Shirato Sanpei‘s manga epic Ninja Bugeicho had dozens of characters, and hundreds more victims of these characters, too. Being a ninja comic, he could have gone the easy route and just hooded-up most of these people, lessening the burdens of both character design and repeat renderings.
Instead, he cranked out a huge load of distinct characters in a remarkably diverse variety of styles. From page-to-page and panel-to-panel, realism was mixed with cartoonishly absurd elements, minimalist blocky anatomies stared down more complex and elegantly organic aesthetics. Even the hoods had wide-ranging antics of their own.
Young vs. old, good vs. evil, warriors vs. laymen, samurai vs. serfs — the alterations of his style to set them apart sometimes made characters look imported from other artists’ books. But at the same time, it was all him and all worked in one ambitious graphic narrative.
Read up on Sanpei’s shinobi from a site that actually knows what it’s talking about, What is Manga.
It was August of 1981, a few months before Enter the Ninja would kick off the outright “boom.” The word “ninja” wasn’t a household term yet, but between Shogun on TV, Eric Van Lustbader (The Ninja was already a bestseller) and Andrew Adams’ historical writings in print, and Western market films like You Only Live Twice, The Killer Elite and The Octagon, it was already a hip buzzword for the action-fan-in-the-know.
And when a few old dogs of the war comics genre – namely editor Murray Boltinoff, writer Robert Kanigher and artist E. R. Cruz – learned a new shinobi trick, they were way ahead of the curve.
G.I.Combat was a title that went back to the early 1950s, published by a few different companies that were ultimately swallowed up by the entity now known as DC Comics, where it remained a throwback to the days of tommy guns and two-fisted ratzi-killin’ grunts through 1987. “The BIG War Book” as it was called, was a monthly anthology of battlefield carnage with The Haunted Tank as a frequent cover feature and SGT. Rock a routine guest. Back up stories would vary from tales of ‘Nam mercs to WWII Frogmen, and, starting with issue #232 KANA: THE HUMAN KILLING MACHINE!
Kana was actually part of a sub-anthology within the anthology. “O.S.S. Control” was a spy-master segment host (think Cryptkeeper with a secret filing cabinet) who recruited the warrior for his stable of outre and unlikely agents. Trained in the traditional shadow arts, Kana turned his back on his imperialistic government and fled Japan after his parents were executed for being friendly to Westerners. When the U.S. entered the war, Control put him to good use fighting his former country’s evil military in the Pacific campaign.
“World War II’s Most Startling Hero” was featured in 8-to-10 page adventures with titles like “The First Kamikaze,” “War Isn’t Color Blind” and “My Sergeant…The Executioner.” At first they were somewhat formulaic; a Pacific island mission would need a local scout or undercover saboteur. Partnered American soldiers unable to trust a ‘Jap’ would just assume shoot him in the back, until he saves their lives by taking out a jungle pill box with throwing knives or knocking out a man-eating shark with karate. Then he’d single handedly sink an enemy sub or take down a Zero with a blow gun, to no thanks, and stoically wait for the next shadow mission, unsung hero of the night.
Most of the martial arts action in the Kana stories was karate/kung-fu-based, filtered through commando action that could just as easily be British SAS as shinobi-based. The creative team had a general notion of ninjutsu, but it wasn’t until 1983 or so that they were crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, injecting a healthy degree of weapons fetish and Japanese terminology prevalent in other craze-era media. By this time, Frank Miller’s work in the smash-hit Wolverine mini-series was setting the high-water mark for ninja portrayals in American comics, so Kana’s creative crew were definitely trying to raise the bar. And they got some of it right… some.
The mesh-netted sleeves are clearly from researching Japanese costuming, but their notion of shuko climbing/fighting claws is from Mars. I’m not sure how one even knows what a shuko is and still gets the portrayle of it so wrong… to the point where it’s a European knight’s gauntlet fer cryin’ out loud. This same story featured flashbacks to “samurais” [sic] whose armor looked more Mongolian or even Turkish than Japanese. So there was hot-and-cold running authenticity and credibility, but when they were right on, the results were just beautiful:
The last five Kana stories (scattered from issue #264, April 83 through #279, September 85) saw things take a strange, if not completely f’n brilliant turn that sadly seemed to doom the character with G.I. Combat‘s traditional audience. Through deep mystical meditation (again, a nugget of research and a heap of WTF), Kana honed the ability to send his soul/spirit tumbling through time, Quantum Leap-style!
