — the sound is noticeably improved from the vinyl, there are extensive liner notes and a photo-loaded insert, and newly added are 12 classic tracks re-instrumentalized and enhanced by Walsh himself. Highly recommended!

The prints are 11×17″ on heavy stock, only 100 were printed and of those only a few were signed by Firstenberg and Lambert (in silver ink), so it’s first-come-first-served on those.

As for the event itself, it was a day of amazing stories from two men who genuinely adore this film and love even more its enduring fan following. The absolutely gushed eye-opening accounts of the production and working for Cannon Films back in the day. If you’ve heard their commentary on the ROTN or Ninja III: The Domination Blu-rays imagine the same sort of thing but in a live, intimate gallery setting.

Some gems we heard from Firstenberg:

— He largely fibbed his way into directing what would be his first action movie, and that inexperience led to the unique collaborative nature of the film. Sho Kosugi had huge sway, (Firstenberg called him “the leader” of the picture in a lot of ways) being close to producer-level and involved in more aspects of production than a first-time leading man would typically enjoy. Lambert, also a first timer on ROTN, was afforded freedoms he’d never enjoy again in bigger studio efforts. This collaborative triumvirate captured lightning in a bottle.

— Robert Walsh composed the entire iconic score in a mind-boggling FOUR DAYS. He put in marathon sessions with his own and borrowed equipment. Although most composers would start on the synth level in putting a score together hoping the studio would spring for proper orchestration later, on a Cannon budget Walsh knew from minute one a symphony was NOT going to happen, so ROTN was a synth score from concept to finish.

—  It was often a tri-lingual set. Kosugi would talk Japanese with his inner circle of students and his family, Firstenberg and his team would often meet and converse in Israeli, with most everyone else stuck in between trying to decipher everything to English.

— He’s getting more interest in his old ninja films now than he ever did before. The weekend of the event he had also done a phoner with media in Manitoba, Canada and has fielded invites from all over the globe in recent months.

And even more gems from Lambert:

— Even though studio armorers were credited, Sho Kosugi actually provided the entirety of the exotic ninja arsenal himself, and would continuously replenish items from the local martial arts training equipment manufacturers and suppliers he was already in business with creating his branded mail-order ninja gear. Lambert in particular marveled at how industrious, aware and calculated Kosugi was with the opportunity that was in front of him. He knew it was the right time and right place and was user-ready to pounce on the craze once it congealed.

— Watch the end duel closely and you’ll see Kosugi disarm Lambert (doubling Braden) of this sheath. When he tossed that sheath during the arcing sword-parry, it flew far enough away to go off the side of the sky-scraper they were on and fell all the way down to earth, amazingly not hitting anyone below.

— At some point in the late 1990s, thieves broke in to a storage unit rented by Lambert and cleaned it out. Amongst the treasures from his career lost were the ninja suits he wore in ROTN, Ninja III and American Ninja and two of the three silver Braden masks.

— The house and gardens used for the Osaki family massacre at the film’s beginning was rented from… get this… SHIRLEY TEMPLE!

35 years ago, I watched my SLP-recorded VHS tape of HBO’s airing of Revenge of the Ninja (if memory serves that same tape had The Road Warrior and They Call Me Bruce on it) so much it wore thin and snapped. To say that movie stuck with me would be an understatement. Decades later, to have an art gallery borrow some of my collection for display and ask me to design a print for an event where I’d kibitz with the men who made that movie was… well, the ultimate payoff to a life of fandom (never mind some serious validation of my pro-nerd status).

Jump at any rare chance you get to experience these men in person, their generosity with the material we know and love so well will blow you away the same it did me.

KR

 

RIP, the first ninja I ever knew…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

  

We lost Japanese screen legend Hiroki Matsukata this week.

