Nine years ago this weekend, this site’s first posts went live. We typically celebrate the anniversary of our launch by reposting our first feature — press stills from Akai Kageboshi — but we decided to change things up this year. In an effort to expose new readers to some of our best older content, here’s nine birthday-caliber gifts WE gave YOU over the years. Each was a real gem that you’d only find in the VN boutique of ninja-obsessiveness, so while we pat ourselves on the back like needy a-holes chasing a hug, please enjoy our unique gifts to the world:
Concurrent to the Shinobi no Mono films jet propelling Japan’s 1960s ninja craze was the smash hit TV series Onmitsu Kenshi, aka “The Samurai” in Australia. If Shogunate swordsman Shintaro was the samurai Lone Ranger, grey-suited ninja Kiri no Tonbei was his Tonto. Virtually unknown outside of Japan and Australia, we got ahold of early DVD sets of this series from a close friend down under and did our best to make Tonbei the Mist a household name to the rest of the world’s ninja fans. And we’re still bitter as hell the English-dubbed ninja-laden ten seasons of this show never made it to the States during the 80s boom.
Scott Adkins might be the last of a dying breed of martial arts action movie regulars. And while his better-known ‘Boyka’ films are indeed superb, Isaac Florentine’s 2010 love letter to all things 80s ninja was just the bees knees. While nowhere near as well known as the contemporary Ninja Assassin or the GI Joe live action films, this flick did the modern ninja superhero thing better than all of them, balancing retro nostalgia and forward-thinking perfectly. There is no bigger advocate for this movie (and its sequel) than this site, and if you were one of the unaware whose throats we pushed this movie down wether you wanted it or not, you’re welcome!
While a massive sensation in its day, the 1980 legendary TV mini-series Shogun has never found much of a new audience since. And while some eye-rolling directed to its white-savior-centricity, Japanese stereotyping and tacky-as-hell score can be rather legit in a modern light, for our purposes here the historical significance of the ninja scenes cannot be understated. Seeds were planted here, impressions made on audience and industry alike. AND, this was a classic Japanese-modelled ninja scene during the time American studios were turning ninja into red-suited billboards for mail-order merchandise. That example should not be forgotten…
Probably the most virally prolific image we’ve ever published, the few hours I spent screen-capping and collaging the unforgettable credit sequence from Enter the Ninja are still paying off. To this day I see this image all over tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if that gets some young whippersnappers to watch the old gem that is Enter, then it was time well spent indeed.
I’m as big a nerd for the iconic G.I. Joe white ninja as anybody, but the world has largely forgotten his pulp-predecessor Kana – The Human Killing Machine. In the pages of DC’s G.I. Combat, his card-carrying full-bore black ninja turned against his own Japanese government during World War II, joined the Western secret service, and proceeded to rack up an Axis body count that would have made Sgt. Rock proud. This article remains the best source out there for this forgotten chapter of 80s ninja history, and because of it, thousands once ignorant of Kana now know. And knowing is half the ba— ah whatever…
Buried deep in the 1962 book Zen Combat, an otherwise unremarkable collection of articles on Japanese martial arts, is a rather surprising take from a Westerner on what was then a new boom in organized ninjutsu in Japan. Jay Gluck has little-to-no good to say of the new “ninjutsa” [sic] fad, considers it all a bunch of fish tales and charlatanism, and hopes it’ll go nowhere. This is history-making early recognition of ninja in English and deserves to be in more aficionados’ libraries.
Shot as a publicity still (and source pic for the painted movie poster) before the release of Enter the Ninja, Sho Kosugi‘s take on the Bruce Lee flying kick added the ninja wardrobe and two wakizashi and immediately become THE icon of the 80s ninja boom. It was endlessly homaged, parodied and shamelessly pirated, hundreds of times over. We’ve been collecting these images for years and haven’t run out yet.
Eric Van Lustbader‘s novel The Ninja was a massive bestseller and must be considered the most successful mainstream media entry into the 80s American boom. It was immediately optioned for a big budget, A-list film that somehow never found traction in Hollywood. We compare the book to various abandoned versions of the proposed script, analyze what the legendary John Carpenter would have done with it, and even speculate on some casting. The most significant event of the ninja craze that never happened unfolds.
Plenty’s been written about what was then the biggest James Bond film ever, but nowhere else will you find a more in-depth and broad-reaching look at the 1967 ground-breaker from a totally ninja-centric perspective. From the nearly-forgotten newspaper comic strip ninja to the first ever toy kunoichi, we exposed how Britain got English-language ninja a decade and half before our craze. Long-standing Bond media, from official social feeds to fan sites and print mags eagerly picked up on our fresh look, as the film that introduced ninja to the western world turned 50.
As we blow out our nine candles, we just want to say thanks to everyone who reads, shares and even contributes to this site.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Full disclosure — I’ve been in friendly contact with Stephen Turnbull for a number of years and VintageNinja was a quoted and cited source for this new book.
During the 1980s ninja boom one’s shelf was packed with a variety of books on the subject, from seemingly legit self-defense manuals based on generations old hand-to-hand combat, to less…er…responsible…guides to hypnotic mind powers and secret death cult rituals. There were books that explored a little feudal history, a few fiction tomes set in what we assumed was a realistically portrayed past, and manuals for making shadow-tools based on the scribblings of the ancients.
