50 years of the 00-Shadow

The Samurai, starting in 1964, may have been Japan’s first shinobi export to the English-speaking world, but that phenom was contained strictly to Australia. So for the rest of us, the first ninja we saw on any screen were flanking Sean Connery.

Fifty… yes 50… years ago, the rest of the world caught its first shrapnel from the 1960s Japanese ninja explosion, as James Bond and an army of modern shinobi wowed global audiences in the film franchise’s fifth entry You Only Live Twice. The shuriken-slinging silver-screen shadows left an indelible impression on British and American audiences likely seeing any sort of ninja for the first time, and for Japanese audiences the film was a foreign studio’s blockbuster franchise validating their homegrown martial espionage history.

But YOLT was more than just a cinematic first — the original book, tie-in newspaper comic strips, and a rare TV special preceding the film also provided a wealth of oft-overlooked ninja pop culture firsts as well.

 

“Advanced Studies” – the first English-language ninja prose

The ninja elements of YOLT were likely germinated during an early 1962 research trip to Japan by the author of the Bond novels Ian Fleming. Himself steeped in the ways of spies and commandos from a storied military career, Fleming and two journalist friends (who would inspire characters in the book) spent time with Judo champion and Asian fighting arts enthusiast Donn Draeger. With the 60s ninja boom in full swing, the hooded icons were everywhere — movies, TV, books, comics, toys, ads for cars and kid’s snacks. Whether it was the influence of martial artists or just osmosis of pop culture, Fleming saw a golden opportunity to snatch something to expose the West to for the first time.

The novel You Only Live Twice was released in 1964, the same year the “Mist Saizo” reboot of Shinobi no Mono, Warrior of the Wind and The Third Ninja were in Japanese theaters, Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru hit kids TV and Kamui Gaiden changed manga forever. The 12th Bond story sees a bottomed-out secret agent on the verge of losing everything, unable to cope with the recent death of his wife at the hands of his nemesis Blofeld (YOLT and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were adapted in reverse order for the films). Bond is shuffled off by his bosses to Japan on a cupcake of a mission as a last ditch effort to salvage his career, and ends up entangled in the manipulations of the brutish head of the Japanese secret service Tiger Tanaka. Tiger pressures him to assassinate an outré foreign scientist, who in a remote coastal castle has created a “Garden of Death” infested with carnivorous plants, poisonous snakes, volcanic lava pits, piranha pools and deadly insects. The macabre nature preserve has become a Mecca-like spot for Japan’s suicidal to meet their end, and a major black eye for law enforcement and government alike. Handcufed by honor and international protocol, Tanaka needs a foreigner to be the trigger man, and Bond becomes an expendable assassin critical to a high-governmental machination. Not an unfamiliar plot device to those of us who love shinobi cinema.

But the ninja-like political intrigue ends there as, via intel photos, Bond realizes the bizarre botanist is none other than an on-the-lam Blofeld in disguise, living a second life alá Momochi Sandayu in Shinobi no Mono. Now driven by personal revenge, he agrees to play the part of Tanaka’s errand boy.

But its no silenced Walther PPK or sniper rifle assembled out of a brief case for Bond this time — when in Japan, these things are done ninja-style. In the history-making chapter “Advanced Studies,” Tiger Tanaka takes Bond to the ‘Central Mountaineering School,’ a hidden training compound where 007 gets a crash course in the centuries old arts of Iga and Togakure ninjutsu. Night-black and woodland-camouflaged shozoku, kaginawa grappling hook techniques, mizuguno water spiders and more are demonstrated for the somewhat skeptical mod spy. Tanaka is sternly defensive:

…my agents are trained in one of the arts most dreaded in Japan—ninjutsu, which is, literally, the art of stealth or invisibility. All the men you will see have already graduated in at least ten of the eighteen martial arts of bushido, or “ways of the warrior”, and they are now learning to be ninja, or “stealers-in”, which for centuries has been part of the basic training of spies and assassins and saboteurs.

Bond’s typical Brit-colonialist smirk towards the ancient Japanese arts ends quick though, as he is schooled by Tanaka on the necessity of things like a manriki chain hidden in a belt and a simple short fighting staff when operating undercover in a part of the world where guns are strictly illegal and a dead giveaway as to one’s spy status.

Bond is also schooled in how to act Japanese and is disguised, somewhat ninja-style, as a local coal miner. To further the cover, he is embedded with an Ama pearl diver named Kissy Suzuki, a perfect guise to get him close to the shore cliff castle. After some straight up ninja infiltration, Bond finds Blofeld in the Garden of Death, clad head to toe in samurai armor for protection from his own plants. A climactic battle of staff and sword ends with Bond choking the SPECTRE mastermind to death in a brutal moment of raw retribution.

You all remember this from the movie, right? Bond burned out and near suicidal, Donald Pleasence in full Shogun regalia, surrounded by Triffids? No???

Well, that’s because after Ian Fleming’s death in ’64, the films started getting a bit more over the top, even sillier, and traded legit espionage for explosive action and gimmick gadgets. By Thunderball all bets were off on spectacle and expense. YOLT would be the first of the films that totally deviated from its literary source, retaining only the title, a few broad situations, and some character names, for a result unrecognizable from the book.

 

Strips… Comic Strips

The first adaptation of YOLT was actually in newspaper comic strip form. The London Daily Express started adapting Fleming in 1958, and when the movies hit a few years later the 2-3 panel daily strips bridged the look of the Connery films with the prose of the original stories.

YOLT was syndicated worldwide from 1965-66, artist John McLusky providing what was likely the first ninja in illustrated comic form that any given country outside of Japan had seen to that point. Tanaka’s ninja school scene was metered-out over nine issues.

The artist did his homework on Blofeld’s plant-proof samurai suit, but chose to forgo Bond in full ninja gear. The strips also veered from the book a bit in having Kissy accompany Bond on his infiltration of the castle, and Blofeld’s death is blunted in a way that left room for him to return in the future.

