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.






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.



We’re still looking for more KOSUGI KICKS


Vintage Ninja still has an open call out for what we call “Kosugi Kicks” — images of ninja in movie posters, VHS sleeves, toy packaging, advertising, whatever, that are cribbed from the iconic two-sword jump kick publicity shot Sho Kosugi posed for back in the early 80s. This image has gone on to be the most iconic, and most ripped-off, image of a ninja from the Western world’s craze of the 80s.

Read our original article on the subject here.

And a follow up here.

Just discovered this vintage gem from the derivative genre literary world:


And here’s another from a proposed film that never happened, at least not in this form:


A better look at the Kosugi-Kick-inspired packaging of the M.U.S.C.L.E-knock-off toy line N.I.N.J.A Mites:


And outright piracy of the image on some old tabi packaging:


See any we missed in these three articles? Send them our way!


Vagabond of the Wind

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

(originally published July 2010)

There may not be a more beautifully shot ninja film than the 1964  artistic gem Kaze no Bushi (aka “Warrior of the Wind” and/or “Ninja Vagabond”). The set-bound cinematography is great, the use of natural light in the lush exteriors approaches astounding, there are fights that look like nothing else in the genre, even the blood is gorgeous.

Two years after holding his own against genre heavyweights in Akai Kageboshi, Hashizo Okawa returns to the ninja fold as one of the most human protagonists to ever dawn the hood. It is difficult to describe his journey from complacent layabout to reluctant hero and beyond without giving away too many spoilers, so I’ll try not to ruin anyone’s pleasure at discovering this film. Suffice to say his portrayal of bored womanizer Shinzo goes places emotionally you won’t expect.

The under-achieving Shinzo is constantly beset by women with different agendas, from a shifty kunoichi to a noble princess with a secret. Women are the primary catalysts in his development as a hero, and get him into all sorts of trouble.
And a brutal ninja spy as a rival doesn’t help matter either.
Shinzo is a shadow-skilled agent himself, but the tactical mindset and task-driven disciplines of a ninja fail when it comes to matters of the heart.

Kaze no Bushi was directed by Tai Kato, known for his Toei yakuza films. He certainly didn’t approach this ninja film with the typical genre slant. The conventions of shinobi cinema are present, but not leaned on or hidden behind. There’s some experimenting here (most of which works, although when it doesn’t it really doesn’t), and for every typical creep down a hallway there’s a scene you won’t see in any other ninja movie.

Kato didn’t seem especially interested in night scenes, which would be a problem in any other ninja movie. These superbly shot exteriors and multi-depth set pieces are so well executed, you just don’t miss the typical ninja environs.

The high-point of Kaze no Bushi is this unforgettable (although brief) fight and flight scene amidst a maze of rocks on a beach at dusk. Subdued orange light, wide open spaces contrasting with a scurrying, tight pursuit amid jagged terrain, it’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t think of another ninja action scene this damn pretty.

I love this style of head wrap. Its as common as the ‘stingray’ style hood and other oft-seen mask styles, but in this grey tone, you can really see the technique.

As unique and masterful as Kato was here, his best accomplishment in Kaze is what he does with his lead man. Shinzo is perhaps the most human and emotionally credible hero of a ninja film I’ve ever seen. He has flaws, feels rage, shame, hurts from losses. He’s in a situation way over his head and way beyond his years of experience, and knows it. Multiple times he can take an easier path, but doesn’t. He’s a different guy by film’s end, and that’s what a good movie needs to do to it’s main. The human factor here is great.

Kaze no Bushi is on an artistic level above the genre in many ways, as unique as Samurai Spy and every bit as visually striking. It’s not an action powerhouse like Mission Iron Castle or a fun exploitive flick from the Chiba era. Kaze is more of a lush painting.

This is an adaptation of an original novel by Ryotaro Shiba, also responsible for Castle of Owls (another half-decent ninja film, if I recall). Curious to know if the superb ninja films live up to his written words, or if there was a generation of Japanese reader who rolled their eyes at these movie adaptations like we often do here.


Botan Rice Candy Stickers


I love me some Botan Rice Candy! I was first exposed to the slightly citrusy chews with their dissolving edible wrappers and souvenir stickers in the 70s by my uncle Hiro, and saved a ninja-themed one from the 80s. They same candy is still being produced with the occasional ninja sticker now.


Read all about the culinary merits of this superb Japanese confection at The Noodle Freak.