As wide-ranging as that all seems, the English-language writings of the time had one major thing in common — they were coming from the martial arts world and were produced by people in the business of martial arts training. Determining whether or not these authors and publishing houses were legitimate curators of ancient secret scrolls or cash-grabbing charlatans was like negotiating a storm at sea in the dark, and regardless of legitimacy of source, the fact that these texts were coming from martial arts standpoints vs. the historical, sociological and anthropological left us without a guiding lighthouse.
So when in the early 90s (albeit a half-decade too late for the craze fervor) military historian Stephen Turnbull unleashed his Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult,its stance from a history book point of view, with no ‘dog in the fight’ if you will, was a refreshing voice of reason largely free of the agendas and politicking of the martial arts community (particularly those who had brought the arts to the West). It had copious Japanese sources cited, and no ads in the back for training videos, seminars or mail order weapons. The text would later be honed into two smaller paperbacks aimed at military buffs/gamers and younger readers.
Fast forward to the past five years or so where we see a new surge of ninja history-oriented publishing, largely based on new translations of old Japanese texts, and coming from a more diverse variety of sources than the 80s ever saw — pop culture influencers, well-travelled martial artists whose efforts endured the post-craze decades and new youngbloods parlaying social media and new book-release business models into some high-profile apple-cart-upsetting. Out of this same time, Turnbull’s notions of possibly updating his previous work were met with an abundance of new info and a changing landscape of the ninja phenomenon in Japan, and the decision was made to proceed on an entirely new tome. Finally, this week, we have Ninja: Unmasking the Myth, the new hardcover from British publisher Frontline Books.
This is no mere rehashing of old text tempered by a few new discoveries. Instead it dismantles the entire familiar structure of what we consider ninja, and rebuilds it in what turns out to be a rather pragmatic way that for the first time takes EVERYTHING into account — from the most ancient scrolls to the popular media of the 20th century to the tourism business of tomorrow. Canon is questioned, trusted translations of the past are put through a new ringer, and the timeline of development of what is popularly known as ninja is turned on its head.
But this is NOT a hater rant, not a debunking frenzy, but rather an effort to look at a bigger picture based on the fact that the myths of the ninja are as old as the realities, and the process of creating these historical icons has been evolving and mutating constantly for centuries, and will continue to do so.
Turnbull takes to task repeated efforts over multiple historical eras to create a continuity to the feudal past (typically times of peace redefining what went on in previous times of war) as well as the retro-crediting of old military manuals and written histories (both credible and not-so) as being ninja-releated. He highlights the fragility of translating the very terms “shinobi” and “ninjutsu” and ultimately “ninja” and how liberal usage of those translations had been used to ‘cook the books’ so to say, of history to fit a contemporary narrative. Unmasking the Myth also shines new light on who contributed to the cementing of our current notions of ninja and how recently it was all done.
I’m particularly grateful for him including, for the first time in such a book, the genuine role of popular media — from wood-block prints of the late 1800s to early 20th century kids books to the films of the 60s Japanese ninja boom — not as mere footnotes or frosting on the cake, but as vital players in the larger narrative of what has come together to give us the all-too easily accepted definition of the black-hooded set. His treatment of the fabled Fujita Seiko will raise some eyebrows (and probably ires) and he goes on to give the first enlightening exposure to the life and contributions of the man he calls “the inventor of the ninja” Okuse Heishiro, pioneering author and champion of the Iga tourism trade. When it all came together in the 1960s — history texts written for tourists, popularized martial arts, and those same martial artists advising on major mass media projects — we see what he refers to as “a consummate exercise in standard setting” — the release of Shinobi no Mono in cinemas.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Turnbull’s inclusion of all such aspects of ninja is what makes Unmasking the Myth so PERFECT for the readership of this site. We were fortunate enough to catch the author for an exclusive interview with VN’s particular readership in mind:
VN: Is Unmasking the Myth a replacement for your previous books, or do you see them as a good tandem?
ST: It is definitely a replacement for the 1991 book [Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult], and in fact most of the illustrations in that book will reappear in my next ninja book, which is the ‘unofficial’ training manual (see below!). The Osprey book [Ninja AD 1460–1650 (Warrior series, 2003)] incorporated some revisions to the 1991 text and of course the color plates are very good.
VN: Are you prepared for the seemingly inevitable controversy that this new academic and wide-encompassing work could generate with the martial arts-practicing audiences?
ST: My experience of martial artists is that on the whole they are a serious bunch who value the ideas and origins of their craft. My book is about ninja, not ninjutsu, but I feel I have presented correctly where the notion of a martial art called ninjutsu came from. As my book makes clear, until modern times ninjutsu meant either the art of the shinobi i.e. espionage, or something magical, not a martial art in its own right.
VN: What would you say to someone entrenched in a modern ninjutsu pursuit who may feel under attack here?
ST: I would hope that any reputable instructor would encourage their students to ask questions about where everything really came from and just enjoy it! Even well-established martial arts systems like judo have controversial histories. Ninjutsu as a modern martial art is nothing compared to some awful hybrids I have seen which are a pick and mix mess of Chinese, Korean and Japanese martial arts dressed up with no historical or cultural background whatsoever.
VN: We in the West see a Japanese source for information and assume it is trustworthy and coming from a position of superior knowledge. You are contending that’s not necessarily the case. Do you feel duped by shady Japanese historical beliefs and how do we behind the cultural and language barriers deal with this?
ST: Just because the source is Japanese doesn’t rule it out from academic rigour and investigation. It must be subjected to the same evidence-based criteria that is applied to anything. Yes, you need Japanese language skills for that, which is why I have tried to be scrupulously honest about my conclusions.