This was the same year DC rebooted Western-era scarface Jonah Hex as a 21st century intergalactic ray-gun-slinger, so why not a time-tripping ninja? There was some serious potential here! A few stories were set in Kana’s own ancient past, yielding the origins of his clan’s ninja occupation and romantic interest ala Somewhere in Time. But then some cosmic event caused him to lose control of his powers mid-projection, and things got truly awesome:
Traditionally-geared shinobi flung out of WWII into the post-apocalyptic future where he fights biker gangs? SOLD!!!
Sadly, this was the last we ever saw of the WWII shadow warrior. Not only did Kana not have a future (or a FAR-future) but G.I Combat itself was cancelled in 1987. Dammit!!! Make TIME NINJA it’s own book and it would have been a monster hit back then. That shit would have made the jump to cartoons and action figures in a heartbeat.
So why didn’t it? Why is such a gem of the early ninja craze a mere footnote rather than a fan favorite that by now should be on it’s third or fourth reboot?
I think it comes down to adaptability, or lack thereof.
When I referred to G. I. Combat as a throwback, I meant it. Properties like SGT. Rock and The Haunted Tank were created by guys who were there, or at least lived during the World Wars and Korea, and those two-fisted men’s adventure magazine sensibilities pervaded everything they did. Judging from who was writing into the letters columns, I’d also bet they had as many older vet readers and active military adults as they did kids, so they were definitely speaking to a long-standing audience.
Kana may have been a new ninja character for the verynew 80s, but it was written by men in their late 60s, so the work had that voice from another era. Meanwhile other military-based books were embracing the mania at hand. The debut of Storm Shadow turned G.I. Joe into a red-ninja-infused blade-fest starting in March of 84, while Marvel’s other red ninja, The Hand, were regularly battling Wolverine and Daredevil. Further down the shelf, indie titles like Ninja High School, Whisper and Shuriken – books that were sooooo 80s – better represented contemporary art styles and costuming aestetics.
The Kana stories never relinquished their authentic military tone for the simpler 2-dimensional crutches of red ninja, gadget weapons and manga-derived superhero action of their peers, but that same poise and mature perspective probably didn’t resonate strongly with young readers. Not with competition like Snake Eyes out there. And let’s face it, if a kid had no interest in grenade-lobbin’ Leathernecks or a tank crew led by the ghost of Civil War general, he wasn’t going to waste a hard-earned mid-80s dollar just for short back-up story that happened to feature a ninja.
I like to think if Kana had become the cover feature, G.I. Combat could have run a few years longer. Or maybe the same move would just have isolated what was left of the old-guard readership that was keeping them afloat, and they would have ended up just as cancelled…
Maybe what Kana needed was a change in creative team and a mutation to something between Dr. Who, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter and Kamandi, with shuriken. Speculation is pointless. All I know is **I** would have bought the HELL out of TIME NINJA!
KANA stories ran in G.I Combat issues 232, 237, 239, 246, 247, 252, 255, 264, 265, 266, 272 and 279, all of which can be scored dirt cheap on eBay (along with, for that matter, most of the other 80s ninja craze comics that didn’t feature Storm Shadow or turtles)
Earlier this year Marvel had a one-off vampire comic set in Japan’s feudal era. Was artist Goran Parlov just going for stylized over-folding of the material on this shadowy agent of a samurai vampire, or are we looking at some kind of mummy ninja?
I’m digging it! Even if this isn’t a literal bandage-wrapped ninja, it evokes classical Universal Monster and traditional ninja garb in equal amounts. Well done.
Interesting, villain-centric book covers featuring tokusatsu hero Masked Ninja Akagage. I guess if the character or book series is established enough, the different villain-du-jour becomes the selling point.
Depending on what school of thought you believe, the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is either pure myth propagated by popular media or martial tradition traced back centuries in Japan. Well, if EITHER of those is true, then you’d think the short, straight bladed sword with square guard would show up in manga once in a while. But it doesn’t.
Depictions of ninja swords in manga are a mixed bag over the decades, but a lot of what you see are short, curved blades of the less-decorated variety, worn as often through the belt as they are on the back.
