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.
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.
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.
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’…
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.
I absolutely adore the Japanese equivalent of our “cigarette cards” – menko. These collectible cards featured all sorts of popular media, celebrity actors and athletes, historical and nature subjects, etc. I scored a pile of these in 2006 and 2007, many of which feature photos and illustrations of hooded swordsman and ninja.
Menko have been big since the 1910’s, when photographic reproduction wasn’t exactly great, especially on a cheap mass-produced premium.
One really strange thing you run across with vintage Menko is off-model illustrations. Hard to tell if it was a pirating issue or not, but companies often used their own in-house artists to portray hit animated and manga properties, rather than license the actual artwork from the source. You get some really goofy variants…
Koike and Kojima’s astounding Path of the Assassin has ended with volume 15, released last month from Dark Horse Comics. To say the abrupt ending is unsatisfying would be an understatement, have to wonder if this was cancelled in Japan prematurely back in the day. Doesn’t seem like a deliberate, or strategic, ending from either an editorial or emotional point-of-view.
I’m really going to miss this series, but one advantage to a series of graphic novels with a terminus is people tend to put their used collections up on eBay and Craigslist, so it’s a great opportunity to score it as a complete set if you don’t already own it all.
It never really breached the Times Square grindhouse and werewolf circuits here in the States, but the Hong Kong / Japanese co-production Ninja in the Dragon Den was certainly an international hit.
Here’s some totally original painted artwork from the Mexican release. Most international ad campaigns for the film centered on either of the two matinee idols involved – Henry Sanada and Conan Lee, and where their names didn’t mean as much, it was photos of Sanada’s superb ninja costuming that carried the ads.
But in Mexico, they often opted for totally original art.
Going back ot the early 60’s, Mitsuteru Yokoyama‘s Iga no Kagemaru property spanned manga, a great live action movie, toys, trading cards and board games, and anything else that could bear a licensed image. You’ll see this shinobi superhero in just about every category on this site.
Here’s a 2004 retro-collectible from Japan’s Furuta capsule and blind-box toy manufacturer. There’s not nearly enough nostalgic toy licensing in Japan – there should be a whole line of figures of this character, his allies and the amazing rogues gallery of villains. Movie likenesses too. This piece is a representation of the manga version, complete with diorama base depicting his signature whirlwind leaf defense. He also came with a variant un-hooded head, of which I promptly lost track.
And check out this illo from an early 60’s 2-color pulp manga – clearly the sculptor’s guide for the above figure.
Lots of Yokoyama’s manga cover art just added to Books and Manga, too!
Images from a 1960 B&W adventure pic from Toei titled (draw a breath here) Hakuba Doji Nanbanji no Kettou Kanketsu Hen. Can’t get a good translation of that bulky title, but it’s along the lines of ‘case of the southern barbarians’ or perhaps European foreigners being investigated.
I’ve sen this flick with no subtitles, so the exact story escapes me, but it’s got plenty of serial swashbuckler-style action, and amazing costumes.
(adapted from an article originally published on Ninja80.com)
“Ninja” is a relatively modern word that has come to summarize a wide range of military practices, martial arts traditions and popular entertainment themes in one iconic black-hooded package.
The black suit (worn day or night), requisite throwing stars and straight sword, arsenals of weird spy gadgets, superhuman athleticism, near-magical powers of stealth and hypnosis, mastery of arcane poisons and assassination techniques, fanatical cult dedication in contrast to a mercenary nature — all qualities irrevocably tied to the shinobi. However one can argue that ninja never did exist in the broadly summarized way we see them now. A lot of people profited greatly from propagating a completely unreal story of the shinobi, and there’s seven or eight centuries worth of mythmaking and mass marketing to deal with while sifting for the historical truth.
You can look at ninja history in three different aspects:
Military History (OR: A History of Common Sense in Japanese Warfare)
Ninja, or more specifically shinobi-ku — units of warriors trained in specialized commando tactics — hold a special fascination for modern military historians. In an age of ritualized combat and strict codes of battlefield behavior, the use of these units became one of history’s first organized applications of what we today call Special Forces. Typical samurai behavior, like challenging each other to duels or collecting heads of fallen rivals for personal glory, did not an efficient battlefield campaign make. So, going as far back as the 1300s, “shadow-skilled” specialists were used for then novel tasks like monitoring troop movements, mapping layouts of enemy strongholds, and targeting command figures to disrupt enemy maneuvers.
