More home video subterfuge

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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…

 

Enter the Revenge of the Blurays

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We finally have the original Cannon Films Sho Kosugi ‘ninja trilogy’ on good home video formats! Sure, its a couple decades later than it should have happened, and at a time when the public is giving up physical media in droves, but hey, we the children of the 80s craze who love these movies enough to own them are still stocking our shelves of discs, aren’t we?

Kino Lorber have just released Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja on Bluray, joining the superb Ninja III: The Domination Blu put out by Scream Factory last year.

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The Enter disc is, honestly, nothing special. The only extra is an already familiar trailer. There’s a marginal improvement via format, but its not a profound leap from the DVD-on-Demand disc MGM has had available, or the print streaming on Netflix and the like. It may even be cropped a little too much on top and bottom, but I’m not claiming to be an expert on aspect ratios and transfers.

Revenge has had a few different DVD releases where aspect was a serious issue though — some prints are a square “Open Matte” transfer that actually gives more image on top and bottom than the filmmakers intended. It’s neat for seeing some extra choreography here and there, but the image is small on widescreen TVs. Other widescreen prints have also been released on triple feature DVD packs that suffer somewhat from compression, so all in all the new Blu is worth buying just for the proper image alone.

But with his disc Kino Lorber also gives us full-length commentary from director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. They talk some nice shop about stunt work in the analog age, having freedom from studio pressure while shooting out in Salt Lake City, Utah, and how legit dangerous some of the gags were, especially in the hi-rise building sequences. They pay nice homage to the fact that this film is often overlooked for making history with a sole Japanese lead actor, hint at what a direct sequel-that-never-happened would have meant for intended bigger player Keith Vitali, and Firstenberg’s memory for how many days it took to film a scene is like a steel trap.

Alas, the disc is otherwise barebones. A behind-the-scenes gallery promised in press releases and package copy is either missing or hidden in menus I can’t find, so that’s a red herring. I or myriad other sites would have given them considerable stills and marketing materials for a gallery had they asked, and Lambert is a veritable font of still materials, so no excuses.

In fact, I’m miffed enough at this to compensate by presenting some rare alternate take and missing scene stills myself, courtesy of MGM’s electronic press kit from years back (see more over at IMDB):

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Here’s a couple from the cut scene (you see it briefly in the trailer) of National Guard snipers dispatched by Braden before the final duel:

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This is the same “da-fuq???” look I had when the stills gallery turned out to be absent from the disc:

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There’s also a missed opportunity, and I can’t fault them too much as it’s probably a significant rights issue, to present the superb Rob Walsh synth score as an audio bonus. Again, were these films put out at the height of DVD when labels heavily invested in extras, this would have been a given. We take what we can get in 2015.

BUT… despite any geek-gripes, we’re wholeheartedly recommending this new disc. The Octagon and Enter may have come first, but Revenge is the movie that cemented the ninja craze. It’s running time is almost completely combat, chases or stunts plus it put weapons-play on screen no one had ever seen before, and that’s a real trick in the martial-exploitation realm. This is the best version of the movie available and it is mandatory viewing for any ninja nerd, so get to it!

Kino Lorber have also released the Michael Dudikoff/Steve James ‘Deadliest Game’-inspired Avenging Force on an extras-peppered Bluray, and are giving the same treatment to the duo’s first American Ninja flick, as hinted by Judie Aronson on her Facebook fan page. Dudikoff, Firstenberg, Lambert, Aronson and even Tadashi Yamashita reunited in the Philippines last year for a documentary shoot, joined by Steve James‘ daughter Debbi, who’s pursuing a doco of her own (read more at My Dad Steve James).

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Bitter as many of us are that these films were largely ignored or under-serviced during the DVD boom, when profound extras and deluxe box sets were aplenty, it is great to finally have them all in peak condition, and legit, too. Kudos to Kino Lorber!