The son of jidai-geki’s first Jubei Yagyu icon Jushiro Konoe, he was pretty much born to play a ninja on screen, with starring roles under the black hood in such classics as Mission Iron Castle, Seventeen Ninja 2: The Great Battle, Renegade NinjasKagemaru of the Iga Clan, and the first ninja movie I ever saw, the kaiju-loaded Magic Serpent.

I loved his sideways eye expressions and his ability to sell facial emotion when otherwise covered in a black head wrap. Matsukata may have been more prolific in yakuza cinema and more traditional chambara dramas, but he was a superb ninja actor as well.

Here’s a list of past features of his work from this site. Revisit these great old films and keep this legend immortal.

Seventeen Ninja II: The Great Battle

The Magic Serpent

Kagemaru of the Iga Clan

Yagyu Secret Scrolls series

And finally, we’re proud to debut this great portrait of Hiroki Matsukata by Asian-cinephile extraordinaire Amber Skowronski, whose work you can follow in Instagram and tumblr.

 

 

RIP…

 

Hear the sounds of REVENGE, meet the crew!

FINALLY – the inexplicably uncommunicative entity known as Varèse Sarabande has gone live with a web page and release date for the Revenge CD! WE HEAR YOU SERIES – Revenge Of The Ninja: Enhanced Edition goes on sale January 20th, but the first street copies will likely be had at an exclusive signing event at the Creature Features store and gallery in Burbank, CA.

Sunday, January 22nd the composer of ROTN‘s signature pulsating synthesizer score Robert J. Walsh will be joined on a panel/signing by the film’s director Sam Firstenberg, stuntman Steve Lambert and other guests to be announced. They’ll be showing clips, discussing the music and the creative process, and meeting and greeting their loyal fanbase. Don’t even try to be first in line though, as that spot’s been reserved for me.

OH… and as for me, as sort of an event co-sponsor I’ll have a modest display of 80’s ninja ephemera from ROTN and the properties it inspired in the gallery, AND Creature Features asked me to design an exclusive limited edition print for the event.

While you’re in the neighborhood, right down the street is the Martial Arts History Museum, wherein you can see the actual screen-worn silver demon mask stunt/fight coordinator Steve Lambert used in the movie, amongst other cool stuff. The museum is always deserving of patronage, so make a day of it!

See you there, and don’t forget your wallet!

For those who can’t make this event, autographed CD’s are available to pre-order from the Creature Features website.

 

KAGEMARU and his pointy hood

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 0

Compiled from a series of posts published Summer 2009

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Mitsuteru Yokoyama is probably the second most prolific creator of crossover ninja properties next to Shirato Sanpei. Both Kagemaru of Iga and Masked Ninja Akakage expanded from their pulp roots to multiple incarnations in anime and live action film/television.

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I’m sure every kid in 1960’s Japan wanted to be Kagemaru — the whirlwind-summoning teen of Iga. But for me, it’s Yokoyama’s rogues gallery of villains that shows the true originality of character design. For what it’s worth, I actually dislike the unhooded Kagemaru as a design… But I do love that angular hood when he masks up!

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Here’s a 2004 retro-collectible from Japan’s Furuta capsule and blind-box toy manufacturer. This piece is a representation of the manga version, complete with diorama base depicting his signature whirlwind leaf defense. He also came with a variant un-hooded head, of which I promptly lost track.

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And check out this illo from an early 60’s 2-color pulp manga – clearly the sculptor’s guide for the above figure.

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There was no shortage of Kagemaru march back in the day, although the pointy hood seems to have been a sculpting issue on that plastic mask.

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The live action film had a more ambitious interpretation of the stylized hood.

Read and see more on this character at the old Black Sun blog.

 

SHINOBI-NO-MONO: The Lost Essential?

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

This week I was invited to be a guest on the NERD LUNCH podcast’s annual “Ninja Day” show. The usual panel of three hosts was well schooled in American ninja movies, but had never seen SHINOBI-NO-MONO, the ‘ground zero’ film of the original cinematic boom in Japan. So my role as invited expert became more one of missionary of the obscure.

