Feb 22 is an upstart shinobi-themed holiday in Japan, especially in Iga and Koga. You can read all about on Kotaku:
Is it just me, or is there more and more generic-design ninja merch out there than ever before?
This stuff is clogging the shelves of every Little Tokyo and/or Chinatown tourist trap, airport gift shop, cart and blanket vendor around subways, dollar stores and ebay all over like cheap plastic ninja kudzu. It’s almost the 80s all over again… except back then, we didn’t have iconically cartooned shinobi versions of kitchenware and common household goods.
There are sippy-cup shinobi and and some rather clever coffee kusa.
Ninja can guard the fizz in your soda-pop…
…and scale your fridge like it was a feudal-era castle.
The can make hard-boiled eggs and cook rice, too.
And keep you warm on a cool night. Hoodies have come a long way. The one on the right is probably better made than any of the costuming on the latter American Ninja sequels.
These smartphone stands from Japan are pretty damned amazing!
And all without a single property license or discernible knock-off of a known hit character. Generic ninja designs are worth their weight in non-licensed gold.
I managed to resist all these retail temptations this year, but here’s a couple of independent media projects with roots in old-school ninja fandom I did support:
Neon Harbor, the folks who brought us the astute parodies Ninja: The Mission Force have released an original animated feature in the tradition of Cyber Ninja, Zipang, Moon Over Tao, etc. Have not screened this yet, but its heart is clearly in the right place and I love the designs and genre literacy here!
Shadowland Magazine is one of a handful of modern ‘zines keeping the 90s traditions alive — indie hustle, niche content, illustrated covers, and real gems of genre goodness. They sent me a preview of their now available issue #10, which features 18 pages of ninja movie overviews and shuriken-starred reviews, with the crown jewel being a short interview with Cannon films director Sam Firstenberg.
The magazine is available in print form now with a digital version pending. Support an indie publisher and check it out!
It’s not too late for some last-minute Christmas shopping, or some retail therapy with some of that holiday money you got in place of actual affection from your family. Spend it where it counts, and keep it ninja!
Happy Holidays everyone!!!
Wow… the fifth anniversary of this site.
You’ll notice some minor cosmetic and navigation updates for the first time in forever. I suppose some sort of profound editorial is in order, but I’d rather just thank everyone who’s plugged this site and contributed, with much appreciation to the folks on tumblr who actually credit where they found their images. More than anything though, I’d like to welcome you new readers.
I’m not a web guy by any stretch, so this site is built on a simple WordPress blog engine, which makes finding past material a bit tedious (although who doesn’t love endlessly scrolling through years and years of great ninja stuff?), so I’ll center this anniversary article on some of the best pieces we’ve published in the past that you definitely shouldn’t miss. Yes, there’s plenty of great pieces from the last five years — some more wordy than the below, some with more pics, some more profound… but these encapsulate the spirit of the site perfectly I think.
So here’s A HALF-DECADE OF ESSENTIAL VINTAGE NINJA ARTICLES:
VN started during an explosion of DVDr trading in fan-subbed Japanese films, granting us access for the first time to decades of old ninja movies that never made it to our shores during the 80s craze. Much of the early tone of this site was Holy crap, we can finally see Mission: Iron Castle! As disc trading has largely become insiders sharing files within invite-only groups, or just YouTube link sharing on social media, a lot of that magic of discovery seems to be waning. That being said, I’ll probably never stop reviewing films via stills, old-school.
The absolute best job VN did of covering a movie this way was a multi-part series on Samurai Spy — a film that’s probably the pinnacle of artistic craft in the genre. Start at the prelude to the four-part series.
It’s my favorite ninja movie ever, it has a digital-era remake to compare the classic original to, and over the years we’ve scored multiple lots of antique press photos from this Ryutaro Otomo vehicle. There might not be a better visually and editorially represented film on this site. Start at the 2009 series CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK, and continue with a great photo follow-up here.
Three years back, Tim and I were looking at some newly offered high end “ninja swords” coming out of the superior boutique-style brands, which were consistent with trends we had seen in the wall-hanger crap sold in Chinatown smoke shops — the blades were now as long as any traditional samurai sword, the handles just as short, and the guards were still square but had shrunk down from the oversized ones made famous by Kosugi and ilk. Basically, there was now a definite version or style of the ninja-to for the 2000s.
These musings turned to actual digging — looking for the origin of the 80’s style ninja-to in mail order ads, and pouring through 60s Japanese films looking for the precursors. It all raised as many questions as answers, but we put together a pretty good look at the fabled weapon as historical artifact, movie prop and merchandise staple.
