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Crude weapons from ENTER

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

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

(click the image to expand huge)

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted 1 week ago.

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My day at the Marxist ninja cartoon marathon…

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Dateline: Hollywood, CA — 9-14-2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keith J. Rainville

This 1:6 figure of the manga KAMUI is likely the closest I'm getting to the Lone Ninja lifestyle.

I’d live the minimalist lone-ninja-in-the-woods lifestyle, but then I couldn’t buy stuff like this vintage 1:6 manga KAMUI figure, so nope…

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Posted 1 month, 2 weeks ago.

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The Art of Deception

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

Hey, deception was a legit ninja skill, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, ignore this whole post.

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

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Posted 2 months, 3 weeks ago.

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An obscure old gem back in print!

If you’re a dinosaur like me, then you still dig physical media and package art when it comes to your video library. To that end, I’m a regular customer of the Warner Archive DVD-On Demand service. Tons of great titles, especially if you’re into 60s and 70s made-for-TV sci-fi and horror fare. Not so much by way of martial arts films or classic Japanese cinemathough, save for this nugget which was just made available:

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The 1959 animated feature Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke was given an English treatment by MGM and released a year later as Magic Boy. There may have been some low-rent video tape releases of this, but I believe this is the first time a clean, crisp digitally mastered version has seen the light of day, and in its original 16×9 aspect ratio, too.

From the Warner press release:

MAGIC BOY (1960) Magically-gifted boy Sasuke lives in peace, deep in the forest with his animal pals and his elder sister, Oyu. After their forest sanctuary is violated by a demon witch who devours one of Sasuke’s animal companions, he vows vengeance. Leaving the forest, the boy sets out to master his magical gifts by making a pilgrimage to the home of the wizard, Hakuunsai. While Sasuke learns the ways of magic, Yakusha, the demon witch, terrorizes the countryside, and Sasuke works to complete his training in time. Magic Boy aka Shunen Sarutobi Sasuke is a classic piece of anime history — the first full-length animated feature produced in Japan to reach the shores of the United States. With much of the original storyline left untouched and centering on pop culture staple hero Sarutobi Sasuke (think Bomba the Jungle Boy crossed with a ninja), Magic Boy is an enchanting precursor to decades of imported Japanese ani-magic. 16×9 Widescreen 

I’m sold!

Order MAGIC BOY online here.

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Posted 3 months, 3 weeks ago.

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VN’s own 4th of July Tradition…

…we take a look back at AMERICAN NINJA!

There’s no better way to celebrate the birth of the USA than by looking back at 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!

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Posted 3 months, 4 weeks ago.

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A few more that got away…

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Couple years ago now, one of my sources for the hand-colored press stills from Thailand that have so contributed to the identity of this site contacted me with some new offerings. A lot of it was stuff I already had or didn’t want, but there were some gems, so I agreed to take them (regardless of the increasingly inflated prices asked). A few days later, however, I hadn’t heard back, so I nudged and got a weird response.

To paraphrase, ‘That was you who bought them, right?’

Turns out the rocket scientist seller threw them up on eBay, and assumed I knew and was the one who nabbed them with a Buy-It-Now.

I wasn’t…

The really frustrating thing, they went for less than I agreed to give them directly. Honestly!!!

Well, years later, I guess the bitterness has subsided enough that I can make eye contact once again with the images they had emailed me in a cruel lure. Grrrrrrrrr…. getting angry again just writing this post…

Well, before I turn green and start smashing, here’s a pile of posed publicity stills from flicks like Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai (aka Toruwakamaru, the Koga Ninja), one of the Rytaro Otomo Kurozukin flicks, Akai Kageboshi (aka The Red Shadow), and some others I forget…

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Yep… any and all of these would look pretty damned nifty on my wall.

Congrats to the lucky buyer though, you’ve got some treasures. Oh, and if hard times ever hit, I’m always in the market!

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Posted 4 months, 4 weeks ago.

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VN REVISITED – The Illustrated Sho Kosugi

Originally published January, 2010.