VN: Can you comment on how much historical record seems to be corrupted by translation alone, with “nin” itself being debatable, differences in “shinobi” and “ninja”, the crucial differences in words as nouns vs. adverbs/adjectives, etc.
ST: Yes, see the quote from [Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum director Jinichi] Kawakami that a ninja is a fictionalised shinobi, and remember that the word shinobi meaning spy and infiltrator appears in a Japanese-to-Portuguese dictionary dating from 1603. The two meanings of nin as secrecy and endurance are fascinating topics in their own right because they keep coming up as ninja evolve.
VN: We’re curious, is this book being translated into Japanese for release there, or have its tenets already been covered in other homegrown texts?
ST: I’m trying; it would be the ultimate compliment! There is however so much in Japanese, particularly from Mie University in the last few years, that I don’t think a Japanese publisher would want the expense of translating stuff back from English. Note however that I have received the greatest friendly cooperation from Japanese authors. Why? First of all they are nice people who respect my honest efforts, but also because for every one person who reads their books 100 will read mine because it is in English, so it is in their interests for them to make sure I get it right and of course credit them, as I do.
VN: Movies like Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and mega-properties like Naruto did a lot to deconstruct the trope of the black suit and hood, and even replaced ‘ninja stars’ with kunai knives as the iconic signature weapon. Yet a decade or so later Japan reclaimed the stereotypical ninja suit and shuriken with a vengeance. That look is probably never going away, is it?
ST: No its isn’t. Mie [University] seem to draw a firm line between ninja/shinobi/black suit/shuriken etc AND Naruto/orange suit/space ninja…I am sure we will see ninja in black at the Tokyo Olympics [in 2020].
VN: From the “Cool Japan” campaign to the current boom of tourism redefining ninja as ‘hybrid acrobat/theme park stage performer’ — the invented tradition is once again undergoing mutation. Any speculation as to where we go from here?
ST: The ‘ninja as physical and moral exemplar for youth’ is very hot right now, but that is so Japanese it won’t travel. Western audiences would just laugh at the idea.
VN: Doing what you do as a historian, knowing what you know — are there any ninja movies or shows you still outright enjoy?
ST: Shinobi no Kuni – [aka Mumon: Land of Stealth and Mumon: Land of the Ninja, 2017] is great fun. Seventeen Ninja and Castle of Owls are also favourites. Of course I love watching You Only Live Twice just to laugh!
VN: Finally, for the person who just finished your book and wants more, where’s the next step?
ST: OK, the next step, I am afraid, is another book by me! Thames and Hudson do a superb series for young readers called ‘unofficial manuals’. The brief is to be historically accurate and also light-hearted. So far it includes gladiators, vikings, samurai (by me) and pirates (also by me). The author has to assume a persona, so I have written it as if I was a ninjutsu Grand Master in 1798. Because of that I can write with full conviction that ninja really existed. It’s a bit like Mansenshukai with jokes! (and loads of pictures). Chapters include ‘how to climb into a castle’; ‘how to blow things up’. I have really enjoyed doing it; it will appear in May 2019.
BUT DOES HE BELIEVE IN SANTA?
Unmasking the Myth does just that. While the new book’s criticisms and deconstructions steer towards a larger, more positive effort, I have to believe there will be readers who feel some sacred scroll is being blasphemed. I somewhat sardonically want to see the reaction to his entire chapter focused on Fujita Seiko basically inventing the “ninja star” in the 1930s.
But Turnbull is refreshingly realistic in where this book stands and how it’ll impact the world. While he takes particular task to the notion of Iga being the fountain from which all ninja waters flowed, he also realizes the Iga tourism board isn’t going to stop selling pink and red ninja suits in the museum gift shop anytime soon, either.
A complete skeptic can look at Unmasking‘s conclusions as a begrudging admission by an established expert that the entirety of the field is romanticized fiction and nonsense. A complete zealot could see the same as undermining their martial faith and the sworn testimony of their arts’ ancestry. But those in the middle should come away with an understanding of how time fogs truth and how the funneling of elements into a desired narrative can create an entirely artificial “history” based on unrelated facts. And not to be lost in it all — when the tall tales and fish stories are actually as old as the legit history they are embellishing, the endurance of such is a phenom worthy of study itself.
When it comes to a fascination with anything ninja, we can plunge a foot in the waters of alluring black-hooded fantasy, as long as the other foot is planted firmly on shore. Ninja: Unmasking the Myth is therefore essential beach reading.
Turnbull doesn’t shy away from admitting that he himself was not only a victim of previously-sacred but unsound research, but also how he profited from the popular tropes and iconography of the ninja as an author (and will seemingly continue to do so).
This book has suggested several models for the ninja’s origins as ancient Chines spies, lower-class Japanese criminals, independent jizamurai from Iga and Koka, special forces in a daimyo’s regular army, palace guards who specialized in intelligence work, spiritual exemplars, masked assassins or fictional magicians. The reality of the situation is that all are correct because the ninja is an invented tradition and its inventors could and did choose whatever they wanted.
But what an invention it is! The ninja myth is a complex and dynamic entity that is still evolving today.
He also ultimately encourages us all to continue our fascination with the ninja, but to do so with a tempered mentality and an arsenal of new knowledge now available.
…I believe that there is so much that is historically authentic among the ninja’s antecedents that the invention of the ninja tradition lies less in the creation of imaginative elements than in an inspiring blending of genuine ones.