As much as we love discovering older Japanese fare, this site is run by acolytes of the 80s American ninja craze. I’ve often credited the opening titles to Enter the Ninja as the actual birth moment of the 80s boom — five minutes of pure exotic weapons porn courtesy of Sho Kosugi. I spent a couple hours screen capping and collaging a stills-representation of that greatness, and it went pretty viral. Follow this up with more EtN love: a review of the movie, some foreign lobby cards, and other publicity stills.
Most of the toys and statues you see on here are actually in the collection of myself or a select few other contributors. Being a decades-long ninja collector, there are treasures I have and others I never realistically hoped to possess. The Franklin Mint “Shadow Warrior” statue was one of these grails, a rare high-end collectible that completely embraced the look and feel of the exploitive Canon films of the era. These were too expensive for most of us when released, have increased in value since, and are fragile as hell to boot, so they aren’t getting any more plentiful to say the least. I had pretty much given up on ever having one, until scoring one in 2010 that was passed over by other buyers due to some damage (what I dubbed a ‘Yakuza wound’). I love how 80s this thing is (even if it was produced in 1990). Check out some other craze-era porcelain here and here, too.
Jay Gluck may just have been the first Westerner to write about ninjutsu, with a chapter on the emergence of modern shinobi schools in Japan in his 1962 book Zen Combat. It predates the first articles by Arthur Adams in Black Belt, and the publication of You Only Live Twice. It isn’t a cover feature during the boom, isn’t a lead piece designed to sell copies of anything, so it has a raw honesty. Maybe too raw — Gluck didn’t debunk ninja history, but he surely had no use for the 60s Japanese ninja boom nor any of the modern practitioners of what he called “dirty weapon” martial arts. This is an essential read and a little-known chapter of ninjutsu’s exposure in the West.
As much as we love Shirato Sanpei’s work and other legendary ninja manga, there are plenty of sites out there covering them already. VN is probably the only spot anywhere featuring indepth looks at long-forgotten pioneering works like GI Combat‘s KANA back-up stories. These nearly pre-craze stories got the drop on GI Joe‘s ninja characters by years, but have fallen into relative obscurity.
It’s no secret, I love cheap ninja crap from the 80s! Battery operated toys, plastic swords, vending machine prizes, lousy generic figures, and yes… these once ubiquitous, now super rare holographic stickers. With art crudely sketched from martial arts magazine mail order ads or stolen from video covers, few things are more of the time than these capsule machine decals. As soon as I posted these, they became kinda hot on eBay and are now nigh-impossible to score cheap. Sorry guys…
One truly baffling and infuriating thing we were denied in the 80s up here was The Samurai (orig. Onmitsu Kenshin), a fully English-dubbed 10-season ninja-infused Japanese TV show that was literally bigger than The Beatles in Australia in the 1960s. Why was this broadcast or VHS-ready product not imported? WHY?!?!? Luckily, Siren Video in Oz made it available on DVD in the mid 2000s, and I had friends in the right places, so we ended up being THE portal for this major yet obscure chapter of ninja media history for those outside the land down under.
So what’s in store for the future?
Well, sadly, my time is going to be less free than ever but I’m committed to at least two posts per month. I’d love to write and design some sort of book that reflects this site, and may just do something on my own in the next year or so unless another publisher wants to step up. I’d also really like to get some interviews while the men and women who made the 80s craze are still around and available. And I’m certainly not about to stop buying cheap 80s merch and snapping up rare movies from overseas.
Thanks for being here with us everyone, we’ll try to continue delivering for another five years…
Keith J. Rainville — June, 2014
There was a time I swore I’d never go longer than a week without a post, then it became 10 days, then two weeks, and suddenly without me noticing there’s been nothing new here for more than a month. That damn calendar crept up on me like a… like a what… like a ninja!
So where have I been? It’s way off-topic, but I’ll share anyway. The Outer Limits, that’s where!
For the past year, it’s been my pleasure (and a HUGE labor of love) to design, photo-edit and mechanically execute this retro-TV entertainment book for Creature Features publishing in Burbank, CA.
March saw not only The Outer Limits at 50‘s triumphant release, but also a big marketing push, gallery event and three big signings. It’s devoured my free time, which ‘real life’ wasn’t leaving much of to start with.
What little time I had for Vintage Ninja was actually filled up with solving a technical problem that exposed potential for a catastrophic security risk. All’s well now, but man for a minute I thought we were going to lose all sorts of content here.
So triumphs and tribulations behind me now, I look forward to a lot more stuff going up here, but not before I take some self-prescribed time off from everything. I’m writing-off April, and will return with new posts in May. Lots of cool stuff on deck, too, from ninja tricycles to plastic forts, newly discovered vintage Japanese films to obscure 80s comics from Europe.
