Prepare to be Blog-a-thon-ed upon…

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VN is happy to join Japanese cinema bloggers from all over the globe November 3rd through the 10th for Wildground’s 2010 Blogathon. Yeah, that’s a word nowadays. Take that English!

I’m finalizing an epic length look at essential black and white shinobi cinema of the 60’s for this special event, look for it Friday or Saturday!

In the meantime, there is just a ton of J-cinema stuff going on at other blogs. Follow it all at Wildground’s index here, or Wildgrounds on Facebook and Twitter.

Hear the voice behind the hoods…

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Anyone with nothing better to do for an hour and a high endurance for geekery can listen to me guest-spot on Ted Seko‘s Idiot Engine podcast:

Listen here.

We talk origins of media obsessions, a bit of my creative history, the 90’s zine era vs. current internet publishing, how future generations will discover vintage content, and all sorts of other nerdness.

You should also check out Ted’s amazing artwork – I can’t get enough of his heavy ink and paint!

MONSTERS and MASKS 2010 is set to begin!

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Wow, it’s October already, which means two things:

1) I’m gonna start eating candy by the pound!

and

2) Monsters and Masks Month is back!!!

Last year, every October post was generally horror-themed or featured prominent demon or skull masks, with plenty of kaiju thrown in as well (and the usual gratuitous girl ogling). If you missed any of it, click below to see the whole month by tags:

Monsters and Masks 2009

See what you missed? And that’s just a sampling…

Nowhere else do martial arts cinema and Halloween horror coexist so blissfully, so swing on back this weekend for the kick-off of the October shinobi-shock-and-splatter fest.

Oh, and all you horror-bloggers — give a guy some linkage love, will ya!!!

Around the interwebs…

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There’s been some nifty stuff on other sites I’ve been remiss in plugging.

New stuff at Kurotokagigumi this month, including the climax of Kage no Gundan Bakumatsu Hen (Shadow Warriors 5).

Way out there vintage Polish poster for Yojimbo, spotted by Wildgrounds. While there, the Japanese doco on katana choreography is pretty damn cool, too.

There’s no better place for a martial arts film fan to waste some surfing time than Scott Adkins Fanz YouTube channel, which includes his 2010 fight reel. God almighty this guy is the savior of the MA action star!

Adkins is, of course, the star of our highly recommended fave of the recent shinobi-cinema spat Ninja, and the absolutely excellent Undisputed III. He’s filming a movie called “Weapon” in Romania right now with Jean Claude Van Damme. PASS THAT TORCH, JCVD! This is your Black Eagle

Schoolgirl Milky Crisis has a great article on the recent Kamui live action film and some questions on the very existence of ninja in the first place. Highly recommended write up! Not so much a recommended movie. Guess I should write a review of this at some point, but then I’d have to watch it again. Huh… guess that last statement was my review.

Check out Amber Skowronski‘s great illo of the cast of Legendary Weapons of China. Not a lot of people realize the ninja connection in this Shaw classic…

Teleport City‘s review of High Kick Girl is right on. I recommend seeing this movie — there are some absolutely awesome female fighters throughout — but man can it be a frustrating watch…

Speaking of not-so-ninja martial arts films (and I’m often frustrated I don’t have a less niche forum in which to do so) I want to give an absolutely GUSHING, loving plug to an absolutely terrific Korean martial arts tournament flick most of the world has overlooked. Geochilmaru (aka The Showdown) is a near zero-budget movie with a large cast of legit martial artists. They go to a remote location and get in a LOT of fights. No digital, no wires, no bullshit. Great actors? No. Groundbreaking new ideas? No. Totally satisfying indie kick flick that leans on its strengths? HELL YES! This is a movie that is really about martial arts, and I just adore it!

Did you miss Sasuke Weekend?

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In a nice bit of coinkidink, this past weekend Roy Ware of the awesome Black Sun posted some great imagery of an entirely different Sasuke, an animated film known in English-speaking markets as “Magic Boy.”

