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:
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
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.
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…
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!
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.
Medicom has released two new sofubi of Kaiketsu Lion Maru and Tiger Joe, designed by Bear Model.
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…
Also found some nifty publicity images from KLM and Fuun Lion Maru on tumblr:
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.
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 TombstonetoWyatt 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 Tear5 (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.
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:
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?
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?
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 Empireand Mob City.
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 Clementine, Hour of the Gun, Tombstoneand Costner’s Wyatt Earpare Hollywood, not history.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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 Serpentand 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.
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.
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, Dororo, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, Goemon 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.
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…
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…
Understood it’s a rare item, especially in this good a shape, but I just couldn’t swim in the ludicrous waters of pricing the Japanese seller wanted for this, and shipping from Japan is always a total bone. However one of you more affluent readers could put a little eBay search time in and make me a happy, happy camper this Christmas.
These Japanese pop-up books are ambitious as hell with the gimmick graphics. Multiple layers, intricate illustrations. Just awesome…
But let’s face it… none of us are rich, are we? Didn’t think so…
So for the more frugal shopper there’s this Cannon Films Ninja III: The Domination press kit, with some awesomely 80’s art on the cover. These are somewhat common in Hollywood memorabilia shops, or at least they were — that whole thing where you see something all over the place until you need to buy one in December, and whatnot…
I’m going to hold out hope for a truly wealthy and generous Japanese reader though. This plastic promotional advertising bank from the 60’s ninja boom over there NEEDS to be on my mantle!
Described in a Yahoo! Japan auction as “Mitsubishi Color TV Takao ‘DENSHI NINJA’ figure (MANDARAKE HENYA)” — this is a 5″ promotional item from 1968 that would have been in retail stores on top of TV displays. Maybe you got one for the kid if you bought a new TV?
A non-retail toy like this is ludicrously rare, even in Japan. After being listed in the Yahoo! Japan site it made it’s way to our eBay for a week or so for big bucks, then disappeared before the auction ended. Maybe Santa-San scooped it up for me???
On a more domestic front, here’s a great item from our own 80’s boom — a Sho Kosugi knock-off t-shirt!
The sketchy art here is swiped from the ‘iron claws’ poster a lot of us had on our walls back in the day. Unfortunately, vintage t-shirts have a competing market of hipster douchebags looking for ironic wardrobes, so the prices on such fare are just too much. If you spot such a piece on eBay, or in a trust-funded boutique in Williamsburg or Silverlake, and it’s less than $50 I know a stocking that needs stuffing over here. Oh, and size 7xxxxl-mega-gargantua, please.
Well, if these suggestions haven’t inspired you to empty your wallets and throw some ninja crap my way… honestly, don’t sweat it. I’ve probably got enough (read: TOO MUCH!) shinobi swag over here as it is.
I’ll leave you with a final image, a nice Christmas memory of where it all started for me — my haul of Asian World of Martial Arts ninja goods circa 1984. That was a good year, and I still have some of that stuff!
Most sites give you all sorts of gift giving ideas this time of year, but I’m turning the tables and putting it all on YOU!
Here’s something I’d really enjoy as a gift from one of you folks, original TV Guide advertising art of Lee Van Cleef in The Master!
This 18×22″ original was rendered back in mid 1980’s by artist Larry Salk. Crisp, high-contrast illustrations like these would often reproduce better than half-toned photos on the cheaper-than-cheap pulp upon which TV Guide and newspaper TV listing inserts were printed.
Yep, this would look awesome hanging on my wall, so hit this eBay link and make with the $500 somebody.
For the next month we’ll be looking at plenty more cool stuff I’d love to own and you as loyal and grateful readers can all pitch in and play Santa… right? RIGHT?!?!? Anyone…
Two of my favorite kung-fu-based ninja-sploitation flicks are the Taiwan via Hong Kong oddities Deadly Life of a Ninja and Challenge of the Lady Ninja, both featuring the delightful Elsa Yeung.
While Deadly Life features a bizarre pro-wrestling element that will always chime with my DNA, Lady is probably the “better” of the two, if such a term is appropriate.
While a bit less fleshy, it’s perhaps more bat-shit crazy with the outre female “martial arts training” (aka mud wrestling and sexy aerobics) and in particular the weird gimmick villains.
Typical of her films, Elsa is put through the ringer with torturous training, fights against multiple male opponents, and all sorts of wacky kunoichi seduction business.
Here’s the inside of the brochure, with bilingual summaries:
Yeah, I’m thinking that pic is of one of Elsa’s myriad male stunt doubles… from “Igay School.”
I just adore (in all the wrong ways) the fact that Lady is period-set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, yet makes ZERO attempt at fealty to that era. Modern cars and interiors abound, nevermind theover-the-top80’s fashions and big hair. Evidently Shanghai had a mall with a Chess King back in the 1940s!
Challenge of the Lady Ninja was a staple of cheap VHS at the tail end of the 80s craze, and has also been released in various formats and countries as Never Kiss A Ninja and the completely misleading Chinese Super Ninjas II. As much as a dig this flick, it’s NO sequel to Five Element Ninjas.