So it’s like still enjoying Christmas once you’re too old to believe in Santa Claus. And who doesn’t love Christmas, especially if there are some mail order ninja stars under the tree…
I hope you’ve all pre-ordered Dr. Stephen Turnbull’s Ninja: Unmasking the Myth(available May 3rd). I’m about finished my review copy and am working on both a review and with luck an interview with the good doctor himself. In the meantime, I wanted to re-expose you all to a film he covers in a latter chapter about the birth of 60s ninja boom in Japan. The below is an amalgamation of two articles that originally appeared on this site in 2010, presented here as one with some clean-up. Enjoy, and seriously, if you haven’t ordered the new Turnbull book, GET ON THAT, NOW!
Sarutobi Sasuke Senjogadake no Himatsuri was a 1950* Daiei production that for its time is surprisingly well rounded in its genre credentials. There’s plenty of hooded commando action, shuriken flying in the trees, some elemental magic summoning, and a stunning kunocihi to boot. I have embarrassingly little hard data on this flick, and have only seen a non-subtitled inky-as-hell print, but here goes:
Fujita Susumu, a prolific actor whose career spanned essential jidai-geki, kaiju and WWII films alike, stars as a Sasuke more in the Samurai Spy vein than in the often seen trouble-making kid or outright sorcerer variety. Over the course of the film, he struggles with black-clad ninja rivals (the main baddie played by vet Tsukigata Ryunosuke I believe) and negotiates a love triangle with a his noble village sweetheart and a kunoichi who although pledged to do Sasuke in inevitably falls for him.
Gathering what I can from my front row seat behind the language barrier (to my knowledge there are no subtitled prints of this out there and it might not even be available commercially in Japan), it seems Sasuke is pursued by ninja who assume he’s guilty of killing their elder on the battlefield and stealing his secret scroll. Truth of it is, the old man saw Sasuke as an honorable warrior, and before dying of natural causes, actually entrusted him with the treasure as his last act.
I am completely SMITTEN with the conflicted kunoichi sworn to kill the man she’s slowly falling in love with. (The credits list two actresses: Chieko Soma and Minagawa Reiko, I just don’t know who’s who.**)
But par for the rules of genre, vengeful ninja women NEVER get the guy and live happily ever after. There’s always the ‘princess’ figure, in this case a local gal Sasuke’s hooked on, whose loyalty, chaste and general tolerance for damsel-in-distressdom is ultimately rewarded.
There’s some wacky wildlife in this film, too. The credits use a cockfight to symbolize the duel about to transpire. Various ninja slip lizards and snakes into bedrooms to herald their appearances. Sasuke uses a couple dozen toads as his calling card. Alas, they’re just regular plain old toads. No laser horns or flame breath or growin’ humongous… Handsome fellas though.
Discovering Sarutobi Sasuke Senjogadake no Himatsuri has been an eye-opener. The below caps will attest to how well-rounded the film is, hitting genre beats from both the superhero sorcerer spectacle-50s and the grim and grittier shinobi-spy 60s at the same time.
Sasuke’s relationship with the femme fatale goes from dodging shuriken to dodging affection. This poor gal, caught between an uber-noble hero and a viciously manipulative villain, ultimately pays for being on the wrong road to start with, then making some bad decisions along the way.
This ceiling-crawl special effects sequence is both innovative and effective as hell, as good or better a bit as anything in the 60s craze. The ceiling is actually a floor with the actor crawling across it, flipped upside down when optically composited with the right-side-up room footage. Wonder why we didn’t see this compositing technique more often after this flick?
The ninja-vs.-ninja action goes from darkened hallways and crawlspaces to rooftops at night. However, while there are plenty of scenes more in tune with the espionage-based shinobi-cinema of a decade later, the fighting is still rather swash-buckler-y (yep, just made that term up) and very much of the 50’s. The whole jump up/jump cut disappearance thing is way WAAAY overdone, too. One of the best things about the 60s craze was the elimination of these over-the-top camera tricks in favor of realistic movements coached by genuine ninjutsu practitioners serving as on-set advisors.
But damn, this has got to be one of, if not the, best pre-craze movie for credible hood and mask capers.
Said hoods are ultimately shed for the final duel, fought atop a mountain (and an indoor mountain-top set, never matching well when intercut alas). Weapons are parried and old-school elemental ninja magics are exchanged, and, surprise, a redemptive act of self-sacrifice by a certain emotionally scarred female saves the day.
The supposed year of release, 1950 — a full 12-13 years before the craze-defining entities that were Shinobi no mono and Onmitsu Kenshi cemented the genre — makes this a truly ahead-of-its-time production. It has one tabi firmly in the ninja wizardry and samurai swashbuckling past, and another in the future that would be gritty, realistic castle espionage and black hoods. The fact that this fence-straddling moment in cinema history is also one of the myriad redefinitions of Sarutobi Sasuke — the oldest fictional creation credited with being a “ninja” — is true testament to that entity’s importance.
The apparent unavailability of Sarutobi Sasuke Senjogadake no Himatsuri is a true crime against humanity, and I’m hoping its reference in Turnbull’s new book spurs some activity in remedying that.
Back in 1984, at least for this teenage ninja-maniac, four words began a turning point for the ninja craze:
“Hi, I’m Max Keller.”
Timothy Van Patten‘s intro to each episode of The Master has since become iconic for me. His role, the “ugly American” being introduced to the ways of the shinobi, while slathering the screen with sarcasm and slapstick, had my eyes rolling even at 15 when I was starved for anything ninja. Just a few years in to the ninja boom, it was already becoming apparent we weren’t going to get that big A-list Hollywood movie (read why here). Maybe network TV would be a more viable high-profile home. Maybe not.