McLusky didn’t seem to have a firm grasp on the ninja suit, but his phantom-like shrouded shinobi are a significant footnote in the history of ninja media outside of Japan.

And… they’d be a lot closer to our idea of ninja than what was to be seen on screen a year or so later.

 

Enter the Scottish Ninja

With vast amounts of the book discarded completely, we can thank the omnipresence of pop culture ninja in mid-60s Japan for swaying the filmmakers to retain the book’s martial arts elements for the big screen YOLT. Producers Albert R. Broccoli & Harry Saltzman and director Lewis Gilbert had followed Fleming’s footsteps for scouting trips to Japan and been treated to local ninja demonstrations, press cameras blazing around them.

One final opportunity to take in a ninja exhibit led to the crew changing a flight back to England, and the original flight subsequently crashed killing all on board. So ninja literally saved the Bond franchise.

The film’s writers Harold Jack Bloom (veteran of shows like Dragnet, Adam 12 and Emergency!) and Roald Dahl (of Willy Wonka and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fame) also spent time in Japan, equally exposed to the ninja craze, and it shows. Debate has ensued since as to whose ideas were whose, but clearly someone saw Shinobi no Mono and its ilk, as scenes common to ninja village training montages are mirrored directly during Bond’s tour of Tiger’s compound.

Dropped was the entire Garden of Death angle (and thankfully Fleming’s notions of the Japanese preoccupation with suicide). In the essentially non-existent ‘continuity’ of the Bond film universe, he had yet to marry and lose his wife to Blofeld, and was not on the down-and-out spiral that began the book. A sci-fi-laden new plot became central to Bond’s deployment to the East — the easy crutch of the Cold War laced with the space race providing a stage for SPECTRE hijacking American and Russian space capsules to a mega-chop-shop hidden in a dormant Japanese volcano. So as usual, it’s up to the British secret service to prevent WWIII.

But they can’t do it without ninja! Enter the film version of Tiger Tanaka, portrayed as suave and resourceful by Japanese screen legend Tetsuro Tamba. Had the book’s physically imposing and brutish Tanaka been faithfully adapted, he would have closely resembled Goldfinger heavy “Odd Job” as portrayed by wrestler Harold Sakata, and that may have jilted audiences. The film’s Tiger was more a tech-savvy shadow living a secret but swag-as-hell lifestyle, a Japanese version of Bond, played by an actor of deliberately smaller physical stature than the franchise’s star.

It also helped that Tamba was no stranger to the ninja genre!

As more spacecraft go missing, the super-powers blame each other and tensions escalate. Bond discovers the secret volcano lair via the famed mini-gyro-copter “Little Nellie” but the clock’s ticking and plans are afoot. In the shadow of the iconic Himeji Castle, movie-Bond get his introduction to movie-shinobi.

Bond: We’ll need a company of first-rate men. Do you have any commandos here? 

Tiger: I have much much better — ninjas. Top secret, Bond-san. This is my ninja training school.

Bond [smirking]: Ninjas?

Tiger: The art of concealment and surprise.

This being said as dozens of screaming martial artists charge into cacophonously loud practice routines. YOLT gets, and doesn’t-get, ninjutsu in equal and undulating amounts.

But the notion of a modern ninja army training at an ancient landmark is just awesome. Tiger’s ninja are top secret, but top secret from who? The public who considers them a myth once outlawed in the feudal past, or merely cartoon superheroes? His own Japanese government even? Tantalizingly little insight is given, leaving plenty to the imagination of the ninja-movie savvy.

Consistent with the film’s effort to portray a Japan as technologically progressive as it is steeped in tradition, Tiger’s ninja themselves epitomize harmony of modern and ancient. While traditional budo is practiced above ground, in a secret labyrinth below, experimental high-tech weapons and tactics are honed. Traditional shozoku shed in favor of modern grey fatigues, turtlenecks and cowls, they go into battle with ancient kaginawa grappling hooks in tandem with the latest in suction cup cat-burgler tech, sword and shuriken alongside futuristic rocket guns.

Hokey as the ninja rocket guns in YOLT seem, they were actually a real thing.

Some frustratingly stupid scenes follow though, as Tiger insists on taking a few precious days while the world is on the verge of nuclear annihilation to give Bond a crash course in bo-staff fighting. But not before the debacle that is “First we must make you Japanese.” The disguise scene, which in the book somewhat worked, here is an absolute joke, and Connery’s bad wig and augmented eyebrow look is universally reviled even by the most loyal of Bond apologists. Of all things to have not cut from the book… and it’s not even necessary. There’s no need for Bond to lurk around as a local gathering intel — they know where the volcano is, they know it’s a secret base. Let Tiger’s ninja commandos do the recon and infiltration, and drop Bond in by jetpack at the last minute!

This nonsense is followed, however, by the most pure ninja scene in the whole movie — the famed poison-down-the-thread sequence — almost frame-for-frame lifted from the first Shinobi no Mono film. Granted, there are only so many ways to shoot some things, and if you’re going to crib a scene, do it from the best! These first ninja scenes seen in the West were photographed by Freddie Young, previously responsible for the camerawork on Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago — films that were hardly a practical primer on how to capture dozens of shuriken hitting targets or arcane assassination techniques, so much of YOLTs ninja elements were liberally borrowed from Japanese sources.

Donn Draeger’s influence on YOLT continued, as he was hired to train and fight-double Sean Connery on set, at least while they were in Japan. Dragger’s and a few other consultants’ lessons evidently didn’t take so well because Connery’s staff fighting is abysmal. The actor was on bad terms with the producers even before the fifth Bond flick started shooting and had a legendarily contemptuous relationship with the Japanese press, so spirits on set could not have been high and the result shows in low-energy fight scenes.

