Airborne combat in LEGEND OF KAMUI

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

A ‘Tonbei the Mist’ primer

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 12

Once upon a time, there was a ground-breaking Japanese TV series called Onmitsu Kenshin (or Onmitsu kenshi), starring Koichi Ose as Shintaro, wandering samurai detective protecting his half-brother the Shogun from various conspiracies and assassins. It was popular in Japan, but when the series shifted gears and integrated ninja as both friend and foe, it blew up and as The Samurai became an international sensation.

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International? Sure, it had a HUGE English-speaking fan base! How could you forget in 1965 when those early seasons were dubbed into English and aired on TV daily? Remember when Ose did that promotional tour, greeted by thousands of screaming fans at the airport ala The Beatles? Remember how each subsequent season got more and more popular, with more and more ninja action? Wasn’t it great how they were syndicated for decades after, followed by other dubbed shows like Phantom Agents! Does anyone still have their officially licensed plastic swords they got for Christmas, or the wildly popular Shintaro trading cards?

No… Drawing a blank…

Well, that’s because it all happened in fucking Australia!!!

Not here, NOOOOOO. Why would Americans want to see dozens of hours of Republic-serial like ninja warfare dubbed into perfect English? Fuck it, we’re fine with direct-to-video bullshit like Full Metal Ninja and Seven Lucky Ninja Kids. Give us turtles and leave us alone, we don’t want any of those historically credible martial arts espionage epics here. No way.

OK, bitter rant subsides for now – to the point.

TONBEI THE MIST!

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If Shintaro was Japan’s (and fucking Australia’s) Lone Ranger, then Tonbei was the Tonto. Played by career ninja legend Maki Fuyukichi – who would go on to the Watari the Ninja Boy live action film, play White Shadow in Masked Ninja Akakage, Henshin Ninja Arashi and dozens of other TV and movie shinobi roles – Tonbei was sort of half ace-in-the-hole / half comic relief.

Sure, he was Shintaro’s shadow – scout, spy, saboteur – but the character was so prone to capture and to showing up at fights just as Shintaro put the last ninja down, he became the butt of some unintentional humor.

Either way, Maki’s ‘man of Iga’ is a hugely important character in the development of the genre. Born in the mold of more serious ninja fare like Shinobi-no-mono, he was there to show off outre tools and arcane spy gadgets, give clinics on commando tactics and shadow skills, and get in all sorts of cool ass reverse-grip sword fights.

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So, we’ll be looking a lot at both The Samurai and Tonbei the Mist in coming months, and Maki was such a prolific ninja regular, he’ll be turning up constantly. Consider the below images a primer, and seek out the now out-of-print season box sets of the show on DVD. The best source of info on both the original Japanese show and it’s success in Oz can be found here.

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As of season 2, Tonbei was a regular sidekick to Shintaro, and could call in additional 'Men of Iga' as needed. Some of these actors left a bit to be desired in the skill and physicality departments...
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The producers learned early on that getting at least one or two mission-gear costume sequences in per show guaranteed ratings.
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Well used cramped sets - sneaking around and battling other suppa in the rafters above or the crawlspaces below houses were common sequences.
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Maki had great overtured posing and expressions. This pose, where he's flinging shuriken at the camera's POV (actually just an empty handed arm motion with whooshing foley) happened two or three times a show.
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And would be followed by an immediate, often grisly result. Check out that shuriken right in the mouth! Ow...
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"Historically accurate" gear, right out of secret scrolls and Hatsumi books, was often featured. Many episodes had Tonbei giving another character informal clinics on such gadgetry.
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Arcane techniques abound as well. Here, Tonbei spreads dust in a hallway to give away the trails of nocturnal invaders.
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He was a master of disguise, too, as this Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces get-up illustrates. Kinda gross, actually...
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However wide his shadow skill set, Tonbei's real job was getting captured by the enemy. He did his job well, he did his job often.
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Tonbei in suspension bondage, damsel in distress just fine. This is no isolated incident, it happened like every third episode.
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He often forgot to pack his Ninja Net-Proofing Spray, as well.

