Possibly the BEST menkos I’ve ever come across…

The somewhat physical card game of Menko (aka Bettan or Patchin) — wherein players ‘fwap’ cardboard rectangles or circles down on each other then claim whatever flips over — isn’t the most conducive to collectible items surviving the decades. These things were cheaply produced and designed to be disposable to start with, and were then physically abused during the normal course of play.

Finding intact gems from our beloved Japanese ninja craze of the 1960s, especially crown jewels like the run below, is a real gift from the shadow gods!

Regrettably the artists are unknown, and the actual properties (oft semi-to-un-officially “licensed” in the first place) can be difficult to decipher sometimes, but concrete info aside, we’re still left with some absolutely awesome vintage ninja imagery here…

These look right off the covers of the best-selling ninja textbooks of the day, portraying shadowy assassins and camouflaged covert agents in bombastic poses and color palettes for maximized sensationalism that no kid or action film fan could resist.

The above piece is my absolute favorite — the spitting image of Ryutaro Otomo from Castle of Owls (sourced from one of the publicly stills seen here), the weird knurled-looking rectangular sword guard, and check out that shuriken-dispensing dowel contraption on his belt!

The tight crop on the below suggests a larger scene of carnage — saboteurs in full night-mission regalia plummeting down onto unsuspecting victims during what could well be a castle conflagration of their own making. So much energy and action from such a small canvas…

Even the backs are cool.

The best thing about these old ‘cigarette cards’ or ‘gum cards’ as they are often mis-identified? They’re easily the cheapest relics of the 60s ninja boom you can easily score worldwide. A simple eBay search will lead you to myriad examples of collectible pulp emblazoned with the likes of tokusatsu supermen, sumo wrestlers, Western film icons, robots, monsters and yes, ninja.

Happy hunting.

Special thanks to Matthew Childs.

 

Kagemaru Tattoos

The rarest antiques are the things that are the most disposable when produced, and its hard to think of anything (outside of ice cream bars maybe) with a shorter shelf life than a sheet of temporary tattoos for kids. Somehow a few of these Iga no Kagemaru sheets survived the gauntlet of childhood body modification for decades and lo-and-behold now rest in the safety and comfort of the VN office/shrine!

With full recognition on its importance in ninja media history, I’m still not the hugest fan of Mitsuteru Yokoyama‘s iconic property, mainly because I don’t really care for his character designs (especially the titular hero) unless they’re fully hooded. Something about those faces… hmm.

But man oh man do I LOVE the pointy hoods!!!

These were sold to me as temporary tats, but the more I handle these five-inch cellophane sheets, the more I think they instead might have been so-called “rub-down transfers” designed for application to paper backgrounds — sort of a ‘make-your-own-scene’ art kit for kids. I grew up with all sorts of those sets, the most popular of which was a line called “Presto-Magix.”

Regardless of what they were originally, the fact that they licensed actual Yokoyama artwork instead of third-party mimicking makes these endure as treasures…

Sugoroku “boards”

Hot damn are paper “Sugoroku” game board sheets just the coolest! The 300 year old board game akin to Chutes and Ladders (“Snakes and Ladders” for you Europeans), is aimed at adults and children alike, is a New Year’s tradition in Japan and has even been perverted for gambling uses.

Game play and long history aside, I just love these multi-property collage sheets, often done by third party artists under mysterious or completely absent proper licensing. There isn’t a property or genre that hasn’t seen a Sugoroku adaptation.

We featured a great cartoony board a few year’s back here. Now here’s two more ninja and hooded hero themed pieces I just adore.

This one encapsulates several different chambara heroes with multi-film franchises, with an eye for some dramatic hooded costumes.

This newer piece is based on Mitsuteru Yokoyama manga, Kamui and Watari from Shirato Sanpei and various kiddie properties like Ninja Hatori Kun.

I don’t recognize the hero slightly left of center, but man is he chill and just happy to kill…

 

Katsuya Terada illustrations

Picked up a used copy of a 2004 Japanese-language ninjutsu book called Shinobi: All Things About Ninja – Hattori Hanzo, Momochi Tanba, Fujibayashi and More, which was sealed and I couldn’t inspect before committing to. As I don’t read kanji myself, owning Japanese tomes for me is all about the illustrations and pics, and sadly this one did not deliver. The text heavy, photo-bereft and diagram-light book does touch upon commonly seen weaponry, maps and other ‘usual suspect’ material via some simplified digital illustrations, but if I had to guess its largely a rehash the standard Readers Digest/tourist guide material now common to Japanese ninja books of the 2000s to now.

However, the cover illustration and a few brush-work spots by artist Katsuya Terada are quite nice. The entire book should have been littered with these…

And here’s a better look at that cover image reversed from the knock-out silver originally presented above, a nice collage…

This book will eventually be up from grabs, space is forcing me to thin the herd of the VN library this summer. Stay tuned, or drop us a line if interested.