This might be little more than artistic preference. I think illustrators like Mitsuteru Yokoyama (above) and Shirato Sanpei liked drawing the curved blade, as it adds a sense of dynamic movement not necessarily there with a swinging straight blade.
It’s also important to keep in mind manga artists work on insane deadlines, so consistency of blade style can vary from panel to panel. One can find an isolated drawing or two with what looks like a straight sword, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a deliberate statement of sword preference.
Here’s a few samples of the manga ninja sword (or lack thereof):
WAIT! Osamu Tezuka‘s I Am Sarutobi (circa 1960) has a short, shealth-less, apparently straight blade! It also has a lead character with stubs for feet and eyes the size of grapefruits, so you can’t exactly lean on the exacting design here…
Kagemaru of Iga‘s curved blade (starting in 1961) seemed to change length depending on the panel layout and dramatic effect intended. This was one of the most influential properties of the 60s Japanese craze, but Yokoyama never made that strong a statement about sword style. The 1963 film adaptation used a standard katana.
Sanpei, however, was much more of a realist, especially later in his career. However both the mid 60s and early 80s incarnations of Kamui saw the character use nothing more exotic than a dressed-down wakizashi, although it was slung in the small of the back in a signature style. These panels are from the 80s Eclipse reprints, and may be partly indicative of why this superb, heady series never fully connected with mainstream ninja fans in the America. No black suit for the hero, no regulation ‘Ninja-To,’ so less visual shorthand to attract otherwise Kosugi-crazed shinobifiles.
Takao Saito‘s hit ninja properties also featured short, curved blades for their ninja. The 1969 shinobi massacre known as Kage Gari (The Shadow Hunters) is again all short curved swords, sometimes with square guards and worn on the back, but there is variety in there as well. Again, you also see some quickly rendered blades that’ll look straight at first glance.
Zanpei Kumotori (1976-78) dispensed with the sword entirely, in favor of a long tanto cribbed in the small of his back. LOVE that minimalist statement, reminiscent of Sasuke’s commando kit in Samurai Spy.
Goseki Kojima stuck to curved blades as well in the 1970 Lone Wolf and Cub series. These panels are a perfect example of perspective and speed of delivery making a curved sword look like straight for a second. This is why I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the “evidence” of old book illustrations pointing to the existence of the straight sword.
And here’s a similar look three decades later, a Kunoichi’s blade from the same team’s Path of the Assassin (Hanzo no Mon).
Now, I don’t have the most complete library of vintage ninja manga in north America or anything, but what I do have samples most of the significant series and stages of development, and the only thing I have that actually embraces the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is this 1993 series called Mujina by Aihara Koji. In an example of the snake biting its own tail, his ninja use the western craze-era notion of the regulation ninja sword, complete with catalog stock picture for reference. Eeewww…and it’s the long bladed, small guarded variety, too. This book is trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy, and the catalog ninja sword may be part of that misguided effort.
So, it wasn’t Japanese comics that cemented the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ into the our mindset, NOR did manga artists for the past half-century embrace the alleged martial arts history that should have been apparent in their own country.
FILM though… as we’ll see next post… is a lot more partisan an art form.
Takao Saito‘s rather fun manga Kage Gari was turned into a veeeery grim, nigh-emo film in 1972. Whereas the trio of vengeful “Shadow Hunters” in the books are sort of a jaunty, anti-shinobi three musketeers, in the film they are three gloomy-as-fuck self-loathing exterminators of anything in a black hood. And the body count is staggering…
Not that the blood-letting in the books is any less, but the characters aren’t as clinically depressed and uber-morose as their celluloid counterparts.
Yeah, if you want to see some ninja slaughtered and stacked up like chord wood, any form of Kage Gari is for you.
Well, folks. I TRIED. I really did try to write a fair, even, and generally supportive piece on KAMUI GAIDEN. But seriously… how can it possibly live up to the source? This is even more compounded by some terrible effects, proving that digital ninja have NOT come that far since Owl’s Castle in ’99, and neither has the decision-making process of what to film practical, what to fake via CG, and what to not even attempt knowing the results will likely suck.
There are merits to the this film, and I’m VERY happy it’s available on DVD in English and subbed, so if you don’t want to hear the rants of a crumudgeonly geek stuck in decades past, yelling at these new ninja movies to keep off his lawn, then skip on down to the end where despite my venom I ultimately find several reasons to reccomend this film.
