SHINOBI-NO-MONO: The Lost Essential?

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This week I was invited to be a guest on the NERD LUNCH podcast’s annual “Ninja Day” show. The usual panel of three hosts was well schooled in American ninja movies, but had never seen SHINOBI-NO-MONO, the ‘ground zero’ film of the original cinematic boom in Japan. So my role as invited expert became more one of missionary of the obscure.

The Nerd Lunch crew was impressed with the film, having the usual reaction of folks fist discovering the deep end (or high-end) of the the genre — an appreciative “Wow, there were GOOD ninja movies?!?!” exclamation, followed by a desire to see more.

You can here it all HERE:

Glad as I always am when I can share the ‘super-ego’ of shinobi cinema with those who only know the ‘id’ of exploitation, an always irksome question was brought up — WHY don’t we all know this movie and where was it in the 80s?

Frustration at discovering the depth of 60s ninja entertainment we were denied in the 80s boom was core to the founding of this site and all my subsequent efforts, so I truly welcome this opportunity to correct, albeit long afterwards. 

So, the below article is intended as a intro to Shinobi-no-Mono for new audiences, and a companion piece to the podcast discussion on Nerd Lunch. And at the end tries to pinpoint why the Citizen Kane of ninja movies was never big deal in the States.

Enjoy!

 

SHINOBI-NO-MONO: The Lost Essential?

by Keith J. Rainville, December, 2016

 

New Decade, New Ninja

In 1962 subversive director Satsuo Yamamoto (known for his art group and publication Mavo as well as left-wing and anti-war films) and box office idol Raizo Ichikawa set out to tear the Japanese public’s idea of ninja movies a new orifice. Shinobi-no-Mono would become a hit for Daiei Studios, deconstructing the genre of colorful swashbuckling wizard-based ninja that had grown out of kabuki theater. Mirroring trends in popular literature and manga, SnM wasn’t the first black-and-white ninja movie featuring the hoods and commando techniques, but then again Dr. No wasn’t the first British spy movie of the 60s either.

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Out were the magical special effects and jaunty heroes, in were gritty, realistic ninja films that saw socially oppressed little guys in black cloth suits with specialized shadow skills trying to shirk the foot of the armored spear-wielding samurai climbing over them for upward mobility. The Murayama Tomoyoshi pulp novels SnM was based on wore its socialist agenda on its sleeve, and director Yamamoto specialized in tales of anti-heroes subverting authority. Feudal warfare would stand-in for the capitalist system, conquest of land doubled for corporate greed, rival ninja were the guys in the next cubicle competing for what should have been your raise, and warlords played with innocent lives like the most jaded of corporate middle management played with careers.

In addition to its socio-political tone, SnM looked like no other ninja movie had. Tomoyoshi’s books were inspired by the research of ninja history pioneer Heishichiro Okuse, and for the film adaptation modern ninjutsu practitioners Toshitsugu Takamatsu and Masaaki Hatsumi (of modern Bujinkan fame) were on set providing outré fight choreography. The new screen ninja they spawned fought different, crouched in unique stances, had unique ways of running, and in general moved and carried themselves differently than the samurai around them. Between the ninja advisors and credited prop masters “Kawaguchi Ryu” audiences were also first exposed to proprietary short swords, bamboo spy gadgets and most iconically, tighter, trimmer, more utilitarian black suits and hoods than previously seen.

The hills of Iga, previously portrayed as wooded paradises where white-bearded old wizards trained their plucky young wards in teleportation and weather manipulation, now became claustrophobic hiding places of secret garrisons that trained generations of spies, saboteurs and assassins in the dirty work richer, nobler samurai were unwilling to do. Prideful as they were in their astounding skills and reputations throughout the land, the farmer-class ninja villages of these movies were essentially ghettos, and were always the target of paranoid warlords unwilling to let the people of these provinces live by their own rules.

For the first time on screen the ninja life was portrayed as hard, unforgiving and spartan. There was no fame or glory for their anonymous work, no reward other than being the best and the secure knowledge that an otherwise impossible mission was executed by the only warriors remotely able. Withstanding torture and the resolve of cutting one’s face off if caught were skills taught alongside demolitions, exotic poisons and chemical weaponry. It was a grave, dark life with no upward mobility and the promise of an anonymous death in servitude to another.

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A Story of Shadows

In addition to all of the shinobi genre deconstruction, the first SnM film was loaded…LOADED… with story, both sweepingly historical and intimately dramatic. The protagonist is Ishikawa Goemon (a real-life historical folk-hero / Robin Hood-type scamp / notorious serial criminal depending on myriad portrayals), a young and optimistic ninja of remarkable skill but flawed with ambition and a weakness for the ladies. Above him in the shadow clan hierarchy is his garrison’s chief Momochi Sandayu (another name plucked from foggy history), a grumpy and feeble ruler obsessed with taking down the brutal warlord Oda Nobunaga. Sandayu, however, is not all that he seems, living a double life as the more nimble (and horny) leader Nagata of rival garrison Fubayashi. This remarkable master of disguise is one of the most enigmatic and striking screen villains you could ever ask for. Sandayu plays his ninja groups against each other, two wheels in a revenge and greed fueled machine that grinds Goemon and every woman he’s connected with to a pulp.

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Nobunaga, in the meantime, is rightfully paranoid about such a skilled people living beyond his control, and while Sandayu and Goemon play their little game of cat(s) and mouse, he’s winding up tens of thousands of cavalry, spearmen and artillery to level Iga the second he has an excuse to do so. A botched assassination attempt gives him just that, and all the best laid plans of mice and men meant nothing all along.

