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It is THE single most recognizable icon of the 80s ninja craze, practically a logo for the ninja boom in and of itself – and one that has endured for decades.
It is THE KOSUGI KICK!
Shot in a Hollywood studio for the Enter the Ninja press kit, the double wakizashi-waving jumping kicking Sho Kosugi was painted over for the film’s movie poster, ad slicks and subsequent home video packaging. The only other official use of the shot was years later in movie industry trade papers during Canon’s interest-stirring efforts for American Ninja (both the recycled Kosugi Kick and a composited shot of Chuck Norris in the Ninja III: The Domination green ninja suit were used in such ads before the project was rebooted into the Michael Dudikoff vehicle).
Note the subtle differences between the various ‘takes’ of the famed pose. The retail poster had a more upright quality with the head turned more to the side, while the airbrush movie poster art had compositional corrections in the arms and swords.
But the image had serious legs outside official usage. If photographers could realistically collect royalties every time their image was duplicated or directly lifted, whoever shot Sho that fateful day would be a billionaire.
From the original press kit. Note the lack of photographer credit or studio copyright.
The Kosugi Kick wasn’t an original idea, rather a carefully calculated effort to evoke the familiar image of Bruce Lee’s famous jump kick, primarily from a press still of The Big Boss, but with their own new stamp. This would be OUR jump kick.
They took the all-too-familiar pose (an icon and virtual logo of 70s kung-fu grindhouse itself), added the soon-to-be-famous black suit and a couple of swords (and note they’re off-the-shelf samurai swords, not the “ninja-to” that would quickly follow as a merchandise juggernaut) and declared THIS IS THE 80s, LET THE NINJA DECADE BEGIN!
And so it did.
The Kosugi Kick was quickly cannibalized by video game companies for packaging and arcade marquees, cheapie toy manufacturers and myriad knock-off merch pirates, book and magazine cover illustrators, and so many more one can hardly keep track.
But we want to! Or at least try…
Thus, our open call for help from you, our fan base who love this stuff as much as we do, but hopefully with more free time on your hands.
Below is the tip of the iceberg, images we’ve casually collected over the years in various categories. We want more! Send us whatever you’ve got that has a knock-off Kosugi Kick at the below link, we’ll follow this post up at some point with a major collection.
Email your Kosugi Kicks to Vintage Ninja
Was the above book from the 1960s Japanese craze a prehistoric ancestor of our beloved Kosugi Kick? And just how many issues of the 80′s Ninja magazine featured a rip-off of the famed photo? Help us find out!
Kosugi Kicks come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of chicanery. The pose is in Public Domain, so manufacturers re-render the pose in their own art style at will. But, you do also see some outright theft of the original Kosugi classic.
We love seeing it in posters for other movies. Again it’s typically a knock-off illustration or painting, but sometimes they’ll use the real deal, like the Mexican lobby card for a kung-fu flick seen above. The fact that the home video packaging for one of the Master Ninja tapes (below) had to knock it off is a real head scratcher…
Kosugi Kicks may date back to 1981, but they are still showing up in 2014.
They take the form of delicate porcelain…
…articulated action figures…
…and not-so-articulated figures.
Sometimes the pose varies, with a more upright stance and a bent leg here and there, but c’mon, we all know the inspiration for these images.
Shower us with your findings folks!
Once again, that email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Tags: Sho Kosugi
In the face of the death of physical media, DVD and Bluray packaging continues to be, let’s say… inventive… in its methods of persuasion.
Hey, deception was a legit ninja skill, right?
As ninja movie fans we’ve all been duped by shinobi-fied covers to VHS or DVDs of vanilla kung-fu fare shamelessly retitled “Ninja-something-or-other.” These, however, step the game up a notch — one ninja movie camouflaged as another!
Note this new label for the Scott Adkins vehicle NINJA, deliberately biting on the much wider known NINJA ASSASSIN.
Who can keep either of these 2009 films straight anyway, just buy them both!
It’s one thing for an indie movie to “align itself for marketing shorthand” to another bigger film coming out at the same time, but THIS is another story altogether:
This recent overseas label for the Hiroyuki Sanada / Conan Lee slugfest NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN strives for recognition and relevance from the video gamers of the world by shamelessly crowbarring-in a stolen rendering of Sega’s Kage-Maru from Virtua Fighter.
But they re-color him black so he looks more like Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden.
Us non-gamers will also recognize Ryu Hayabusa from his hit indie film Alien vs. Ninja!
Oh, wait… no, that’s right… NONE OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE IN ANY OF THESE MOVIES!
Laughable as this chicanery, these hijinks, might be, I do love the idea of Virtua Fighter (and even Matrix) fanatics possibly getting duped, then being subjected to some old-school ninja fare that was… ewww, shot on FILM… that those of us longer in the tooth would consider superior.
If only a small percentage of those victims stick with it, maybe some new fans of old-school ninja media are born?
HA HA HAHAHAHAH HA! Made myself laugh… Like anyone under 40 is going to buy physical media!!!
In fact, ignore this whole post.
I’m going to go fool around with my abacus and listen to player piano reels.
Posted 2 months, 3 weeks ago. Add a comment
Tags: Ninja in the Dragon's Den, Scott Adkins, video games
Originally published February, 2010
Have owned this “sugoroku” illustrated game board for years but am finally discovering the actual nature of it.
Click the image for a huge-ass scan of this.
Essentially a Japanese version of Chutes and Ladders, these thin paper game boards have been produced for centuries in one form or another (read here about an older version of the game based on backgammon and made illegal twice in Japanese history).
I’ve seen several based on chambara, tokusatsu and boys adventure anime, but this one is a melting pot of various ninja properties – or is at least meant to EVOKE those properties. Yeah, I’m thinking characters owned by multiple studios or TV networks appearing on one product means unlicensed…
Man, some of this art is just precious. Without being able to read the captions, I’m seeing illos that are certainly meant to be Masked Ninja Akakage and Kagemaru of Iga there, and a villain that could be a skull shocker from Lion Maru or a shinobi-fied Golden Bat.
Tags: Sugoroku games
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 6 months, 2 weeks 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 8 months ago. 4 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…
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 1 year, 6 months 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 1 year, 6 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.
Posted 1 year, 8 months ago. Add a comment
Tags: Shirato Sanpei