VN REVISITED: A look at ZANPEI KUMOTORI manga

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 0

Lots of new readers lately, and I always love delving into the archives, exposing folks to some of the great stuff we posted back in the early years, so here’s an EXPANDED revisit of an article originally from November of 2009:

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“It’s all for the taking. From the undergarments of countless beauties to the great buddha himself, an individual with the ability to snatch the clouds from the very sky!” (JManga)

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Takao Saito, best known as creator of Golgo 13, was also responsible for two ninja manga: Kage Gari in the 70’s (the Shadow Hunters, which also spawned two films), and Zanpei Kumotori in the 80’s. The latter featured a Sean Connery-esque shinobi getting into all sorts of mischief.

Here’s a few choice pages:

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Plenty of historically credible espionage techniques on display in this series, right alongside silly stuff like giant piloted kites.

For me, that mixture of fact and fantasy is one of the ninja idiom’s biggest appeals.

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Some good martial arts action, too. There’s a lot of weapons foreshortening in the artwork series-wide.

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Here, the savvy spy uses a marionette doppelgänger, while getting a little grabby with a defeated female bodyguard.

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Things could get wacky once in a while, too, with an occasional mutant supervillain or (in this case above) a GIANT Komodo dragon thrown into the mix.

Here’s some 2-color pages:

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How great is this composition!!!

I dig these title pages/ads and trade paperback collection covers, too:

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Zanpei Kumotori wasn’t exactly revolutionary or even a genre milestone, but it had a lot of that Golgo tone and swagger (you can just hear the jazz and funk soundtrack that a film adaptation would have had while flipping the pages), with enough meat-and-potatoes ninja action to be a hit for years.

Well worth the effort too track down…

THANKFUL…

Assessing life as one does at Thanksgiving, here’s a pile of random ninja-related stuff I’m thankful for:

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That I’ve been able to turn so many people on to CASTLE OF OWLS via this site.

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Mexican lobby cards of Hong Kong movies starring Japanese actors I bought from a guy in Ohio.

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That FIVE ELEMENT NINJA is streaming now and all sorts of new audiences are discovering it.

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That so many grails of B&W 60s shinobi-cinema are available with subtitles in one form or another.

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For the privilege of meeting Sonny Chiba earlier this year.

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That AMERICAN NINJA is coming out on Bluray next year with newly shot extras.

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That after 15 years in California, my vintage porcelain collection hasn’t had any earthquake casualties.

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That my pal Eddie Mort exposed me to THE SAMURAI years ago.

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That these relics of my 80s early teen years somehow survived.

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That this weird-ass ninja statue I scored in Chinatown is wearing SNEAKERS! Untied sneakers…

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For the Hana Rangers.

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That some photo-painter in Thailand back in the day laid down these hand-tinted colors so thick they lasted 50+ years.

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That Elsa Chung had no problem gettin’ nekkid…

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For having so many awesome artist friends.

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That I just barely beat out three other eBay bidders on this MAGIC SERPENT poster a few years back.

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For the 60s/70s Japanese movie and TV trope of female shinobi sidekicks.

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That Tim March and I are still friends 30+ years later.

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That companies are still kicking out cheap 80s-style ninja crap like this even in a post-Naruto modern day.

That finding a collection of photos from AKAI KAGEBOSHI sparked the original impetus to start this website in 2009!

AND…

Most of all I’m super thankful 6000-10,000 of you find us every month and dig through these categories and pages. We get great fan mail, and love hearing how we’ve connected with like-minded souls.

Thank you all.

 

Keith J. Rainville

11-24-2015

 

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PRAY FOR DEATH coming to Blu!

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

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Restoration label Arrow Films continues to put out Criterion-level releases of films that are decidedly not in the Criterion oeuvre — Spaghetti Westerns, Japanese delinquent gang flicks, gory Giallo and slasher fare, and yes — now they’re going FULL 80s NINJA!

 

From the official Arrow press release:

“NEW US ONLY TITLE: Pray for Death (Arrow Video) Blu-ray

Vigilante justice – ninja style!

THEY SHATTERED HIS AMERICAN DREAM.

In Pray for Death, martial arts legend Sho Kosugi (Enter the Ninja, Ninja 3: The Domination) stars as a family man driven to exact vigilante justice – ninja style!