Why yes, with green-screen filmmaking and CG effects, those soaring tree-top grappling moves and ninja pirate vs. airborne shark fights can finally be brought to “life,” no problem. The answer… YES.
Ask once more. With feeeeeling.
KAMUI... IS IT FILMABLE?
The profound and prolific manga, as much an artistic milestone as it was a commercial success. A protagonist reinvented over the decades, evolving each time as socio-political climates changed. Years and years of character building and message-laden narratives.
Do you amalgamate the 60′s character with the 80′s version? Summarize wholesale chunks of editorial? Pick one out of a dozen brilliant storylines? Ignore the manga and adapt the more 2-dimensional (pun intended) vintage anime?
The answer this time is not so easy. No amount of computer power can negotiate those waters…
Nevertheless, we now have a big-budget live-action Kamui movie. So how’d they do?
THE SKINNY:Kamui Gaiden (aka Kamui: The Lone Ninja) is Japanese Academy Award-winner Yoichi Sai‘s adaptation of the “Island of Sugaru” story arc from the 80′s relaunch of the Shirato Sanpei manga. In it, the young fugitive ninja (Ken’ichi Matsuyama, perhaps best known as ‘L’ in the Death Note movies) weary of continuous conflict with vengeful pursuers (you cannot leave the shinobi life!) finds anonymity and shelter in a remote fishing village. On the verge of rediscovering his own humanity, fate, and the inevitable shadow set, close in again with dire results for both Kamui and the innocents around him.
Rounding out the cast in this emotionally complex tale is Kampachi – a fisherman whose penchant for making lures out of the hooves of nobleman’s slain horses gets him into all sorts of trouble, his wife Sugaru – coincidentally another ninja on the run unable to trust our hero, and their daughter Sayaka – a potential love interest representing the allure of a normal life.
Seeing to it that never happens is a one-eyed ninja leader charged with exterminating the fugitives, a crew of creepy shark hunters and their pirate-ish captain who is more than he seems – twice! Oh, and the eeeeeevil lord whose horse ‘donated’ a leg for fishing lures comes into play once or twice more, too.
It’s A LOT of ground for one movie to cover, plus they crowbar in origin flashbacks and start the movie with some ‘character defining’ fight scenes. In typical adaptation style, they hone in on signature scenes and character beats.
Kamui’s unique brand of unarmed ninja combat is essentially pro-wrestling moves delivered with lethal severity from high-up in tree tops. The “Izuna Drop” is like a German suplex with a hang-time long enough for dramatic conversation between the combatants. The 1969 anime series did a great job in conveying these super-powered grappling spots. The 2009/10 film? Well…
OK. Yeah. FAILURE of both composition AND compositing. Guess these familiar tree-top combat scenes (homaged in Ninja Scroll and myriad other media) aren’t so filmable after all.
Maybe everyone was just too stuck on fealty to the source to admit what just could not be shot convincingly. Manga and anime can defy physics because their artistic abstractness immediately grants a suspension of disbelief. Trying to render the same outre combat with a mix of practical footage and photo-realisitc digital animation is always going to be jarring to a viewer’s sense of natural movement.
Kamui also had a signature sword move – “Kasumigiri” – mesmerizing a charging opponent into striking the illusion of a second self. This is, in fact, superbly portrayed in the film, a real win for both the director’s photographic work and the digital crew’s post-production compositing.
Unfortunately, this excellent scene, complete with a sad, jazzy piece of music that harkens back to Samurai Spy, is immediately followed by outright laughable computer animated deer running through the woods, and a cliff leaping scene sub-par even by Saturday morning Power Ranger standards.
Then, we get to the water…
Yep, just about every scene involving H2O is green-screened, so of a radically different color palate, soooo fake, you are taken completely out of any mood previously set by the film. Makes one question the decision to adapt the Sugaru Island arc at all. Notice the wooden boat that’s not even getting wet. Wet wood changes color people!
And don’t even start me on the sharks!
Alright – pause here. It is impossible for me to completely bag on a movie that has a guy doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu MMA moves on a shark. We’re swinging on a pendulum into psychotronic awesomeness here, and the awful CG sharks make it all the better being so bad.
And that’d be great… in anything other than a Kamui adaptation.
