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Originally published January, 2010.
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.
Sho Kosugi: The Ninja fansite, with tons of galleries, including mag covers and movie posters.
S.K. Productions – Kosugi’s official website.
Really fun write up and video of 9 Deaths of the Ninja.
If you think these paintings are a bit off, check out the stuff from Ghana!
Posted 5 days, 4 hours ago. Add a comment
Tags: 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA, Enter the Ninja, Kosugi Kick, Pray for Death, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, Sho Kosugi, VHS art, vintage magazines
The book, and later film, of the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice was essentially the West’s introdcution to ninja, and a few widely scattered episodes of American television series like Kung-Fu, Baretta and Quincy notwithstanding, the next major step toward the 80s ninja craze was the mega-hit Shogun mini-series. Bond may have fought alongside ninja, but they never donned the iconic black suits and masks, so for millions Shogun was the intro to the classic ninja look. (see our breakdown of a pivotal episode here)
Both the notion of shinobi as commandos using swords against guns, and the ancient ninja being a ‘cult of assassins’ were planted, and about to sprout in every field of popular media.
Somewhere in the middle of these well-fertilized (pun intended) acres grew a burgeoning crop of serious martial artists studying actual ninjutsu — combat, spiritual and lifestyle traditions long removed from their feudal origins and practical applications, now finding new life in somewhat abstract ways in the modern world. But could they escape the often ludicrous imagery of the pop media ninja flourishing around them?
I came across some old book advertisements in a 1981 issue of Black Belt that reminded of this period.
Note this ad for the mass-market paperback edition of Shogun, which sold in the millions both before and after the landmark TV event, is not from the original publisher Delacorte, but from martial arts publishing/distribution house Ohara Publications. This ad ran in Black Belt, Inside Kung-Fu and ilk, aimed at a martial arts community that was about to get drenched in a ninja tidal wave.
The airing of Shogun was followed by the release of Enter the Ninja in theaters, making Sho Kosugi the face of the cinematic ninja movement. But the martial arts explosion that ran concurrently to the entertainment media craze had a face of its own — Stephen K. Hayes.
The same Ohara company was also running this ad for Hayes’ first book, which followed years of his magazine articles preaching the gospel of ninjutsu’s spiritual enlightenment, tactical thinking and practical self-defense. Legit, serious stuff, right?
Once in a while, though, he’d don a black hood, like a movie ninja, bridging the gap between media and martial traditions. The occasional publicity photo shoot in traditional shinobi coture was smart marketing by Hayes and team. Masaaki Hatsumi himself wasn’t above such fare with his profound publishing career in Japan, so why should the student be any different?
Hatsumi, however, could more safely embrace the popular imagery of ninja because the product on movie screens in mid-1960s Japan was dead serious historical fare (that he himself had consulted on-set in some cases). And while the 60s boom in Japan obviously had its pop entertainment aspects, the 80s boom in the West tended more to the exploitive. It became big business — from turtle toons to mail order weapons. There were dilutions in quality — the movies got cheaper and cheesier and ninja-themed magazines more bloodthirsty.
See the difference between 1981 and 1987 below (and tons more at MA-Mags.com).
Hayes donning a mask and hood put him a “NINJA”-emblazoned headband away from the same visual plane as Richard Harrison in Ninja Terminator. When a legit dojo swam in the same visual waters, training in gear that to the rest of the world was movie costuming, there was always the risk of eroded credibility and unflattering PR. If hooding-up was a necessary evil, which some of these folk balanced better than others, there was a price. It couldn’t have been easy maintaining legitimacy in the midst of such widespread exploitation.
I’ll say this, too… Nobody in the martial arts community has to deal with more public misconception and general pop culture baggage than the practitioner of ninjutsu. If you study kung-fu and it comes up in discussion with laymen, you might get a snicker or a crass Bruce Lee impersonation — “Oh, you mean all that ‘hhhwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!’ stuff?” The same happens with ninjutsu and people are assuming you’re some idiot who hides in the trees wearing black pajamas and a suriken belt buckle. They ask to see your blowgun, or to throw a smoke pellet down and disappear. You’re equated with toon turtles, Power Rangers and video game villains in the minds of a lot of these simps. It has to be a tough road, and I respect the hell out of anyone who puts up with it.
I was never a student of ninjutsu, but being a karateka for a couple of years during my early 80s Junior High days, ninja-mania was unavoidable. I never drew a line in the sand between the martial and movie worlds, finding different levels of entertainment in magazines and books dedicated to both camps. Even if it was the hoods that caught my eye, what I always dug more about the Hayes and Hatsumi articles in Black Belt and Ninja was how different the techniques looked. Punches, kicks, takedowns, ready poses — they were distinct from the long-familiar karate and kung-fu.