I recently scored a windfall collection of 80s era stickers, evocative of kids manga like Ninja Hattori-Kun but generic enough to avoid any pesky licensing.

ninja-botan-rice-sticker_6 ninja-botan-rice-sticker_5 ninja-botan-rice-sticker_4 ninja-botan-rice-sticker_3 ninja-botan-rice-sticker_2 ninja-botan-rice-sticker_1

You can find more ninja rockers from different eras by digging through the archives of The BRC Gallery.


Books of the 60s Japanese ninja boom

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 0

Charles Vincent Gruzanski was a travelled student and teacher of Japanese martial arts, including modern ninjutsu. His son Robert maintains an invaluable website as a memorial to his father’s accomplishments and passions. His scans of 1960s Japanese ninja articles and books is well worth your time, and Robert sells and trades rare old titles via the site and eBay.

Ninjutsu books

Ninjutsu articles (with translated summaries)


Above: Detail of an illustration from the cover of a 48-page booklet by publisher Bunundo called Ninja Techou (Ninja Handbook). I call this guy the “Who farted?” ninja…

Below: Cover and interior pages from a 1964 booklet simply titled Ninja, a supplement to the Shonen Club boys’ magazine.


The impact these books and magazines had on the public perception of ninja cannot be understated. Movies like Shinobi no Mono are widely credited with igniting the 1960s Japanese ninja craze, but decades before home video would allow repeat viewing, it was imagery like this that generations of fans poured over for hours and hours — including the inspired artists, writers and filmmakers of the future. The black suit and commando-style martial arts model of the ninja was being set in stone with every turn of the page.


Below are two books featuring texts from the storied ‘last ninja’ Fujita Seiko. The left, Ninjutsu Hoten, was published in 1955. The right, Hiden Ninja no Hon (Book of the Ninja’s Secret), written by Akira Nakao supervised by Seiko, was published 8 years later. The black suit was gospel by then, especially for art departments under pressure from their publisher bosses to sell books.


The contrast of this tome from the mid-1920s, probably by Itoh Gingetsu, to this detail of an illustration from one of his latter books Ninjutsu Gendaijin, also demonstrates the how differently ninja were sold from decade to decade.


Do yourself a favor and spend a few hours digging through the treasures on Robert’s sight. The collection provides considerable perspective on both how long ninja books have been sold to the public as well as the changing ways they appealed to that public.

Many thanks to Robert, as always. He’s allowed me to use his imagery before, and I can’t recommend his site enough.

You can contact him about buying and trading old ninja books here.


Animated credits – FURAI NINPOCHO (1965)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOV 2009 — With the new animated adventure Kubo and the Two Strings in theaters this weekend, thought we’d take a look at some other animation.

I absolutely adore 60’s animated movie credits, and these somewhat DePatie-esque panels from the opening of the 1965 ninja comedy Furai Ninpocho are just great.







The rest of the movie, despite a good cast (including Mie Hama of You Only Live Twice fame), just doesn’t live up, alas…

Rare 1986 trash fetches big money 30 years later


The collectors market for failed lines, knock-offs and forgotten oddities from 1980s toy shelves never seems to grow cold. These super rare offshoots of the Mel Appel “Weird Ball” mutations recently erupted on eBay.

If that slanty, cross-eyed, buck-toothed head-shakingly offensive visage above looks familiar to regulars of this site, yes, it’s none other than the Mel Appel Weird Ball Collectums “None Chuck” …or at least his toy-line-inbred cousin.

We’ve posted on the vinyl statuette type figure here before — a misguided attempt at humor inspired by the Marx “Nutty-Mad” toys of the 1960s. Read our original post, updated a while back with card art, here.


This later offshoot — “The “G.R.U.N.T Team” line — re-purposed tooling and molds of existing He-Man-ish / Remco-ish bodies, but still adapted the already established array of offensive racial stereotypes and Garbage Pail Kid juvenile gross-out humor the company used in previous lines.

Appel-Collectums_1 Appel-Collectums_2Appel-Collectums_4

Note the vestigial body hair molded into the torso and shoulders from whatever original toy this was — troll, monster, barbarian, cave-man, professional wrestler? All of the above? This posable, articulated version of None Chuck came with a weapon of some sort that I can’t track down, but I’m guessing it was a sword to hurt himself with.

The same seller had the articulated version of the sumo character Humungasaki as well:

Appel-Collectums_5 Appel-Collectums_6 Appel-Collectums_8 Appel-Collectums_7

This version of the Oriental over-eater discarded the head-scratching “Eat At Chans” graffiti that adorned the statuette version.


Also, note the cloth belt. The ninja originally had a red sash according to the card art.