 

A-List All the Way

Goemon may be the lowly ninja hero fighting against an impossibly huge machinations, but he was played by anything but a lowly actor. Raizo Ichikawa is often referred to as the Japanese James Dean, being the looker who melted women’s hearts and had a magnetic screen presence, only to die too young of cancer in 1969. However his career spanned over 100 films, hardly the tiny sample of work of Dean’s that left audiences with the greatest ‘what-if’ in American cinema history.

Career-wise Raizo leapfrogged mega-franchise roles in eight SnM films and twelve Nemuri Kyoshirō (Sleepy Eyes of Death / Son of the Black Mass) adaptations the same way multi-franchise mega-stars like Harrison Ford or Sylvester Stallone alternated between Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Rocky and Rambo respectively.

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And just like all of those franchises, Shinobi-no-Mono was A-list BANK. Yamamoto would return to helm an immediate sequel Zoku Shinobi-no-Mono, which was bleak as hell with a brutal downer of an ending that saw his hero come to the end history actually recorded — caught by the law and boiled alive in oil. But remember, ninja are masters of escape, and escape Goemon returned for a third adventure, followed by a series reboot as Raizo Ichikawa became “Saizo the Mist” for another four films. Meanwhile a concurrent 52 episode Shinobi-no-Mono TV series starring Ryuji Shinagawa aired by Toei in 1964-65, competing with the mega popular ninja-filled series Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia).

Every studio in Japan was cranking out ninja movies by mid decade — derivative noir-ish fare and gorgeous color adventures, kids’ manga adaptations to experimental art-house to soft porn. The movies and TV fed more and more ninja manga, which led to toys and merchandise, and interest increased in tourism to historical ninja locations with new museums popping up, martial arts manuals littered the shelves, dojo business boomed — it all fed each other and snowballed.

As the series went on, the grave, morose plots and socialist agendas took a backseat to lighter-toned action spectacles, more ‘black-suit’ time on screen than melodrama, and increasing emphasis on gadgets and arcane commando techniques. Screen ninja were being codified and the formula just kept selling.

An eighth theatrical SnM film would see Raizo return as yet another hooded hero in 1966, but this reboot was never followed up. Raizo Ichikawa would die of cancer in 1969.

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New Decade, OLD Ninja

Daiei Studios, trying to extend the 60s craze into the 1970s, sort of rebooted the series yet again with a film called Shinobi no Shu (aka Mission: Iron Castle) — sometimes billed as the ninth film, sometimes not considered part of the series at all. Ill-timed with the dawning of the new decade, and ill-advised in invoking the franchise name soon after the nation’s heart was ripped out by the death of its beloved screen icon, the film failed to swell the mega audience its predecessors did, and fell into obscurity even among fervent collector circles for the longest time. But removed from that context, Mission: Iron Castle is arguably one of if not the best isolated examples of grim and gritty black-and-white ninja shinobi cinema. Prolific screen legend Hiroki Matsukata leads an elite band of ninja to rescue a kidnapped noblewoman from an ingeniously ninja-proofed castle loaded with traps. It’s wall-to-wall action, bolstered by familiar themes of wanting to escape the shadow life but knowing you never can, followed by a noir-as-hell ending. Just great.

But it was 1970, and everyone wanted color movies, and Raizo was dead…

Daiei would go bankrupt within a year, and the original Japanese ninja boom was essentially over.

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So why?

Shinobi-no-Mono‘s reach went further than Japan, and much further than the 60s. British writer Roald Dahl cribbed several scenes from SnM for his script for the Bond film You Only Live Twice — the western world’s first cinematic exposure to the idiom. SnM‘s costumes, sets and ninja techniques (both martial and cinematic) were dusted off for 1980’s Shogun mini-series. Then a man named Sho Kosugi, who as a kid watching Shinobi-no-Mono was taught every lesson he’d need to know, came to America and became the icon of an entirely new ninja craze.

But during that mega boom in the U.S. and the rest of the world, the seminal Shinobi-no-Mono itself was largely unseen, and for all purposes “lost” to a potential international audience, as were the rest of its gritty black-and-white ilk. These movies sat in a distribution no-man’s land in the early 1980s. In a decade of garish neon color and post-Star Wars special effects excess, no English-language home video label was looking for something as complex, heady and monochromatic as SnM. But at the same time, an art house distributor like Janus Films, who’d scoop up any back catalog of Kurosawa, Inagaki, Ozu, Teshigahara and any other Japanese cinema elite wasn’t going to touch anything to do with “ninja,” as Cannon had placed the genre firmly in the exploitation/grindhouse camp, and cartoon turtles were on the horizon.

So instead of getting the best the original genre had to offer in English, we got a small, weird assortment of imported titles that looking back now makes no sense. There was no subtitled Shinobi-no-Mono, no dubbed Castle of Owls or Warrior of the Wind, no airings of The Samurai on late night cable. Instead, an illogical assortment of special effects epics (like Kadowkawa’s Iga Ninpocho — ironically a return to pre-60s ninja wizardry) were dubbed and given new titles like Ninja Wars, Legend of the Eight Ninja and Renegade Ninjas. Largely bereft of the black suits and signature arsenals we’d been trained to expect by Kosugi and Dudikoff, these outré Japanese films didn’t exactly whip up demand for the older stuff either.

The English-speaking world’s best exposure to SnM wouldn’t come until the early 2000s when bootlegged Japanese home video releases subtitled by fans in homemade DVD sets were gobbled up by people like, well, ME. Sadly, this piracy took the wind out of the sails for the superb efforts of Animeigo years later, whose officially licensed and superbly restored DVD boxed set of the first four movies evidently didn’t sell enough to merit the rest of the release of the rest of the films.

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And now what?