Maybe that contrast, the simple fact that there was finally something different on both the big screen and in the dojo circuit, was fuel enough for the ninja boom. It was the 1980s, a decade that craved distinction from any previous — punk, New Wave, Nagel prints, fingerless gloves, parachute pants…
And yes… ninja hoods.
Keith J. Rainville — March, 2014
Posted 1 month, 3 weeks ago. 3 comments
Tags: Shogun, Stephen K. Hayes, vintage magazines
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…
Posted 4 months, 3 weeks ago. Add a comment
Tags: Lee Van Cleef, The Master
This amazingness from the mobile “cinemas” of Ghana, Africa is on eBay right now, for a steal, too!
Plenty more goodness here, as well!
Tags: Five Element Ninjas, Ghana movie posters
So I was having dinner with my pal, the uber-talented Rafael Navarro, and we were musing on what a ninja would look like if drawn by the legendary Jack Kirby. He whipped this off on a napkin, and seeing as I was footing the bill, I swiped it for myself!
Love those Kirby-esque square fingers!
This inspired Raf to spend a night rendering some better-realized shinobi more in his own style in a proper sketchbook, and here they are — A VINTAGE NINJA EXCLUSIVE!
Watercolor brush pens and a rough-tooth paper stock make for some beautifully expressive lines here. Love these, but I especially adore this dynamic dropping sequence ending in the requisite 3-point landing!
Raf has been a go-to illustrator for me for seemingly forever. A few years back I collected ten years of Mexican wrestler art he did for my magazine and books over at FPU in a nifty tome called Lucha Noir: The Complete Rafael Navarro in From Parts Unknown.
Score a copy here.
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.
Posted 1 year, 2 months ago. Add a comment
Tags: Shirato Sanpei
Remember during the home video explosion how many low-end kung-fu movies got cheap new package art and “ninja”-centric re-titles? I got burned so many times at the video store by this, fuming when the 70′s ‘chop-sockey’ playing on my VHS not only had no ninja content, there weren’t even any vaguely ninja-esque hooded characters in there that might have been mis-identified by an honest mistake.
I thought those days were over, but lo-and-behold!
In a film marketing context, “Shinobification” — the giving of implied ninja-ness to something that has no actual shinobitude of its own — ranges from slightly fudging advertising or packaging to make minor ninja characters seem more important than they actually are, to outright bait-and-switch in the hopes some poor sucker’s ninja-fandom causes them to purchase what is essentially a ninja-less product.
The current release of Warriors of Virtue 2: The Return to Tao is decidedly the latter!
For the uninitiated, Warriors of Virtue was a somewhat notiorious 1997 martial fantasy flick co-produced by soon-to-be-broke American and Chinese partners. Trying to drag on the live-action Turtles flicks, it achieved what few thought was possible — uglier kangaroo suits than Tank Girl. Despite a lot of really good FX and stunt folk working their asses off on this thing (and Abe Sapien himself Doug Jones as one of the martial marsupials), it was an absolute catastrophe for the studios and toy licensers involved.
How a sequel got made is beyond me, but somehow five years later one did. Usually sequels to creature-suit driven movies are cranked out to re-use (and amortize) the appliances from the original, but in this case it’s explained to us the kangaroos have evolved into normal looking humans now, so even the core critter-ness of the first film is gone here. So you write-out the gimmick animals but keep the name of your disastrously under-performing initial film?
Return to Tao‘s release was marred by the sudden death of its villain star Kevin Smith, who played Ares on the Hercules and Xena TV shows. Maybe that’s why I had never even known of its existence until it hit Netflix streaming unceremoniously last year?
Then last week I’m in a Fry’s Electronics and WOW! Are you kidding me?
Quick checklist of things, besides kung-fu kangaroos, that are NOT in this movie:
4.) Any building from any era of Japan.
5.) $4.99 worth of quality martial arts.
They even do the cheesy trick of dropping the “2″ from the title so as not to initially discourage potential buyers who never saw (or heard of) the original, of which there are MANY.
Now, to be fair, there is ONE scene where a female character wears a ninja-lke-if-you-squint outfit, which foreign packaging properly exploits:
But this North American bargain-bin DVD release crosses the ninja-bait-and-swindle line. Don’t be fooled shinobi-cinema-files!
Besides, you can see in on Netflix for free…
Posted 1 year, 3 months ago. Add a comment
Tags: Warriors of Virtue 2
Check out the latest from Eddie Mort!
And see a pile of imagery at the Dead Ringo tumblr.
Posted 1 year, 11 months ago. Add a comment
Tags: DEAD RINGO
These brush illos were used as chapter breaks in reprint collections of Shirato Sanpei‘s Ninja Bugeicho.
Posted 2 years ago. 1 comment
Tags: Ninja Bugeicho, Shirato Sanpei