Japanese Restauranteur Akira (Kosugi) has taken his wife and two boys to the United States in search of a better life. But their slice of the American Dream is quickly soured when they fall foul of a group of vicious jewellery thieves. Unfortunately for the bad guys, they didn’t count on Akira being a secret black ninja.

The samurai sword of vengeance falls swift and hard in this classic slice of ‘80s ninja action from director Gordon Hessler (Scream and Scream Again, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad), culminating in an action-packed showdown with a bodycount worthy of Commando.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
•High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a transfer of original elements by MGM of the unrated version
•Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
•Brand new interview with star Sho Kosugi
•Archive interview and Ninjutsu demonstration with Kosugi from the film’s New York premiere
•Original Theatrical Trailer
•Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin
•Collector’s booklet featuring an extract from Sho Kosugi’s upcoming biography”

 

PfD is probably Kosugi’s best film outside the Cannon trilogy, and arguably even better than one or two of those. One’s fandom-level for this film depends on how you feel about the armored helmet, the logic-defying / nigh-meta character background, and the juxtaposition of gory violence and brutality to women with happy-fun-ninja-kid-on-self-made-ninja-bike stuff. The “Back to the Shadows” theme song and Bond-like opening credits are the bomb.

There’s a nice full review over at Ninjas All the Way Down, and Movie-Censorship.com details the decades-old controversy of “uncut” versions and missing scenes. I for one have never needed to see a woman raped and killed in grisly fashion in order to enjoy a film, but I’ve also seen how piss-poor the hatchet job of gore-shaving censorship was in the UK releases of this film, so a complete version will be great to finally have out in the world.

I have several Arrow discs, and recent releases like the Lee Van Cleef Spaghetti Western Day of Anger go way above and way beyond what you normally find in exploitation genre titles. Packaging features a reversible insert with the original marketing on one side, and new illustrated images on the reverse.

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Not crazy about this art, seeing as the helmeted Kosugi is soooooo iconic for this film, plus depicting him with a 2000s style extreme shruiken and a samurai sword vs. the “ninja-to” that literally bore his name is just bad research.

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In this era of the Alamo Drafthouse and Mondo defining abstract and minimalist retro movie art, labels like Arrow and Criterion are sometime too quick to place artistic accomplishment over effective marketing. It’s not so big a deal in a world where brick-and-mortar retail is disappearing, but if I as a fan of this movie was looking for it on a shelf this art would make the product unrecognizable to me. Other Euro-discs of this and Kosugi fare like Rage of Honor actually embrace both the iconic nature of the costuming and the boldness of 80s exploitation marketing.

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Apart from busting balls as an armchair art director, the extras Arrow has lined up sound pretty damned great! I’m a sucker for vintage featurettes, and the inclusion of any ninja demo Kosugi did back in the day (see also the “Ninja Theater” VHS series and his Master Class tape) is reason enough to buy this disc.

Arrow’s Pray for Death has a street date of February 16.

REMCO “Secret of the Ninja” box art

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One of my favorite long-gone toy manufacturers was Remco, who in 1984 gave us one of the craze’s most well-rounded figure lines — Secret of the Ninja.

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Remco of the 60’s was an aggressive licensor with all sorts of A-list properties adapted for toy shelves — Star Trek, Beatles, Lost in Space, Batman and more. The Remco of the 80s, post bankruptcy and sale to competitor AHI/Azrak, was one of those companies producing the weird B-and-C-grade lines you’d find in weird indie toy stores and back corners of hardware shops and pharmacies. When G.I. Joe hit, they made Sgt. Rock, it was Hercules and Conan against Masters of the Universe, AWA and WCCW wrestling instead of WWF, Mighty Crusaders in the midst of Marvel Secret Wars and DC’s Super Powers.

These licenses cost less, but also sold less, so once in a while they’d try to create an original line that, lacking licensing fees, didn’t start them in the hole. Secret of the Ninja was the best of these, and done at just the perfect time.

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(This nice collection is currently on eBay)

While called “Secret of the Ninja” the line was hardly confined to the shadow soldiers. Myriad martial arts disciplines and historical warrior classifications were represented — kung-fu monks, samurai, modern karate and tae-kwon-do masters and more. This made the line almost fad-proof — if ninja toys started falling flat, there were enough vaguely barbarian-like and mystical fantasy-looking figures to appeal to multiple tastes.