This is supposed to be grim, dead serious, heart-wrenching stuff. It’s borderline arthouse material if done right. I want the emotional starkness of a sea-side samurai flick like Hideo Gosha’s Goyokin here. Not something that makes Jaws 3-D look good by comparison.
And while I’m ranting like a spoiled kid, wanting other directors from other eras to have had a hand in the fantasy film that lives in my twisted head, let’s talk the village itself.
GREAT location – absolutely perfect. But what never gets fully driven home is the feeling of… well, home. Sanctuary.
There’s no ode to the everyman’s every day, or jaunty Kurosawa-like montage of jaunty fishermen doing their jaunty trade to a jaunty orchestral jig. There just isn’t enough contrast between the supposedly awful life he had before and the window to civilian paradise now luring him (like a fish) into letting his guard down.
They try. They surely do. You’re told things in narration, actors go through the motions. But whenever you even start to connect with a human being, they are suddenly replaced by a CG cartoon leaping around awkwardly. Or you cut to a fake ship in a fake sea surrounded by fake sharks, and somehow you’re supposed to care about the real guy composited onto the deck.
And here’s where I’m right back to the quandary I discussed in part one of this series – there’s no point in a negative review of this film. The problem lies in modern filmmaking at large. Adaptation-itis sets in, it needs to be a big hit so there’s a big studio budget involved, but even the biggest budget can’t pull off the demands of the source material, so you’re left with green-screened blue seas and digital dorsal fins.
The smarter play here would have been to write-out the shark hunters entirely, morph the villain into another villager (and there’s even a likely candidate in a sub-plot with a rival fisherman) and concentrate instead on earthbound conflicts both emotional and martial.
Less complications. Less reliance on digital filmmaking.
Would have freed the director up to really work more with his lead. Don’t get me wrong, Matsuyama worked his ass off in training for this role, enduring multiple injuries in a plagued production. He got the sword grip perfect, and his low crouch run is an excellent innovation. Stunt directors/choreographers Kenji Tanigaki and Ouchi Takahito, whohave done wonders with the likes of Donnie Yen, failed to capture the same results with this non-career-martial artist, though. The god-awful wirework makes the kid look bad.
Meanwhile, the non-action scenes, where he needs to hit strong, concise emotional beats, are just lost.
There are major pacing problems throughout, time spent in the wrong spots, scenes that should have been longer and more affecting glossed over in a relentless pace to service the property requisites. That’s one of the biggest problems here, and with a lot of other adaptations. I call out Zack Snyder’s Watchmen as another prime example.
There is such a concern to get to the next famous scene, fulfill the next geek expectation, you end up with a bloated, long-runing film that despite its crowdedness ends up rather empty.
Watching and re-watching this thing (four times now), I keep getting stuck on this one little innocuous scene that illustrates almost everything wrong with Kamui Gaiden:
The runaway ninja takes a moment to contemplate a beautiful shell given to him by Sayaka in a gesture of devotion. Those familiar with the manga know the significance. Would be a nice bit, but it doesn’t last long enough, we don’t really see the actor’s face under the often bad wig, the fake sea and sky are obvious, it’s supposed to be a sunlit scene yet he isn’t being hit by a warm light himself, etc. and so forth. (Come to think of it, there’s hardly a time when you get a good, up close facial expression throughout the film. And dammit, you need those!)
Moreover, the posture above, the pastel, raggedy layered costume, it just isn’t Kamui. Kamui is a coiled spring, cut like Bruce Lee, always on edge, always alert, unable to relax because he’s waiting for a knife to sail at him from behind any second. There is no slouch. There are no baggy clothes impeding him should combat occur. Sanpei drew him stiff, never relaxed, never at rest. By contrast, movie Kamui is always kinda frumpy or wistful. It looks like a good breeze could knock him over. His sandals are too big for his feet, giving him a clumsy appearance. Bad choices…
With all the attention paid to animating the impossible and digitized drama, it’s almost like they forgot to do what was totally in their real-life control – get the character right. The emotional poise is absent. The movie Kamui isn’t tortured enough, isn’t paranoid enough, can be taken by surprise. We’re told what his emotions are, not shown by either actor or director.