The Nerd Lunch crew was impressed with the film, having the usual reaction of folks fist discovering the deep end (or high-end) of the the genre — an appreciative “Wow, there were GOOD ninja movies?!?!” exclamation, followed by a desire to see more.

You can here it all HERE:

Glad as I always am when I can share the ‘super-ego’ of shinobi cinema with those who only know the ‘id’ of exploitation, an always irksome question was brought up — WHY don’t we all know this movie and where was it in the 80s?

Frustration at discovering the depth of 60s ninja entertainment we were denied in the 80s boom was core to the founding of this site and all my subsequent efforts, so I truly welcome this opportunity to correct, albeit long afterwards. 

So, the below article is intended as a intro to Shinobi-no-Mono for new audiences, and a companion piece to the podcast discussion on Nerd Lunch. And at the end tries to pinpoint why the Citizen Kane of ninja movies was never big deal in the States.

Enjoy!

 

SHINOBI-NO-MONO: The Lost Essential?

by Keith J. Rainville, December, 2016

 

New Decade, New Ninja

In 1962 subversive director Satsuo Yamamoto (known for his art group and publication Mavo as well as left-wing and anti-war films) and box office idol Raizo Ichikawa set out to tear the Japanese public’s idea of ninja movies a new orifice. Shinobi-no-Mono would become a hit for Daiei Studios, deconstructing the genre of colorful swashbuckling wizard-based ninja that had grown out of kabuki theater. Mirroring trends in popular literature and manga, SnM wasn’t the first black-and-white ninja movie featuring the hoods and commando techniques, but then again Dr. No wasn’t the first British spy movie of the 60s either.

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Out were the magical special effects and jaunty heroes, in were gritty, realistic ninja films that saw socially oppressed little guys in black cloth suits with specialized shadow skills trying to shirk the foot of the armored spear-wielding samurai climbing over them for upward mobility. The Murayama Tomoyoshi pulp novels SnM was based on wore its socialist agenda on its sleeve, and director Yamamoto specialized in tales of anti-heroes subverting authority. Feudal warfare would stand-in for the capitalist system, conquest of land doubled for corporate greed, rival ninja were the guys in the next cubicle competing for what should have been your raise, and warlords played with innocent lives like the most jaded of corporate middle management played with careers.

In addition to its socio-political tone, SnM looked like no other ninja movie had. Tomoyoshi’s books were inspired by the research of ninja history pioneer Heishichiro Okuse, and for the film adaptation modern ninjutsu practitioners Toshitsugu Takamatsu and Masaaki Hatsumi (of modern Bujinkan fame) were on set providing outré fight choreography. The new screen ninja they spawned fought different, crouched in unique stances, had unique ways of running, and in general moved and carried themselves differently than the samurai around them. Between the ninja advisors and credited prop masters “Kawaguchi Ryu” audiences were also first exposed to proprietary short swords, bamboo spy gadgets and most iconically, tighter, trimmer, more utilitarian black suits and hoods than previously seen.

The hills of Iga, previously portrayed as wooded paradises where white-bearded old wizards trained their plucky young wards in teleportation and weather manipulation, now became claustrophobic hiding places of secret garrisons that trained generations of spies, saboteurs and assassins in the dirty work richer, nobler samurai were unwilling to do. Prideful as they were in their astounding skills and reputations throughout the land, the farmer-class ninja villages of these movies were essentially ghettos, and were always the target of paranoid warlords unwilling to let the people of these provinces live by their own rules.

For the first time on screen the ninja life was portrayed as hard, unforgiving and spartan. There was no fame or glory for their anonymous work, no reward other than being the best and the secure knowledge that an otherwise impossible mission was executed by the only warriors remotely able. Withstanding torture and the resolve of cutting one’s face off if caught were skills taught alongside demolitions, exotic poisons and chemical weaponry. It was a grave, dark life with no upward mobility and the promise of an anonymous death in servitude to another.