In the 80′s, Sho Kosugi posed for over 73 billion photos in full night gear, laden with weapons, in magazines like Black Belt, Ninja, even Karate Illustrated and Inside Kung Fu. Yet when it comes to movie and video game ad campaigns, you often see painted and illustrated images of him instead – many leaving a lot to be desired. Sometimes it was agencies not wanting to pay royalties to photographers. Other times it was unscrupulous art departments not having any legal right to use a Kosugi image whatsoever, but wanting the box office rub. Either way, some very interesting artistic mutations occurred…

It started in 1981 of course, with Enter the Ninja. Golan-Globus scooped the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s mega hit novel The Ninja with this exploitation gem (the American genre never recovered), for which Kosugi did some publicity photo posing. An air brushed version of what we’ll call THE KOSUGI KICK appeared on some of the posters (and VHS packaging), and soon after a retail poster we all had on our wall. The Kosugi Kick was henceforth knocked-off 15.3 trillion times, and you still see it today once in a while. The pose is one of THE lingering icons of the 80′s craze, perhaps the definitive image of the era.

The follow-up to Enter, and the movie that cemented “the ninja craze” as the big thing in martial arts (and martial arts cinema) for the decade, Revenge of the Ninja, had a pretty dynamite painted poster itself. What’s easy to forget about the superb Revenge is that in it, Kosugi made history – an Asian actor being the single male lead, and in only his second film in the U.S. In reality, Bruce Lee never did that, being co-top-billed with John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (although after his death, amidst the kung-fu boom, the campaigns changed to feature him much more).

Ironically the painted art has little-to-no resemblance to Kosugi, but damn what composition! Back in the day, though, we were tortured by the the ‘inauthentic’ details like the Western military knife tucked into his tunic, and the Chinese ‘kung-fu shoes’ in place of tabi. The fact that this supposed invisible assassin in concealing night gear has a red belt, chrome-finish weapons strapped all over him, and a huge family crest akin to a superhero’s chest emblem telling the world who he is didn’t bother us at all though… Such was the logic of 80′s ninja fans.

The fact that the American key art wasn’t Kosugi outright may have led to some of the mysterious variants overseas, like the below Franch-language market poster. Perhaps they really wanted to feature the star?

The above painting is based on the companion retail poster to the famous Kosugi Kick piece, seen below left. Why they didn’t use the original photo is anyone’s guess – couldn’t find the source, couldn’t meet on a price, didn;t even try…  Next to that is detail from the illustrated sleeve for the priced-to-sell VHS re-issue of Revenge, late 80′s-early 90′s. Even though there was a photo-based poster in the 80′s, used often in Europe, that same art didn’t make it to Spanish markets, evidenced by the painted version far right. All in all, there are remarkably few images used to promote this movie, but the versions of those few images are myriad.

Pray For Death was, for many, the last ‘good’ Kosugi entry in the craze era – a genuine piece of ninja-sploitation, surrounded by legends of ‘uncut’ gorier versions screened in dark corners of Europe and everything. While many thought Kosugi’s weapons and armor were downright silly, but it seems many (especially foreign ad men) thought it was pretty righteous:

No, Kosugi was NOT in Shaolin Fighters vs. Ninja (or Ninja Against Shaolin, or Ninja vs. Shaolin Guards, or Shaolin Fights Ninja, or any of the dozens of other versions and re-titles of the concept that were out there), but you sure wouldn’t know it from the poster above. More painted art was done for the taxing 9 Deaths of the Ninja, and again the foreign markets were on their own page with the key art. I guess when your movie looks like this…

…you’re tempted to hide it behind more craze-palatable images of hooded ninja, even if it means evoking the competition – Michael Dudikoff!

Strange to think of foreign ad artists toiling over these painted Sho Kosugi images, when in some neglected drawer at the offices of Inside Kung Fu, hundreds of amazing photos were sitting there, untapped. Exploitation films, however, have promotional resources akin to their low budgets. Campaigns turn around fast. There are language barriers between markets. Logistical and financial hurdles everywhere. So it ends up easier just to wing it and barf out some weird illo.

Chances are, the same box office take would have been made either way.

Read more:

Sho Kosugi: The Ninja fansite, with tons of galleries, including mag covers and movie posters.

S.K. Productions – Kosugi’s official website.

Really fun write up and video of 9 Deaths of the Ninja.

If you think these paintings are a bit off, check out the stuff from Ghana!

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Posted 6 months, 2 weeks ago.

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In LION MARU news…

Medicom has released two new sofubi of Kaiketsu Lion Maru and Tiger Joe, designed by Bear Model.

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Not in love with these myself, as they are a bit too detailed and modern in their sculpts. Sofubi are supposed to look like kids toys from the 60s, with soft details and primitive paint jobs. These are actually a bit too skillfully executed for the genre…

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Also found some nifty publicity images from KLM and Fuun Lion Maru on tumblr:

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A reminder that Vintage Ninja is indeed on tumblr, too — Lucha vs. Ninja: Who Will Win? This is a shared stream from this site and From Parts Unknown, as loaded with cool vintage masked wrestler stuff as it is shinobi. I reblog/repost a lot of related material from others, and revisit some older stuff from the VN archives there too, so it’s worth added us to your feed.