The multi-martial-disciplines allowed more creative kids to have gladiatorial contests for supremacy of style — very much suggested by the back of this playset box:

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We’ve previously posted on the VHS tapes Remco included with multi-figure boxed sets (READ HERE). Between the half-hour adventures of Lion Maru, Kamui and Watari and the notion of Ninja vs. Thai Kick Boxer duels, a kid was in plastic combat heaven.

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Note, the pose for the ninja figure is drawn right off the press photo of Sho Kosugi in Revenge of the Ninja:

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The Remco ninja are easily found on eBay and many are dirt cheap. However, there is a dedicated fan base for these, and rare color variants, the even rarer second series and international editions command high prices and auction frenzies. I have a few of these figures, but with space around the ninja cave at a premium I tend to bow out of such contests. So happy hunting…

The best VN Halloween/monster features in one easy list!

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

One wouldn’t normally think of a site like this for creepy and monster-y Halloween content, but man over the years we have BROUGHT IT!

Here’s a one-stop-shopping list of Vintage Ninja‘s finest “Monsters and Masks” features:

The Demon of Mt. OeREAD HERE — A nifty, creature-laden obscure samurai-vs-demons flick from the early 60s.

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Kaiju in Masked Ninja AkakagePART 1 — PART 2 — The classic tokusatsu series had some great monster-of-the-week action!

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Ninja vs. Yeti in Strike of the Jaguma!READ HEREAND MORE HERE — You just have to see this stuff to believe it…

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The best ninja/kaiju hybrid movie ever – Magic Serpent! — PART 1 — PART 2 — Generations of monster kids were exposed to ninja well before the 80s craze in this head-slapping genre-bender.

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Demented creatures in versions of Satomi Hakkenden — PART 1PART 2 — From the obscure original epic to the Star Wars-era Kadowkawa classic, the film adaptations of the lore of the eight assembled heroes had some incredible analog monsters.

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Kabakichi, the samurai werewolfPART 1PART 2 — Full-on lycanthropes throwing jumping high-kicks, with plenty of other weirdo creatures to boot!

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Sakuya Yokaiden, monster slaying sword-girlREAD HERE — Some of the best mixtures of digital and practical effects make this sword-flawing yoke-fest a must-see!

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Henshin Ninja Arashi‘s manga monstersREAD HERE — Many are familiar with the tokusatsu show and toys, but the manga is a much darker, more severe fare with some amazing creatures.

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Monsters and Martial Mummies in Majin Hunter MitsurugiREAD HERE — If you’re unfamiliar with this rare stop-motion animation oddity from the Japanese TV industry otherwise dominated by guys in rubber suits, check it out!

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Toad magic of the silent film era in Jiraiya — READ HERE — This 1921 silent was possibly the first time ‘giant toad magic’ made the leap from kabuki stage to the silver screen.

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Demented sorcery and undead fencing legends in Makai TenshoREAD HERE — Unaware that Sonny Chiba once dueled a zombie version of Miyamoto Musashi and a gang of ghost villains? There’s a cure for that…

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Happy Halloween everyone, see you in November with some MAJOR new stories…

 

The oldest days of the Shuriken trade

We’re delighted to present the first of hopefully many editorial exchanges with the superb VINTAGE NUNCHAKU communityfound on Facebook here. This ‘other VN’ is the best fountain of info anywhere on old mail order advertising from the kung-fu craze to the ninja boom, and the collections of now antique weaponry amassed there will drop your jaw. We’re happy to expand their reach beyond Facebook (where page traffic is often limited based on how much admins pay for the right to communicate with their members) and give their research efforts another archive in case the mighty blue F one day goes the way of Friendster and MySpace.

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While the main focus of Vintage Nunchaku is the famed “karate sticks” — particularly the legendary stuff offered by Dolan’s Sports — there’s plenty of ninja fare as well. Scroll on through and note how many of the old scans of catalog pages and magazine ads have identical layouts and offerings from one martial arts fad to another, with cosmetic alterations like black paint and “NINJA!” typography being the only difference from one decade to the next.

Let’s start off here with a look at some of the earliest print adverts for Shuriken:

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FROM VINTAGE NUNCHAKU — The oldest advertisement for shuriken found to date. Scanned from the December 1967 issue of Black Belt magazine. Factoring for inflation, that set of two would cost about $35.00 today. Wonder if any of these “Albuquerque” shuriken darts even still exist. This advertisement, nor any other from the same company, is not found in any other Black Belt issues from 1967 or 1968 — which would make them that much more rare today.