I’m not sure an actor lives who could play this role right, though. He’d have to be a real martial artist or at least a dancer with the same body control. He’d have to have the thousand-yard stare of a Ken Takakura alternating with the chilling blankness of a Tatsuya Nakadai. And he’d need to be of an age that you’d be alarmed such hardened adult traits are chiseled onto such a young man.
So again I ask…
Is Kamui filmable?
And in reality, the answer is the same as the aforementioned Watchmen.
If they did it, I guess it is… but why?
Kamui is possible in the same way non-alchoholic beer is possible. And the point of non-alchoholic beer is what?
OK, so now that I got the poison out of my system, I do ultimately recommend seeing KAMUI GAIDEN. Here’s why:
• Shinobi-cinema needs its pot stirred, and this is new ninja blood.
• Audiences at large need to see a non-black-suit ninja film and expand their horizons of the idiom.
• Funimation put together a GREAT double DVD release, with two docos totaling 45-minutes of behind the scenes and making-of extras. Man does the lead actor take a beating…
• Kamui as a property needs a shot in the arm and some new reprint editions, so SUPPORT!
• IF the digital DOESN’T break the deal for you, this can be a pretty damn good movie. Even an uninspired adaptation of such strong source material is bound to hold something intriguing to a new audience. There are some good fights, the supporting cast is strong, the weapons are great and I like the score.
• Despite my abusive diatribes, modern ninja movies are not a total loss. Red Shadow had great costumes. The Azumi films are pretty good sword-girl fodder. I like the core story and structure of Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, and, yeah, I’ll say this… KAMUI GAIDEN is arguably the best of this decade’s digital ninja.
OK, so the Kamui Gaiden manga had a major pedigree in Japan, and its ground-breaking U.S. release separated the men from the boys of late-craze ninja fans. So why are we just getting a movie now?
The “Island of Sugaru” storyline had all sorts of elements that made it largely un-filmable in the analog era. Kamui’s repertoire of completely over-the-top signature martial arts bordered on superpowered pro-wrestling. The best of Hong Kong’s wire crews wouldn’t have tried these gravity-defying grappling spots on a bet, and the Japanese industry never had the same level of stunt skills. Then there’s the major sub-plot involving a band of shark hunting pirates who slice the sea-breaching predators to pieces in mid-air. Feeding frenzies and human carnage galore. No way that’s happening with practical effects.
So that made Kamui a great prospect for this ‘finally we can do it with modern digital effects’ environment we find ourselves in. It wouldn’t be the first time hard-drives and Wacom tablets lit up to render digital ninja though, this had been going on in both Japan and America for a decade, sometimes out of similar necessity, sometimes out of ambition to put a new take on familiar territory. The results have been mixed to say the least. Here’s a short list of high and low lights, and the lessons future filmmakers could have learned from them:
1999: OWL’S CASTLE – the remake of the 1963 classic Castle of Owls used newly available digital toys in often unnecessary ways. Distractingly digitized rooftop runnings, castle interiors more pixelated than video games, embarrassingly obvious composites and animated fake human figures – all served to distract more often than they aided the film’s narrative. And all set trends for the next decade. We ran it all down here last year.
The Lesson: New toys do not a good movie make.
2001: RED SHADOW – made great strides in digital day-for-night and CG shuriken, innovations that saved TIME on set, and time = big money. The new Akakage was an enjoyable film if you were completely ignorant of its tokusatsu roots. Inexplicably bereft the kaiju elements of the source which CG could have really taken to a bigtime movie level, we instead got video game-style costumes and video game-level CG animated ninja leaping over castles.
The Lesson: Smart digital post can save you a ton of time during principal photography. Oh, and NEVER write the monsters out of remake of a monster show.
2002: BLADE II – daywalking vampires use futuristic neo-ninja-like gear to shield themselves from light. Great fight scene that suddenly becomes laughable at the end when stunt performers are replaced by rubbery but stiff-moving CG figures. See it here. This scene really set a precedent. We’re still seeing filmmakers pulling this shit now, and its as unconvincing today as it was in ’02.
The Lesson: When you’ve hired stuntpeople and fight crews, USE THEM, don’t replace them with CG animation.
2003: AZUMI – digital as a last resort in an otherwise superb practical-effects showcase. CG (good for the most part, with a few awful exceptions) was used to enhance the fight scenes, remove wires and harnesses and composite the pop-star lead into exploding set pieces unsafe for any stuntwoman. They rarely if ever animated fake humans and for the most part bad CG never yanks you out of a period-set film.