Enter producer/writer Michael Sloan, a prolific TV talent (Battlestar Galactica, BJ and the Bear) who may first have been exposed to ninja when writing for Quincy, M.E. (the December 1977 episode “Touch of Death” was only the third appearance of a ninja on American television). The Master was his shot as creator and the timing seemed right. While ninja may have been relatively new to TV, and provided a real opportunity to do something unique, the new show’s structure, alas, ended up being Network Formulaic Adventure TV 101 — two misfit leads, would-be hearth-throb kid and older established star from a previous era (spaghetti western legend Lee Van Cleef), obligatory comedy relief and animal sidekick, signature vehicle, “Adventure Town” structure: different town every week with a different predicament for them to interfere with and solve (evil landlord, evil sheriff, evil industrialist, evil rival aerobics instructor, evil hamster rustler etc.), different veteran character actor villain (Clu Gulagher, Doug McClure, William Smith etc.) and different hot damsel to save (Crystal Bernard, a young Demi Moore and Revenge of the Ninja‘s Ashley Ferare included) — lather, rinse, repeat.
The Master could have been set up as a ninja equivalent of Kung-Fu, but instead was a clone of any given episode of Knight Rider or The A-Team re-skinned, with some ninja elements squirted in with a turkey baster. And the juice of that turkey baster was Sho Kosugi.
Kosugi came in to The Master much the same way as his Cannon films — part star, part choreographer, part costumer, part prop master, part stunt double — an almost producer/auteur-level contributor. As the vengeful Okasa — Japanese purist sworn to kill the West’s only ninja master John Peter McAllister after leaving the shadow life to find a daughter he never knew he had — Kosugi’s movie-quality fight scenes were modularly inserted into he plot-of-the-week, never affecting the storyline at hand but certainly being the high point of the show. Even sans the blood and over-the-top kill shots we loved from the movies, these ninja fight interludes always delivered. For us, he was literally the only reason to watch, and the season’s few Okasa-less episodes were instant letdowns.
Despite being firmly entrenched in the cult of all things ninja as a teen in the 80s, even I had a hard time defending The Master back in the day. The visual of a fully-costumed McAllister running into battle with an un-costumed Max Keller defied any logic, and just looked ridiculous. Max should have at least donned some sort of black utility clothing that escalated, as his training continued, into full ninja gear.
The fight and stunt doubling of Van Cleef was obvious to the point of outright humor, almost insulting to both the actor and audience. And it was so often unnecessary — his doubles (Kosugi included) posed and moved just like they themselves would have, never taking in to account they were supposed to be mirroring an old man. Scenes with gratuitous tumbling and multiple somersaults were written in when they never should have been even considered. Martial arts movies are so rife with old master characters, whose movements are minimal and efficient, belying their age and experience and selling the notion of their total dominance of the arts. Their physicality, or lack thereof, is written for their ages. Why this philosophy was never followed is baffling and remains the show’s achilles heel.
The on-screen cheese that resulted from these bad decisions only served to reinforce everything negative any outside critic or detractor thought of the ninja craze. The Master was seen as shlock, took an unfair critical beating, and was even derided within the hardcore front-line ninja freaks. It fared no better at the corporate level. Far from the ratings boon the network suits had hoped for, The Master‘s 13 episodes were often bumped around airing schedules or pre-empted for sports events, and in many parts of the country the entire run was never even broadcast. A second season was out of the question, and while there was still a ton of ninja-sploitation on the horizon, no big studio or TV network was going to back any sort of serious ninja project again.
If The Master wasn’t an outright turning point, it certainly illustrated the plateau of both production quality and Hollywood interest the boom had hit. The glass ceiling had been struck. “Hi, I’m Max Keller” may not have been THE moment the ninja craze jumped the shark, but it certainly was the moment it was fitted for water skis…
The Master‘s relative infamy continued a couple of years later when Transworld Entertainment repackaged the run for VHS rental. The six tapes, retitled The Master Ninja were emblazoned with Kosugi imagery and sometimes steered away from outright recognition of the show. A lot of people brought these home from the video store thinking they were either A.) a new ninja movie they had never heard of, or B.) new episodes of that now obscure ninja show they never got to see. They were neither.
Then something strange happened over the next decade as the show, or parts of it, somehow fell into Public Domain and ended up even more shamelessly repackaged for priced-to-sell budget tapes (and eventual DVD compilations).
This lead directly to The Master‘s biggest audience and an entirely unrelated off-branch of cult fandom apart from us shinobi-nerds, as four episodes of the show (minus original credit sequences) were aired as Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes in 1992-93. The robot host’s ear-wormy “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit remains one of the general public’s most enduring memories of the show.
All these years later, we finally see a proper home release of The Master on DVD and Bluray from Kino Lorber. It’s a few-frills package — case design is Van Cleef-centric (Kosugi’s Okasa might have been a better choice) but what really counts is the show has never looked better, especially compared to some of the shoddy Public Domain releases still festering out there. The only extras are trailers from Kosugi and Van Cleef films, which is a real shame because there were extensive photo shoots done of the cast in costume prior to its debut (see several at Getty Images here).
The network ran some striking illustrated ads for the show, as well:
While these new releases of The Master and its competing network’s predecessor The Last Ninja may lack the deluxe treatments we’d love, the fact that the entire American output from the 1980s ninja craze has FINALLY been remastered (no pun intended) and preserved for our digital world is indeed excellent. I’m happy to own it in one nice complete, and fully legal, package.