Amusing as the ‘sidekick-in-peril cliches’ become over the seasons of The Samurai, there are just as many great ninja battles, commando raids, trick weapon duels and other shinobi staples to keep things real. I absolutely love this series, and all jokes aside, if there’s one property I truly resent discovering now instead of in the 1980’s, it’s this one. And it was already in English! What’s the excuse???

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A company called Siren Visual put out seven ‘series’ (13 episode arcs) of the Australian TV broadcasts on DVD a few years back, but lost the license in 2008 and they’ve since been out of print. I’m told the series starting at 8 and 9 were totally amazing, too, so once again we’re shit out of luck… However, one of two feature-length films has made the trading rounds under the stiffly translated title “The Detective Fencer.” (I’d have called it ‘Samurai Sleuth’ LOL) The movie is one step above the show in production values, and delivers a relentless barrage of ninja combat. Highly recommended!

“Ninjas All Over the Place”

TORMENT is not having enough wall space to display all the cool art and vintage posters in your collection, and friends, I am a tormented soul. I’ve got enough ninja movie posters to wallpaper my place twice over, more than half of which are in storage. So, I can’t even let myself make eye contact with amazingness like this:

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Scott Campell‘s “Ninjas All Over the Place” (this link goes to a blog post from the artist with multiple close-ups) was done for the superb Gallery Nucleus, specifically their 2007 ninja art show.  This piece shows both a knowledge of the film genre (some Magic Serpent-y critters in there) and classic Japanese art.

The original sold for $2800, but 42×12″prints can be had for $150 here. (prices posted as a not-so-subtle hint to any potential readers out there looking for a christmas gift for someone like… ME!)

Do a search of the word “ninja” in the Nucleus home page header, and you’ll get a page with tons of available originals and prints. I like this Khang Le print, a very affordable 13×19″ version of which is for sale here.

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Campell is a great artist, and a search through his blog will prove it. Nucleus did the ninja show in 2005 and 2007, here’s hoping for another.

Chinese flyer for “Black Ninja”

Sepia-tone 2-sided flyer for the Ryutaro Otomo ninja vehicle Maboroshi Kurozukin Yamine Toku-Kage (can’t confirm that title or translate, although the words for black hood, phantom, and shadow are in there…) from Singapore – possibly late 60’s?

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Enjoy some whacked-out ‘Chingrish’ below:

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That image above looks a lot like the live-action Iga no Kagemaru film, or perhaps just an identical costume?

I haven’t seen this film, but I’m dying to know who the “Bat Swordsman” is, if he uses bats in combat, and what the scorpion relation is…

Here’s a Japanese poster for the same. Check out that tsuba-less sword on the left! You gotta have sack to weild a weapon like that, as you pretty much eliminate a lot of kendo’s defenses from an opposing sword.

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SENGOKU YARO – Warring Clans

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 5

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Okamoto Kihachi‘s (Sword of Doom, Kiru!) 1963 ninja classic Sengoku Yaro is a real blast – a  superb mix of comedy and combat, peppered with some rather outré fight scenes, a jazzy score by Masaru Sato that keeps you on your toes, and a super cute sword girl to boot.

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The gorgeous YURIKO HOSHI, familiar to us from several Godzilla films, is sassy, defiant and deadly. The simple detail of the prop master giving her a shorter sword (a 'chisa' I think, or possibly a longer handled wakizashi?) actually does a lot to lend her sword acting some credibility.

These aging Thai press kit photos were contemporary with the film’s 1963 release. It’s a superbly shot B&W film, the colors here are actually hand tinted for display in theater lobbies. That moray pattern is from the acid fixer breaking down after half a century. These are in rough shape – never deigned for posterity, and nowhere near as collectible as their poster counterparts, thus rarely archived as well.

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Who’s cooler than the film’s lead Yuzo Kayama? No-one, because not only was he in some kick-ass chambara and ninja flicks, he was also a great guitarist. That’s him below, on stage in Japan with the Ventures!