The Lesson: A great way to get a convincing town demolishing on film is to DEMOLISH A TOWN. Secondly, compositing is good if it prevents the on-set maiming or death of your big-time pop star lead.
2005: SHINOBI: HEART UNDER BLADE – digital effects used to portray the absolute otherworldly skills of the Iga and Koga elite. Ambitious as hell, this shinobified take on Romeo and Juliette allowed the 50′s ninja wizard model to be updated to the modern X-Men level. While the effects often stood out from the rest of the film’s visual quality, at least the digital was being used to render something otherwise impossible to portray in live action… for the most part. CG falcons and animated figures swinging on ropes around cliffs are awful, even with the A-picuture budget here.
The Lesson: USe CG to render the impossible, not the inconvenient. If you can’t get a real guy to swing on a real rope, write the scene out.
2008: SPEED RACER – big budget American remake of a low-budget Japanese cartoon, so yeah, why not throw in the most expensive yet ninja scene Hollywood ever produced. CG city, but no worse than the rest of this rendered visual debacle. The Wachowskis weren’t done with ninja yet though.
The Lesson: Ninja fights have been filmed practical since the silent era. You don’t need CG and seven-figure budgets to do it right.
2009: G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA – leaned heavily on Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, and with a martial artist like Ray Park involved, yielded some nice results. Made up for the lame Iron Man-wannabe CG mech suit crap elsewhere in the film.
The Lesson: Ninja fights have been filmed practical since the silent era. You don’t need CG and seven-figure budgets to do it right. Again!
2009: NINJA – Again, real martial artists + digital *can* = good. Read my love letter to this homage to both the 80′s and 90′s here. Entirely more satisfying than the same year’s Ninja Assassin.
The Lesson: Start with a real martial artist and you’re well on your way to a decent final result.
2009: NINJA ASSASSIN – with an immensely bigger budget than Ninja, and Hollywood behind it, the only innovation here was the ‘slow-motion knife-on-a-chain’ thing. Korean pop star Rain fought 80′s shinobi-cinema legend Sho Kosugi with these lovingly slow-mo’d cartoonish digital weapons, while post-production CG shadows, flames, smoke, dust and light effects obscured what must have been a poorly covered principle shoot. A real head scratcher. Two real stars who clearly worked their asses off to prepare for their roles completely LOST in all that digital clutter…
The Lesson: Ninja fights have been filmed practical since the silent era. You don’t need CG and… ah you know the rest.
2010: GOEMON – took the legendary ninja bandit into new realms of CG glory. The hyper-detailed European-styled environs and costumes needed the digital help. A guy riding a horse through the woods? Not so much, but it was rendered anyway. Because, y’know, where are you going to find a horse, a rider and some woods for a period flick in Japan??? Goemon is like watching someone else play a video game, with a total green-screen look that despite all the technology at hand just ends up falling somewhere between what Kadokawa got with massive sets in Legend of the Eight Samurai in 1983 and Coppola achieved practical (and for peanuts) in his 1992 remake of Dracula.
The Lesson: Google ‘Horse Rentals.’ Otherwise you’re throwing humiliatingly bad scenes into an otherwise lush artistic statement.
2010: ALIEN VS. NINJA – hokey digital enhanced the hokey rubber suits in this hokey action comedy. Wore its cheese on its sleeve, and the cheesy CG actually fit right in. Another VN love letter to cheap, dumb and fun here.
The Lesson: Ten years after Red Shadow, CG of similar animated acrobatics doesn’t look one bit better, but it is WAY cheaper, enabling a whole new category of exploitation filmmaking.
So after a decade of digital ninja, several things are crystal clear:
– Entirely CG figures never look real, and martial arts movies are way better when they involve MARTIAL ARTISTS! (That sounds obvious, but…)
– Don’t render digital animals! DO render digital monsters.
– Rendered weapons can work, but in slow-mo scenes they look really fake.
– Digital night lighting comes in real handy in the ninja genre. But digital blood is ASS.
– Environments: either keep it all real, all CG, or mostly real with some CG tricks enhancing what’s already there. Flipping between real and totally rendered draws attention to the differences and ruins the immersive experience of the film.