When Connery dons the ninja gear it’s downright sad. This is where a traditional ninja suit, or at least a full balaclava-style face mask, could have saved them, as it should have been the obviously more fit Draeger doubling all his costumed scenes…

Japan’s most famous ambassador of all things ninja, Masaaki Hatsumi, was also on the YOLT set, even getting a bit part during the underground train scene. According to pioneering ninjutsu author Andrew Adams, who threw all sorts of shade on YOLT in the August 1967 issue of Black Belt, Hatsumi and a few other consultants washed their hands of the project in frustration that their art wasn’t being done justice.

Adams’ scathing article from Black Belt is available to read here.

Filming of most of the final ninja assault was moved back to Pinewood Studios in London. Lore (aka studio-spun fish tales) states that over 100 of YOLT’s ninja were flown in from Japan, but reality is something different. Over 150 stuntmen, basically every qualified rope-slinger in Europe, were imported for a genuinely spectacular mass line-decension inside a set half the size of a soccer stadium. The thing was literally big enough to land a full-sized helicopter in, and was the franchise’s biggest and most expensive construct to date. This scene is the best illustration of how bloated and opulent Bond was at the time and the excesses they were willing to go to to top the previous film.

Peppered in with the stuntmen were some of the Japanese martial artists from the training compound, and a few instances of shinobi-like scaffold crawling (mirroring castle crawlspace scenes in myriad Japanese films) and typical chambara swordplay stand out amidst the chaos of traditional gunfire and explosions. Beloved and memorable as these bits are (particularly with British audiences who had nothing to compare them to), they leave much to be desired for anyone with a decent Japanese cinema collection. Being done back in England, it’s hard to determine if Draeger or anyone else was on set, and the crew behind the camera was not exactly the most ninja-literate.

And like many other ninja army scenes, bulk-produced ‘one-size-fits-all’ costuming often doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

For his supposedly vital crash-course in ninjutsu, Bond never even picks up a staff (or a rocket gun for that matter). In a poorly-constructed sequence he does throw a shuriken into a guard’s chest, but a better-shot scene has Tanaka disarming Blofeld with one a few moments later. This particular star design, with what looks like rivets in the center, is rather fascinating.

When all is said and done, the ninja army could just as easily have been squads of SAS commandos or various other U.N. special forces. Bond’s own Naval background and subsequent specialized 00 training would have covered knife-throwing anyway, so the entirety of the ninja elements were really just imported exotic-looking seasoning on the same old dish.

 

Second Coming

Since day one, Bond films have, deservedly, come under attack for their treatment of women as one-dimensional used-and-abused sex objects, but YOLT took things to another level. From the pre-credit sequence of Bond being betrayed by an evil Chinese ‘dragon-lady’ to Tiger’s squad of bikini-clad neo-Geisha bathers, any complaint you ever read of orientalism, ‘othering’ and infantilizing ethnic women, ‘yellow fever,’ whatever, are pretty much legit. Un-defendable cheese like Tanaka’s infamous line “…in Japan, men always come first, women come second” makes one more and more uncomfortable, or outright disgusted, with YOLT fifty years later.

Bond scripts, by actual policy dictates of the producers, had him bedding at least three women per film — typically a first-act beauty often meeting a tragic end, then a villainess to seduce and interrogate, and a third act damsel in distress he ends up in flagrante with only to be discovered by his bosses in that requisite “Oh 007!” end shot. YOLT had the opportunity to break that mold as two of the film’s ‘Bond-Girls’ are kancho-like shadow-skilled agents of Tiger’s, and that’s where our complaint about women in YOLT lies — the lost opportunity for modern kunoichi.

The absolutely stunning Akiko Wakabayshi, veteran of kaiju-fare Ghidora the Three Headed Monster and Dogora, plays “Aki” who much like Kohagi in Castle of Owls is a potentially dangerous woman of cunning and skill who may or may not be on our hero’s side. Not part of the original book at all, Aki was designed to represent the new, mod woman of Japan’s future, who augments ages-old kunoichi skills of infiltration and info gathering with a gadget-filled spy car that saves Bond’s neck twice. Wakabayshi just owns the screen, and a better movie would see her with a meatier action role, but alas, she was a first-act Bond Girl and the poison thread awaited…

So enter our bikini-clad Ama diver Mie Hama. In the “Mad Men era” and for a certain breed of individual, “Pearl Divers” = topless smut, making key issues of National Geographic and “artistic” photo books on the subject highly sought after for all the wrong reasons. The producers of YOLT were definitely looking for flesh on screen (watch this episode of the Brit TV doc-series Whickers World for actual footage of them clashing with actresses over being exploited for cheesecake), so Hama’s role was already more objectified than usual. Despite this, she could have had some claws… literally.

The “Kissy Suzuki” of the book, while certainly under the influence of Tanaka, wasn’t an outright card-carrying spy-deb, but the film upgraded her to a full-on field agent. However Hama’s English was so bad, her speaking part was slashed to a bare minimum and the role was cut down. We don’t see her do a whole lot other than pose as a bride and act as a messenger, and she didn’t even get to change into cool ninja gear for the final assault. This behind-the-scenes shot below of the actress posing with traditional kaginawa is as close as we get to anything legit kunoichi, but no such scene appears in the final film.

The contrast of what YOLT could have done with these otherwise ‘eye candy’ female leads is more acute when you look at the contemporary ninja films coming out of Japan that had superior female action roles — the afore mentioned Castle of Owls, Akai Kageboshi and Seventeen Ninja coming immediately to mind.