So yes, I can finally enjoy The Master now. And I don’t just mean it’s finally available, I mean actually enjoy it.
The perspective of we fans now in our 40s versus us as butt-hurt dweebs in our teens makes that possible. The Kosugi moments from the show are worth it alone, and in hindsight now, we didn’t have enough of them back in the day, as the craze was cut short and Kosugi moved on to less ninja-centric projects. The chain-mail-clad Okasa stands as one of Kosugi’s most iconic get-ups, and there’s enough of his weapons-flourished karate-based fights and custom exotic arsenal throughout the series to keep things interesting. I also appreciate the wealth of character actors and classic California locations, the formulas and tropes now have nostalgic charm, and damnit you just don’t see conversion vans on the road anymore.
Pick up this set, it’ll be better than you remember…
OTHER RANDOM OBSERVATIONS:
• Robert Clouse, director of Enter the Dragon, The Big Brawl and more, helmed the show’s first episode “Max” — which means Clouse stands alone in history as directing Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Sho Kosugi (as well as Cynthia Rothrock, Samo Hung, Bolo Yeung and others).
• Michael Sloan would learn from the experience, and go on to create and write for the more prosperous The Equalizer and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.
• I’d love to know when in the process of this show coming together Lee Van Cleef was settled on as the star. There’s no bigger fan of “The Bad” than me, but as structured, this project made him look just, well… bad. From a Hollywood perspective, hiring “The Man with the Gunsight Eyes” made sense, but there was a big difference between those gunsight eyes squinting from beneath a black hat, with that hawk nose and predator scowl like a grim reaper of the Italian West, and those same eyes leering out of an ill-fitting American mail-order-style ninja mask. Considering the way the doubling was done, would a younger actor have been a better choice? Maybe John Saxon? There’s just too much of a gap in the logic of the casting to the practices on-set for me to think Van Cleef was Plan A. Maybe a better idea would have been to put Van Patten in the suit, like he’s the ninja nerd wanting to don the full gear, and let Van Cleef be the slow-burning cool cat he was in The Octagon.
• The “Hostages” episode is a stand out for many as it cast David McCallum as the villain and George Lazenby as a British spy, an on-screen pairing of a Man from U.N.C.L.E. and a James Bond. However this wasn’t as history-making as it sounds, as the pair shared screen time in the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. from one year previous, also written by Michael Sloan.
• Bill Conti‘s music, particularly the theme, is an absolute legit classic of action TV craft. The opening credits are just superb, too. In this current wave of 80s fetish and retro appreciation, younger generations need to be cued in to this absolute gem of motion and graphic design from back in the day.
• The excellent Korean character actor Soon-Tek Oh plays a ninja from a rival clan in the “Out-of-Time-Step” episode, looking a bit awkward with what was clearly his first dabbling with ninja stuff. The next year he’d star opposite Chuck Norris in the memorable Missing in Action II: The Beginning. Do yourself a favor and check this movie out if you never have, or if it’s been a while. His final fight with Braddock is a lot better than here.
• Living the past 18 years in southern California I now recognize some of the classic locales used in The Master — the historic Bradbury Building (best known from the end of Blade Runner), Vasquez Rocks (where Kirk battled the Gorn on Star Trek) and in the intro credits we see the oft-filmed Japanese house and gardens owned by Shirley Temple, used also in the opening massacre of Revenge of the Ninja.
• For those to young too remember Eight is Enough, The White Shadow or Class of 1984, the name Timothy Van Patten will sound familiar. Learning director’s chops on Michael Sloan’s The Equalizer he’d go on to helm some superb TV episodes on series such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and Black Mirror.
• One of my biggest fears in the first decade of the 2000s, when all sorts of old TV was getting remade as self-deprecating comedy drek, was a Master film with the likes of an Owen Wilson or Ben Stiller making complete fun of the ninja craze. My biggest dream today is a dead-serious reboot starring Kane Kosugi as Okasa, Scott Glenn as McAllister, and a redefined ‘Max’ being his half-Japanese daughter being trained at breakneck speed as they flee across the world escaping butterfly-emblemed assassins at every turn. Someone get on that, will ya!
We’re saddened by the news of the passing of Wakako Kawagoshi-Fisher, who was a collaborator and model for both From Parts Unknown and the predecessor to this site Ninja80. Condolences to the Fishers and her family in Japan, we’ve lost a beautiful soul…
What’s part Die Hard, part Kung-Fu, part Batman and obscure as hell for no logical reason?
It is the 1983 made-for-TV predecessor to The Master, arguably one of if not the best 80’s American ninja craze films made, but virtually un-recognized, even during the height of the boom. It is The Last Ninja, and sometime last September (I don’t know how I missed this on City on Fire) it snuck onto the market and became available for the first time ever on any home video format, with absolutely no fanfare or pre-release buzz.
Shot in early 1983, this TV movie of the week aired on ABC July 7th of that same year, and had a sporadic subsequent airing depending on where you were in the country. It introduced jet-set art dealer Ken (Kenjiro) Sakura, a caucasian abandoned as a baby at the stoop of a Japanese farmer’s house in Northern California in the 1950s. When the two eldest sons of his adoptive family were killed in the Korean War (after deftly executing a two-man commando mission of staggering bravery and skill), his sage-like father made the fateful decision to impart the family’s ancient teachings on Ken… now the ‘last’ ninja.