I’m blown away that not only were shrink being imported into the U.S. in ’67, but that they were referred to as “Ninja Darts” — hell, “Ninja”-anything for that matter. Pre-80s ninja boom we always called them “Chinese Throwing Stars” with only David Carradine tossing around those thick, heavy wheels for reference. But this ad seems to be an aberration.

The below ad from Asian World of Martial Arts ran 10 years later, and despite the super early ninja-like star-chucker illustrated up top, is more indicative of the kung-fu-craze mail order scene:

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Again, much of the above would have some sort of black-colored, “NINJA”-stenciled version by 1984 or so.

Now, on to some of the gems of Vintage Nunchaku‘s beyond-enviable collections…

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One black, one gold, one silver — a ‘senban’ for any occasion! I can’t believe cases for these once ubiquitous mail-order sets survived the decades. Note the countries of origin, Japan and Korea, an era long before everything was cheap shit made in China.

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And then this grail original!!!

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Companies are still producing knock-offs of this 80’s boom staple, they’re all over eBay, dirt malls, swap meets and Chinatown smoke shops. And yes, I still think a shrunken belt buckle puts a sharp-pointee way too close to your junk…

OK, if you’ve never scrolled through Vintage Nunchaku, go now! Join the community, posts some pictures of your own old stuff, drool over the loot of others. The experts over there can identify anything you find in the attic, and are always looking to buy, sell and trade!

 

The utter dilemma of GYMKATA

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

If you’re like me, and let’s face it, most of you reading this site are, then you own WAY too many martial arts movies — from old clamshell VHS you rescued from liquidating video stores, to increasingly collectible DVDs from the 90s and 2000s, to recently remastered niche-marketed Blurays.

My own shelving unit that was once a catch-all of combat arts cinema hit a point of critical mass so severe, I’ve had to separate the library into ninja movie-centric shelves in one room with classic kung-fu, American karate and kick-boxer fare etc. segregated into a distant closet.

It’s the genre-benders that are the real pisser!

I mean, what is one to do with the DVD of Gymkata???

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No, the ill-advised and equally ill-received (but subsequently legendary) vehicle for Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas wasn’t really a ninja movie, no matter how much the marketing team wanted to glom on to the 80s ninja boom via the poster art.

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But the on-screen reality of those “ninja”… just a bunch of incompetent guards and race-course flag-bearers who were hooded more to hide the re-occuring stuntmen playing them than any ostensible notion of ninjutsu.

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What’s a worse fate? Being an anonymous flag-waving Euro-slavic nitwit in an itchy hood making no impact on the world, or… fighting in concealing night gear but during broad daylight cuz the movie is too cheap to shoot night scenes, and then getting your ass kicked by Kurt f’n Thomas?

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They didn’t even merit the back of the VHS packaging, lest the label raise the ire of the Ninja Union Local Chapter 101.

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BUT… on the other hand, you’ve got a tried and true ace movie ninja in Tadashi Yamashita playing the stupid gymnast’s sage instructor.

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And he’s awesome as usual, doing the whole kama swinging demo that made him such a feared villain in The Octagon and American Ninja. In fact, he was so convincing as a deadly agent of martial mayhem, it begged the question ‘Why is the government sending in an untested gymnast who just learned to kick on a suicide mission and not just SENDING THE INSTRUCTOR INSTEAD, HE’D KILL EVERYONE INCLUDING RICHARD NORTON IN LIKE 10 SECONDS WHY THE FUCK IS KURT THOMAS EVEN IN THIS MOVIE WHY WHY WHY?!?!?!?!?’

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So what do I do here? Does Yamashita’s presence, the quasi-ninja-ish-if-you-squint thugs and the generously shinobi-fied poster art enough to merit inclusion on the already too crowded ninja shelf?

Ninja-nerd problems… but problems nonetheless.

At least it’s just one movie, as the proposed sequel to Gymkata, starring 70s comedian Gabe Kaplan, never happened…

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Full credit for the above pun goes to Charles DeVos.