Occurs to me, with a domestic release in 1961, this would be the first ninja movie ever seen in the United States, well before the dubbed Magic Serpent. I don’t recall ever seeing this Disney-esque epic on VHS during the craze, but it had to have come out somewhere. Unless by the 80’s distributors were too sensitive about kids throwing knives around…

Another neat fact, two different retro-media blogs ran features on incarnations of Sasuke without mentioning fucking Naruto. Ah shit, I just did.

Dammit.

Great event in San Fran Friday

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Part of the ongoing “TokyoScope”  series, this killer panel on Japanese superheroes (including Masked Ninja Akakage) Friday at the VIZ Cinema in Japantown is a don’t-miss! Expect footage of a lot of never-see-in-the-US shows and tons of insights from the heavy hitter host line-up.

Otaku USA‘s release:

“Ultraman! Kamen Rider! The Power Rangers! These and many other colorful crusaders of justice are now recognized the world over as essential icons of Japanese pop culture. But where did they come from? Who created them? And what is it really like battling rubber monsters and the forces of evil on a regular basis?

Join hosts Patrick Macias (editor, Otaku USA magazine), August Ragone (author, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters), and Tomohiro Machiyama (founding editor, Movie Treasures magazine) as they explore the fascinating history and origins of Japanese superheroes using rare film clips and images from numerous tokusatsu, sentai, and henshin hero productions including Ultra Seven, Kikaida, Space Sheriff Gavan, and many others.”

Happy Birthday to my Shadow Soul Bro!

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When I went through the 80’s ninja craze, I did some embarrassing stuff. I’d dress in improvised night gear and sneak around the neighborhood, cut myself aplenty fashioning weapons out of household hardware implements, I’d vehemently argue the scientific validity of the “Only a Ninja Can Stop a Ninja” law with people smarter than me, blow off having a social life or chasing girls to watch Spanish-dubbed eps of Lone Wolf and Cub Saturday nights on Univision…

But through the worst of it, I at least knew ONE GUY had my back — my con-conspirator in all things ninja FOR LIFE — Tim March!

Today is his birthday, so in lieu of being a real friend and sending a gift, I’m going to shame him with old pics and make you all endure some misty-eyed nostalgia.

That’s TM on the right with the fingerless glove. I had one too, but on this particular day I evidently opted for the inch-wide leather tie with Japanese graphics. Just wanted to prove what decade we’re talking about here.

For us, every weekend meant some type of martial arts geekery, be it choreographing our own fight scenes from diagrams drawn on pizza boxes and Latin notebooks or running through the woods with sharp-pointees like idiots. In the winter months, we could have been manning-up and training barefoot in the snow like hardcore Japanese budo masters, but, it was COLD… so we’d watch movie after movie after movie.

If every weekend held some sort of martial mayhem, every Christmas and birthday meant martial LOOT! I think this was my haul for Christmas of 82 or 83 maybe, all from an Asian World of Martial Arts catalog no doubt. We refurbished a bunch of this stuff twenty years later for a photo shoot, and some of it hangs on my office walls today.

Eighth-grade or so, we both started studying American Kempo out of the cruddy basement of the cruddy gym in the cruddy downtown of the cruddy central Massachusetts mill town we were trapped in. Even at purple belt I knew how to pick my targets.

In April of 85 we entered a tournament and did this totally kick-ass fighting demo. Here, Tim is unwise enough to throw a full-nelson on me, which was NOT going to work for two reasons: 1) you can’t hold a big lard ass in a full-nelson, and 2) you don’t put a grappling move on a total pro wrestling mark, ‘cuz if you do…

…you get annihilated by a fireman’s carry take over! Tim HATES this picture, but alas, I’M the one with the admin rights on this site, so suffer bitch!

We won MAJOR AWARDS and the adoration of the other children for this performance, see!