 

Stars… Throwing Stars

Now, do pay attention 007… Technically, YOLT was not the first time an exotic ninja arsenal was seen on the screen by a Western audience. A one-hour teaser special called Welcome to Japan Mr. Bond was assembled by the studio for British TV in advance of the box office premiere. The big shocker lead was the news that James Bond was finally getting married, but to which of the storied Bond Girls? Recurring cast members like Desmond “Q” Llewelyn and Lois “Money Penny” Maxwell shot new segments to serve as mortar between rehashed clips of love scenes and action sequences from the first four Bond films. These sorts of ‘greatest hits’ specials were a boon for audiences in the days before cable reruns and VHS, as they were literally the only way one could relive the past movies, save for occasional network screenings.

At about 45 minutes in, Moneypenny tracks Q down in MI6’s underground weapons lab, littered with props from the previous films, and particularly the components of Little Nellie. She sees a table full of quirky antiques and can’t help her curiosity. Q informs her they were sent by Tiger Tanaka, and describes the relics as “An odd mixture of the very modern and the very primitive… Some of these weapons have been in existence for centuries!”

After an eye-opening demonstration of an explosive “black egg” (although these were white), Q points out a kaginawa “used for wall scaling” amidst an arsenal of spears, halberds and kusarigama. Then he and two lab techs start throwing shuriken around like they’re playing drunken darts in a pub.

The weapons and props here are absolutely legit too, right off the wall of some dojo, nothing out of a catalog…

Welcome to Japan Mr. Bond can be found on the latest DVD and Bluray discs of YOLT. I love this tiny little nugget, and I love the idea that all this gear is somewhere in London waiting to be rediscovered.

 

Cars… Plastic Cars

I’d love to live in a world where YOLT, merchandised to the gills the way films post Planet of the Apes and Star Wars were, inspired a line of little plastic shuriken emblazoned with “007” stickers, or vinyl Tanaka ninja figures on zip lines with a cardboard volcano backdrop. Sadly, this is not our world.

Bond didn’t pack his signature Aston Martin for the trip to Japan, so the most plentiful merch to come out of YOLT were replica Toyota 2000GTs. Much was made of the car at the time, being a custom convertible specially modified for the film (and Connery’s size), and miniatures augmented with non-film but play-friendly features like hidden missiles abound.

Reissues of 1967 toys from companies like Corgi are easy to find nowadays too, alongside new fare like this superb Little Nellie.

Below is my original Corgi #336, complete with its little rubber driver figure of Aki. I only bring this up because if… IF… you consider the Aki character to be a modern kunoichi, then this little 1967 nubbin is indeed the very first ninja figure made in the West.

A stunning likeness, no?

I also LOVE this Rising Sun-like kanji-emblazoned badge on the bottom of the car!

Alas, the tiny rubber Aki was the only Japanese element adapted to merchandise. Brit figure manufacturer Gilbert steered away from the ninja outfit in favor of Bond in his sailor gear from a brief scene at the film’s beginning. Toy weapons were merely repackages of previously molded Walther PPKs with box art that usually depicted the volcano. If YOLT had been released in the 80s, the merchandise would have been an entirely different story!

But man oh man was there some weird cool stuff in Japan! The below “Marui Spy Arm Series” model kits, crazy obscure until a full run of them showed up on North American eBay earlier this year, aren’t officially YOLT licensed, but the manufacturer was clearly honing in on what was hot in 1967.

Great painting of Tetsuro Tamba! I love that these semi-functional model kits were just as hybrid of ancient and modern as the movie was — they’re blade-based high-tech gadgets.

  

Seems like similar kits were knocked-off for Bond and Tiger’s competitors, too! Maybe this company had pockets deep enough to license both big properties, but the lack of any “007” branding or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. logos leads me to believe they just liberally suggested officialness in their package art.

Each of these went for upwards of $500 if you’re curious… (and, NO, I was not the buyer, dammit)

YOLT wouldn’t see much other licensing util the RPG boom of the 80s, when the Bond films were adapted into spy versions of Dungeons and Dragons. I dig the cover art for the module book below, which keeps the repelling ninja army while going a little nuts on the hero costuming.

And this one is 100% a product of the 80s ninja craze.

To this day, no one’s produced any proper ninja toys from YOLT. I just can’t forgive this plane of reality for that.

 

You Only NIN Twice

Post YOLT, Connery would leave the franchise, the superb John Barry score would be shamelessly stolen for dozens of cheap kung-fu flicks from Hong Kong, Tamba would star in another 72,000 jidai-geki films and, notably for our purposes here, Japan’s answer to The Man From UNCLE, I-SPY Mission: Impossible and the lot — Key Hunter. Mie Hama had a date with a robotic gorilla in King Kong Escapes. Poor Akiko Wakabayashi, after surviving monsters like Godzilla and Sean Connery, retired from an on-set injury, having made just two more films.

Donn Draeger would go on to publish his pioneering book Ninjutsu: The Art of Invisibility. Teaser copy on the cover read:

Asia had the original James Bond. Here in this fascinating book read about the ninja, the masters of invisibility and deception who flourished as highly trained espionage agents in feudal-age Japan.

Audiences in the West wouldn’t see those ninja again until the 1970s, with wildly inconsistent portrayals in TV shows like Kung-Fu, Baretta, Quincy, M.E. and the contemptible Sam Peckinpaw film The Killer Elite.

Two decades later, ninja, of a sort, would return to Bond though, as more traditional shozoku-like stealth suits were briefly used by high-kicking, net-flinging members of a Hong Kong drug police unit in the Timothy Dalton-led 1989 film License to Kill. The squad was commanded by Japanese-American genre actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in a bit part, playing Chinese. I remember first seeing this film, thinking for a minute he was a reboot of Tiger Tanaka, hopes immediately crushed… another grudge I hold with reality.

Despite the world-wide ninja craze of the previous seven years before License, this would be the closest the franchise ever got to the feudal era equivalents of its “00” agents again.

