More good Blu news for 2016!

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Well, it took 30 some odd years but we’re finally getting close to having all the classic Sho Kosugi fare well represented on home video. Arrow’s superb sounding release of Pray for Death hasn’t even shipped yet and they’ve already announced a follow up — the end-of-craze-days actioner Rage of Honor.

Rage was the movie where you could just feel Kosugi not wanting to do costumed ninja stuff anymore, and the industry was indeed on the verge of the kickboxer takeover, but there are plenty of shinobi-fodder on hand for him to slice up with various self-designed ninja-esque gimmick weapons. The marketing boasted the film a “high-tech adventure” but qualified that with “full of new wave ninja tactics” so yeah, no one was entirely comfortable turning their backs fully on the ninja craze quite yet.

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I was a fan of the film’s villain Lewis Van Bergen from his stint on the long-forgotten Sable TV series (a superhero role he evidently inherited from a never-aired pilot that starred Gene Simmons of KISS), and would of course see anything Kosugi did, but back in the day this film felt like one of the more pronounced nails in the coffin for the ninja boom. The marketing was ninja-less, the video packaging later on was ninja-less, and moreover it almost seemed like everyone involved was embarrassed by or trying to deny the hooded pedigree of work that had gotten them to where they were. Note below the signature Kosugi kick, but in spy-wear. Ironically, the mid-2000s DVD packaging would repurpose Revenge of the Ninja publicity material to swing the pendulum back on ninja-nostalgia.

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I was such a ninja-loyalist in 1987 that this turn away from the genre by some of its crucial creators felt like a major letdown, however removed from that sting by a few decades, I’ve come to enjoy Rage of Honor for the nutty fun action blast it actually is. I love the write up for it over at Cool Ass Cinema, who call it “the most expensive ninja movie Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai, and Tomas Tang never made.”

From the Arrow Films press release:

Sho Kosugi’s ninja domination continues!

Rage of Honor (Arrow Video) Blu-ray

Following his star turns in ‘80s actioners Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, Sho Kosugi continued his domination of the US martial arts movie with 1987’s Rage of Honor – helmed once again by Pray for Death director Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad).

Federal agent Shiro Tanaka (Kosugi) used to live for his job – now, he lives only for revenge. When his partner is killed during a bungled drug bust, Shiro throws away his badge and the rule book with it: arming himself with an array of deadly weaponry – including nunchucks, blades and ninja stars – he sets out to Buenos Aires to settle the score with the bad guys.

Packing explosions, flying kicks and somersaults aplenty (as well as some truly logic-bending stunt sequences), Rage of Honor sees Kosugi at the top of his game as he battles his way from the streets of the urban jungle to the very literal jungles of South America.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a transfer of original elements by MGM
– Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Sho and Tell Part 2: The Domination – brand new interview with star Sho Kosugi on Rage of Honor and the later stages of his film career
– Sho Kosugi Trailer Gallery: Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983), Pray for Death (1985) and Rage of Honor (1987)
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin

The first pressing includes a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film and an extract from Kosugi’s upcoming book

Really interested in that new Kosugi material promised!!!

Moving on to other major Blu-news…

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Finally. Fi-nal-ly! FINALLY!!!

Perhaps the most ‘fallen-between-the-cracks’ major chapter of 80s martial cinema to largely miss the DVD era is getting a legit release worthy of its quality! The Challenge (aka The Equals, Sword of the Ninja) was a 1982 American film shot mostly in Japan, directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix, Ronin), co-penned by John Sayles (Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out), scored by the great Jerry Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes), and photographed by Hideo Gosha favorite Kôzô Okazaki (Goyokin, The Wolves, The Yakuza). A-List behind the camera, and A-List in front, too.

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It was the first American audiences saw of Toshiro Mifune since The Bushido Blade and Shogun, and would end up being the last English-language work he’d do. Scott Glenn, after surviving the rigors of Apocalypse Now and hot off making a splash in Urban Cowboy played The Ugly American fish-out-of-water, a no-good palooka that Bushido master Mifune and daughter Donna Kei Benz (Pray for Death) whip into shape for a showdown with the clan’s black sheep brother, a rich industrialist obsessed with reuniting a pair of family swords separated after WWII. Much blood-letting ensues.

This movie sees life imitate art quite a bit, in that Scott Glenn, once on the turf of Japanese stunt crews and martial arts choreographers, takes a real beating as an actor, just like his character does. And in a refreshing departure from the normal ‘white guy gets in over his head in a foreign culture then becomes the best example of that culture ever and turns out to be their savior’ bullshit we get so often, he is instead constantly fighting from behind the 8-ball, a thoroughly expendable pawn manipulated by two sides of a generational feud. When it does inevitably come down to him ‘saving the day’ it is more a matter of self-preservation, as a frantic sword fight against a lifelong kenjutsu master turns into an explosion of pure anarchy that a barely trained but desperate x-factor of a fighter miraculously endures more than outright wins.

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Despite everyone and everything about this movie being first rate, including some superb martial arts, The Challenge fell into a weird hole. It was all over cable after a brief theatrical run, and had a big box VHS release, but never made it to DVD (at least not 100% legit or intact) in this country. It wasn’t until airings on cable in recent years that anyone had seen it widescreen, but now , because maybe the gods have not abandoned us after all, somebody woke up and we’ve got a Blu coming and man are we stoked!!! Scott Glenn fighting ninja on Netflix’s Daredevil and now The Challenge in HD? Somebody pinch me!

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Two other 1980s Japanese martial arts-oriented films that weren’t necessarily martial arts films have also gotten new HD life. Scream Factory continues their budo-horror preoccupation that started with Ninja III: The Domination with a double feature disc of The House Where Evil Dwells and Ghost Warrior!

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From the press release:

A Double Dose Of Samurai Action!

THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS
1982 / 1.78:1 / NEW Transfer

A century ago, a samurai brutally murdered his adulterous wife and her lover before taking his own life. Now, the Fletcher family has found what they think is their perfect Japanese home – not knowing it’s the same house where the murders occurred. But as strange events escalate and the ghosts of the dead begin to toy with the living, the Fletchers discover they’ve become unwitting players in a horrible reenactment… one which they may not survive! This chilling ghost story stars Edward Albert (Galaxy Of Terror), Susan George (Straw Dogs) and Doug McClure (Humanoids From The Deep) and is directed by Kevin Connor (Motel Hell).

GHOST WARRIOR (aka SWORDKILL)
1986 / 1:85.1

While exploring a cave, two skiers find the body of a 400-year-old samurai warrior entombed in ice. He is brought to the United States in a hush-hush operation and revived through cryosurgery. Unfortunately, he is then forced to battle for his freedom, dignity and life. This Charles Band production stars Janet Julian (King Of New York, Humongous).

Two more mainstays from my cable TV-feuled youth, and another swoon-worthy Susan George role, fresh off of Enter the Ninja.

TAKE MY MONEY ALREADY!

 

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!

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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.

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

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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 utter dilemma of GYMKATA

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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.

 

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

__________________________________________

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…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 1

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!

 

 

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