 

Sword, Sorcery and Dubious Theology in Feudal Japan

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A review of Samurai Reincarnation (Makai Tensho — 1981) by guest columnist Tenebrous Kate

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EDITOR’S NOTE: While Kinji Fukasaku’s version of this surreal epic, starring Sonny Chiba, Kenji Sawada, Akiko Kana, and Hiroyuki Sanada isn’t an outright ninja movie, between Chiba’s shinobi-pedigreed Jubei and the villains’ ninja-garbed masked henchmen there are enough tangents to merit this more than recommended movie’s inclusion on this site. Rather than repeat my typical lauding of the combat and stunts of the Japan Action Club and Star Wars-era effects Kadokawa brought to the table, I wanted the outré religious aspects of this flick explored by a more qualified voice. VN is delighted to introduce Tenebrous Kate to a largely new audience.

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Sometimes I wonder if being an American movie-viewer has made me a lazy audience member. As Americans, we have certain expectations when we watch action, horror, and fantasy movies—we’ll know who the good guys are, we’ll understand their motivations, and there will be a conclusion to the story in which the good guys achieve some measure of success. The opportunities for novelty within American pop entertainment movies lie in the visual presentation of material, not so much in the structure of the story.

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These expectations are why it can be so extremely disorienting to encounter a movie like Samurai Reincarnation, a 1981 Toei production by Kinji Fukasaku (a name familiar to many as the director of Battle Royale). Right from the opening frames of this movie, it’s clear that we’re in for a bizarre ride. This fantasy actioner begins by showing the gory aftermath of the massacre of tens of thousands of Japanese Christians at the hands of the shogunate. Samurai Shiro Amakusa is resurrected from the dead only to see the mutilated bodies of his fellow Christians. He might seem sympathetic but this changes pretty quickly when, seconds after his reawakening, Shiro renounces his faith and asks for the assistance of Hell in seeking revenge. This is probably the worst way for a religious person to go about righting great wrongs, and this formerly pious warrior is transformed into a bloodthirsty villain who uses a whip made of the hair of Christian martyrs to defeat his enemies.

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The newly devil-powered Shiro travels the countryside building a dream team of resurrected men and women who agree to accept new life from him (a perverse Anti-Christ figure) in order to pursue the goals that had been denied to them in life. This is an odd group, ranging from tragic characters (Lady Hosakawa’s horrible, unfaithful husband has her killed and young farmer Kirimaru dies during a raid on his village), amoral ones (Musashi Miyamoto dies unsure of his status as finest sword fighter in the land), and… well… then there’s Inshun, a monk who was unable to realize his dreams of raping and murdering lots of women and agrees to be resurrected only after he’s promised a glorious afterlife brimming with sexual assault. While each of the five undead tried, during life, to achieve a level of goodness, all inhibitions are out the window when they’re given a new lease on earthly existence. I’m no Bible scholar, but I feel like this story might be criticizing these people’s failure to “turn the other cheek” in accordance with the Christian faith.

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Meanwhile, the shogun and his men are busy exploiting the peasantry, raising taxes and imposing harsh punishments in spite of crop failure and general destitution. The shogun maintains a deliberate distance from the needs of his people and turns his attentions instead to getting it on with his mysterious new concubine, the previously pious Hosakawa in the guise of a courtesan. All is not just sexy job abandonment, however, and when demon-possessed Hosakawa accompanies the shogun on a hunting trip, she hypnotizes him into firing arrows into his own subjects and displaying their crucified bodies on a hilltop.

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At this point, if you are a sane human being, you are undoubtedly on #TeamNoOne. On one side, you’ve got a lapsed Christian martyr parodying his former faith and working black magic for revenge, but on the other side you’ve got a totalitarian government sadistically abusing and exploiting its subjects. This is a chaotic, cruel world, but there’s one man who serves as a symbol of rightness (or at least “traditional morals”—that’s about as good as we’re going to get here), and that’s Yagyu Jubei, a one-eyed samurai played by the legendary Sonny Chiba. Jubei is depicted as outside the Christian uprising as well as distanced from the corrupt government. He befriends the poor and has honed his skills as a swordsman independently after losing an eye while sparring with his father. Jubei seems fated to fight the demons: he was a friend to Kirimaru during his lifetime and his skills as a swordsman are envied by Musashi, whose demonic existence is dedicated to seeking out Jubei for a duel.

