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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 6 days, 22 hours ago. Add a comment
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 3 months, 1 week 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!
Posted 10 months, 2 weeks ago. Add a comment
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.
Posted 11 months ago. 4 comments
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.
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, 1 month 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, 9 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 1 year, 10 months ago. 1 comment
Tags: Ninja Bugeicho, Shirato Sanpei
Some of the ninja-centric paintings from Ghana ‘movie theaters’ that were on display at last year’s Movie Mojo shows at Chicago gallery Primitive:
Posted 1 year, 11 months ago. Add a comment
Tags: Ghana movie posters