There are now more years separating the 1980s American ninja boom films from a modern audience than there were years separating us 80s kids from the 1960s Japanese originals. So now that it’s ALL vintage, all antique media from an arcane decade, I wonder if new viewers will find the old films more — or maybe less — alien. Both decades’ product are equally available streaming, subtitles have conquered the language barrier, and newer properties like Naruto have actually expanded the public’s definition of ninja to include both the old models of magic spell-casters and the black hooded commandos alike. Maybe an old black-and-white movie about Sarutobi Sasuke would be more interesting to a Naruto-literate populace than it would have been to us in the 80s who just wanted to see ninja stars thrown into people’s eye sockets? Or maybe the current fetish the younger generations have with the ‘retro 1980s’ will make that decades’ ninja-sploitation even more delicious than it was back in the day?

My hope, as always, is that BOTH the 60s and 80s flavors find new audiences and an ongoing appreciation.

There’s no better place to start than Shinobi-no-Mono.

KR

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We’re still looking for more KOSUGI KICKS

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Vintage Ninja still has an open call out for what we call “Kosugi Kicks” — images of ninja in movie posters, VHS sleeves, toy packaging, advertising, whatever, that are cribbed from the iconic two-sword jump kick publicity shot Sho Kosugi posed for back in the early 80s. This image has gone on to be the most iconic, and most ripped-off, image of a ninja from the Western world’s craze of the 80s.

Read our original article on the subject here.

And a follow up here.

Just discovered this vintage gem from the derivative genre literary world:

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And here’s another from a proposed film that never happened, at least not in this form:

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A better look at the Kosugi-Kick-inspired packaging of the M.U.S.C.L.E-knock-off toy line N.I.N.J.A Mites:

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And outright piracy of the image on some old tabi packaging:

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See any we missed in these three articles? Send them our way!

krainville@vintageninja.net

 

Vagabond of the Wind

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(originally published July 2010)

There may not be a more beautifully shot ninja film than the 1964  artistic gem Kaze no Bushi (aka “Warrior of the Wind” and/or “Ninja Vagabond”). The set-bound cinematography is great, the use of natural light in the lush exteriors approaches astounding, there are fights that look like nothing else in the genre, even the blood is gorgeous.

Two years after holding his own against genre heavyweights in Akai Kageboshi, Hashizo Okawa returns to the ninja fold as one of the most human protagonists to ever dawn the hood. It is difficult to describe his journey from complacent layabout to reluctant hero and beyond without giving away too many spoilers, so I’ll try not to ruin anyone’s pleasure at discovering this film. Suffice to say his portrayal of bored womanizer Shinzo goes places emotionally you won’t expect.

The under-achieving Shinzo is constantly beset by women with different agendas, from a shifty kunoichi to a noble princess with a secret. Women are the primary catalysts in his development as a hero, and get him into all sorts of trouble.
And a brutal ninja spy as a rival doesn’t help matter either.
Shinzo is a shadow-skilled agent himself, but the tactical mindset and task-driven disciplines of a ninja fail when it comes to matters of the heart.

Kaze no Bushi was directed by Tai Kato, known for his Toei yakuza films. He certainly didn’t approach this ninja film with the typical genre slant. The conventions of shinobi cinema are present, but not leaned on or hidden behind. There’s some experimenting here (most of which works, although when it doesn’t it really doesn’t), and for every typical creep down a hallway there’s a scene you won’t see in any other ninja movie.

Kato didn’t seem especially interested in night scenes, which would be a problem in any other ninja movie. These superbly shot exteriors and multi-depth set pieces are so well executed, you just don’t miss the typical ninja environs.

The high-point of Kaze no Bushi is this unforgettable (although brief) fight and flight scene amidst a maze of rocks on a beach at dusk. Subdued orange light, wide open spaces contrasting with a scurrying, tight pursuit amid jagged terrain, it’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t think of another ninja action scene this damn pretty.

I love this style of head wrap. Its as common as the ‘stingray’ style hood and other oft-seen mask styles, but in this grey tone, you can really see the technique.

As unique and masterful as Kato was here, his best accomplishment in Kaze is what he does with his lead man. Shinzo is perhaps the most human and emotionally credible hero of a ninja film I’ve ever seen. He has flaws, feels rage, shame, hurts from losses. He’s in a situation way over his head and way beyond his years of experience, and knows it. Multiple times he can take an easier path, but doesn’t. He’s a different guy by film’s end, and that’s what a good movie needs to do to it’s main. The human factor here is great.

Kaze no Bushi is on an artistic level above the genre in many ways, as unique as Samurai Spy and every bit as visually striking. It’s not an action powerhouse like Mission Iron Castle or a fun exploitive flick from the Chiba era. Kaze is more of a lush painting.

This is an adaptation of an original novel by Ryotaro Shiba, also responsible for Castle of Owls (another half-decent ninja film, if I recall). Curious to know if the superb ninja films live up to his written words, or if there was a generation of Japanese reader who rolled their eyes at these movie adaptations like we often do here.

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Animated credits – FURAI NINPOCHO (1965)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOV 2009 — With the new animated adventure Kubo and the Two Strings in theaters this weekend, thought we’d take a look at some other animation.

I absolutely adore 60’s animated movie credits, and these somewhat DePatie-esque panels from the opening of the 1965 ninja comedy Furai Ninpocho are just great.

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The rest of the movie, despite a good cast (including Mie Hama of You Only Live Twice fame), just doesn’t live up, alas…

VN REVISITED: Torawakamaru

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Originally published in December of 2009 — Revised with name correction thanks to Ichi Ban

The 1957 Toei FX romp Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai (aka Torawakamaru, the Koga Ninja) is the perfect example of the pre-60’s craze kid’s ninja film: mischievous wizard hero, evil sorcerer, spirit-creatures fighting in the clouds, etc and so forth. Before the real ninjutsu practitioners taught the makers of Shinobi-no-mono the real-deal, these magic duels were what the genre was all about.

