ZOKU SHINOBI NO MONO press stills (part 1)

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These sepia-toned (and aging poorly) 8×10’s are from either a theatrical lobby promo kit or a studio press kit contemporary to the 1963 theatrical release of ninja blockbuster Zoku Shinobi no Mono (Return of the Band of Assassins, ). Raizo Ichikawa returned as a thoroughly retroshinobified folk hero Ichikawa Goemon in a direct sequel to the ground-breaking first “Band of Assassins” film. The success of this sequel cemented the serious ninja movie trend (this series alone would go nine chapters), and like the others in the line, it delivers on all fronts.

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Star presence is when you can manage a recognizable (and dramatic) face even when fully hooded. But facts are facts – Hollywood or Tokyo – when the Japanese James Dean is your franchise star, costuming takes a backseat to face-time on screen. What I love most about Raizo is the absolute conviction he portrayed, especially in the black pajamas. He could really SELL it. He sold danger, desperation, fear, tension, love, joy, and crushing heartbreak like few others.

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Yeah, Tomisaburo Wakayama is great in these movies and all, but as a non-sword-fighting villain that inevitably leaves those of us weaned on LONE WOLF AND CUB disappointed.

The first Shinobi no Mono had two major strengths – the fascination of the arcane ninjutsu being shown as a credible martial art for the first time on screen, and a sympathetic plight of appealing protagonists. In the second film, much of the ninja stuff was old hat, so they upped the intrigue and espionage. This film isn’t ninja vs. ninja, it’s ninja vs. world.

(to be concluded…)

YATSUHA in “Samurai Champloo”

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Samurai Champloo is now available as a lower-priced box set, so I’ll re-purpose an old Ninja80 post here.

I was a huge mark for Cowboy BeBop, but the creative team’s follow-up series failed to make the same impact with me… until Episode 15! In “Bogus Booty” the wandering trio of Mugen, Fuu and Jin (symbols, as were the Bebop bounty hunters, for broke and hungry animators in Tokyo) encounter a secret crime clan counterfitting gold, and two onmitsu (undercover secret police agents) trying to bring them down.

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But what’s this? The forgers are descendants of the Negoro ninja and have kept the family trade intact! Luckily, secret cop Yatsuha has shadow skills of her own, and even luckier – Mugen wants to get in her pants so bad he’s willing to beat the shit out of all the ninja on her behalf. Makes for some INCREDIBLE fight scenes!!!

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Champloo was a series based on fusion, laid on a foundation that mixed classic chambara with modern dialogue and hip-hop music. “Bogus Booty” is a tribute to anime ninja conventions (formation running attacks, tree-top fighting), with character right out of a 70’s Onmitsu Doshin episode. She wears a modern take on sort-of-Chinese period clothing, but uses Japanese weapons and martial arts. Great stuff.

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Character design from the series’ former official website, now gone as far as I can find…

A ‘Tonbei the Mist’ primer

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Once upon a time, there was a ground-breaking Japanese TV series called Onmitsu Kenshin (or Onmitsu kenshi), starring Koichi Ose as Shintaro, wandering samurai detective protecting his half-brother the Shogun from various conspiracies and assassins. It was popular in Japan, but when the series shifted gears and integrated ninja as both friend and foe, it blew up and as The Samurai became an international sensation.

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International? Sure, it had a HUGE English-speaking fan base! How could you forget in 1965 when those early seasons were dubbed into English and aired on TV daily? Remember when Ose did that promotional tour, greeted by thousands of screaming fans at the airport ala The Beatles? Remember how each subsequent season got more and more popular, with more and more ninja action? Wasn’t it great how they were syndicated for decades after, followed by other dubbed shows like Phantom Agents! Does anyone still have their officially licensed plastic swords they got for Christmas, or the wildly popular Shintaro trading cards?

No… Drawing a blank…

Well, that’s because it all happened in fucking Australia!!!

Not here, NOOOOOO. Why would Americans want to see dozens of hours of Republic-serial like ninja warfare dubbed into perfect English? Fuck it, we’re fine with direct-to-video bullshit like Full Metal Ninja and Seven Lucky Ninja Kids. Give us turtles and leave us alone, we don’t want any of those historically credible martial arts espionage epics here. No way.

OK, bitter rant subsides for now – to the point.

TONBEI THE MIST!

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If Shintaro was Japan’s (and fucking Australia’s) Lone Ranger, then Tonbei was the Tonto. Played by career ninja legend Maki Fuyukichi – who would go on to the Watari the Ninja Boy live action film, play White Shadow in Masked Ninja Akakage, Henshin Ninja Arashi and dozens of other TV and movie shinobi roles – Tonbei was sort of half ace-in-the-hole / half comic relief.