 

Carded wrongness of NONE CHUCK

One of our first toy posts back in 2009 was of an artifact from my own craze-era collection, and a reader just sent me pics of one still on its card, so here’s an update for those of you who missed this back in the day:

 

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Here’s the all-time heavy-weight champeen of politically incorrect – hell outright racist and offensive – 80’s ninja toys: “None Chuck” from CrayArt / Mel Appel’s Weird Ball line. These 5″ vinyl statuettes were a throwback to Marx’s Nutty-Mads from the 60’s, but were actually cashing in on more contemporary merch lines like Garbage Pail Kids, Wacky Packs and Madballs.

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A seriously 40’s war-era buck-toothed “nip” sculpture in the 80’s… amazing.

I actually bought this piece as a gag gift to VN’s ninjutsu soul brother Tim March back in the day. He lent it back to me a few years ago to shoot for an eventual article, and has hopefully forgotten about it, cuz I like where it sits on my shelf. –winge–

Read all about the line and the figure at the absolutely awesome “Weirdo Toys” blog!

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More than six years later, NC is even more offensive, as my copy has yellow paint for the skin tones that’s been getting more and more yellow with age.

The one below, still on its heavily illustrated card (sadly not in too good a shape here) has more natural (read: caucasian) flesh color.

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Weird thing I had long forgotten about with this line was how they phased in and out of parody, producing some genuine confusion. “Made of 99.4% Bendable Plastic” — so is that a real stat, are they bragging about it, or is it an attempt at humor or what? WHY IS THAT LINE THERE?!?!?

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This is really making me want to hunt down a “Karate Sid” and “Humangasaki” to complete the triumvirate of martial arts cultural wrongness.

Or maybe not…

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I understand where this company was coming from with this line, but man… keep the character design at the comical gore and booger gag level, don’t go after the cheap ethnicity/culture dig. I’m no stalwart of ‘political correctness’ but man, did they really need to go “Paco Taco?”

Another thing — and anyone old enough to remember the early to mid-80s will concur — it was a time of pretty strong cultural exchange with Japan, with some of that nation’s best films, cartoons and comics becoming available in English for the first time, graphical art motifs and kanji showing up in fashions, music videos, even school supplies… just all over the place. We WANTED anything Japanese, we weren’t into laughing at them like sailors on shore leave during WWII. Just from a business perspective, NC and ilk were a bad idea.

 

More home video subterfuge

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

Ninja commandos inflicted some pretty serious damage during Japan’s feudal age, but the damage they’ve done to home video shopers’ wallets in the modern age is probably worse.

Video packaging subterfuge — throwing the word NINJA on any non-shinobi-oriented film for a sales spike — was typical in the 80s. Often, the B.S. was within the confines of the genre, like Sho Kosugi imagery is used in movies that didn’t star him:

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But just as common was deception from outside the genre, particularly 70s kung-fu films bumped to priced-to-sell VHS from 16mm retired grindhouse prints under a shinobi-fied re-title:

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Once in a while, you come across some genuine head-scratchers, like this 90s VHS for the Cameron Mitchell exploitation flick The Last Reunion:

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This 1980 dumpster fire of a film sees a war orphan now full gown into a vengeful martial arts master hunting down the members of a former army unit. During the 80s craze, and considering the assassin wore some semblance of night camouflaging black, it definitely qualified for “retro-shinobi-fication” — getting retitled as Ninja Nightmare, Ninja Assassins and/or Revenge of the Bushido Blade in endless cheap VHS bargain bin ambushes. I’m baffled it would see the light of day on VHS of that period under it’s non-ninja title, but even more confused that the image they used here is of Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada from the demented Kadowkawa FX masterpiece we know and love as Ninja Wars!

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Add to all this confusion the fact that “Ninja Assassin” and “Ninja Assassins” as well as “Ninja Nightmare” were used for other films from the likes of Godfrey Ho, and the unsuspecting shopper could be out all sorts of scratch.

The bulk of the post has been set in the past tense, but I recently stumbled upon this newly released cheapie DVD compilation:

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A 2015 release! Brazen as hell!

Quick census: a drunken master, a has-been action star in meta-comeback bank heist mode and a retired pro-wrestler in a boxing ring… and yeah, NO NINJA WHAT THE HELL DECADE IS IT WHO ACTUALLY BUYS THIS CRAP!?!?!?!

And… to come full circle:

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Some of the above flicks might actually have ninja in them, though… at least that’s what the knocked-off Kosugi art would indicate.

Caveat Emptor…

 

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