Jubei is among the first to realize the supernatural threat posed by Shiro and his posse, and his warnings are thoroughly ignored by everyone he attempts to inform. Jubei only manages to convince Murumasa, a forger of magical swords, of the reality of the threat after the sword-maker witnesses Musashi’s demonic nature firsthand. Over the course of many days, Murumasa dedicates his waning power to making a sword so powerful that if the wielder encounters God, “God will be cut.”

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And it’s high time Jubei gets his hand on a God-cutting sword, too, because Shiro has used that aforementioned hilltop crucifixion to incite a full-scale peasant assault on Edo, the seat of government power. Honestly, this is not a terrible plan, given that the shogun and his men have demonstrated a level of viciousness towards the populace that warrants some serious backlash. People get uncomfortable when peasants start putting heads on pikes, and it’s up to Jubei to make sure order reigns and the farmers get back to a proper acceptance of their lot in life (besides, prohibitions on Christianity would be lifted eventually, over two hundred years later in the latter half of the 19th Century).

Samurai Reincarnation is a movie that applies Toei’s fantastical, special-effects-reliant style to telling a pretty damn dark story. The sets and costumes used throughout the film are lavish, creating an immersive atmosphere. Characters don sumptuous brocade kimonos, elaborate wigs, and colorful eye makeup in a manner characteristic of Japanese historical dramas. Exploitation movie staples like female nudity, geysers of blood, and hacked off heads and limbs are a constant reminder that we’re watching a horror fantasy story. The use of thick fog to signify the presence of demons is and effective and moody visual. Long spans of time are spent establishing character motivations and story elements (there’s a whole subplot involving Jubei’s father that I haven’t discussed above, to cite one example), so the pacing can be a bit on the slow side. When action sequences do occur, they are highly stylized and athletic, with plenty of the leaping, cloth-flapping, sword-clashing pageantry one expects from Japanese action dramas. Of particular note is Jubei’s final showdown with his enemies, which takes place in the fiery remains of the palace and appears as if it was legitimately dangerous to execute.

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A swashbuckling adventure and supernatural thriller, Samurai Reincarnation is also a story of how people sacrifice their humanity in pursuit of revenge and other unattainable goals. The fact that the peasants are portrayed as a devil-possessed mob suggests that even their just cause is seen as a hopeless one. An ambiguous ending further underscores the overall darkness of the movie.

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While the Shogun Assassin-meets-Sign of the Cross-with-an-added-helping-of-nihilism combination of Samurai Reincarnation might seem strange, the story is incredibly popular in Japan. The 1981 film is the first screen adaptation of a 1967 novel of the same name by Futaro Yamada, which is itself based on events of the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637 – 1638. It doesn’t stop there, though: four other movies that take the novel as their inspiration, to make no mention of the multiple manga and video games. The line-up of Shiro’s demon gang changes among these stories, but the themes (and the presence of hero Jubei) remain the same.

What gives Samurai Reincarnation its magic is the fact that it is a uniquely Japanese movie. Combining historical fact and traditional morals with flashy genre-style movie making, it’s a pop entertainment product of its culture.

 

About the Author:

Tenebrous Kate is a New Jersey-based writer and artist whose work explores her longstanding fascination with all things dark, fantastical and forbidden. The creator of the webcomic Super Coven and the editor of various zines under her imprint Heretical Sexts, Kate has also written for publications including Ultra Violent Magazine, I Love Bad Movies and Occult Rock Magazine. She has appeared in New York-based comedy variety shows including Kevin Geeks Out, Meet the Lady and Bonnie and Maude, and Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire is her long-running blog where she writes about psychedelic cult films, bizarro art, throwback forms of heavy metal, and all manner of other esoteric nonsense.