Ken now practices his shadow arts in the name of justice, hunting down killers and criminals untamed by the law, until he is tracked down and pressured by a shady government agent to intercede in a terrorist hostage situation taking place at the top of an impenetrable high-rise.
Interspersed between flashbacks to a lifetime of training under his adoptive father, Sakura uses mostly non-violent aspects of ninjutsu — disguise, infiltration, psychological warfare — to save the day and form an uneasy alliance with his untrustworthy government liaison.
The Last Ninja was absolutely set up as a pilot effort for an ongoing series — one that would have resembled Kung-Fu in taking the philosophical high-road with the martial arts at its core, and also been as centered on character development and life lessons as it was action.
The resemblance of Ken Sakura to Kwai Chang Caine was certainly deliberate, as it was written by Kung-Fu co-creator/writer Ed Spielman. Producer Anthony Spinner, prolific contributor to landmark series such as The Invaders, The Man from UNCLE and The Mod Squad, was also responsible for the 1976 episode of Baretta “The Ninja.” Director William A. Graham, a prolific TV workhorse whose output ranged from 1958 to 2002 (including such legendary series as The Fugitive) crafted a superbly tight movie here, with flashback sequences of particular high quality.
And his cast was great…
Michael Beck, criminally under-appreciated iconic star of The Warriors and cult faves like Battletruck and Megaforce, had the eyes to pull off a role that would oft be hooded, and an athletic physique to at least hang with his stunt and fight doubles. Perfectly cast, his cool demeanor and reserved brooding severity made him perfect for both the Westerner raised on Eastern teachings and his ‘Bruce Wayne’ manufactured persona all at once. He was everything the “ugly American” Timothy Van Patten wasn’t in The Master six months later.
Mako, likely best known as the wizard in Conan the Barbarian and the voice of Aku on Samurai Jack, but who decades before made history in American television’s first ever martial arts fight scene opposite Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, blesses The Last Ninja in its first 30 seconds with a killer voice over:
Centuries ago, when feudal Japan was divided into warring armies, there developed professional spies… avengers for their lords… called NINJA. Masters of the martial arts, disguise and illusion, they were seemingly able to disappear like wisps of shadows. The time has come for me, your father, to reveal to you the arts of NINJUTSU, to use them to oppose men of evil and to have no fear. You will learn all of our secrets. Your destiny is to be THE LAST OF THE NINJA.
The prolific screen villain Richard Lynch, smack dab in between being gutted by the triple-rocket-sword in The Sword and the Sorcerer and effortlessly crushing various ‘heavy’ roles on episodes of The Fall Guy, Manimal and Automan, phoned-in a generic crazed terrorist in a role given little-to-no screen time to develop. But Lynch’s mere presence sold the part and he was the right guy to cast.
Nancy Kwan, who had breakthrough roles in the early 1960s in The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song spent the rest of her career as an Asian actor in Hollywood, which inevitably meant Nam-sploitation and martial arts tie-ins. Her sister character had a ton of potential had the movie gone on to series — would she have just been Ken’s assistant, or suited up herself as a full kunoichi? We’ll never know…
Mike Stone was once again connected to a ninja project that just didn’t pan out like it should have. In a way, The Last Ninja could have almost been an apology for the Enter the Ninja he never had the chance to control a few years earlier. Stone doubled Beck for several fight scenes, and even got some screen time as one of the terrorists. That’s almost certainly him doing shadow kata ender the credit sequence.
One thing I genuinely appreciate about this flick is the costuming and gear are all custom, little-to-no off-the-rack or out-of-the-catalog fare here. I’m a registered hater of ninja suits rendered in modern camouflage, but even I kind of dig the multiple-patterned deal Beck wears in training, topped with an animal print hood!
His black mission gear is based on regularly available gi, but embellished with custom gauntlets and hood wraps of interesting contrasted textures.
One of the coolest aspects of the show was the Sakura household’s inner ninja sanctum — an octagonal meditation chamber of traditional Japanese decor, with hidden arsenals and wardrobes behind electronic doors. Not even Kosugi’s coolest fog-spewing neon-underlit weapons chest could rival Beck’s absolutely awesome shinobi ‘Bat cave’ in sheer volume and presentation style points!
As for weaponry, apart from a single shuriken thrown during a training sequence, and the fleeting glimpses we see hanging in the closets during his mission prep, there is nary a ninja-to, shoge or tandem pair of chrome-plated sais to be seen. Considering how weapons-crazed we all were back in the day, a blow-gun or some climbing claws would have been advisable. Maybe they were saving the good sharp-pointy stuff for later had the ongoing series been greenlit?
One doesn’t mind weapons-fetish or gratuitous combat taking a backseat to things like disguise and wall-scaling though, when those more reality-based espionage arts are just so damn well done.
There are four different disguise bits here that really drive the plot and are vital to both the mission and the maintaining of Sakura’s freedom from government interference. In contrast, there are also a couple of surprising bits of ancient Japanese mask work at play that put a foot in the fantastic enough to keep any ninja-nerd happy.
I will fault the film’s last act with some pacing problems. Too much time is spent on the human fly routine. It seems like a better plan would have been to get in on the ground floor, nail some unwary guards and commandeer an elevator, which would have allowed for more time to psychologically turn the terrorists minds to jelly in the final showdown. That final set piece is great in concept but stumbles a bit in execution and feels rushed. Such is television…
Why The Last Ninja fell immediately into obscurity is pure speculation. The Master premiered six months later on rival network NBC, taking a low road exploitation vector similar to what Cannon Films had perfected in theaters. That other show also had THE name in ninja-sploitation — Sho Kosugi — and the celebrity rub of the legendary Lee Van Cleef. Maybe between the cross-network competition, and the tell-tale signs of the ninja boom petering out before its time, Paramount/ABC saw little worth investing in? Perhaps Last Ninja‘s multi-faceted and disciplined portrayal of ninjutsu may have been too cerebral for the bloodthirsty audience the grindhouse and home video markets had trained?