These variants of the Appels are ludicrously scarce, and truthfully I can’t even remember them from back in the day. The examples above showed up on eBay last month, and the ninja went for over $75 despite being loose, incomplete and in so-so-shape at best. Dealers are asking as much as $250-300 for carded examples of other figures from the line. I’m consigning myself to never owning one of these…

I am, however, super curious about who does own them and who’s hunting them so voraciously that these prices are out there. There’s a segment of 35-50 year-olds re-buying their childhoods (guilty as charged myself at times!), plus a new wave of nostalgia for Mad Balls and the Appel version “Weird Balls” and the like, but there’s also a much younger crowd really into mini-figures, knock-offs and bootlegs, and the ancestors of modern day ‘urban vinyl’ collectors items. Would love to hear from some of you who have collections like this, how old you are and what got you started.

Also, what do you do for a living, cuz if you can afford these I’ll change careers, like tomorrow.


VN REVISITED: Torawakamaru

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

Originally published in December of 2009 — Revised with name correction thanks to Ichi Ban

The 1957 Toei FX romp Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai (aka Torawakamaru, the Koga Ninja) is the perfect example of the pre-60’s craze kid’s ninja film: mischievous wizard hero, evil sorcerer, spirit-creatures fighting in the clouds, etc and so forth. Before the real ninjutsu practitioners taught the makers of Shinobi-no-mono the real-deal, these magic duels were what the genre was all about.


These stills, contemporary with the film’s release, are from a press kit for Asian secondary markets.


The film’s dashing hero Torawakamaru (Sentaro Fushimi) has whatever magical powers he needs to in any given situation – teleportation, mind-over-matter, flight, and the requisite giant toad transmutation.


Here he is again, with the cute-as-a-button Ueki Chie Sakuramachi Hiroko as the princess-in-peril. Great costumes here.


And a hand-tinted version of the same, which only supposes some of the astounding colors that must have been there.


Oddly enough, this film has the exact same historically-based conflict as the SHINOBI-NO-MONO films did years later: Tokugawa vs. Toyotomi, with Sandayu Momochi and Ichikawa Goemon (Nakajiro Tomita, in black above) working in the shadows.


Torawakamaru and Goemon’s final duel goes from courtyard to rooftop and beyond. After a while, gotta think Japanese architects were reinforcing rooftops to accommodate constant combat…


A little closer in on these amazing costumes. Too bad both the film and the stills are B&W, the colors must have been intense.


In magic-based ninja flicks, ALL final duels end up in the clouds, or the shadow realm, or the zone of cloudy shadows, whatever. Shortly after this exchange, the combatants transformed into giant toad and fire breathing serpent, per union rules. No stills of such in the press kit alas.


Don’t look to me for a rational explanation of this crudely composited still, I’m as baffled as you are. The kid is Goroichi (Ueki Motoharu), son on the evil Goemon. He, however, is the plucky boyscout/sidekick type, and the film is strangely brutal when it comes to the kid’s emotions at watching his father’s demise.

A movie (such as it is, with a serial-like running length of just over 1-hour) like this isn’t for those looking for the black suits and the blood-letting. It’s very one-dimensional, prone to silliness and comedy relief, and the FX scenes are a bit too few and far between. But, it is a prime example of what the genre was at the time. If you dig Magic Serpent, see it’s predecessor for sure.

For more on this film, read Paghat’s review over at the Weird Wild Realm, along with pics of the toad and serpent.

It’s that time of year again…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

Yes, it’s the 4th of July again, so that means its time to take a look back at AMERICAN NINJA!

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


The seminal film reviewed by us here.

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

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

See the amazing African version of the movie poster here.

And check out some licensed merchandise for kids here.

Happy 4th!

Double Rip-Off!

A reader recently sent me a fragment of an image found on tumblr, looking for an ID.


At the time I couldn’t identify which particular variant of which particular Godfrey Ho film under which particular alternate title this would have been, but I sure as hell could ID where the “source inspiration” of the artwork came from!

Check this out — DOUBLE RIP-OFF!!!

Double-ripoff_2 Double-ripoff_3

Half Schwarzenegger, half Kosugi, all brilliant.

Knock-off artwork was nothing of rarity in the VHS era, and that practice carried well into the DVD era, with exploitation-minded labels in Europe being particularly adept.

It didn’t take much digging to find that this is indeed a VHS-era German release of Death Code Ninja.


What the artist lacked in originality he or she made up for two-fold in brazen ambition. Either one of these hero images from Red Sonja (hey, revisit this movie, it holds up better as time goes on!) and Revenge of the Ninja would have done the job, but NO, why choose one when you can have both?

It beats the hell out of the other commonly seen package art from this flick:


Yeah, not so good…  Although, awesome.

Death Code Ninja resembles neither Sonja nor Revenge. See for yourself — the whole thing is on YouTube.

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