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These stills, contemporary with the film’s release, are from a press kit for Asian secondary markets.

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The film’s dashing hero Torawakamaru (Sentaro Fushimi) has whatever magical powers he needs to in any given situation – teleportation, mind-over-matter, flight, and the requisite giant toad transmutation.

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Here he is again, with the cute-as-a-button Ueki Chie Sakuramachi Hiroko as the princess-in-peril. Great costumes here.

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And a hand-tinted version of the same, which only supposes some of the astounding colors that must have been there.

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Oddly enough, this film has the exact same historically-based conflict as the SHINOBI-NO-MONO films did years later: Tokugawa vs. Toyotomi, with Sandayu Momochi and Ichikawa Goemon (Nakajiro Tomita, in black above) working in the shadows.

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Torawakamaru and Goemon’s final duel goes from courtyard to rooftop and beyond. After a while, gotta think Japanese architects were reinforcing rooftops to accommodate constant combat…

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A little closer in on these amazing costumes. Too bad both the film and the stills are B&W, the colors must have been intense.

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In magic-based ninja flicks, ALL final duels end up in the clouds, or the shadow realm, or the zone of cloudy shadows, whatever. Shortly after this exchange, the combatants transformed into giant toad and fire breathing serpent, per union rules. No stills of such in the press kit alas.

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Don’t look to me for a rational explanation of this crudely composited still, I’m as baffled as you are. The kid is Goroichi (Ueki Motoharu), son on the evil Goemon. He, however, is the plucky boyscout/sidekick type, and the film is strangely brutal when it comes to the kid’s emotions at watching his father’s demise.

A movie (such as it is, with a serial-like running length of just over 1-hour) like this isn’t for those looking for the black suits and the blood-letting. It’s very one-dimensional, prone to silliness and comedy relief, and the FX scenes are a bit too few and far between. But, it is a prime example of what the genre was at the time. If you dig Magic Serpent, see it’s predecessor for sure.

For more on this film, read Paghat’s review over at the Weird Wild Realm, along with pics of the toad and serpent.

It’s that time of year again…

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Yes, it’s the 4th of July again, so that means its time to take a look back at AMERICAN NINJA!

There’s no better way to celebrate the birth of the USA than by appreciating a low-budget exploitation flick based on a Japanese martial art, produced by Israelis, shot in the Philippines.

READ ON, FELLOW PATRIOTS:

The seminal film reviewed by us here.

Who was the real “American Ninja” – Dudikoff, Kosugi or Norris???

Read Matt Wallace‘s take on American Ninja 5 here.

See the amazing African version of the movie poster here.

And check out some licensed merchandise for kids here.

Happy 4th!

Double Rip-Off!

A reader recently sent me a fragment of an image found on tumblr, looking for an ID.

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At the time I couldn’t identify which particular variant of which particular Godfrey Ho film under which particular alternate title this would have been, but I sure as hell could ID where the “source inspiration” of the artwork came from!

Check this out — DOUBLE RIP-OFF!!!

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Half Schwarzenegger, half Kosugi, all brilliant.

Knock-off artwork was nothing of rarity in the VHS era, and that practice carried well into the DVD era, with exploitation-minded labels in Europe being particularly adept.

It didn’t take much digging to find that this is indeed a VHS-era German release of Death Code Ninja.

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What the artist lacked in originality he or she made up for two-fold in brazen ambition. Either one of these hero images from Red Sonja (hey, revisit this movie, it holds up better as time goes on!) and Revenge of the Ninja would have done the job, but NO, why choose one when you can have both?

It beats the hell out of the other commonly seen package art from this flick:

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Yeah, not so good…  Although, awesome.

Death Code Ninja resembles neither Sonja nor Revenge. See for yourself — the whole thing is on YouTube.

 

 

SEVEN YEARS!

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Another birthday for VN. Seven years ago today we published our first post, featuring press stills from Akai Kageboshi (The Red Shadow). It’s been a great ride so far, here’s to you all our readers and fans, and may we all have many more together.

Here’s a whole pile of old ninja goodness as our present to you…

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Sweet 17!

I’d like to wholeheartedly thank you all for NOT running up the auction price of the poster for Seventeen Ninja (Jushichinin no Ninja, 1963) recently listed on eBay from the excellent dealer Movie Poster Japan. It was very kind of you to get the hell out of my way, cuz there was not a chance this wasn’t going to be added to the VN office wall.

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I’d also deserves thanks myself for not bidding up the poster to the sequel, as several of you dueled it out over that. Congrats to whoever scored this beauty…

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We did extensive reviews of both films here, and they are positively essential.

I regrettably passed on this poster for a 1970 film I’m totally unfamiliar with called Tomei Kenshi (The Invisible Swordsman). The art and design is sooooo damn cool, but I’ve only got so much wall space.

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“THE NINJA” vs. “THE NINJA: The Movie”

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20+ weeks on The New York Times‘ Best Seller list, millions of copies in print, five sequels and enduring publication on all modern electronic platforms… Eric Van Lustbader‘s vanguard novel The Ninja turns 36 years old this month. It was easily the biggest mass media property of the 1980s ninja boom, yet somehow never saw adaptation outside of print. Much of it was lifted for low-budget movies like Revenge of the Ninja, while at the same time a host of A-list talent and Hollywood legends-in-the-making couldn’t manage to sustain its film development with a much bigger studio deal. The Ninja is the biggest ‘what-if?’ or ‘never-was’ or ‘if-only’ of the era.

So why wasn’t The Ninja the first, and biggest, ninja movie?