I still have that medal – from the Korean Hapkido Association – hanging next to my 1976 GI Joe Adventure Team medallion (cuz I’m a big dork) and a Special Olympics runner’s up medal I bought at a yard sale (cuz I’m kind of a sick bastard, and hey, there were NO losers that day).

Tim in his dojo jacket, which we both sported for a while, rebuffing our high school’s colors. I got in hot water with our sifu once when my jacket smelled of perfume. I had lent it to a shivering upper-classmen hottie with huge freckled boobs earlier that day in class. Fealty to the dojo’s code was one thing, but to a teenager, huge freckled cleavage bred a whole different level of dedication.

Before we both started growing our hair out, Tim rocked a pretty awesome widow’s peak. Seriously, rivaled John Phillip Law’s in Danger: Diabolik. At the time, though, I gave him endless shit for it and called him Eddie Munster. Man… thinking about it, I was probably a pretty tough guy to want to stay friends with…

Anyway, now, I’m bald and Tim’s got a pretty awesome technicolor dreadlocked mane, so who got the last laugh! Check him out, eating fire and walking on glass in the burgeoning performing arts scene of Greenville, SC.

Alright, I’m sure we’re losing readers left and right here, so I’ll wrap this up by once again wishing a happy birthday to the man who first taught me that being a total nerd for something is OK, because somewhere out there, someone else is another nerd just like you. Despite our current 3,000 mile separation and the weird different directions our lives have taken us, I consider no one more of a trusted confidant and beloved friend.

Miss you man!

Sate of the Ninja – the 2000s

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The 2000s was a strange decade for martial arts and martial arts cinema. Unlike the Bruce Lee-inspired kung-fu 70’s, the Sho Kosugi-driven ninja 80’s or the VanDamme-inspired kickboxing 90’s, the 00s didn’t have a definitive iconic star nor a decade-dominating single martial art. Sure, what we’ve come to know as “MMA” exploded in the past ten years, but what was once the simple “No Holds Barred” tournament has blossomed into a combat training / fight promotion / fashion industry that is larger than the martial disciplines it is composited from (Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, Grecco-Roman wrestling), or the ring sports it is aggressively trying to supplant (boxing, professional wrestling).

The progression of martial arts and movie trends decade by decade seen in the covers of Black Belt.

There is no Bruce Lee or Sho Kosugi coming out of MMA. Hell, they’re still looking for their sport’s equivalent of a Muhammad Ali or Hulk Hogan, never mind a crossover movie star that would propel the ‘art’ into something more household. MMA isn’t movie-compatible, either. It’s fine in a cage, with a ref, and replay angles showing you what on earth happened to make some bald tattooed guy tap-out furiously. But martial arts genres are built on bar fights with overwhelming odds, lone strangers defending helpless towns against bands of thugs, and vengeful students seeking retribution for the deaths of their masters. A triangle choke or a good ground-and-pound game isn’t going to topple the evil army of a modern-day warlord about to unleash a death ray from his remote and remarkably gun-free island. That kind of conflict needs acrobatics, swinging kicks and a massive arsenal of arcane Oriental weapons that can stack up fallen enemy bodies like cord wood.

And that’s why for the last ten years big budget liquid sword epics, Muy-Thai chop-socky and FX-driven ninja movies have usurped martial arts cinema like squatters in an abandoned apartment building. It was MMA’s decade to take, but If the Shamrocks and Rutten’s didn’t want the big screen, then the Tony Jaas and the Donnie Yens were there to take it.

Even though we had no dominant "boom' this decade, it was a superb mixed bag.

The 2000s were a decade wherein a Wu Xia fantasy like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon could win Oscars, so more money was pumped into period-set epics than ever before. Plenty of classics, some duds, but either way, if you like elaborate armor and flying sword-fights, it was a busy decade in the theater. More grounded was the upstart Muy Thai mini-boom, with the promise of Tony Jaa taking the mantle from legends like Jackie Chan and decade-bridging stars like Jet Li. Jaa’s full promise is yet unfulfilled, but it looks like the Thai action industry is here to stay. Donnie Yen made some amazing movies in Hong Kong this decade, too. But it was movies like Old Boy and Dog Bite Dog that proved non-martial artists, directed right, could be in some of the most memorable fight scenes ever filmed.