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A Story of Shadows

In addition to all of the shinobi genre deconstruction, the first SnM film was loaded…LOADED… with story, both sweepingly historical and intimately dramatic. The protagonist is Ishikawa Goemon (a real-life historical folk-hero / Robin Hood-type scamp / notorious serial criminal depending on myriad portrayals), a young and optimistic ninja of remarkable skill but flawed with ambition and a weakness for the ladies. Above him in the shadow clan hierarchy is his garrison’s chief Momochi Sandayu (another name plucked from foggy history), a grumpy and feeble ruler obsessed with taking down the brutal warlord Oda Nobunaga. Sandayu, however, is not all that he seems, living a double life as the more nimble (and horny) leader Nagata of rival garrison Fubayashi. This remarkable master of disguise is one of the most enigmatic and striking screen villains you could ever ask for. Sandayu plays his ninja groups against each other, two wheels in a revenge and greed fueled machine that grinds Goemon and every woman he’s connected with to a pulp.

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Nobunaga, in the meantime, is rightfully paranoid about such a skilled people living beyond his control, and while Sandayu and Goemon play their little game of cat(s) and mouse, he’s winding up tens of thousands of cavalry, spearmen and artillery to level Iga the second he has an excuse to do so. A botched assassination attempt gives him just that, and all the best laid plans of mice and men meant nothing all along.

 

A-List All the Way

Goemon may be the lowly ninja hero fighting against an impossibly huge machinations, but he was played by anything but a lowly actor. Raizo Ichikawa is often referred to as the Japanese James Dean, being the looker who melted women’s hearts and had a magnetic screen presence, only to die too young of cancer in 1969. However his career spanned over 100 films, hardly the tiny sample of work of Dean’s that left audiences with the greatest ‘what-if’ in American cinema history.

Career-wise Raizo leapfrogged mega-franchise roles in eight SnM films and twelve Nemuri Kyoshirō (Sleepy Eyes of Death / Son of the Black Mass) adaptations the same way multi-franchise mega-stars like Harrison Ford or Sylvester Stallone alternated between Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Rocky and Rambo respectively.

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And just like all of those franchises, Shinobi-no-Mono was A-list BANK. Yamamoto would return to helm an immediate sequel Zoku Shinobi-no-Mono, which was bleak as hell with a brutal downer of an ending that saw his hero come to the end history actually recorded — caught by the law and boiled alive in oil. But remember, ninja are masters of escape, and escape Goemon returned for a third adventure, followed by a series reboot as Raizo Ichikawa became “Saizo the Mist” for another four films. Meanwhile a concurrent 52 episode Shinobi-no-Mono TV series starring Ryuji Shinagawa aired by Toei in 1964-65, competing with the mega popular ninja-filled series Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia).

Every studio in Japan was cranking out ninja movies by mid decade — derivative noir-ish fare and gorgeous color adventures, kids’ manga adaptations to experimental art-house to soft porn. The movies and TV fed more and more ninja manga, which led to toys and merchandise, and interest increased in tourism to historical ninja locations with new museums popping up, martial arts manuals littered the shelves, dojo business boomed — it all fed each other and snowballed.

As the series went on, the grave, morose plots and socialist agendas took a backseat to lighter-toned action spectacles, more ‘black-suit’ time on screen than melodrama, and increasing emphasis on gadgets and arcane commando techniques. Screen ninja were being codified and the formula just kept selling.

An eighth theatrical SnM film would see Raizo return as yet another hooded hero in 1966, but this reboot was never followed up. Raizo Ichikawa would die of cancer in 1969.