From Lustbader’s own website:

After a long process too tortuous to go into here, which included two high-profile directors and three screenwriters, the project was shelved when a new head of production was hired at 20th [Century Fox] and put into turnaround [trans. abandoned] all the projects the former head of production had green-lighted.

Read on, we’re going to look that ‘long, torturous process’ while comparing the book to an actual script draft from one of the high-profile directors in question. And we’ll hear from the author himself on what could have been via a Vintage Ninja exclusive interview.

Ed. Note: If you’ve never read the book, spoilers abound.

 

It came from the pre-craze void…

If The Ninja was published in 1980, it needed at least a year of work behind-the-scenes at the publisher to get there, and let’s speculate the manuscript was started maybe at least a half-year before that. So the notion of a ninja novel was born 1978-79ish? That puts Lustbader two-to-three years ahead of The Octagon in theaters, the Shogun mini-series putting ninja on every TV in America, The Hand appearing in Marvel Comics and Stephen Hayes making the cover of Black Belt. He was ahead of the curve and ahead of the craze, embracing the term ‘ninja’ at a time when only Andrew Adam’s martial arts articles, the Bond adventure You Only Live Twice, Peckinpaw’s The Killer Elite, and sporadic TV episodes of series like Kung-Fu, Baretta and Quincy had breached the term in the U.S.

We asked the author about his first exposure in that pre-boom period:

EVL: I had gotten interested in ukiyo-e Japanese prints. To that end, I was directed to the Ronin Gallery in NYC, which has the largest selection of prints in the Western world. In short order, I became friends with the couple who owned the gallery. In those days, it was housed in the Explorer’s Club mansion on the East Side of Manhattan. It was a nexus for many Japanese visiting or emigrating to the US. The word “ninja” came up in a discussion they were having one day. I started asking questions and immediately became fascinated by these modern-day masters of chaos.

Keep in mind how amorphous the notion of ‘ninja’ would have been at that point. The old kabuki magician image of shinobi characters like Sarutobi Sasuke had no legs in the West. Although mystical lore was suggested in various martial arts theses, notions of cultish assassins were out there in more abundance, and the hooded commando image had been introduced in the Bond movie. The stereotypes, conventions, tropes, etc. and so forth weren’t even close to being cemented in the mainstream public’s eye.

So Lustbader had a perfect opportunity to seize onto an exotic foreign term and iconic character type that would have had an inkling of recognition but wasn’t yet weighed down by b-movie and kids cartoon baggage. It was wide open territory.

 

The Book

The protagonist of The Ninja and its sequels is an effective literary archetype — the outsider of two different cultures caught in their inevitable intersection. Nicholas Linnear is of mixed race – a white father, part of the post WWII occupation force in Japan, and a mother of deliberately mysterious pan-Asian descent. As a young man he endures a troubled upbringing in post-war Japan, where he learned deadly martial arts alongside rival cousin Saigo, to whom he loses his first love Yukio. Politics and subterfuge lead to the deaths of his parents, a grudge gets passed to the next generation, and he flees Japan.

Decades later, Linnear is a graphic designer living a playboy life in New York City. He gets tangled with a gorgeous basket case named Justine, the daughter of billionaire industrialist Raphael Tomkin — who just happens to tank a deal with a Japanese conglomerate that puts a price on his head. Saigo, who has spent the interim learning the most demented aspects of ninjutsu’s mind control and black arts, answers their call, unable to pass up the opportunity for a major bounty, and a chance to settle an old score.

What follows is cat-and-mouse, as Saigo stalks both of his prey, killing off their colleagues and friends one by one in signature shinobi fashion. Grizzled burn-out loose-cannon cop Lew Croaker recruits Linnear into the chase, despite the warnings of Nicholas’ country sawbones pal Doc Deerforth, who himself encountered evil ninja in the Philippines during WWII. The more our hero heals old emotional wounds via his relationship with Justine, the more he is maneuvered into protecting his potential father-in-law. Saigo, meanwhile, devolves into an urban monster, frequenting a brothel where he victimizes young boys and sinking further into an opiate drug habit that somehow aids his almost sorcerer-like powers.

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The final showdown between Linnear and Saigo happens in that oh-so-80s of locations – the under-construction luxury skyscraper. Tomkins, being the eeeeevil industrialist cliché that he is, screws over everyone to protect himself, not caring as dead employees, bodyguards, disposable police and even family members are piling up like cordwood. Linnear uses him as bait, and it comes down to ninja-vs-ninja – ancient weapons used in a duel amidst modern architecture and office computers.

Copious sex, cultural stereotypes used for flavor, red-light seedy locals interspersed with glass and chrome digs of the rich (and you can just see the Nagel prints on the walls), violence in lurid detail and eventually explosions abound, along with plenty of set-up for sequels. So yeah, 80s blockbuster novel.

With time and perspective (and some nostalgia), I actually enjoy The Ninja now more than I did back in the day. When I plucked my copy off the spinner rack at the local pharmacy in 1980-whatever, it was a mass market paperback already in print for years, and Shogun, The Octagon and Enter the Ninja, along with countless issues of exploitive martial arts magazines, had cemented a notion of what ninja were in my early-teen head.

Decades later, knowing what the black-hooded idiom devolved into, I appreciate the novel’s almost non-genre-ness immensely. The book wasn’t tainted by contemporary exploitation movie posters and mail-order merchandise mania. There was nary a ‘ninja-to’ to be found in its pages, and even the black suits and hoods (later requisite, regardless of what century or continent the ninja tale was based) are only vaguely referred to and could certainly just be modified contemporary garb. It’s free of a lot of the baggage that, let’s face it, killed the ninja boom before a legitimizing big-budget movie ever saw the light of day.