 

When You Think Twice…

You Only Live Twice isn’t a ninja movie to most of the world, but it is a lot of different things to different people. Bond fanatics at the time were fixated on Connery’s much-ballyhood departure from the role, announced mid-production and taking all sorts of fire away from the opening. Bond fans now can look at it as the end of the classic Connery run. Few can argue this particular John Barry score ranks among the series’ best. The massive volcano set is immortalized in Bond lore as the apex of architectural extravagance. The Little Nellie helicopter scene, gratuitous as it is, remains one of the series’ best dogfights and that gyro-copter has toured the globe. For feminists YOLT is perhaps the most egregious of the films. For book fans it’s the sad end to the “Blofeld Trilogy” and Fleming’s last, and perhaps least, work. YOLT is also the source of much of what was parodied the the Austin Powers films, and younger audiences just can’t watch it with a straight face. (Little do they realize that before Dr. Evil OR Blofeld did the super villain with the cat bit, Tomisaburo Wakayama did it as Oda Nobunaga in Shinobi no Mono.)

For us here, You Only Live Twice is essentially the West’s first ninja movie, but it is also the West’s first BAD ninja movie. As much as I’ve loved this film my whole life, the missed opportunities are too numerous to put aside. For a movie taking pains to show the ancient Japanese methods in tandem with the futuristic new, where was the scene of a traditional black shozoku at least in a display case with the new outfits aside for contrast? And while the notion of a nation steeped in tradition radically updating its ancient espionage pedigree to the new space age is amazing, other leaps of logic trip you up like weeds in the book’s Garden of Death.

Take that Garden for instance… here’s Tiger, handcuffed and unable to assassinate Blofeld with any homegrown asset, thus manipulating Bond into being his trigger man. But if you think about it, he’s got myriad modern ninja on the payroll with full expertise of poisons at their disposal. And their target is a man surrounded by killer plants, insects and reptiles. They can’t possible bump him off and make it look like a gardening accident???

Jump to the movie. Here’s this army of ninja, experts on silent infiltration and whatnot, and they’re basically reduced to being cannon fodder in a very loud full-frontal assault into a well-lit volcano complex. While there are plenty of martial arts on display, there is precious little shadow work in a script essentially replicating the gimmicked final battle of Thunderball (and later Moonraker).

YOLT is one of those movies you love to hate, and hate to love, all at once. I mean, I’ve only seen it like 50 times or so over the course of my life. First seeing it on TV as a kid in the 70s, the ninja elements wouldn’t have registered as anything more than karate or kung-fu stuff. And during the 80s craze my expectations of ninja were so narrow and demanding of black suits and hoods, I didn’t even recognize it as a ninja movie.

Maybe the frustration at the undelivered potential of YOLT, and the weak and rare ninja fare that followed in the 1970s, is what made fully-dedicated outright ninja movies like The Octagon and Enter the Ninja such a welcomed, and craze-inspiring revelation.

But… we wouldn’t have gotten there without You Only Live Twice. Happy 50th Birthday Tiger, Aki, Kissy and all your anonymous grey hooded pals!

Keith J. Rainville — 6/11/2017

 

Images of the films You Only Live Twice and License to Kill are ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. Excepts from the book You Only Live Twice in both prose and strip are ©Gildrose Productions, 1964. Excepts from Both used here for editorial review and under Fair Use.

 

RELATED:

Eric Van Lustbader on YOLT‘s influence on The Ninja

A huge collection of memorabilia here.

As always, articles on VN are meant more to open-up and encourage discussion than they are to make definitive statements, and we are always looking for additional info and insight into our topics. To that end we’ve specifically opened up Comments for this article and can also be reached via email at krainville-at-vintageninja-dot-net.

 

New from Kosugi and Firstenberg

Sho Kosugi returns to home video with a series of training DVDs via Masters Magazine! An expansion on his 1980’s VHS release Master ClassThe Art of Hollywood Ninja Action Film Making is a five part ‘course’ on ninja-centric choreography and cinematography straight from Kosugi himself. Disc or download will cost you around $150 but promises priceless insight from a proven master of action from the movie screen to the gaming console.

Learn more at MastersMag.com.

Whereas Master Class was in a grey area between self-defense instructional and screen fighting demo realms, this new set is targeted more at practical tutorials for those looking for careers on the screen (silver or green) or behind the camera.

Meanwhile, Kosugi’s former director Sam Firstenberg shows up in two new interviews:

Action-Flix.com

and

CoolAssCinema.com

Firstenberg also has a Kickstarter for his career-centric autobiography, which promises to clock in at a whopping 600 pages!

Sam Firstenberg not only has amazing stories to tell from his Cannon Films days, he tells them in an extraordinarily engaging and charming manner.

Can’t wait to get ahold of all this stuff…

 

Hey SHADOW HUNTERS, lighten up a bit, will ya…

If you were a young devourer of manga and anime in the 1980s, creator Takao Saito will always be the man who gave us Golgo 13. However in the mid-2000s the good folk at Animeigo released two early 70s live action films that adapted his manga Kage Gari, aka The Shadow Hunters, and that property has since gained a cult following. By reader request, we dove into the Hunters in its various incarnations.

Saito’s original 1969 manga introduced three freelance swordsmen — Jubei, Moonlight and Sunlight (or Moonbeam and Sunbeam depending on the translation) — who were basically the anti-ninja Three Musketeers. For Saito, shinobi, in the declining era of the Shogunate, were reduced to errand boys of the corrupt government, used to shit-stir and plant evidence damning the fate of lords whose land was of value.

Jubei, the trio’s leader, was a glum but driven butcher of ninja, haunted by having to second the hara-kiri of his own daimyo — a grade-school age child, the victim of a crooked political scheme enabled by ninja catalysts. After that, he hit the ronin road, sworn to slay anything in a ninja suit.

Joining the shadow-obsessed Jubei is Moonlight, the ace swordsman of the crew, haunted himself by the deaths of his wife and child in another ninja-fueled government shenanigan. With a face marred by a huge birthmark, Moon is often portrayed with that hair-over-one-eye deal so prevalent in Japanese character design.