 

Kosugi and Van Cleef in Japan

One of the great head-scratchers of the 80s American ninja boom was the NBC TV series The Master, created by Michael Sloan but driven by the one-man craze-catalyst that was Sho Kosugi. On one hand its very existence spoke to the magnitude of ninja’s popularity in 1984, but its utter failure coming at the same time as Kosugi’s departure from Cannon Films can be interpreted as the premature beginning of the end for the boom period.

The Master failed to convert new audiences, and was, quite-honestly, often cringe-worthy to even the staunchest ninja geek. Much of the country never even saw the full run of 13 episodes. I was growing up in New England at the time, and with the Celtics on their way to a championship that year, Larry Bird was pre-empting Max Keller at every opportunity.

Two years later, Trans-World Entertainment would release the series as two-episode clam-shell and hard-shell VHS to the rental market, mildly disguised as “movies” under the title The Master Ninja. Within the next two years the rest of the globe was devouring dubbed or subtitled editions in German, Spanish and a host of other languages.

I’m the most intrigued by these kanji-subtitled Japanese versions:

What must the audience raised on the likes of Shinobi-no-Mono and contemporarily enjoying Kage No Gundan have of thought of this strange American product, what with its traditionally-garbed ninja using archaic weaponry in modern America? Were the stock-in-trade TV villains like greedy land barons, suburban crime lords and small-town evil industrialists harping on the likes of farmers and single moms something that even resonated with the Japanese? Did the action scenes, tailored to American audiences fetishizing signature weapons straight out of mail order catalogs and expecting high-arcing spin-kicks instead of the low-crouched Bujinkan-inspired choreography of the home product impress the Japanese at all?

The home video versions of The Master hit the market at about the same time as the IFD/Filmark stuff from Hong Kong started flooding video stores with titles like Ninja Terminator and Full Metal Ninja. The craze was burning out prematurely, but for NBC and Trans-World they were finally making back their investment with international video sales.

As for the North American market, the riffed-upon versions served up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 1990s were actually seen by more of an audience than any other iteration. The funky “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit sung by the robots remains one of the more beloved moments of that increasingly legendary show.

I wonder if the MST3K home video releases were imported into Japan…

Wait… WHO rented Cannon their house?

If you weren’t able to make the Revenge of the Ninja CD signing event in Januar,y the score and exclusive event print are now available via mail order, all signed by ROTN director Sam Firstenberg, stunt coordinator and silver-masked ninja double Steven Lambert, and composer Robert J. Walsh (CDs only).

Order the ROTN CD from Creature Features here.

Order the 11×17 limited edition print from Creature Features here.

The newly remastered ROTN soundtrack is just great — the sound is noticeably improved from the vinyl, there are extensive liner notes and a photo-loaded insert, and newly added are 12 classic tracks re-instrumentalized and enhanced by Walsh himself. Highly recommended!

The prints are 11×17″ on heavy stock, only 100 were printed and of those only a few were signed by Firstenberg and Lambert (in silver ink), so it’s first-come-first-served on those.

As for the event itself, it was a day of amazing stories from two men who genuinely adore this film and love even more its enduring fan following. The absolutely gushed eye-opening accounts of the production and working for Cannon Films back in the day. If you’ve heard their commentary on the ROTN or Ninja III: The Domination Blu-rays imagine the same sort of thing but in a live, intimate gallery setting.

Some gems we heard from Firstenberg:

— He largely fibbed his way into directing what would be his first action movie, and that inexperience led to the unique collaborative nature of the film. Sho Kosugi had huge sway, (Firstenberg called him “the leader” of the picture in a lot of ways) being close to producer-level and involved in more aspects of production than a first-time leading man would typically enjoy. Lambert, also a first timer on ROTN, was afforded freedoms he’d never enjoy again in bigger studio efforts. This collaborative triumvirate captured lightning in a bottle.

— Robert Walsh composed the entire iconic score in a mind-boggling FOUR DAYS. He put in marathon sessions with his own and borrowed equipment. Although most composers would start on the synth level in putting a score together hoping the studio would spring for proper orchestration later, on a Cannon budget Walsh knew from minute one a symphony was NOT going to happen, so ROTN was a synth score from concept to finish.

—  It was often a tri-lingual set. Kosugi would talk Japanese with his inner circle of students and his family, Firstenberg and his team would often meet and converse in Israeli, with most everyone else stuck in between trying to decipher everything to English.

— He’s getting more interest in his old ninja films now than he ever did before. The weekend of the event he had also done a phoner with media in Manitoba, Canada and has fielded invites from all over the globe in recent months.