By the 1500s, feudal lords were using castle raiding units to sneak into enemy fortresses dressed as guards, starting fires or attacking other guards to suggest a fortress mutiny, generally causing all sorts of anarchy inside while the formal military crept forward outside. A variety of specialized military or employed mercenary troops throughout Japan’s feudal era can be considered under the vague “ninja” umbrella: rappa were bandit gangs used to plague enemy territories, kusa referred to special sentries hidden in tall grass, sutekamari no jutsu was the practice of leaving snipers behind retreating armies to take shots at the advancing enemy’s officers, and kesshi were suicide squads.
In the 1580s, Japan was unified by the Napoleon-like Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and 23 years later Ieyasu Tokugawa became Shogun. The bloodsoaked fuedal era was over, as was the boom period for outré military specialists and contractors. The need for shinobi-ku on the battlefield may have waned, but the perceived need of the shadow-skill set was a different matter entirely. Their techniques were seen as vital to keeping the machinations of the new peace well oiled.
Ieyasu Tokugawa perhaps saw it best, and rewarded the famed warrior Hattori Hanzo and the surviving ‘men of Iga’ jobs as his personal bodyguards. Iga province, fabled birthplace of the ninja, had been seen as a major threat by Tokugawa’s predecessor Oda Nobunaga. He invaded the mountainous territory in 1579, and was routed by a display of guerilla tactics that must have horrified the samurai army of 12,000. He returned two years later with six armies (44,000 troops) and in a brutal application of the ‘scorched earth policy’ razed the modest province and decimated its population. After Nobunaga’s untimely death, Tokugawa sheltered the remnants of Iga’s warrior elite as his own, both surrounding himself with a capable guard and eliminating a potential vengeful threat by co-opting the very people previously so feared. The example was followed by much of the new politic, ninja were a must-have addition to any insecure lord’s peacetime army.
Regardless of how legit the threat of shinobi agents actually was, ninja paranoia made for good business, particularly for anti-ninja consultants (often ninja themselves) as well as architects specializing in anti-ninja housing. Equipped with slippery walls, hidden viewports and creaking floors, these ninja-proof buildings are actually popular tourist attractions today.
Martial Arts Traditions (and the not-so-secret secret scrolls)
Sun Tzu’s profound Art of War introduced the very concepts of special forces, intelligence gathering and sabotage to the Japanese as far back as the 7th Century AD. That seed grew into a thriving industry for samurai families choosing to specialize in “shadow skills.” Contrary to traditions of ritualized warfare and rigid martial arts practices, these services required out-of-the-box training, innovative methods, and an array of gadgetry that would baffle anyone outside the discipline.
When the age of internal warfare ceased in Japan, centuries of shadow skills were saved from obscurity by astute families adapting the successes of the battlefield to the new political era facing them. Loosely organized tricks of the trade were codified into “ryu” — what we would call ‘styles’ — sort of organic museums of martial arts traditions. Here’s where you get the vaunted “secret scrolls” being handed down through generations, rife with brushed ink illustrations of archaic weapons and curious spyware. As the world grew up and ninja were less and less needed (or in many opinions, the world caught up to the shinobi), some of these ryu endured as a sort of archeological record of a martial past.
Togakure Ryu was one such enduring tradition, and this style ensured it’s survival like no other — it embraced modern media and expanded it’s teaching’s worldwide. The style’s last full Grandmaster Toshitsugu Takamatsu spent the last 15 years of his life training the current godfather of worldwide ninjutsu Masaki Hatsumi. Together they served as technical advisors to popular ninja films and found great success publishing ninja books. Hatsumi trained Europeans and Americans in the traditions of his art and licensed them to spread the ryu worldwide, fueling a global explosion of modern ninja training in the 1980s.
Popular Entertainment (a scroll may tell a thousand secret words, but a PICTURE…)
It is the iconography of the ninja — the alluring image of the black-suited warrior with the exotic weapons — that more often than not defines “ninja.” Sensationalized notions of the ninja go back as far as the shinobi’s genuine history, and were even encouraged back in the day by families hiring-out their services or commandos planting terrifying ideas into already paranoid palace guards.