Rounding out the trio is Sunlight, whose pudgy build automatically pegs him for comedy relief. But in this case, Saito tips the trope cart a bit and makes him an ironic ladies man of sorts. His wang is evidently a divining rod for back-stabbing kunoichi, as scenes like this are common:

So female ninja commandos “go commando” under their shozoku? Making mental note…

Despite the fact that Kage Gari is little more than ninja butchery in bulk, it’s a pretty damned fun looking manga. The devalued ninja of this series were less resourceful, less skilled than their earlier 60s ninja craze counterparts, and the law of inverse effectiveness was in full effect — the more ninja in a fight the less deadly they are.

Perhaps it was an allegory for the waning 60s boom and the impending 1970s, a decade not so friendly to our beloved hooded set. As B&W ninja noir fell out of favor, and the hooded heroes migrated and morphed to Saturday morning kids fare like Lion Maru and Henshin Ninja Arashi, the shinobi of the silver screen became more relegated to cannon fodder roles.

In 1972, while Tomisaburo Wakayama was starting his six-film ninja slaughter over in the Lone Wolf & Cub mines, Nikkatsu screen idol/recording superstar Yujiro Ishihara optioned the books for his own production company, producing two films back-to-back with similar tone… and voluminous ninja body counts.

Kage Gari (Shadow Hunters), and Kage Gari: Hoero taihô (Shadow Hunters II: Echo of Destiny) were rushed out in 1972 by director Toshio Masuda, known in the West for his work on Tora! Tora! Tora! (after avoiding a grim fate as a kamikaze pilot himself) and the animated Space Battleship Yamato films.

There’s a decidedly different tone of the films to the books, dictated by a variety of factors. Everything from the bland slate-like blue/grey tint of the contemporary film stock to the general underlying fatalism of 70s Japanese cinema is at work here. These are downer movies, and often the only splashes of color apparent therein are the ludicrous gushers of ninja blood.

In all the incarnations of this property, I find Jubei to be the least interesting of the trio, and its especially true here. Ishihara’s star status is completely lost on me, knowing him only from these films, where his low-key delivery borders on phoning it in. Despite some cool leather gauntlets and a sweet five-handed-handle katana, his swordsmanship is nothing to write home about, nor is the fight choreography and execution — especially in light of what was going on at the same time in the ‘Baby Cart’ films.

And his make-up becomes increasingly ridiculous…

The other men in the trio make up for it a bit. Moonlight is lifted right off the manga page. Mikio Narita, a personal fave for his portrayal of the evil wizard Kashin Koji in Ninja Wars, has the sort of physical presence that totally sells the calm, emotionless sword ace facing superior numbers, but secure knowing he’s the shit. Would-be ambushers who’ve done their homework on the Hunters set the most elaborate traps for him, too.

The portrayal of Sunlight is where the versions of the property vary the most. Ryohei Uchida‘s movie Sunlight departs from the chubby-guy trope of the manga, instead channeling a straight up lascivious 70s porn star, evidently with the manhood to match. Despite being a total schlub, women (ninja or otherwise) are all over him, and he’s the only one of the three to display common emotions like joy, anger and lust.

Of course the lust part gets him into the most trouble, and sometimes a kunoichi has to be put down in a giallo-like wardrobe malfunction.

Both films rest in plotting waters I kind of despise, truth be told — complex machinations that wind up killing off the non-principal cast but end up being a lot of work and lives sacrificed for nothing.

The first film has the Hunters chasing after a document that will allow the Shogunate to snatch a gold fortune from an unstable territory. As things go, neither side really deserves the reward in question, but much of that gets forgotten in the wake of Jubei running into the former love of his life, played by the stunning Ruriko Asaoka (Goyokin, Incident at Blood Pass), who’s even more self-loathing than our hero.

The second film sees the crew escorting a huge cannon through ninja-infested trails, only to realize if it doesn’t fall to the shadows it’ll end up in the hands of the no-good government, so they blow the whole thing up — the cannon, the script, the overall moral of the story — boom. And all at the expense of another great beauty, pinky violence starlet Junko Natsu.

(If you want to see the Echo of Destiny story done right, any version of The Wages of Fear is great, but I’m particularly blown away by William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.)

There are familiar themes to the old ninja genre in the two live action films: any attempt or even the suggestion of domestic stability or bliss results in innocent blood being shed, the path of the sword can never be abandoned, etc. But laid over that ground is something you notice the more you watch 70s films — the deconstruction of the 60s ninja boom. All the resourcefulness, arcane arsenals and innovative shadow arts that made heroes of Goemon, Saizo, Juzo and Tonbei are now gone, replaced by an overwhelming willingness to surround a hero and wait your turn to run at him belly exposed, fake blood bag at the ready.

The early 70s saw a slew of declining cinema stars retreat to exploitation films and television series, hacking the previous decade’s mega media fad to bloody pieces in seeming bitter resentment.

Yes, there are ninja tricks in Shadow Hunters, and there are swinging stunts and acrobatics and exotic weapons like the sickle and chain… but as a whole, competence has been sacrificed for quantity. The ninja attack in cowards’ numbers, running around in broad daylight in silly black pajamas unable to hit the broad side of a barn with a bladed weapon. By the second movie, the ninja gangs are actually smart enough to try to run away, and entire fights are spent by Hunters pursuing former combatants trying to flee the scene.

They also get caught in their own traps. Like, A LOT!