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New Decade, OLD Ninja

Daiei Studios, trying to extend the 60s craze into the 1970s, sort of rebooted the series yet again with a film called Shinobi no Shu (aka Mission: Iron Castle) — sometimes billed as the ninth film, sometimes not considered part of the series at all. Ill-timed with the dawning of the new decade, and ill-advised in invoking the franchise name soon after the nation’s heart was ripped out by the death of its beloved screen icon, the film failed to swell the mega audience its predecessors did, and fell into obscurity even among fervent collector circles for the longest time. But removed from that context, Mission: Iron Castle is arguably one of if not the best isolated examples of grim and gritty black-and-white ninja shinobi cinema. Prolific screen legend Hiroki Matsukata leads an elite band of ninja to rescue a kidnapped noblewoman from an ingeniously ninja-proofed castle loaded with traps. It’s wall-to-wall action, bolstered by familiar themes of wanting to escape the shadow life but knowing you never can, followed by a noir-as-hell ending. Just great.

But it was 1970, and everyone wanted color movies, and Raizo was dead…

Daiei would go bankrupt within a year, and the original Japanese ninja boom was essentially over.

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So why?

Shinobi-no-Mono‘s reach went further than Japan, and much further than the 60s. British writer Roald Dahl cribbed several scenes from SnM for his script for the Bond film You Only Live Twice — the western world’s first cinematic exposure to the idiom. SnM‘s costumes, sets and ninja techniques (both martial and cinematic) were dusted off for 1980’s Shogun mini-series. Then a man named Sho Kosugi, who as a kid watching Shinobi-no-Mono was taught every lesson he’d need to know, came to America and became the icon of an entirely new ninja craze.

But during that mega boom in the U.S. and the rest of the world, the seminal Shinobi-no-Mono itself was largely unseen, and for all purposes “lost” to a potential international audience, as were the rest of its gritty black-and-white ilk. These movies sat in a distribution no-man’s land in the early 1980s. In a decade of garish neon color and post-Star Wars special effects excess, no English-language home video label was looking for something as complex, heady and monochromatic as SnM. But at the same time, an art house distributor like Janus Films, who’d scoop up any back catalog of Kurosawa, Inagaki, Ozu, Teshigahara and any other Japanese cinema elite wasn’t going to touch anything to do with “ninja,” as Cannon had placed the genre firmly in the exploitation/grindhouse camp, and cartoon turtles were on the horizon.

So instead of getting the best the original genre had to offer in English, we got a small, weird assortment of imported titles that looking back now makes no sense. There was no subtitled Shinobi-no-Mono, no dubbed Castle of Owls or Warrior of the Wind, no airings of The Samurai on late night cable. Instead, an illogical assortment of special effects epics (like Kadowkawa’s Iga Ninpocho — ironically a return to pre-60s ninja wizardry) were dubbed and given new titles like Ninja Wars, Legend of the Eight Ninja and Renegade Ninjas. Largely bereft of the black suits and signature arsenals we’d been trained to expect by Kosugi and Dudikoff, these outré Japanese films didn’t exactly whip up demand for the older stuff either.

The English-speaking world’s best exposure to SnM wouldn’t come until the early 2000s when bootlegged Japanese home video releases subtitled by fans in homemade DVD sets were gobbled up by people like, well, ME. Sadly, this piracy took the wind out of the sails for the superb efforts of Animeigo years later, whose officially licensed and superbly restored DVD boxed set of the first four movies evidently didn’t sell enough to merit the rest of the release of the rest of the films.

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And now what?

There are now more years separating the 1980s American ninja boom films from a modern audience than there were years separating us 80s kids from the 1960s Japanese originals. So now that it’s ALL vintage, all antique media from an arcane decade, I wonder if new viewers will find the old films more — or maybe less — alien. Both decades’ product are equally available streaming, subtitles have conquered the language barrier, and newer properties like Naruto have actually expanded the public’s definition of ninja to include both the old models of magic spell-casters and the black hooded commandos alike. Maybe an old black-and-white movie about Sarutobi Sasuke would be more interesting to a Naruto-literate populace than it would have been to us in the 80s who just wanted to see ninja stars thrown into people’s eye sockets? Or maybe the current fetish the younger generations have with the ‘retro 1980s’ will make that decades’ ninja-sploitation even more delicious than it was back in the day?