 

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Posted 9 months ago.

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NINJA II now widely available

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Was it really four years ago that I wrote this gushing review of Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine‘s throwback NINJA?

Ninja was to the more widely known Ninja Assassin what Deep Impact was to Armageddon or Tombstone to Wyatt Earp – a cheaper, more exploitive and ultimately more enjoyable alternative to a bigger property. Ninja Assassin aimed for a mainstream audience, and largely missed. But worse, with its overly-digital post-Matrix aesthetic it also missed the expectations of the frontline genre enthusiasts. In short, it kinda pissed off old guard martial arts movie maniacs, and us ninja geeks.

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The one thing I felt super guilty about in my dislike of the more-style-than-substance Ninja Assassin was not showing the proper love for Sho Kosugi‘s return to the screen. I supported the flick when it was in theaters, but have never returned to it, and in reading this site you’d hardly knew it existed. However, that guilt is now blunted somewhat, as Adkins, Florentine and, well… A Kosugi… return in Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear!

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Kane Kosugi, that is. All grown up, pretty damned ripped, and looking A LOT like his pop!

As was with the first film, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Writer David White (who also scribed the superb Undisputed 2 and 3) spins a soundly-structured revenge plot that takes advantage of Thailand filming locales, weaves in some genuine ninja lore, but mostly gets the hell out of the way so the fights can take over.

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We’re reunited with Casey and Namiko, now living happily and rebuilding after the dojo-pocalypse of the first film. Things are looking good. Then he goes and gives her a medallion as a symbol of his commitment.

A medallion.

Seriously, he gives her jewelry.

Giving jewelry to a loved one in a martial arts movie…

GOOD IDEA CASEY, WONDER WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT???

By the chiseled-in-stone laws of  the genre, Namiko is immediately killed, launching Casey on the vengeance trail so he can of course eventually slaughter the men responsible, then look down at the pendant, circle of blood now closed and whatnot, and cue the end titles…

And dammit I LOVE these movies and this team for doing this! They don’t hide from the old conventions, they embrace them. This crew is determined to not let the world forget how damn SIMPLE it really is to make a fun martial arts movie.

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Casey’s quest for justice begins with some high-kicking rehab at the dojo of old family friend Nakabara (Kosugi), and even though he seems to know a whole lot about the drug cartel responsible for Namiko’s death, shifty couriers are discretely delivering un-marked packages to him, and he has a goatee, Kane’s obviously not the actual villain of this movie, so yeah, bonding time!

Now here’s where Ninja II drops the awesomeness like carpet bombs!

Nakabara knows three things: 1.) Namiko’s wounds are the result of the signature chain weapon of a ninja-gone-bad named Goro. 2.) this same Goro is running drugs out of Burma, a land heavily populated by stuntmen waiting to have their asses kicked, and 3.) some 75-odd-years-ago, Japan’s fabled “Last Ninja” Fujita Seiko trained a squadron of WWII shinobi and unleashed them in the jungle, where they wreaked bladed havoc on the Allies and hid a bunch of arsenals, just like THIS MAP shows!

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HOT DAMN! Cue the travel montage…

Casey heads out into the jungle, finds an old cache of leather-and-canvas-era ninja gear and the storming of the requisite enemy compound is on.

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Goro is played by Shun Suguta, a veteran character actor of over 100 films, including Ichi the Killer. He knows how to pose and gesture like a deadly lunatic, and is pretty damned great as the master of the barbed manriki chain.

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Casey kills a pile of guards, has a brutal fight with Goro’s right hand heavy, then disposes of the villain amidst the light of a burning drug empire. Case closed…

OR IS IT?

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It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Adkins and Kosugi were cast together for a reason, and after a big surprise reveal the final chapter of Shadow of a Tear sees them tear each other apart, trashing room after room, alternating arsenals and exotic flying spin kicks in equal amounts. Absolutely great! One almost nostalgically roots for Kane here, and I swear if he had his rocket-assisted weapon-laden Huffy from Pray for Death, Adkins would have been toast!