 

From our beloved readers…

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Let’s all help some readers ID some great old newspaper and magazine clippings:

Ryan Jones runs a great tumblr called Oldtype/Newtype — archiving old issues of Newtype magazine, and ran across this article from September of 1987. Neither of us being translators, it’s still pretty clear this is a late-in-the-craze survey of ninja movies from outside of Japan, which for the homegrown populace must have been quite the oddities.

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Spread #2 looks to be a survey of titles available on Japanese VHS, and most if not all would have been subtitled.

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Spread #3 is the delirious mystery here — we’ve got Jawas, Kamen Riders, Phantom Agents…

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Great stuff, love the ills! If any of you Japanese-reading folk out there care to shed some light on this awesomeness, I’ve enabled comments for this post below.   This article has now been translated over at Oldtype/Newtype!

Then there’s an Indonesian Sasuke sighting:

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Sanggar Cerita sent us this clipping — year and exact origin unknown — thinking the title was bogus to cash in on the local success of one of the animated iterations of Sasuke, but I’m thinking it a genuine title from one of the many live action adaptations.

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I’m writing this from the road, on vacation, with no notes or research at my disposal so if anyone can chime in, please do!

Thanks as always to our readers for sending these treasures in, we LOVE getting this kind of stuff!

 

 

Ninja Star-Struck!

Sonny Chiba made his American convention debut the last weekend in March at a show called Monsterpalooza in Burbank, CA. This once intimate, now massive, gathering of visual effects artists and Monster Kids is known for making history with guests from Japan — original Godzilla stuntman Haruo Nakajima’s US debut being a standout.

I was pretty jazzed to meet Chiba, as publisher of this site, and outright fanboy. He has generational fan bases — to many he’ll always be Terry Tsurugi from the 70’s Streetfighter films, newer fans only know him from those Kill Bill! flicks, but for me… well, I can’t even remember how many times I watched Iga Ninpocho (aka Ninja Wars) during the mid-80s when it ran on cable (and subsequently worn out on VHS).

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Chiba sold 8x10s and signed autographs like all celebs do, and gave a talk to dozens of fans, discussing movies old and new. He spoke some sardonic smack about Quentin Tarantino — chiding him a bit for being a weird stalker when first given a tour of his home video collection, even commenting on him being a copycat director weaving together remakes of his favorite scenes from other directors’ films rather than creating his own vision. It was all done through an interpreter so who knows what exactly was said and with what tone, but still, absolutely priceless!

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Enthused as the crowds were, it seemed Chiba himself had the real ‘fan’ moment when long-time VN supporter Dustin de Leon showed up in full Hattori Hanzo costume from the latter seasons of Kage no Gundan — aka Shadow Warriors. Dustin was known for his Sub Zero outfits at cons around SoCal, but a few years ago he fell in love with older Japanese ninja movies and TV and he an a small group of like-minded shadow-souls now stand out in convention crowds of robots, zombies, superheroes, gaudy anime girls and 8-bit icons by sporting down-to-earth retro-shinobi gear!

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(Keepin’ it real in a world of Narutos… members of SoCal’s Shadow Warriors cosplay group including
Dustin, Matt Todd, Xanthe Huynh, Christine Bae and Mark Todd.)

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Chiba was absolutely blown away that anyone in the US (outside of Tarantino the Stalker) even knew of his 80s show. (And I’ve asked this forever on this site but WHY WHY WHY wasn’t such fare released over here during the height of our craze?!?!?!?) He called Dustin up on stage with him for photos, and even invited him to dinner where the kid got to meet Chiba’s sword-slinger daughter Juri Manase.

It was great to see this ninja-fandom dream-come-true for Dustin, well done man!

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I, meanwhile, was turned down for an interview by his U.S. handlers, but that bitterness doesn’t belong in these celebratory pages, so ignore my sad self right now and check out these props Chiba-san had on display at the show!

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Don’t know how vintage any of this was, or if it even came in from Japan (kinda hard to get throwing spikes past TSA nowadays), but it was a cool spread nonetheless.