And damn if our beloved Japan didn’t use a few young, attractive non-martial artists to re-explore the ninja genre for the first time in decades. Building on the high-profile Owl’s Castle in the late 90s, the 2000s saw ninja movies redefined, standing on the shoulders of giants from decades past. In films like Red Shadow, Azumi I and II, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and most recently Kamui Giaden, the historically credible techniques of espionage and the exotic tools of the trade introduced in 60’s cinema were combined with the acrobatics and wild stunt work of Sonny Chiba’s JAC-fueled 80’s spectacles, all with digital effects work that brought magical powers back to the genre not seen since the 50’s. Some of these movies were good, some pissed us all off endlessly, but regardless, the stage is now set where imagination is the limit.

Japanese pop stars proved you didn't meed a martial artist to make a successful ninja movie.

But if there is one single icon, one profound and prolific image of ninja in the first decade of the new millennium, it is that of a blond-haired kid in orange snow-boarding gear, throwing ‘kunai’ knives. Naruto is THE ninja property of the decade. Anime tends to be ignored in terms of cinema, but it can’t be long before this mega property jumps from cartoons and comics into live action. I don’t dig emo and rave kids using X-Men-like super powers, but like it or not, Naruto IS ninja to a whole generation of kids now. It’s their Shinobi-no-Mono, their TMNT, their Kosugi boom. And they are the future audience…

EDITOR'S NOTE: I promise this will be the only Naruto image we ever run here.

Too many sites run decade recaps and best / worst lists looking back at the past ten years. Gets tiresome. Instead, I want to point out some seeds that are taking root now that will hopefully bloom into the ninja genre of the 2010s:

The work of Masaki Segawa and Gonzo Studios – These folk have two hit ninja properties, Basilisk and The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls, that mix period-authentic with fantasy super-powers, with an edge of exploitive sex and gore. Strong manga and anime, with no end in sight.

Tales of the Otori – Haven’t checked out Lian Hearn’s award-winning book series? Do so now, this shinobi epic set in a semi-authentic fantasy Japan is a mega multi-media property waiting to happen.

— Knockoffs cashing in on the success of Ninja Assassin – I HATED this movie, but damn would I love to see a ton of other countries jump on a perceived bandwagon and launch a new wave of down-n-dirty ninja flicks. Throw in some GI Joe knock-off ninja action while yer at it…

— The trend of down-to-earth costuming – Take a look at video game designs from the beginning of the 00s to now. Sure, the ‘extreme’ fantasy elements of a Ninja Gaiden are still there, but there’s also stuff like Red Ninja and the brand new Mini Ninjas that take the heroes back to a credible period-based design ethic. I’m all for a heroine in simple yukata using low tech weapons. Make the enemies ‘extreme’ if anything.

— The ironic ninja comedy trends are dead or fading – OK, I laughed at Real Ultimate Power, but enough with ‘Ninjas vs. Pirates’ already, and no, I do not want to Ask A Ninja. I have a dream that one day, our beloved black clad martial arts commandos won’t be the brunt of some douche bag’s joke.

— The future of movie collecting – The 00s saw an explosion of retro-releasing, never had more ninja movies from more countries been available in their original forms. Hell, even Criterion released ninja films on DVD. Now, DVD is dying, but digital download and streaming will take its place, and will be a more economically viable home for niche media. Between official studio releases and fan subbed stuff floating around the interwebs, we’ll have plenty of digitized HD shinobi action coming our way.

So hello 2010s! Ninja aren’t going anywhere, and for that matter, neither is Vintage Ninja.

Keith J. Rainville

12/31/2009

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