I approach the book now like one should most Best Sellers and read it for entertainment. Sure, critics will task its Western views of Eastern culture, damaged and victimized women characters, tangents to Calvell’s Shogun, etc. and whatnot, but to me (and I’m thinking the rest of you reading this site) The Ninja is fine beach reading… with shuriken!

 

The Ninja: The Movie

So why wasn’t The Ninja the first big craze-launching movie?

Search around the web, from the author’s own site to various film databases, and a murky picture of what was going on with the film development emerges. 20th Century Fox is widely credited with the option, but just as many sources list Richard Zanuck and David Brown as attached producers, who were more associated with Universal Studios. Regardless of what studio ended up distributing, the production entity that was the Zanuck/Brown Company had this weird cadence of success — every second movie they did was huge. 1973 saw them crank out snakes-sploitation shlock classic Sssssss to meager success, but then later that year produce the mega smash hit and Oscar-rich The Sting. The oft forgotten Spielberg movie Sugarland Express followed, but then in 1975 they were responsible for inventing the summer tentpole movie phenomenon with Jaws. I’m a big fan of their next flick The Island with Michael Caine, but it was a flop, but their next outing was the monster hit Cocoon. So where would The Ninja have fallen in this up/down cycle?

Talent behind the camera certainly would have indicated a big hit, as the author attests:

EVL: The first [director] to be attached was Irvin Kirshner. He was just coming off directing “The Empire Strikes Back,” so he was considered “hot,” with no thought whatsoever as to whether he would be right for the project. He was so not. I sat in on a lot of the pre-production meetings, all of which were a disaster. Then the script came in. It was virtually unrecognizable. The screenwriter (I don’t recall his name) had Nicholas shoot Saigo with a gun in the climactic battle. It was a hot mess.

When Dick and David fired Kirshner and hired John Carpenter, everything was reset to zero from that moment on. Carpenter, as it turned out, was also wrong for the film, and he left after a frustrating year of not being able to come up with a filmable draft.

So many what-if’s here… You couldn’t have a bigger hit than Empire, but Kirshner’s career sort of went sideways after, with marginal genre work like the James Bond red-headed stepchild Never Say Never Again and Robocop 2. Carpenter was coming off the heartbreak of The Thing tanking (despite its now classic status) and would have been writing his version of The Ninja between projects like Christine and Starman. Years later, he would end up channeling his desire to do a martial arts epic into Big Trouble in Little China.

So why not ask the author for an adaptation?

EVL: I did not write a draft, and I didn’t ask to do one. I have family who have been in the film business all their lives. I didn’t want to get enmeshed in that craziness. Dick Zanuck and David Brown had bought “The Ninja” through their production company…they were wonderful to me, real gentleman, and took my suggestions to heart. They threw out that first script, for instance. 20th’s head of production at the time was the great Sherry Lansing, one of the last true production execs in Hollywood. She was also wonderful to me. Very warm and open, but all the film decisions were made by Dick and David.

Another interesting question is what the overall look and general feel of the movie have been. Being right on the cusp of two decades, The Ninja: The Movie might have had a vestigial 1970s-ness to it — think The Yakuza with Robert Mitchum and Takakura Ken, or The Challenge with Toshiro Mifune and Scott Glenn. Conversely, the 1980s was a decade that very aggressively wanted an identity of its own, and actively distanced itself from music, cinematic and pop culture trends of the disco 70s. Would The Ninja: The Movie have been amidst stylistic landmarks of that time, movies like Smithereens and Alphabet City, ramping up to the uber-80s-ness of To Live and Die in L.A. or the Miami Vice TV show?

Location would have dictated a lot as well. With a bigger budget, The Ninja would have been a New York City picture, carrying the Scorsese-like gravitas that city’s gritty streets effortlessly provide. Had it been even partially co-produced or made with Japanese studio cooperation, some scenes could have been shot in Japan on the familiar Toho or Daiei jidaigeki sets, as had Shogun. Had the budget not been as high, Burbank backlots would have subbed for NYC, or more likely the story’s location changed to Los Angeles to accommodate local shooting. The result wouldn’t have suffered much.

 

Wait… HE could have been Nicholas?

As craze-crazed dweebs, we used to speculate the casting of a movie adaptation of The Ninja back in the day, but we weren’t the only ones! We asked the author who he ‘saw’ as his hero:

EVL: I was very high on Richard Gere to play Nicholas; he had the right look, and I liked his acting. What none of us knew was whether he’d be up to the physical trials the film would put him through.

Damn, I love love love the idea of Richard Gere, circa 1981-ish, playing Linnear, and according to the author he was the closest to getting the gig. As for the question of physical trials, one need look no further than the superb An Officer and a Gentlemen for proof that the actor would have been up to the task. His fight scene with Louis Gosset Jr. is one of the best ever put on screen in the eyes of a lot of industry folk. Gere had the looks to sell tickets off a movie poster alone, and had just come off a big hit with American Giggolo.

Lustbader-Ninja_cast

If not Gere, then who? Well, let’s be geeky kids again a speculate!

Jan-Michael Vincent around that same time period comes to mind, between action films like Defiance and Hooper but pre-Air Wolf. Vincent was athletic as hell, had that gunfighter squint and could sell the brooding intellectual with a skeleton-filled-closet character type. Or… The Ninja could have been the film to break Mickey Rourke, before Diner and Rumble Fish, adding a more haunted if not sinister edge to Nicholas. Guys like Patrick Swayze or Michael Paré would have been on the young side to carry a major feature, while a Michael Beck of The Warriors fame would have been too blonde for the role, although he’d go on to play a ninja years later in the criminally unavailable TV movie The Last Ninja.