AND… in the end, I did an end-around, circumventing Chiba’s US peeps and getting my info right to his Japanese management, so that interview may just happen in the future…

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Or I’m just a big nerd.

But so what, I met Sonny Chiba!!!

 

34 ninja can’t be wrong

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SEVENTEEN NINJA (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA, 1963) is the typical 60’s Japanese boom film in that:

1.) It’s GREAT.

2.) It’s noir-as-hell — painted in gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography.

3.) It’s also noir-as-hell because (from the gospel of James Ellroy) pretty much everybody in it is fucked. And…

4.) It does what the best shinobi cinema does, pits ninja-vs.-ninja in a world of samurai who would just assume see them all dead.

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Again… and we never get sick of this… the intricacies of the ninja way of life and its weight on the soul of the individual are central to the motivations. Characters are either looking to escape the shadow life, or embrace the dark too readily. Duty is tantamount, but who that duty is to is a major source of disillusionment, and in the end, was it all worth it?

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There are guys…

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There are girls…

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They’re not supposed to fall in love with each other but do. And actually being a human being for once, giving way to normal human emotions, is a cancer to the spartan shadow life the ninja clans needed their agents to live. The heart puts the team, the clan, and the mission in jeopardy.

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In fine ‘born to lose’ form, that mission is essentially impossible, but at the same time impossible to turn down. A vital political document must be rescued from the corrupt clan that stole it. The document has no value to Iga, they’re fighting someone else’s battle here, doing the dirty work with the twisted pride these gloomy movies so often leaned on as a plot device — duty and obligation as a combination of doing what’s ‘right’ and being hired to do something no one thinks is possible but somehow you’ll figure out. It’s like a shadow-hubris in a way, so common to films of this era.

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17N doubles that dynamic though. The conniving clan is fully aware the last of the Iga ninja have been assigned to retrieve the scroll, and have hidden the scroll in a ludicrously over-secure fortress occupied by a full garrison. Whereas the usual ninja commando tactics should work, Iga operatives keep getting caught and killed, one after another, due to the castle’s recently hired in-house anti-ninja specialist from rival Koga!

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In the 1980s, the American ninja films may have taken the hoods out of the feudal era and put them in modern urban environs, but the ninja-vs.-ninja device remained at the genre’s core. Shadow skills taking down hapless guards and run-of-the-mill thugs was always fun second-act fare, but the third act needs your hero and villain to be equally matched for the conflict to actually matter.

Sho Kosugi’s famous “only a ninja can stop a ninja” notion is just as present in the 60s films that inspired him, although more in a larger-scale tactical way. One clan’s ninja are hired as an anti-ninja solution in the way an area overrun by cobras might let lose an imported population of mongoose. The opposing ninja are not only a military threat, they are selling out their own brethren’s way of life, and their’s too by default.

And in the end, everyone is expendable. The snakes may be gone, but who wants a plague of mongoose? The best of all solutions for the samurai clans involved is all of these vermin kill each other off.

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17N is an all-star shinobi affair; Satomi Kotaro is the heroic young ninja stuck between a rock, a hard place and a harder place, while his clan leader played by Ryutaro Otomo suffers under the burden of command, especially when that role requires him to send his men to die. The shadow on the other side of the chess board is superbly rendered by Jushiro Konoe, no stranger to shinobi cinema as hunter (Ninja Gari) or prey (the Yagyu Secret Scrolls series).

Konoe’s ninja exterminator is as intelligent as he is ruthless, sniffing out planted agents and picking off spies with a yari spear like a mantis.

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Great moment here as he senses an intruder, who is armed with a nifty telescoping yari of his own.

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There are two emotional gears grinding against each other in this film. Otomo’s ninja leader positions his men like pawns, sacrificing 16 of them in an effort to put one in just the right spot for a surprise hit. It torments him to the point of self-sacrifice, he’s almost relieved at being captured and tortured, and clings to life only with the hope of seeing the gambit pay off.