Sure, he was Shintaro’s shadow – scout, spy, saboteur – but the character was so prone to capture and to showing up at fights just as Shintaro put the last ninja down, he became the butt of some unintentional humor.

Either way, Maki’s ‘man of Iga’ is a hugely important character in the development of the genre. Born in the mold of more serious ninja fare like Shinobi-no-mono, he was there to show off outre tools and arcane spy gadgets, give clinics on commando tactics and shadow skills, and get in all sorts of cool ass reverse-grip sword fights.

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So, we’ll be looking a lot at both The Samurai and Tonbei the Mist in coming months, and Maki was such a prolific ninja regular, he’ll be turning up constantly. Consider the below images a primer, and seek out the now out-of-print season box sets of the show on DVD. The best source of info on both the original Japanese show and it’s success in Oz can be found here.

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As of season 2, Tonbei was a regular sidekick to Shintaro, and could call in additional 'Men of Iga' as needed. Some of these actors left a bit to be desired in the skill and physicality departments...
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The producers learned early on that getting at least one or two mission-gear costume sequences in per show guaranteed ratings.
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Well used cramped sets - sneaking around and battling other suppa in the rafters above or the crawlspaces below houses were common sequences.
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Maki had great overtured posing and expressions. This pose, where he's flinging shuriken at the camera's POV (actually just an empty handed arm motion with whooshing foley) happened two or three times a show.
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And would be followed by an immediate, often grisly result. Check out that shuriken right in the mouth! Ow...
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"Historically accurate" gear, right out of secret scrolls and Hatsumi books, was often featured. Many episodes had Tonbei giving another character informal clinics on such gadgetry.
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Arcane techniques abound as well. Here, Tonbei spreads dust in a hallway to give away the trails of nocturnal invaders.
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He was a master of disguise, too, as this Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces get-up illustrates. Kinda gross, actually...
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However wide his shadow skill set, Tonbei's real job was getting captured by the enemy. He did his job well, he did his job often.
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Tonbei in suspension bondage, damsel in distress just fine. This is no isolated incident, it happened like every third episode.
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He often forgot to pack his Ninja Net-Proofing Spray, as well.

Amusing as the ‘sidekick-in-peril cliches’ become over the seasons of The Samurai, there are just as many great ninja battles, commando raids, trick weapon duels and other shinobi staples to keep things real. I absolutely love this series, and all jokes aside, if there’s one property I truly resent discovering now instead of in the 1980’s, it’s this one. And it was already in English! What’s the excuse???

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A company called Siren Visual put out seven ‘series’ (13 episode arcs) of the Australian TV broadcasts on DVD a few years back, but lost the license in 2008 and they’ve since been out of print. I’m told the series starting at 8 and 9 were totally amazing, too, so once again we’re shit out of luck… However, one of two feature-length films has made the trading rounds under the stiffly translated title “The Detective Fencer.” (I’d have called it ‘Samurai Sleuth’ LOL) The movie is one step above the show in production values, and delivers a relentless barrage of ninja combat. Highly recommended!

Chinese flyer for “Black Ninja”

Sepia-tone 2-sided flyer for the Ryutaro Otomo ninja vehicle Maboroshi Kurozukin Yamine Toku-Kage (can’t confirm that title or translate, although the words for black hood, phantom, and shadow are in there…) from Singapore – possibly late 60’s?

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Enjoy some whacked-out ‘Chingrish’ below:

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That image above looks a lot like the live-action Iga no Kagemaru film, or perhaps just an identical costume?

I haven’t seen this film, but I’m dying to know who the “Bat Swordsman” is, if he uses bats in combat, and what the scorpion relation is…

Here’s a Japanese poster for the same. Check out that tsuba-less sword on the left! You gotta have sack to weild a weapon like that, as you pretty much eliminate a lot of kendo’s defenses from an opposing sword.

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SENGOKU YARO – Warring Clans

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Okamoto Kihachi‘s (Sword of Doom, Kiru!) 1963 ninja classic Sengoku Yaro is a real blast – a  superb mix of comedy and combat, peppered with some rather outré fight scenes, a jazzy score by Masaru Sato that keeps you on your toes, and a super cute sword girl to boot.

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The gorgeous YURIKO HOSHI, familiar to us from several Godzilla films, is sassy, defiant and deadly. The simple detail of the prop master giving her a shorter sword (a 'chisa' I think, or possibly a longer handled wakizashi?) actually does a lot to lend her sword acting some credibility.

These aging Thai press kit photos were contemporary with the film’s 1963 release. It’s a superbly shot B&W film, the colors here are actually hand tinted for display in theater lobbies. That moray pattern is from the acid fixer breaking down after half a century. These are in rough shape – never deigned for posterity, and nowhere near as collectible as their poster counterparts, thus rarely archived as well.