What about Japanese or other Asian actors? In Hollywood, at a big studio, in 1980, that wasn’t going to happen. Hell, it doesn’t happen in 2016. This was the era of Joel Grey in heavy yellow-face make-up playing an ancient kung-fu master in Remo Williams while Mako and Keye Luke sat home unemployed. Plus, Lustbader took time in the book to describe Linnear as greatly favoring his father’s side of the family, possibly thinking of film development down the road.

Where you DO get a meaty role for an Asian actor is in alternate-reality dream casting of Saigo! Sonny Chiba was a name in the States from the Streetfighter films, came with his own stunt team, and also provided the opportunity for Japanese box office for an international co-production. Tadashi Yamashita was a natural as well. But man, think of this mind-blower… and we’re in full geek mode at this point… Sho Kosugi, in full villain mode, makes The Ninja instead of Enter the Ninja, and our world is never the same!

Ninja-Saigocast

And while we’re playing movie-god, Nick Nolte would have been perfect as NYPD police investigator Lew Croaker, Theresa Russell as Justine, Donna Kae Benz or Shogun’s Yoko Shimada as Yukio, and I would absolutely insist on finding roles somewhere for James Shigeta, Toru Tanaka, and Mako.

Ninja-cast

Another interesting speculation — fight choreographer. Mike Stone would have already been formulating his own Enter the Ninja script, and was as ahead of the curve on the impending ninja boom as Lustbader was. Tak Kubota was responsible for the ninja elements of The Killer Elite in 1975, while career consultant/cameo types like Gerald Okamura and Fumio Demura would certainly have been available too. And whereas Masaaki Hatsumi had been a technical consultant on the first Shinobi-no-Mono films, would a burgeoning Stephen K. Hayes been given a similar opportunity in Hollywood?

ninja-choreographers

Man, what a blast that gig would have been, too — weapons and techniques most of the audience would never have seen on screen before, and getting to create that gear from scratch years before mail order made it all so homogenous. So cool…

But such was never to be.

The optioned book went into what the industry calls “development hell” and the ninja genre took the exploitation course it did. As lore would have it, exploitation maestros Golan-Globus under Cannon Films cranked out their first ninja movies so fast, and so immediately defined the  ninja genre as cheap grindhouse, that mainstream producers saw little potential in raising things out of the gutter and bailed on The Ninja early.

I always believed that, until…

Last year, copies started showing up for sale of a script draft for The Ninja dated January 24, 1983. 1983!!! Not so early.

Credited as a “2nd Draft” and co-authored by the aforementioned John Carpenter with Tommy Lee Wallace (of Halloween III: Season of the Witch fame), this 120 page script is the first piece of hard physical evidence I’ve ever encountered on the project.

And it raises more questions than answers.

 

The Ninja vs the ninja craze

If… IF… this 1983 script had passed muster and Carpenter’s version of The Ninja had gone into production right away, a movie still wouldn’t have hit screens until early 1985 at best. Now, try to remember the state of the ninja boom at that point. This big budget, mainstream audience-seeking project would have hit theaters amidst Pray for Death and American Ninja, while Enter, Revenge and Ninja III: The Domination were fixtures on cable and VHS rental. While one could argue this was the boom’s peak, the downhill was coming quick. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was about to redefine the word ‘ninja’ to a generation of kids and toy-buying parents, Godfrey Ho and ilk were on the warpath in Hong Kong making the worst (or for some, best) ninja schlock ever seen, and The Master was already facing cancellation on TV.

John Carpenter’s The Ninja (he always billed his name before his titles) would have been weighed down by the baggage of already established public perceptions of the genre (news stories about kids hurting themselves with mail order weapons were all the rage on TV, too) and it would have had to overcome all kinds of cheap exploitation tropes to stand above the ranks.

Plus, much of what The Ninja‘s pages had to offer had already been done. Revenge of the Ninja cribbed all sorts of elements from the book – the expatriate master of Japanese martial arts trying to live a decidedly non-martial life in the U.S., a rash of gruesome crimes with ancient weapon calling cards left behind, arcane arts actually disguising the modern business agenda of the assassin, the best friend from the dojo, blades overcoming guns, one-weapon-one-kill arsenals, the grizzled skeptic cop barking “What the hell is a NEEEN-JUH doing in my city!?!?” and yes, the “only a ninja can stop a ninja” commandment governing the final conflict. All done by Lustbader in print first, but by Sam Firstenberg and Sho Kosugi on screen first.

In hindsight, Revenge might have been solely greenlit and rushed into production based on the Lustbader book being in development across town. They raced to beat it to the screen, like Deep Impact did to Armageddon or Tombstone did to Wyatt Earp, and may have done it so well that the second bigger movie never came out as a result.

We asked the author about Revenge of the Ninja in particular and if he saw it at the time, or since:

EVL: I didn’t. I don’t want to. The constant delays on the film, and then it being put into turnaround when Sherry left 20th, opened the way for a whole slew of truly awful ninja knockoff films, which, to this day, have poisoned the well for “The Ninja” as a film project. None of those films did well, and with each release 20th grew more and more reluctant to go ahead with the project. Now, of course, the studio is looking for a “new take” on the story. It seems as if it will never be made in the image of my novel.

Sooooo… here’s the big question — in hiring Carpenter/Wallace in 1983 for a possible 1985 movie, were the producers even trying to faithfully adapt the 1980 book? Or was this hiring of the men who spawned the slasher genre-defining Halloween actually an attempt at what they saw as a course correction?

A look at the script suggests that.

Ninja-script-text

 

John Carpenter’s The Ninja

You know those movies that carry a book’s title, but have little else to do with the source? Ever feel betrayed when a book adaptation’s trailer seems to have enough of the surface details to look like it remains true, but when you see the actual movie you realize that was just façade? Do you hate that?