Once again, Florentine and friends deliver a hybrid of two distinct eras of martial arts cinemas — weapon-centric ninja combat of the 1980s and the high-kicking spinning and jumping combo-based movie kick-boxing that ruled the 1990s. Both are retro by now, and the heart and soul of each period is retained, and embellished with some modern touches. One modern crutch they NEVER lean on though is the ubiquitous and utterly contemptible shakey-cam. No jittering camera trickery to hide the casting of non-martial artists or overwhelming digital fixes that for many of us have ruined fight scenes in modern action cinema.

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The purists (aka haters) out there will complain that either the ninja stuff ruins a perfectly good kick-boxing movie, OR that the kick-boxing ruins a perfectly good ninja film. Obviously I come from the ninja side of things, and if there’s one complaint with Ninja II it’s that it leans a lot more to the 90s side of things than the more 80s-centric first film.

In fact, one could almost edit out the ninja elements entirely and still wind up with a conventional martial revenge film. Perhaps an Undisputed-related script was retro-shinobi-fied here? A bit of a shame, as the idea of the Fujita Seiko legacy, powering up with antique WWII gear, etc. is so damn great I wanted it more at the center of the film.

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Historical images of the fabled “Last Koga Ninja”

The reality, however, is that combining the shadowy ninja visuals with the more contemporary unarmed combat makes these movies a whole lot easier to market to worldwide audiences, and as these are genuine indie movies they need each and every sale.

So VN is officially giving Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear 5 (Ninja) Stars. It’s an essential purchase for any ninja movie buff.

It’s really important we all support this movie, too. It does well enough, we’re that much closer to a fourth Undisputed getting funded. By purchasing and spreading the word, you’re not only rewarding the filmmakers who worked their asses off here, you’re checking a YES vote towards old school movie martial arts, towards holding the camera still and letting legit screen fighters and skilled choreographers do their thing. And you’re not letting the 80s ninja craze be forgotten.

Misters Florentine, Adkins and Kosugi… THANK YOU!

Buy Ninja II on Amazon in Bluray or DVD formats.

Available to Netflix streaming subscribers here.

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I have such insane love for this press still from REVENGE OF THE NINJA…

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Posted 9 months, 2 weeks ago.

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My review of TED AND HIS 46 RONIN, illustrated mostly by pictures from other films…

Listen up Universal execs! I know exactly what’s gone wrong with your version of 47 Ronin. It’s not a lousy script, minority backlash, a star past his drawing prime, source material un-relatable to the mainstream, or even competition from the Hobbitses like all the critics have been telling you.

It’s lack of commitment.

Let me ‘splain here, beginning with this startling un-ronin-y photo from a testosterone-amped 90s exploitation western:

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What would alarm, or outright offend, more — a movie about the gunfight at the OK Corral wherein they got the costumes, environs, props, speech patterns, hairstyles, etc. 100% legit but then fudged the historical truth to sculpt more of a story they wanted, OR a sci-fi version of the same wherein the OK Corral is on the moon, laser fire is exchanged, Wyatt Earp flies around on a jetpack, the Clanton gang are lizard men AND they too fudged the historical facts to sculpt the story they wanted?

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Were critical historians paying more scrutiny to the details of a supposedly more credible film like Spielberg’s Lincoln than they were in the accuracy of the stovepipe hat worn in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and other famous portrayals?

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Levels of responsibility, and expectations of such respect for ‘truth,’ are proportional to the heir of legitimacy presented by the filmmaker. This is what allows musicals like Chicago and Robin and the Seven Hoods to be enjoyed in their own context parallel to more serious fare of the same theme like Boardwalk Empire and Mob City.

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But no film, from any era, country or status of director presents history as 100% straight. It’d make for a tearfully boring film, and the purpose of said media is to entertain. Historians will tell you that even with the best of intentions, My Darling ClementineHour of the GunTombstone and Costner’s Wyatt Earp are Hollywood, not history.

Chushinguras

Chushingura has been adapted even more than the OK Corral incident and the lives of its legendary participants, and with the same swinging pendulum of historical accuracies vs. dramatic liberties.