My hope, as always, is that BOTH the 60s and 80s flavors find new audiences and an ongoing appreciation.

There’s no better place to start than Shinobi-no-Mono.

KR

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NINJA DART BOARDS

One staple of martial arts mail order that not only made the transition from the kung-fu 70s to the ninja 80s was the dart board. What started as “Chinese throwing star target boards” quickly transitioned into the profoundly more successful “ninja shuriken target boards.”

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“Chinese Throwing Stars” were popularized in Western world by scenes in the Bond film You Only Live Twice and later the Kung-Fu TV series, and were sold by Chinatown junk shops and martial mail order mavens long before the ninja boom. This “dragon design” target board was little more than a cheap dart board sans the wire target frame. Variants of this graphical layout were painted onto 15″ boards and sold by most if not all major suppliers until the early 1980s, when THIS happened:

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It might say “Kung-Fu” in the corner, but Asian World of Martial Arts knew damn well who they were selling to in 1982. The traditional dragon design still adorned the opposite side of this new panel, which featured silhouettes of common retail ninja suits, canon “Ninja-To” swords, manji-sais and yes — NINJA THROWING STARS! (And all of these items were available from AWMA, too…)

This had to be one of if not the most ubiquitous items of the 80s craze era. Nerdy teens had them in their bedrooms, every dojo had one on some wall. Luckily for the modern collector, so many were made for so long, they’re relatively easy to find even now. There’s a super cheap vintage boxed one on eBay now in fact, right here!

And yes, there’s even one in the VN office:

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Back in the day, we used to joke that when sensei or sifu was around the dojo, the more respectable dragon side was displayed, but if they were gone and the ninja-boom-era inmates were running the asylum it was time to flip it over to the shinobi side.

Knock-offs and variants of the AWMA ninja board were sold by other manufacturers, too:

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I remember this design being around well into the 90s, and made of much cheaper stuff. Somebody somewhere is probably making them today

The thing was with these boards, they absolutely SUCKED as shuriken targets. The pub dart board material was designed for the needle tips of competition darts, not a wedge-shaped, often dull as a butter knife, throwing blade point. Between the material being too dense and the shuriken being too lightweight, they bounced more than they stuck. Heaven forbid you had great aim and hit the rock-hard red center plug, too, as sometimes that sent the projectile 180-degrees back at you. And if you were a super genius throwing ninja stars indoors, the ricochets got painful and even costly real quick.

We used to use multiple layers of corrugated cardboard nailed to pine planks, and threw outside. Even then, those Chinatown stars (with the holes drilled into them for chains to technically make them necklaces in the eyes of the law) rarely stuck anyway. There was better luck to be had with bigger, better designed blunt-ended stuff originally from Japan:

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Nowadays, a much better idea all around are these super cheap, but rather effective, rubber shuriken and foam-board sets all over eBay and various online suppliers. Where were these in 1982 when cheap stars were pinging around my bedroom and ricocheting into the insteps of my bare feet?

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If only Asian World of Martial Arts would offer this in the 15″ ninja style…

 

Strange little Russian ninja

(Originally Published December, 2009)

Russian stuff! I picked up this set of 2″ tall plastic shinobi a few years ago, they’re from one of several Russian manufacturers of property-derivative (but not property-based) toy soldiers. These sit somewhere between the lead miniature gaming realm and the Marx-type plastic ‘army guys’, but larger in scale than both.

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The sculpts are all unique, and the box art mirrors the rather nice poses. I love the oversized weapons, especially the rotary saw-blades that guy’s about to hurl! This company, and others similar, produce these little 6, 8, and 10-piece boxed sets knocking-off whatever’s hot – pirates, cyborgs, skeletal barbarians, you name it…  Search “Russian” under ‘Toy Soldiers’ on eBay and you’re bound to find something equally off-kilter.

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