When cinematic ninja turned this corner in the 70s, everything degraded. The historians and martial artists were no longer on set. Wardrobe had to crank out dozens and dozens of cheap suits and the lack of tailoring showed. Budgets wouldn’t allow for adequate retakes so you see hoods coming undone during action scenes, and everything looks like it was just pulled out of a package, with pressing and fold lines apparent all over. Nothing seems to fit well and no one seems to have coached the extras and stuntmen in how to tie their friggin’ holds. These things drive me nuts…

For the most part, these shinobi are merely hooded swordsmen willing to sneak around and stab a foe in the back. But they’re not even good swordsmen! The more lackluster the heroes’ skills were on screen, the more bland the choreography, the more it had to be covered up by downgrading the ninja even more. At least when Lone Wolf mowed down ninja and Yagyu troops, he had the gun-and-blade-laden cart, plus Wakyama’s sword skills were enough to sell the audience on a single man surviving sustained combat against 100 or more opponents. Shadow Hunters has none of those advantages.

It’s a shame because there are some great locations and action set-ups for sure.

And a nice and grisly double-face-burning gimmick when two shadows are captured:

There’s enough good for me recommend these films, especially if you dig that 70’s vibe of Lone Wolf and Cub, Demon Spies, etc.

But, I, and everyone I’ve shown them to, typically come away with one thing when watching them — damn do these dudes need to lighten up!

They are so despondent in the damnation that is their blood-soaked lives, so co-dependent and miserable in their ways of ninja butchery, the morose-ness is almost comedic. In the midst of a theme song that can only be described as “loungey” or even “boozy”, they ride off into the sunset while grumbling monologues of poetic depression in the guise of stoic perseverance:

We shadow hunters are nothing but ruthless beasts.

We have nothing more to lose.

We bare our fangs to survive… but is this life?

We are the stray dogs from hell.

We are Shadow Hunters… we would go out tonight but we haven’t got a stitch to wear…

You don’t want your friends chuckling and doing Morissey impersonations as you’re showing them a ninja movie.

The tone of a 1992 made-for-TV reboot was much lighter…

You know you’re in a different mindset when Jubei is a young hunk who actually cracks a smile now and then!

I don’t have much by way of hard data on this reboot, nor have I seen it subtitled, but the cast is full of familiar TV faces — Hiroaki Murakami, Renji Ishibashi, Takeo Chii.

AND!!! It has my absolute favorite trope of television ninja fodder — salmon-peach and mustard-beige colored suits! So many TV shows use these improbable color schemes for their mass-produced shinobi. Here at least the beige colors blend a little with some drab fall forest backdrops, but when you see a night fight with pinky/orange-clad commandos, it can only be Japanese primetime TV.

The ninja action is decent, if not guilty of all of the gripes from the movies above. Japan Action Club juiced it up with a lot of rope swinging stunt work, too.

Jubei being a radical departure from previous versions aside, Moonlight is rather similar, albeit missing the trademark facial splotch. Sunlight on the other hand is a real dandy here, with a colorful wardrobe to match his lady-killer personality.

The plot seems to be from the same source material as Echo of Destiny, with the cannon, but sans the cross-country stuff. Probably allowed them to keep the production in one spot, this being a TV budget and all.

Two more permutations of Shadow Hunters have eluded me so far: A 1983 Fuji TV remake starring Tatsuya Nakadai (!!!), and a 2011 manga reboot by Kenji Okamura (Lycanthrope Leo), with character design more along the lines of the original.

When you look at the overall census of Kage Gari permutations over the decades, its no surprise there’s a cult following. Maybe the manga are out there in the ‘scanlation’ realm? The long-out-of-print Animeigo DVDs are real collector’s items now. I totally get that. If you love the Lone Wolf & Cub flicks, these are close enough in tone and style to be happening in the same universe.

But man, do these guys need a hug.

 

NOTE: If you’re hunting down the Hunters, don’t confuse the 1964 Toei film Ninja Gari (aka Kage Gari, The Ninja Hunt, Ninja Hunter, The Shadow Hunt, and more) with Jushiro Konoe and its 1982 TV remake with son Hiroaki Matsukata. These are GREAT films, but not the same property at all.

 

THANKS: To Ichiban for some timely data, and Jessica Amada Salmonson always.

 

READ MORE:

Paghat the Rat Girl’s review at Weird Wild Realm

Nicholas Rucka’s review at Midnight Eye

Yujiro Ishihara’s museum page to the first film (Japanese)

Yujiro Ishihara’s museum page to the second film (Japanese)

 

Kosugi and Van Cleef in Japan

One of the great head-scratchers of the 80s American ninja boom was the NBC TV series The Master, created by Michael Sloan but driven by the one-man craze-catalyst that was Sho Kosugi. On one hand its very existence spoke to the magnitude of ninja’s popularity in 1984, but its utter failure coming at the same time as Kosugi’s departure from Cannon Films can be interpreted as the premature beginning of the end for the boom period.

The Master failed to convert new audiences, and was, quite-honestly, often cringe-worthy to even the staunchest ninja geek. Much of the country never even saw the full run of 13 episodes. I was growing up in New England at the time, and with the Celtics on their way to a championship that year, Larry Bird was pre-empting Max Keller at every opportunity.

Two years later, Trans-World Entertainment would release the series as two-episode clam-shell and hard-shell VHS to the rental market, mildly disguised as “movies” under the title The Master Ninja. Within the next two years the rest of the globe was devouring dubbed or subtitled editions in German, Spanish and a host of other languages.

I’m the most intrigued by these kanji-subtitled Japanese versions:

What must the audience raised on the likes of Shinobi-no-Mono and contemporarily enjoying Kage No Gundan have of thought of this strange American product, what with its traditionally-garbed ninja using archaic weaponry in modern America? Were the stock-in-trade TV villains like greedy land barons, suburban crime lords and small-town evil industrialists harping on the likes of farmers and single moms something that even resonated with the Japanese? Did the action scenes, tailored to American audiences fetishizing signature weapons straight out of mail order catalogs and expecting high-arcing spin-kicks instead of the low-crouched Bujinkan-inspired choreography of the home product impress the Japanese at all?