But while an American version of this complex political and cultural tale that ends with the mass suicide of its heroes was ill-advised from the start, (as was mixing a Westerner into the otherwise Japanese cast under the ‘half-breed’ cop-out) the idea of selling a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic with feudal Japanese trappings to worldwide audiences was not only noble but financially sound. When it was released, I adored Kadowkawa’s magic and creature-infused post Star Wars version of Satomi Hakkenden known to us as Legend of the Eight Samurai, and it had crazy legs on VHS in multiple languages and markets. So why not unleash something similar now, in a market primed by everything from Crouching Tiger to Game of Thrones?

fantasies

I won’t climb a soapbox on the soiling of sacred Japanese tales here, nor spout on the yet-another-white-guy-shows-the-native-culture-how-their-warrior-tradition-really-should-be-done bullshit. There are thousands of gallons of venom already spewed across the internet on those subjects. Instead I’ll take somewhat of a 180-degree turn. I think to avoid such criticisms, 47 Ronin should have been MORE fantastic, more over the top, had more of an international cast and not have been set in a straight up Japan but rather a vague “martial world” ala the Hong Kong liquid sword epics.

dudes

If Keanu Reeves is your lead, then you’ve already told history to go fuck itself, soooooo… don’t sweat the history, don’t make it look and feel – in general seem — “right.” Instead, make it more surreal. Have the tatoo’d skeleton guy as one of the 47 too, and introduce his pal the chain-weilding emancipated slave from the Ivory Coast, then a Portugeese gun runner straight off the Black Ship and his steam-powered robot show up, followed by an unfrozen caveman or Viking berserker next to a topless Chirstian nun who slays vampires by lactating holy water.  Yes, there would be vampires. And tons of other yokai and Japanese mythology. Then Hercules shows up and they all fight reanimated skeleton warriors… and man does that time-travelling Wyatt Earp’s Laser-Colt come in handy!

47-Ronin

OK… cool… but MORE PLEASE!

weirds

Plenty of nice ground work was laid for historical fantasy, here, too. The “Dutch Island” formed of Western pirate ships where outre gladiatorial games are held was pretty sweet. The gathering of magical swords to give the 47 an edge over superior numbers was also a good notion. The gigantic silver samurai guy (actually closer to what you wanted from The Wolverine) was excellent and the dragon at the end looked absolutely great! It’s the best Japanese dragon FX ever put on screen. 

dragon

But again, none of it was taken far enough — more pirate-freaks, more magic sword powers, and was the giant samurai just an animated suit of armor? I couldn’t tell, and that’s a flaw in a fantasy epic. And don’t stop at one monster at the end, dammit, go full Magic Serpent and have Keanu transform into a giant toad, big-ass-spider (not to be confused with THE Big Ass Spider) or fiery bat monster for a combined kaiju/martial arts climax.

magicserpent

This scene with 47 RONIN’s FX??? Ho-lee-sh*t!

47 Ronin should have jumped deep deep DEEP into the impossible fantasy. Instead, it sort of just waded in the safe shallow end while keeping enough traditional fixtures intact to make trouble for itself. This lack of commitment allowed the haters, while likely never even seeing it, to accuse the film of fingering both history and chambara cinematic traditions in the bung hole, for the sake of being a big American star vehicle. It was born behind this 8-ball and never recovered.

Being fully submerged in the insane fantasy waters would have gotten 47 Ronin off that hook, and maybe then the audience for this movie wouldn’t be rolling its collective eyes at the idea of friggin’ NEO taking a Tom Cruise-level piss on jidai-geki while looking over their shoulders for the imminent arrival of Bill S. Preston, Esq. in a phone booth.

posters

With added fantasy elements, I have much fewer Keanu issues with the marketing on the right.

BUT, I will say this: Hiroyuki Sanada was great. He’s ALWAYS great, and carried much of the film. Were Sanada the lead, and 47 Ronin a subtitled import ala The Promise (in which he also starred), House of Flying Daggers or Curse of the Golden Flower it might have actually made more money in the States. Certainly would have merited an underground fan base akin to that of Ashura, DororoShinobi: Heart Under BladeGoemon and the like. If it had a more shameless exploitation vibe like Man with the Iron Fists it might be finding a modest audience. Or if it was a big budget video game instead of film in the first place, it would have Onimusha level visibility.

promise-onimusha

Instead, it’s a $175 million dollar debacle for a Hollywood studio, and people LOVE to watch those tentpoles fail. 47 Ronin seems to be taking its place as the half-breed Japanese contender to John Carter, and like that film, it deserves a fairer shake and better box office. I mean come on, it’s no Lone Ranger

tanks

Dude? Dude… DUDE!!!

If you’re thinking of going to see this thing, despite the wrongness, despite the shortcomings, know that it’s worth it for Sanada and the dragon on the big screen alone. But hurry up, the clock is ticking on dog…

roaring

Abdullah the Butcher wants YOU to see better Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada fare like ROARING THUNDER, TWILIGHT SAMURAI, RINGU and SUNSHINE, or he’ll stick a fork in your head!

betters

 

Keith J. Rainville — 12/29/13

 

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Posted 10 months ago.

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