But beyond the mystery of its lack of further development, the fact that it never saw a home video release is absolutely baffling. Recall how many alleged ninja movies one’s local video store had in the VHS era that turned out to be completely ninja-less kung-fu movies given a shameless re-title. Then remember how much rental money you wasted enticed by the lurid and explosive package art of IFD/Filmark cut-together drek, which categorically over-promised and under-delivered on genuine ninja action. Meanwhile, an outright American studio-produced excellent quality English-language full-on ninja movie with marketable stars was sitting un-tapped in a Paramount vault.
The Last Ninja, next to the failed development of Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja, is one of the great nexus points — the great ‘what-ifs?’ — of the 80s ninja craze. Had it been picked up, it would have stood as a fine example for others to follow of what could be done with higher-minded, more educated and ambitious treatments of ninja. But you also have to believe it would have delivered on the pure action front, too. One can only imagine towards the end of the establishing first season a rival ninja to Kenjiro being introduced, maybe Mike Stone getting a beefy on-screen role finally or even a Tadashi Yamashita perhaps? A successful weekly Last Ninja series could have given the craze the few more years it deserved.
Alas, what we got instead was decades of The Last Ninja being a shadowy legend — a vague memory to many, argued about amongst the faithful as ever having existed in the first place or being a mere fantasy, or at best mis-identified in various articles as a failed pilot eventually retrofitted into The Master. In the early 2000s, bootleg copies started circulating, and eventually a heavily compressed digital copy surfaced in bit-torrent circles and later on YouTube.
A legit disc release, alas not the boutique Blu-ray deluxe edition it deserves, is now the last piece of the 80s ninja boom to make it to our collective home video libraries. The standard def, full-frame TV aspect ratio DVD from CBS/VEI is as no-frills as a release gets, but the picture quality is a marked improvement from the digital rip we’ve all been sharing around for the last decade, so I highly recommend picking it up — it’s well worth the $14 currently on Amazon.
The packaging leaves something to be desired — the design is fine enough, evoking the American Ninja flicks, but nowhere do they tout the first time ever on home video status of this release or its historic rarity. There’s a hungry audience to be reached here, and this demure release needs to be more self-aggrandizing of its own importance.
But hey, we’ll take it!
UPDATE: More than one VN reader has reached out to us via social media on seemingly missing scenes, and it does indeed look like 10 minutes of training flashbacks and climbing scenes around minute 50 of this disc are AWOL. Also all rips of the film on YouTube have been removed by a CBS copyright claim in the past two weeks. Seems like someone finally cares after all these years…
I take any chance I can get to turn folks on to the ninja / kaiju genre-bender Magic Serpent (Kairyu Daikessen, aka Dragon Showdown and many other retitles), so when the invite came from Paxton and Jeeg to co-chair the NERD LUNCH podcast on the subject, I jumped!
The rarest antiques are the things that are the most disposable when produced, and its hard to think of anything (outside of ice cream bars maybe) with a shorter shelf life than a sheet of temporary tattoos for kids. Somehow a few of these Iga no Kagemaru sheets survived the gauntlet of childhood body modification for decades and lo-and-behold now rest in the safety and comfort of the VN office/shrine!
With full recognition on its importance in ninja media history, I’m still not the hugest fan of Mitsuteru Yokoyama‘s iconic property, mainly because I don’t really care for his character designs (especially the titular hero) unless they’re fully hooded. Something about those faces… hmm.
But man oh man do I LOVE the pointy hoods!!!
These were sold to me as temporary tats, but the more I handle these five-inch cellophane sheets, the more I think they instead might have been so-called “rub-down transfers” designed for application to paper backgrounds — sort of a ‘make-your-own-scene’ art kit for kids. I grew up with all sorts of those sets, the most popular of which was a line called “Presto-Magix.”
Regardless of what they were originally, the fact that they licensed actual Yokoyama artwork instead of third-party mimicking makes these endure as treasures…
Hot damn are paper “Sugoroku” game board sheets just the coolest! The 300 year old board game akin to Chutes and Ladders (“Snakes and Ladders” for you Europeans), is aimed at adults and children alike, is a New Year’s tradition in Japan and has even been perverted for gambling uses.
Game play and long history aside, I just love these multi-property collage sheets, often done by third party artists under mysterious or completely absent proper licensing. There isn’t a property or genre that hasn’t seen a Sugoroku adaptation.
We featured a great cartoony board a few year’s back here. Now here’s two more ninja and hooded hero themed pieces I just adore.
This one encapsulates several different chambara heroes with multi-film franchises, with an eye for some dramatic hooded costumes.
Working two concurrent jobs plus helping friends with a wedding has slain my ninja-time like never before, friends. Apologies for the lack of updates.
In times like these, I find it best to change clear the backlog folders of various images in one big unorganized ‘image dump’ and let you all scroll through until I have a spare minute to return to the ninja mines.
So enjoy, and we’ll be back in the Fall with a look at Stephen Turnbull’s sure-to-be-controversial new book, and some great vintage Japanese merchandise we’ve scored.
Doesn’t Jubei’s victim look like he’s in love with his pending killer?