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If you like films like Kiru! and 3 Outlaw Samurai, where the violence is tempered with sardonic humor, then Warring Clans is your ninja huckelberry. It’s got a great ‘who’s working who?’ dynamic familiar to the spaghetti westerns, and the fights are shot superbly.

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LOVE that arrow stuck in the rain hood... That's MAKOTO SATO on the right, whose facial expressions alone lend an instant comedic edge to this film, putting it on a level above many of it's contemporary peers.

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The battles in Clans are largely either on barren cliffsides or tall grassy plains infested with black-suited snakes ready to strike. The plot revolves around a caravan transporting rifles under siege from without and possibly within. At times, it’s a sort of buddy pic, with three bickering protagonists, all who claim to be the next leader of Japan, but who are actually bums… or are they?

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From the, literally, explosive ending!

I’m tortured the press materials I scored didn’t include a shot of the astounding Kumi Mizuno, who has a small role. I mention her solely because I want an excuse to run this off-topic shot from my favorite mutation of the kaiju genre Matango:

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There isn’t an angle I can’t recommend this movie on: The cinematography is top notch, and the fight scene editing is an absolute clinic in how to make non-martial artists look good in duels. It’s got some great ninja beats, too, although pretty much anyone in a black suit comes to a foul end. The flow of grave subject matter and at times gory violence with comedic performances in both small and main roles is masterfully executed. And if nothing else,you just cannot take your eyes off Yuriko Hoshi. She almost steals the movie…

Visionary character design

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 4

Mining through various Japanese fan blogs brings about two things in me:

1.) I soooo wish I could read kanji…

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2.) I find amazing scans of vintage manga covers, like the below!

I believe these are all by the godfather of ninja manga Shirato Sanpei. Absolutely awesome.

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Check out the line-up of ninja thugs in back - I love that bent angled hood design.

Any Japanese readers wanting to send translations of these covers, especially if an artist is listed, we’ll reward you handsomely.

KAGE now online

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

I was lucky enough to see the combat-intensive short film KAGE on the big screen at a film festival last year, but screenings in the U.S. were few and far between. You can however, watch it online at their bi-lingual website: kage-japan.com.

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KAGE‘s fat-free 23-minute running time delivers nothing but the goods – cool costumes, hot ninja chicks and stiff-as-hell fight scenes. It wears influences from a few different eras of shinobi-cinema proudly on it’s sleeve, too.

Producer, director and star Takeshi Maya is 80’s-era Henry Sanada reborn, right down to the twin short swords, trampoline spots and high spin kicks. He’s damn proud that there was no wire-work in the film, no digital fight-fakery either. This film is his fight reel and stunt reumé bared for the world to see. 

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Check out the genre pedigree within the rest of the cast: Villain “Retsu” is played by none other than Shane Kosugi, and Sho Kosugi’s production company is thanked in the credits. Kenji Ooba and Junichi Haruta of Sony Chiba’s Japan Action Club have small roles as shinobi elders, too. 

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That’s smoking hot Airi Yoshihama in the middle of the pack of ninja villains. Man is that some sauce! She’ll be familiar to fans of Japanese obstacle course game show “Sasuke” (aka Ninja Warrior on G4), as she’s the “G-Rockets” dancer/acrobat who’s a regular on the women’s competitions. She does a great spinning cartwheel bit in a respectable fight scene with the rather adorable female lead Chisa Yokoyama, who is otherwise a major anime voice over actress. They’re both cute-as-hell, in great costumes with short-swords-a-slashin’… 

[Check out a few more images under Sword Girls]

Alas, the web-hosted viewing experience doesn’t do the film justice. It was great on the big screen, you could really see how hard everyone was working. But shorts never seem to have a good home when it comes to home video release, so let’s hope this sees some sort of broadcast-quality download in some form in the future. I’d gladly pay a ten-spot to own this thing as an HD file.

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