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Then there’s the Romeo & Juliet angle, which by the end of the 60s boom actually became a bit tired, but this early entry did it well. Having a romantic couple come out of this bloodbath intact, able to leave “the life” behind and live as loving real humans is the ultimate reward above and beyond the dispatching of duties.

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The Romeo & Juliet angle begins the sequel film as well. SEVENTEEN NINJA 2: THE GREAT BATTLE (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA: DAIKESSEN, 1965 — aka Seventeen Ninja: Amunition and Ambition according to Paghat) sees Hiroki Matsukata take of the mantle of the reluctant man-of-Iga in love with a Koga kunoichi and burdened with an impossible mission.

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Ryutaro Otomo returns in the heart-heavy Iga leader role (this time as Hattori Hanzo) once again facing a heavily guarded fortress and an anti-ninja specialist. Rival ninja Ginza is particularly vicious and driven, perhaps having bought too into the notion that winning here might elevate him out of the shadows. Hanzo, meanwhile, knows they’re both in the typical no-win situation.

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The second film is a great watch, although lacking some of the subtleties of the first. It’s a more straightforward conflict — destroying a hidden arsenal of muskets that will tip the scales in a political revolt — much less of a soul-wringing chess game is played, although the black-hooded body count racks up the same.

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By ’65 the Japanese ninja boom was approaching apex, shadow skills on display from every studio and on screens big and small. This film doesn’t provide as much exotic gadgetry and arcane skills as its predecessor (or other genre entries of the same time) but the action is still fine.

I love Matsukata in anything. He was the first ninja actor I was exposed to, via Magic Serpent being a staple of Boston UHF TV’s Creature Double Feature in the mid 70s. In that film, he lost his head to a gigantic ninja boomerang. Here, it’s over a gal. What’s a ninja gonna do?

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The trick with these two very similar films is to not watch them back to back. Although the characters are different in name (and cast to a degree), the plot structure and dramatic devices are all the same, as are the bittersweet end results.

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17N 2 was a rarity for the longest time, even in Japan. A video release last year finally put it in the hands of long-curious shinobi-cinemafiles who were FINALLY able to devour it. Beyond that initial excitement, the sequel is a solid ‘B’ to the first and more innovative film’s ‘A’ in my opinion. If you didn’t know of the existence of the 63 original though, the 65 film would be amongst your favorites, and it should be noted you absolutely do not need to be familiar with the first to enjoy the second.

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Two movies, 34 ninja… what’s not to love?

READ MORE:

Weird Wild Realm‘s reviews.

Another review of the first film at Shades of Grey.

 

Crude weapons from ENTER

Scored this odd publicity still, which is not in the usual press kits I’ve found from Enter the Ninja. It’s kind of a dingy, soft pic that may have been left on the cutting room floor somewhere.

But while the quality is nothing to write home about, there’s all sorts of prop weapon porn here!

(click the image to expand huge)

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While Enter was the movie that introduced the one-weapon-one-kill notion that ruled ninja movies in America for the next decade, it was produced before most of the standard ninja arsenal was being mass produced and sold outside Japan. The “Kosugi sword” would become widely available in a few variants via mail order and martial arts supply stores shortly after, and by Revenge of the Ninja the Canon crews could outfit an entire film from mass market merchandise.

But the Enter arsenals were all custom jobs and modifications, or re-purposed kung-fu weapons, like those wide-horned sais. You get a great look at how crude the swords were here, too…

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Enter sparked the ninja boom in the US, but it also cemented some of the BS notions that drive a lot of martial arts purists and ninjutsu historians crazy, too. Black suits were worn in daylight situations and red and white suits were essentially superhero outfits, missing only a big “N” shield on the chests. Fetishized archaic weapons were adopted in modern situations where a silenced pistol would have solved all problems, hardly the utilitarian practice that kept historical ninja alive during the feudal era. And non-ninja weapons like tonfa and nunchaku were used prominently, while nary a weighted chain nor black egg was to be seen.