Ninja ‘fish tales’ and popular lore go back to the 1500s (and further by some definitions), and were kept alive by kodanshi traveling performers and kabuki stage dramas. Popular novels and illustrations of the 1700-1800s finally lock down the image of the shinobi in the classic black suit and sinister mask. A lot of what I call “retro-shinobification” took place, too, as historical figures were given credit for being ninja whether they had been or not. Myriad military commanders and common thieves had their portraits inked-over with black night suits and their bios spiced up with sensational shinobi activity.
In general, popular lore became popular media and the image and notion of what the public WANTED to believe was “ninja” replaced any credible military history or martial arts tradition.
The 20th Century saw three distinct “ninja booms”:
1910-1920s – A monkey in every kid’s pocket! Tachikawa Bunko (Pocket Books) become all the rage when the 40th volume of the kid’s novel series features the “Leaping Monkey” Sarutobi Sasuke. Previously, ninja were portrayed as vile villains or trouble-making wizards, but now shinobi were redefined as superheroes, and we’ve never looked back.
1960s – Ninja come to manga and the movies! The 60’s saw explosions in both whimsical fantasy flicks and historically credible fare both on the pulp page and the silver screen. Anything and everything ninja sold, they were all over TV, the toy shelf, product advertising and even pornography. Although some of this media wave was exported to markets in Australia and Italy, none of it made it here. We were SOOOOOOO robbed!
1980s – We Want Our Black Ninja, AND WE WANT HIM NOW! American film studios race to get out a ninja flick, based on the buzz created by Eric Van Lustbader‘s best-selling novel The Ninja. Alas, the exploitation filmmakers beat the big guys to the punch, and for better or worse, Sho Kosugi, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff would come to define ninja to American audiences. At the same time, ninja training became the rage in the martial arts world, the turtles hit comics and TV, and ninja were everywhere… EVERYWHERE! It was a grand decade in black, but eventually the very word ‘ninja’ became poison. Media witch-hunters chose mail order weapons as the ruin-of-society-du-jour. Ninja movies devolved into horrendous Hong Kong exploitation, or trite kids comedies. Then the kickboxers took over martial arts cinema in the 90’s and ninja were yesterday’s news. We never got that high-end American ninja movie we should have, and the rental market went to the gutter-grade material so quick there was nary a thought to import the high-end Japanese stuff from decades past.
This humble article is less about ninja history than it is an illustration of WHY ninja history is so challenging. The skeptical historian can call B.S. on the very existence of ninja, the martial arts student can have blind faith in the pedigree of his “secret way,” and the movie buff can wander the grey area in between.
Then there’s this thought – even if it’s all a bunch of hype, isn’t 500+ years of lore and sensationalism history unto itself?
Once upon a time, “Lone Wolf” himself Tomisaburo Wakayama got a little bored with normal swordfare, watched a few too many spaghetti westerns, and spawned a fantastic movie and TV franchise called Shokin Kasegi – The Bounty Hunter.
The character made three* silver screen appearances in 1969, but had longer life when the property jumped to television in the 70’s, tightening up to a formulaic ‘hunt-of-the-week’ series. Shikoro Ichibei runs a grade school / day care for impoverished Edo children by day, funding this noble pursuit by moonlighting as a bounty hunter and covert merc for the local magistrate. He does his job with both sword (there was typically one Wakayama signature slashing per episode) and an arsenal of outré handguns and experimental rifles that would have made Sabata or Sartana jealous.
Formulaic TV heroes need their sidekicks, and Ichibei’s plucky and scrappy Tonto/Kato-equivalent was ‘Kagero’, played by Thai-born pop singer and actress Judy Ongg.
Just as the rather spaghetti-westernized Ichibei wore signature leather chaps and gunbelts, Kagero’s outfit was based on period shinobi-wear, but executed in suede right off the American frontier. Similar costuming was seen in Kaiketsu Lion Maru.
Kagero was Ichibei’s scout, shadow-killed information gatherer, outright spy, saboteur etc. and so forth. She specialized in reverse-grip short sword, blow-gun, explosive powders and whatnot, but would not hesitate to borrow a sawed-off shotgun from her boss’ amble arsenal and blow a guy’s lunch through his spine if things came down to it. Ongg’s expressive eyes and bee-stung lips give her both a voluptuous beauty and a youthful cuteness at once. She’d run into battle smiling like a tomboy but could also be deadly serious and stoic.