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Who’s cooler than the film’s lead Yuzo Kayama? No-one, because not only was he in some kick-ass chambara and ninja flicks, he was also a great guitarist. That’s him below, on stage in Japan with the Ventures!

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If you like films like Kiru! and 3 Outlaw Samurai, where the violence is tempered with sardonic humor, then Warring Clans is your ninja huckelberry. It’s got a great ‘who’s working who?’ dynamic familiar to the spaghetti westerns, and the fights are shot superbly.

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LOVE that arrow stuck in the rain hood... That's MAKOTO SATO on the right, whose facial expressions alone lend an instant comedic edge to this film, putting it on a level above many of it's contemporary peers.

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The battles in Clans are largely either on barren cliffsides or tall grassy plains infested with black-suited snakes ready to strike. The plot revolves around a caravan transporting rifles under siege from without and possibly within. At times, it’s a sort of buddy pic, with three bickering protagonists, all who claim to be the next leader of Japan, but who are actually bums… or are they?

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From the, literally, explosive ending!

I’m tortured the press materials I scored didn’t include a shot of the astounding Kumi Mizuno, who has a small role. I mention her solely because I want an excuse to run this off-topic shot from my favorite mutation of the kaiju genre Matango:

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There isn’t an angle I can’t recommend this movie on: The cinematography is top notch, and the fight scene editing is an absolute clinic in how to make non-martial artists look good in duels. It’s got some great ninja beats, too, although pretty much anyone in a black suit comes to a foul end. The flow of grave subject matter and at times gory violence with comedic performances in both small and main roles is masterfully executed. And if nothing else,you just cannot take your eyes off Yuriko Hoshi. She almost steals the movie…

KAGE now online

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I was lucky enough to see the combat-intensive short film KAGE on the big screen at a film festival last year, but screenings in the U.S. were few and far between. You can however, watch it online at their bi-lingual website: kage-japan.com.

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KAGE‘s fat-free 23-minute running time delivers nothing but the goods – cool costumes, hot ninja chicks and stiff-as-hell fight scenes. It wears influences from a few different eras of shinobi-cinema proudly on it’s sleeve, too.

Producer, director and star Takeshi Maya is 80’s-era Henry Sanada reborn, right down to the twin short swords, trampoline spots and high spin kicks. He’s damn proud that there was no wire-work in the film, no digital fight-fakery either. This film is his fight reel and stunt reumé bared for the world to see. 

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Check out the genre pedigree within the rest of the cast: Villain “Retsu” is played by none other than Shane Kosugi, and Sho Kosugi’s production company is thanked in the credits. Kenji Ooba and Junichi Haruta of Sony Chiba’s Japan Action Club have small roles as shinobi elders, too. 

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That’s smoking hot Airi Yoshihama in the middle of the pack of ninja villains. Man is that some sauce! She’ll be familiar to fans of Japanese obstacle course game show “Sasuke” (aka Ninja Warrior on G4), as she’s the “G-Rockets” dancer/acrobat who’s a regular on the women’s competitions. She does a great spinning cartwheel bit in a respectable fight scene with the rather adorable female lead Chisa Yokoyama, who is otherwise a major anime voice over actress. They’re both cute-as-hell, in great costumes with short-swords-a-slashin’… 

[Check out a few more images under Sword Girls]

Alas, the web-hosted viewing experience doesn’t do the film justice. It was great on the big screen, you could really see how hard everyone was working. But shorts never seem to have a good home when it comes to home video release, so let’s hope this sees some sort of broadcast-quality download in some form in the future. I’d gladly pay a ten-spot to own this thing as an HD file.

Mexican lobby card – Ninja in the Dragon’s Den

It never really breached the Times Square grindhouse and werewolf circuits here in the States, but the Hong Kong / Japanese co-production Ninja in the Dragon Den was certainly an international hit.

Here’s some totally original painted artwork from the Mexican release. Most international ad campaigns for the film centered on either of the two matinee idols involved – Henry Sanada and Conan Lee, and where their names didn’t mean as much, it was photos of Sanada’s superb ninja costuming that carried the ads.

But in Mexico, they often opted for totally original art.

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Hair metal hero or Kabuki killer?

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Images from a 1960 B&W adventure pic from Toei titled (draw a breath here) Hakuba Doji Nanbanji no Kettou Kanketsu Hen. Can’t get a good translation of that bulky title, but it’s along the lines of ‘case of the southern barbarians’ or perhaps European foreigners being investigated.

I’ve sen this flick with no subtitles, so the exact story escapes me, but it’s got plenty of serial swashbuckler-style action, and amazing costumes.

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