But… nunchaku sold, and ninja-nunchaku sold even better. The very promise of the weapon made famous by Bruce Lee sold movie tickets as well, so there you go.

And while we’re on the subject, if you’re on Facebook I highly recommend following Vintage Nunchaku — great old ads and photos of an amazing collection abound. I’d kill for a pair of those hallowed Dolan’s Sports swivel-chucks!

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My day at the Marxist ninja cartoon marathon…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

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Dateline: Hollywood, CA — 9-14-2014

It’s not often I talk ninja cartoons with college educators, but today was the exception.

Jonathan M. Hall, a Japanese film scholar from Pomona College screened three episodes of Shirato Sanpei shinobi TV treasures at the storied Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood as part of the LA Eigafest film festival. Interesting crowd primarily of academics, and me as probably the biggest ninja nerd in the room. Come to think of it, I’m usually the biggest ninja nerd in the room regardless of circumstance.

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Anyway, there I am seeing two episodes of Sasuke (1968) and one of Kamui the Lone Ninja (Ninpo Kamui Gaiden, 1969) on the big screen. One of the primary motivations behind this site’s creation was frustration of being a product of the 80s American ninja craze and never having the superior Japanese source media of decades previous available. Now, I was seeing these anime classics in a bigger and better format than any TV-glued kid in Japan ever did.

In a pre-show lecture, and post-show Q&A, Hall discussed the unique background of Sanpei — trying to live up to his father, a fine arts painter raising a son in tumultuous waters of left-wing politics and Marxist movements. (take a minute to Google some of this socio-political stuff if you want, I had to…) Somehow Sanpei comes out of it doing kamishibai performance art then manga and anime, replacing the marching proletariat with masked ninja.

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SASUKE in manga form and the DVD box set we’ll never see over here because life sucks…

Sanpei never looked to samurai or large scale feudal-era military action as a source for content of his epics, but rather redefined ninja as warriors of uncanny skill that despite living a brutal, lonely and disenfranchised existence became what millions of Japanese youth idolized. His shinobi were decidedly of the lower-class, victims of the system around them and oppression from a privileged minority above, but they had the tremendous strength and resolve to live-on as outcasts and loners — rebels even to their own kind and hunted for it. They were fantasy refuge for young kids struggling through school and office workers stuck in cubicle farms.

It also didn’t hurt that they had cool-ass exotic weapons and espionage gadgets right at the same time the James Bond movies went super-nova in popularity.

But it seems to me Sanpei was somewhat above the 60’s Japanese ninja boom. Sure, it can be argued that his Ninja Bugeicho manga, starting in the late 50s, was the compass of both editorial theme and a standard of excellence for a lot of the comics, cartoons and movies that would follow en masse, and yes, the offspring of that series — Sasuke and Kamui — were hugely popular and influential. But I think he would have created those properties regardless of whether ninja were popular mass media or not. Hall pointed out that the legendary GARO magazine that originally carried the Kamui manga, had a circulation of merely 80,000 per month, tiny compared to the more popular juggernauts that sold 4-5 million per week. GARO was a publication by artists and intellectuals for artists and intellectuals, and if the ninja explosion had never occurred he probably would have found an outlet in those niche-market pages anyway.

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But ninja did explode in pop culture, and four-plus decades later are a household word on every continent, have been redefined by American exploitation cinema, again by animated turtles and then again by video games and so on and so on. Hall’s presentation had a slant of exposing the political roots of fictional ninja to audiences more familiar with Mortal Kombat and Naruto, and indeed most of those on hand were seeing the 60s craze media for the first time. There was some surprise in the audience at how layered and emotionally complex even a kids cartoon could be, and universal shock at how violent and brutal they routinely were. One of the Sasuke episodes ends with a pack of copy-cat children trying to duplicate the ninja kid’s explosive tricks, and blowing themselves to death in the process, leaving a weeping father to bury the charred corpses.

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You don’t have to go far to find R-rating-level violence and gore in KAMUI… this sequence is from the opening credits.