For a singer/actress, Judy Ongg sure did some nifty acrobatics and fights, too. Yeah, sure, as a sidekick you have a certain amount of contractual damsel-in-distress / best buddy held hostage time, but you really had a notion of her skill – Kagero was an ace.
Kagero’s greatest asset was, however, an absolutely astounding posterior. It’s positively Mexican. I mean, wow! That is how a woman was meant to be, kunoichi killer or otherwise. Damn, I’m in love…
Thing of it is, the sidekick contract seems to always include a decided lack of screen time. Yeah yeah, Wakayama’s the star and the best swordsman on the Japanese screen ever ever ever, we know. But damn, I’d be happy with just the Kagero show! Most weeks had some sort of guest hunter, too, with an exotic signature weapon of his own like a bullwhip or bolos or a bamboo bazooka – so her screen time would be cut even more.
A whole pile of episodes of The Bounty Hunter are available from various grey sources. The movies are somewhat harder to come by, but those don’t have Judy, so feh… However, see the footnote below for a movie you can find easily with just as strong a swordgirl presence.
*Fans of the superb Quick-Draw Okatsu film will recognize virtually the same character strolling nonchalantly into that franchise. This unofficial crossover, where he shared screentime with a ludicrously cute swordgirl played by pinky star Reiko Oshida, may have been the template for the TV Ichibei / Kagero formula.
Can a respectable, accomplished beautiful woman from noble samurai family possibly say no to a hooded bedroom invader so clearly superior in his warrior fashion sense? I think not!
I may have started this site just to find a good home for this picture. Seriously.
Said hood is Hashizo Okawa, the shinobi son trying to exact revenge on behalf of his tattooed ninja mom-done-wrong in the 1961 Toei film Akai Kageboshi. It’s part tournament movie, part mulit-generational mystery, part ninja romance – all with a supporting cast of staggering chambara manliness.
It all starts with our old pal Hattori Hanzo, played by Jushiro Konoe of Ninja Hunt and the Yagu Secret Scrolls series, who intercepts a ninja on a castle incursion. During their struggle, he realizes his prey is actually a woman, and the two are so turned-on by each other’s shinobi sex appeal, they have at it on the spot.
Couple decades later, that same lady of the shadows is a bitter and obsessed ninja MILF who has trained her son, the offspring of that fateful encounter, in the family trade. Decked out in all sorts of gorgeous ornate get-ups, he is ‘The Red Shadow’ – the instrument of her revenge.
The plot, from that set-up, is full of twists and turns and amazing characters. Sonny-boy’s mission is to collect 10 swords, one of which has part of a map etched onto it’s handle that when matched up with mom’s killer tats will lead them to a Shogunate treasure and vindicate her failure as a shadow agent. The ten swords, however, are the prizes in a martial arts tournament, so Red has to snatch the blades from the victors every night.
This goes along fine, as long as the winners are old semi-retired swordsmen or young hotties practicing Naginata, but when one of the victors is Jubei F’N Yagu, played by Ryutaro Otomo, it’s a whole different deal!
Red throws everything in his ninja repertoire at Jubei, just to see it all bounce harmlessly off his square jaw. Jubei, meanwhile, butts his way into the intrigue afoot, then Hanzo comes out of retirement, Red falls in love, snakes fall from the ceiling and shuriken sing through the night air…
So yeah, Akai Kegeboshi is a pretty damn essential film, for those of you who haven’t seen it. Grey marketeers and fan-subbers have made it readily available, too, so there’s no excuses. Despite literal translations, would be a good idea to refer to this maybe as “The Crimson Shadow” or “The Scarlet Shadow” or something else, as the name “Red Shadow” has a rather significant pedigree elsewhere…
Here’s a ton of images, like the above, from Thai press kits released contemporary with the film’s original theatrical run.
I’ll wrap this up with some close-up scans of the mission gear. LOVE that mesh soft-armor hood!
Don’t let these sepia-tone and B&W press photos fool you, Akai Kageboshi is a beautiful color film. The print that’s floating about the ‘trading communities’ is probably from TV and is pretty inky, though – but by no means a deal breaker.