And even more gems from Lambert:

— Even though studio armorers were credited, Sho Kosugi actually provided the entirety of the exotic ninja arsenal himself, and would continuously replenish items from the local martial arts training equipment manufacturers and suppliers he was already in business with creating his branded mail-order ninja gear. Lambert in particular marveled at how industrious, aware and calculated Kosugi was with the opportunity that was in front of him. He knew it was the right time and right place and was user-ready to pounce on the craze once it congealed.

— Watch the end duel closely and you’ll see Kosugi disarm Lambert (doubling Braden) of this sheath. When he tossed that sheath during the arcing sword-parry, it flew far enough away to go off the side of the sky-scraper they were on and fell all the way down to earth, amazingly not hitting anyone below.

— At some point in the late 1990s, thieves broke in to a storage unit rented by Lambert and cleaned it out. Amongst the treasures from his career lost were the ninja suits he wore in ROTN, Ninja III and American Ninja and two of the three silver Braden masks.

— The house and gardens used for the Osaki family massacre at the film’s beginning was rented from… get this… SHIRLEY TEMPLE!

35 years ago, I watched my SLP-recorded VHS tape of HBO’s airing of Revenge of the Ninja (if memory serves that same tape had The Road Warrior and They Call Me Bruce on it) so much it wore thin and snapped. To say that movie stuck with me would be an understatement. Decades later, to have an art gallery borrow some of my collection for display and ask me to design a print for an event where I’d kibitz with the men who made that movie was… well, the ultimate payoff to a life of fandom (never mind some serious validation of my pro-nerd status).

Jump at any rare chance you get to experience these men in person, their generosity with the material we know and love so well will blow you away the same it did me.

KR

 

We’re still looking for more KOSUGI KICKS

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Vintage Ninja still has an open call out for what we call “Kosugi Kicks” — images of ninja in movie posters, VHS sleeves, toy packaging, advertising, whatever, that are cribbed from the iconic two-sword jump kick publicity shot Sho Kosugi posed for back in the early 80s. This image has gone on to be the most iconic, and most ripped-off, image of a ninja from the Western world’s craze of the 80s.

Read our original article on the subject here.

And a follow up here.

Just discovered this vintage gem from the derivative genre literary world:

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And here’s another from a proposed film that never happened, at least not in this form:

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A better look at the Kosugi-Kick-inspired packaging of the M.U.S.C.L.E-knock-off toy line N.I.N.J.A Mites:

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And outright piracy of the image on some old tabi packaging:

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See any we missed in these three articles? Send them our way!

krainville@vintageninja.net

 

Botan Rice Candy Stickers

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I love me some Botan Rice Candy! I was first exposed to the slightly citrusy chews with their dissolving edible wrappers and souvenir stickers in the 70s by my uncle Hiro, and saved a ninja-themed one from the 80s. They same candy is still being produced with the occasional ninja sticker now.

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Read all about the culinary merits of this superb Japanese confection at The Noodle Freak.

I recently scored a windfall collection of 80s era stickers, evocative of kids manga like Ninja Hattori-Kun but generic enough to avoid any pesky licensing.

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You can find more ninja rockers from different eras by digging through the archives of The BRC Gallery.

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Animated credits – FURAI NINPOCHO (1965)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED NOV 2009 — With the new animated adventure Kubo and the Two Strings in theaters this weekend, thought we’d take a look at some other animation.

I absolutely adore 60’s animated movie credits, and these somewhat DePatie-esque panels from the opening of the 1965 ninja comedy Furai Ninpocho are just great.

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The rest of the movie, despite a good cast (including Mie Hama of You Only Live Twice fame), just doesn’t live up, alas…

Double Rip-Off!

A reader recently sent me a fragment of an image found on tumblr, looking for an ID.

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At the time I couldn’t identify which particular variant of which particular Godfrey Ho film under which particular alternate title this would have been, but I sure as hell could ID where the “source inspiration” of the artwork came from!

Check this out — DOUBLE RIP-OFF!!!

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Half Schwarzenegger, half Kosugi, all brilliant.

Knock-off artwork was nothing of rarity in the VHS era, and that practice carried well into the DVD era, with exploitation-minded labels in Europe being particularly adept.

It didn’t take much digging to find that this is indeed a VHS-era German release of Death Code Ninja.

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What the artist lacked in originality he or she made up for two-fold in brazen ambition. Either one of these hero images from Red Sonja (hey, revisit this movie, it holds up better as time goes on!) and Revenge of the Ninja would have done the job, but NO, why choose one when you can have both?

It beats the hell out of the other commonly seen package art from this flick:

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Yeah, not so good…  Although, awesome.

Death Code Ninja resembles neither Sonja nor Revenge. See for yourself — the whole thing is on YouTube.