That very quality is likely what kept these series off American shelves in the 1980s, when otherwise, anything ninja was squeezed for every dollar it could yield. Both series were rife with children wielding bladed weapons, innocents being killed, bursts of hyper-violence and despondent anti-heroes walking off into the gloom of night knowing tomorrow would only bring more of the same. While Japan’s parents were evidently fine with their kids watching such after school, there’s no way that stuff was going to play in the States.

However, chunks of Sasuke and Kamui were actually licensed for release outside of Japan in the 80s. English dubs found limited priced-to-sell VHS releases under names like Kiko-Boy Ninja and Search for the Ninja, and episodes were included with Remco’s Secret of the Ninja action figure play sets. The pictures were rather wretched quality then, haven’t aged well, and will likely never see the light of day in any sort of remastered official release.

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Back-of-box art from a low-resnt VHS release of KIKO-BOY NINJA, recorded on EP on on elf those featherweight bargain bin tapes, so yeah, NOT the best quality. And if you’re under 30 you have no clue what I’m talking about here…

The entire run of Kamui was syndicated to TV in Mexico and South America under the title Kamui: El Ninja Desertór, and I believe both series saw the light of day in Italy as well. Then of course VIZ released The Legend of Kamui, albeit at the end of the craze. Most of us back then didn’t even realize it was a ninja comic based on the lack of black hooded assassins on the covers, plus tastes were changing. It was a good thing too late to be the ‘super-ego’ the craze had needed all along.

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SO… some four decades later there we are in a packed theater, marveling at the brilliance that was Shirato Sanpei. The themes of the lone warrior fighting the good fight despite the societal machinery around him resound just as strongly. I mean, who hasn’t idly fantasized about just saying F-this to the gigantic soul-grinding world we know we can’t change, packing a sack of shuriken and living out in the woods with your pet falcon? We all have, right? Right?

Keith J. Rainville

This 1:6 figure of the manga KAMUI is likely the closest I'm getting to the Lone Ninja lifestyle.
I’d live the minimalist lone-ninja-in-the-woods lifestyle, but then I couldn’t buy stuff like this vintage 1:6 manga KAMUI figure, so nope…

The Art of Deception

In the face of the death of physical media, DVD and Bluray packaging continues to be, let’s say… inventive… in its methods of persuasion.

Hey, deception was a legit ninja skill, right?

As ninja movie fans we’ve all been duped by shinobi-fied covers to VHS or DVDs of vanilla kung-fu fare shamelessly retitled “Ninja-something-or-other.” These, however, step the game up a notch — one ninja movie camouflaged as another!

Note this new label for the Scott Adkins vehicle NINJA, deliberately biting on the much wider known NINJA ASSASSIN.

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Who can keep either of these 2009 films straight anyway, just buy them both!

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It’s one thing for an indie movie to “align itself for marketing shorthand” to another bigger film coming out at the same time, but THIS is another story altogether:

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This recent overseas label for the Hiroyuki Sanada / Conan Lee slugfest NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN strives for recognition and relevance from the video gamers of the world by shamelessly crowbarring-in a stolen rendering of Sega’s Kage-Maru from Virtua Fighter.

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But they re-color him black so he looks more like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden.

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Us non-gamers will also recognize Ryu Hayabusa from his hit indie film Alien vs. Ninja!

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Oh, wait… no, that’s right… NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE IN ANY OF THESE MOVIES!

Laughable as this chicanery, these hijinks, might be, I do love the idea of Virtua Fighter (and even Matrix) fanatics possibly getting duped, then being subjected to some old-school ninja fare that was… ewww, shot on FILM… that those of us longer in the tooth would consider superior.

If only a small percentage of those victims stick with it, maybe some new fans of old-school ninja media are born?

HA HA HAHAHAHAH HA! Made myself laugh… Like anyone under 40 is going to buy physical media!!!

In fact, ignore this whole post.

I’m going to go fool around with my abacus and listen to player piano reels.

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