Alas, despite the obvious shortcomings, there is an increasing economic NEED for green-screen and digital post in all movies at all budgets. It’s being done to cut principal photography time more than anything else.
Popping blood ‘squibs’ on an actor requires a specialized effects crew, probably a fire marshall and paramedic on set, increased insurance, and the time to re-do a take if they don’t go off right. And all of that is in on a set run by union contractors charging by the minute already.
CG blood can be rendered by one guy with a laptop in half a day in some tiny post-house cubicle. Are the results as good? No. But does this make you film viable in this failing economy, where it otherwise wouldn’t get made at all? Yes.
So good, bad or ugly, digital shuriken, CG blood and rendered period locales are here to stay. (and for that matter so are digital zombies, CG race cars, rendered helicopters in war films, so on and so on…)
What I’m waiting for is the film that makes the big step – has digital that doesn’t distract, and enough confidence in its story and actors to not hide them beneath CG trickery.
Just before the holiday, I got a screener of Funimation‘s 2-DVD release of Kamui Gaiden, allegedly the most expensive ninja movie ever made, and one that has received about as wide an array of responses as I’ve ever seen. Epic. Masterpiece. Fun action film. Laughable silliness. Boring failure. CG so bad it’s good. Faithful to the classic manga. Failure to capture any spirit of the classic manga. There was a classic manga??? Really all over the place.
I first saw this film on bootleg DVD a few months back with subtitles that left a lot to be desired, then watched the official release twice over Christmas. It’s left me in a quandary. Because reactions from film festivals and now home video release vary so much, I hesitate to give an outright review here. There is a frequency humming in this film that really resonates with some, while others can barely make it through the 2-hour plus running time. So I think you all should give this movie a good watch for yourselves and see where you lie.
Not that I don’t have my opinions! Boy do I ever…
But I’m going to save my critiques of Kamui Gaiden for a larger commentary (a series of posts over the next few days) on the decade that has now passed, a decade of digital ninja.
Oddly enough, I’ll start that commentary with a look at some yellowing old pulp.
This trade ad ran in various comic book industry newsrags in the Summer of 1987. The American craze was waning and I had just graduated high school, so I wasn’t necessarily looking for a ninja comic in my life. The closest comic store was a half-hour drive and I had no car, so keeping up with a title was a challenge. I would fortunately rediscover the Viz/Eclipse co-venture, a real piece of manga history, in the mid 90′s as a ‘quarter box commando’ rummaging swap meets in Michigan.
Late as it was in the 80′s boom, or maybe American comics were always independent of the fad, 1987 was a very good year for shinobi manga in America, with First Comics‘ Lone Wolf and Cub reprints closely following The Legend of Kamui (aka Kamui the Ninja and Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Tale). The former would run longer, with celebrity covers plus Shogun Assasin and Lightning Swords of Death all over cable and VHS rental shelves. Kamui wasn’t full of black-suited assassins and it’s politics and social commentary was thoroughly Japanese, so it didn’t connect with as huge throngs of fans as it should have. Neither title would see the 90s for one reason or another. A real shame…
Shirato Sanpei‘s “life’s work” first appeared in 1964, the marketable anchor of the cutting edge, often outré alt-manga anthology GARO. Already established as the master of ninja manga since the late 50′s, and as responsible for the Japanese craze as any other media figure, his Kamui Den(The Story or Legend of Kamui) was a monster hit that ran for eight years and spawned a 26-episode anime in 1969. It introduced a young, supremely skilled lone ninja on the run, relentlessly hunted by the clan (and life) he was trying to escape. Sanpei would reinvent the property in 1982 with the much grimmer Kamui Gaiden (The Other or New Story of Kamui), same ninja on the run, much heavier social and political commentary. The two series were thoroughly of their decades, both in art style and editorial message.
It is Kamui Gaiden that came to the U.S. in comic form in the 80′s (more recently reprinted in TPB form by Viz), and the acclaimed “Island of Sugaru” storyline that started the second incarnation is the basis for the new movie. Its 13-issue arc wove a simple narrative (Kamui flees pursuers and connects with a fisherman’s family on a small island, only to have fate close in on him with tragic results) that was rich in layered messages and complex emotions, never mind some really weird left turns.
Did the filmmakers succeed in stuffing it all into one film? Do epic comic book adaptations ever really work? And can a digital shark look even remotely real?