Well, if John Carpenter’s The Ninja had hit screens in 1985 or so, man oh man would you have HATED IT!

Let’s start with a few of Carpenter/Wallace’s minor variations in central tone – The Ninja is no longer a martial arts tale, it’s essentially a slasher movie with a semi-researched shinobi in place of a Michael Myers, and all the other characters are now victims on the run trying to find a way to escape him.

What about Nicholas Linnear and his own ninja skills? Well, for starters there is no Nicholas Linnear, he’s now Nicholas Tomkins – son of the industrialist heel, an urban playboy and trust fund baby with the otherwise bohemian lifestyle of a classical musician and composer. Oh, and he’s not a martial artist.

Gone is Linnear as the son of an occupation general/doomed politician trying to do right, gone is his upbringing as a half-breed outsider in Japan, gone is the deep-seeded rivalry with Saigo, gone… all of it. Saigo’s multi-generational grudge is instead driven by the fact that as a child he witnessed one-time corrupt Occupation-era Military Police officer Rafael Tomkins execute his father after a shady business deal went south.

Justine is there, although not his daughter, but instead is an executive of Tomkins’ ruthless industrial board, and shares his bed in their spare time. A beyond awkward love triangle (for those who’ve read the book) forms mid-script. Justine’s sister Glenda (and her sexually bloated side-story) and Doc Deerforth are lost in the shuffle.

Loose-cannon cop Lew Croaker transforms (in very typical Carpenter fashion) into ex-military kick-ass karate-cop “Lewis Spanzo” – big, black, bald and taking-no-shit. You can just see the Keith David (They Live!) casting! Spanzo is almost the hero of the script, and I say ‘almost’ because John Carpenter had an interesting way of not having obvious central leads in more than a few of his big ensemble cast films (see Prince of Darkness).

But within this divergent Carpenter/Wallace dimension, a bunch of action scenes and character beats from the novel actually made it into the script, and could have helped a trailer seem rather faithful. Saigo-Meyer’s hunt still takes him through Nicholas’ friends, although the dojo killings are now Spanzo’s pals. Brothels, blowguns, hypnosis tricks and poison shuriken abound. Saigo is still a whore-mongering pervert, although the book’s use of homosexual acts for both pleasure and torture of victims were cut. He’s also the same drug addict – which would have made for some great demented hop-head sequences under the skillful Carpenter hand. The under-construction skyscraper infiltration is still the climactic set-piece, followed by the doppleganger dead body swerve and the limo scene — those being firmly established crutches of the horror genre anyway.

Carpenter’s Saigo is a legit monster, and in the context of horror movies, would have been a unique menace worthy of bearing the film’s name. He’s genuinely evil, loves the chase, kills each victim in a different spectacular fashion, has both the mental and physical prowess to overcome all authorities in his way, and is possibly gifted with spiritual super powers. He’s part Jason/Freddy/Myers ilk, part Terminator.

But the cast of victims is hard to care about. Nicholas Linnear, who by 1985 was now the star of the book’s hit sequel The Miko (with more on the way) just cannot be downgraded from Eastern martial master in a Western world to just another pretty boy cowering in fear and coming up with a miracle to somehow kill the monster and save the girl. Spanzo is a walking symbol of Western arrogance at first, but becomes the voice of reason who knows just enough ninja lore to realize how screwed everyone is. He’s more of a literary device than he is a human being.

Despite the jarring differences, I can actually see the studio’s (albeit flawed) logic here — you’ve invested in a major hit book’s film rights, but since writing that check other lesser studios have knocked-off your once exotic property. With that pandora’s box open, you hire some proven talent from another genre to repurpose the work into something less canon (and less Cannon, see what I did there!), thus more compatible to a wider audience.

john-carpenter-axe

Thing of it is, when you genre-bend like this, trying to pick up devotees of each genre, you often isolate both groups instead, and neither buy tickets. The Ninja as slasher film disguised in black pajamas would have pissed off ninja movie hopefuls, especially with its lack of ninja-vs-ninja action. At the same time, slasher freaks weren’t looking to a ninja movie for their gore-hound content, either. Also, by then, Ninja III: The Domination had tried to bridge horror genres in ninja gear, and while we love that film here, it wasn’t exactly a franchise-launching juggernaut like Halloween.

 

Sigh…

As much as we love Kosugi and Dudikoff fare — both back in the day and looking back now in nostalgia — the frustration of there never being a big studio, big-budget validation of the genre we loved lingers to this day. I remember being in the theater for 1994’s The Hunted — the best 80s ninja movie ever made a decade too late — and thinking to myself THIS is what The Ninja would have been like.

I was one of about 12 people there on opening night.

The Ninja‘s Nicolas Linnear might have been an unstoppable shinobi superman, but all it took to stop The Ninja: The Movie was bad timing. Super bad timing. Cheesy competition beat them to the punch, the craze sputtered out early, and the very word ‘ninja’ wound up irrevocably associated with pizza-obsessed cartoon turtles.

When the 1983 script came to light, and thus the fact that development continued into the mid-80s, it was a shocker, but the fact that this leg of the development didn’t produce a film is not.

The book remains a much better read.

 

Keith J. Rainville — April 2016

 

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A special thanks to Eric Van Lustbader for the interview and his time. Check out his official web site.

We’ll repeat our recommendation to re-read The Ninja, which is now available in eBook form.

Despite the film going nowhere, it’s surprising The Ninja was never adapted to any other medium. Why during the graphic novel explosion of the 80s didn’t a company like Eclipse adapt the book to at least black & white panels? Although if you lived in Ecuador at the time, you did get this weird homage/unauthorized adaptation!

The Carpenter/Wallace script is also readily available via eBay.

 

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