In the meantime, I’ll be recycling some gems from the past you may have missed, so those’ll be new to a lot of you.
Oh, and a couple of recommendations, too! Kurotokagi has new titles for the first time in ages. Seventeen Ninja II and the Japanese original of what most of us knew as Renegade Ninjas are both absolute MUSTS.
I also highly recommend catching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s laced with themes of the reluctant warrior wanting to shed the covert life, fighting against shadow regimes and conspiracies within conspiracies. Familiar ground for us shinobi-cinemafiles.
I hope you are all in good health, are getting out and enjoying some Spring weather and are keeping it ninja!
I’m heading off to Pismo Beach. See y’all in May!
I was asked by the film review site SoReelFlix last month to contribute a Top 10 ninja films list.
After a month of notes I had about 30 bare essential films and realized an outright Top 10 wasn’t going to happen — I felt like a parent pushing kids out of a lifeboat or something…
But, what I was able to do was break the massive world- and decade-spanning genre down to 10 general categories of film experience, based on how they are enjoyed by the public, and pick an ideal ambassador of each. I feel in most cases they’re the best, or at least ideal entry points, into facets of ninja movies of which a lot of potential fans might not be totally aware.
I skipped outright kids’ movies (especially of the turtle variety) and soft porn (tastes and ‘needs’ of the audience vary too widely there!), but otherwise I think this is a pretty decent Top 10.
Thanks to James from SoReelFlix.
Not to drag the scene down with off-topic plugs, but I’ve finally gone public with the big project that kept me largely away from here all summer.
ZOMBI MEXICANO is a new book published through my From Parts Unknown imprint, renowned for the zine of the same name in the 90’s. The book is centered on obscure 1970s Mexican zombie films that few realize are even part of the zombie genre because Mexican filmmakers were more partial to the term “momia” (mummy) in their marketing.
I’ve used a cutting edge new press on this project, experimented with small boutique runs of ultra-limited books. Might be something I’d look at for VN content in the future if it sells right.
• If you’re a stinky old fart with bad eyes like me then you hate watching stuff on portable devices and tiny screens. Fortunately for us luddites, Ninja: The Mission Force is now available on DVD.
• Found a great collection of color tinted Kurozukin Menko cards here.
• Spanish-language site Retumbarama has started a series of ninja movie articles. I always like seeing international takes on the craze era.
…but not necessarily this week:
And if anyone can identify where this panel comes from I’ll send them something cool free!
Meanwhile, I’m looking at a busy two weeks in front of me, so new stuff might be sparing. I’ve been thinking about dusting off some of the better archive posts, particularly from our first year, and republishing them for the new readers (and those without the patience or DEDICATION to click through the categories on their own).
Stay tuned folks!
Had a reader on the VN Facebook page (have you ‘Liked’ us? If not, SHAME!) post a great question:
“If you had to distill your favorite ninja films into a grievously unfair list of only 5, what would they be?”
OY! Can you imagine the nightmare scenario where you were trapped on a deserted island with only five ninja movies to watch over and over? Or if you had a bomb shelter with space for only five ninja films to survive the apocalypse and represent the genre for far-off future archeologists? Top tens are easy, but FIVE? That’s tough.
What I ended up coming up with (in no particular order) were:
— Castle of Owls (1963) Probably my favorite ninja film ever.
— Shinobi-no-Mono 1 (1962) For its historical significance, and being the best example of Hatsumi-driven credible espionage-based ninja flicks.
— Revenge of the Ninja (1983) Arguably the best of the American 80s craze, which must be represented.
— Five Element Ninja (1982) As should Hong Kong’s co-opting of ninja into their kung-fu empire.
— Magic Serpent (1966) To satisfy the Monster Kid in me, and represent TOAD MAGIC!
The Top 5 format forces me to exclude the entirety of the Joseph Lai/IFD genre-unto-itself cut-together films (Full Metal Ninja being my personal fave). Also on the bubble: The Octagon, the artistic apex of the genre Samurai Spy, Mission Iron Castle for being the height of dark ninja noir, and one of the Kadowkawa/Chiba/JAC collaborations has to be high up there too (Ninja Wars being another personal bias, lots of late-light cable viewings in this man’s youth). Ninja Scroll is probably the anime entry as well.
But what about all of you? Commenting is now wide-open to anyone and totally easy, so please, leave us you own Top 5 below. Really curious how many of us have similar lists, and am ready to slap myself with disgust for missing a crucial title that should have been on there.
Speak up folks!