The home video versions of The Master hit the market at about the same time as the IFD/Filmark stuff from Hong Kong started flooding video stores with titles like Ninja Terminator and Full Metal Ninja. The craze was burning out prematurely, but for NBC and Trans-World they were finally making back their investment with international video sales.

As for the North American market, the riffed-upon versions served up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 1990s were actually seen by more of an audience than any other iteration. The funky “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit sung by the robots remains one of the more beloved moments of that increasingly legendary show.

I wonder if the MST3K home video releases were imported into Japan…

Wait… WHO rented Cannon their house?

If you weren’t able to make the Revenge of the Ninja CD signing event in Januar,y the score and exclusive event print are now available via mail order, all signed by ROTN director Sam Firstenberg, stunt coordinator and silver-masked ninja double Steven Lambert, and composer Robert J. Walsh (CDs only).

Order the ROTN CD from Creature Features here.

Order the 11×17 limited edition print from Creature Features here.

The newly remastered ROTN soundtrack is just great — the sound is noticeably improved from the vinyl, there are extensive liner notes and a photo-loaded insert, and newly added are 12 classic tracks re-instrumentalized and enhanced by Walsh himself. Highly recommended!

The prints are 11×17″ on heavy stock, only 100 were printed and of those only a few were signed by Firstenberg and Lambert (in silver ink), so it’s first-come-first-served on those.

As for the event itself, it was a day of amazing stories from two men who genuinely adore this film and love even more its enduring fan following. The absolutely gushed eye-opening accounts of the production and working for Cannon Films back in the day. If you’ve heard their commentary on the ROTN or Ninja III: The Domination Blu-rays imagine the same sort of thing but in a live, intimate gallery setting.

Some gems we heard from Firstenberg:

— He largely fibbed his way into directing what would be his first action movie, and that inexperience led to the unique collaborative nature of the film. Sho Kosugi had huge sway, (Firstenberg called him “the leader” of the picture in a lot of ways) being close to producer-level and involved in more aspects of production than a first-time leading man would typically enjoy. Lambert, also a first timer on ROTN, was afforded freedoms he’d never enjoy again in bigger studio efforts. This collaborative triumvirate captured lightning in a bottle.

— Robert Walsh composed the entire iconic score in a mind-boggling FOUR DAYS. He put in marathon sessions with his own and borrowed equipment. Although most composers would start on the synth level in putting a score together hoping the studio would spring for proper orchestration later, on a Cannon budget Walsh knew from minute one a symphony was NOT going to happen, so ROTN was a synth score from concept to finish.

—  It was often a tri-lingual set. Kosugi would talk Japanese with his inner circle of students and his family, Firstenberg and his team would often meet and converse in Israeli, with most everyone else stuck in between trying to decipher everything to English.

— He’s getting more interest in his old ninja films now than he ever did before. The weekend of the event he had also done a phoner with media in Manitoba, Canada and has fielded invites from all over the globe in recent months.

And even more gems from Lambert:

— Even though studio armorers were credited, Sho Kosugi actually provided the entirety of the exotic ninja arsenal himself, and would continuously replenish items from the local martial arts training equipment manufacturers and suppliers he was already in business with creating his branded mail-order ninja gear. Lambert in particular marveled at how industrious, aware and calculated Kosugi was with the opportunity that was in front of him. He knew it was the right time and right place and was user-ready to pounce on the craze once it congealed.

— Watch the end duel closely and you’ll see Kosugi disarm Lambert (doubling Braden) of this sheath. When he tossed that sheath during the arcing sword-parry, it flew far enough away to go off the side of the sky-scraper they were on and fell all the way down to earth, amazingly not hitting anyone below.

— At some point in the late 1990s, thieves broke in to a storage unit rented by Lambert and cleaned it out. Amongst the treasures from his career lost were the ninja suits he wore in ROTN, Ninja III and American Ninja and two of the three silver Braden masks.

— The house and gardens used for the Osaki family massacre at the film’s beginning was rented from… get this… SHIRLEY TEMPLE!

35 years ago, I watched my SLP-recorded VHS tape of HBO’s airing of Revenge of the Ninja (if memory serves that same tape had The Road Warrior and They Call Me Bruce on it) so much it wore thin and snapped. To say that movie stuck with me would be an understatement. Decades later, to have an art gallery borrow some of my collection for display and ask me to design a print for an event where I’d kibitz with the men who made that movie was… well, the ultimate payoff to a life of fandom (never mind some serious validation of my pro-nerd status).

Jump at any rare chance you get to experience these men in person, their generosity with the material we know and love so well will blow you away the same it did me.

KR

 

RIP, the first ninja I ever knew…

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We lost Japanese screen legend Hiroki Matsukata this week.

The son of jidai-geki’s first Jubei Yagyu icon Jushiro Konoe, he was pretty much born to play a ninja on screen, with starring roles under the black hood in such classics as Mission Iron Castle, Seventeen Ninja 2: The Great Battle, Renegade NinjasKagemaru of the Iga Clan, and the first ninja movie I ever saw, the kaiju-loaded Magic Serpent.

I loved his sideways eye expressions and his ability to sell facial emotion when otherwise covered in a black head wrap. Matsukata may have been more prolific in yakuza cinema and more traditional chambara dramas, but he was a superb ninja actor as well.

Here’s a list of past features of his work from this site. Revisit these great old films and keep this legend immortal.

Seventeen Ninja II: The Great Battle

The Magic Serpent

Kagemaru of the Iga Clan

Yagyu Secret Scrolls series

And finally, we’re proud to debut this great portrait of Hiroki Matsukata by Asian-cinephile extraordinaire Amber Skowronski, whose work you can follow in Instagram and tumblr.

 

 

RIP…

 

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.

shinobi-yamamoto

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.

shinobinomono_pod_3

 

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.

shinobinomono-pod6

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.

nemuri-vs-goemon

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.

shinobinomono-pod7

 

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.

shinobinomono_pod_4

 

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

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

(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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006

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

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