Shirato Sanpei… NOT lazy.

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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.

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Read up on Sanpei’s shinobi from a site that actually knows what it’s talking about, What is Manga.

Shame on you, kung-fu kangaroos!

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!

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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!

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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.

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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?

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Quick checklist of things, besides kung-fu kangaroos, that are NOT in this movie:

1.) Ninja.

2.) Ninja-to.

3.) Shuriken.

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:

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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…

Bare-Armed Ninja

Something that came out the 80s and lived on into the 90’s was the bare-armed body-building look for ninja, a mutation driven by the painted covers of Ninja Magazine and video game package art. These roided-up shinobi sacrificed protection for an intimidating gun show, and cared not that the well-oiled sheen of those muscles did-in whatever stealth they were hoping to achieve.

And here’s another mutation from the video game world, the French Foreign Legion flapped hood.

Shinobi-fied merch

With the 80s craze came a lot of repurposed merchandise – stuff that for the previous decade’s boom had been sold as kung-fu gear now emblazoned with ninja logos. The above looks to have been a Chinese-esque design probably inspired by something David Carradine tossed around on network TV. But any 70s leftovers were given new life in the “ninja star” obsessed 80s.

The notion of shuriken pendants wasn’t exclusive to this company, either. In the dodgy  swap meet, dirt mall, subway blanket, Chinatown video store realm you’d see full-size, razor sharp throwing stars with tiny holes hastily drilled into them somewhere to technically make them jewelry, not illegally sold weapons.

Now just what made a net a “Ninja Capture Net?” I don’t know, and I never this particular item, but I’m pretty certain it was some type of conventional fishing deal shinobi-fied for mail order. They made some pretty strong claims here about the net’s effectiveness. Not sure I’d trust something I mail-ordered for less than $15 against a “sword-weilding enemy.”

I also like their observation for item #704A – A black stick is invisible at night!

Nothing however, beats my all-time favorite piece of repurposed merchandise, the Ninja Boomerang.

RINGO a GO!!!

After a well-received debut at this year’s Tribecca, Eddie Mort’s Dead Ringo will see the light of day for what is currently planned as 13 three-minute webisodes TV interstitials. Details on who, where and when to follow, but in the meantime get a load of production art previews at Eddie’s new tumblr: deadringoseries.tumblr.com.

Ninja, demons, snow monkeys? Cannot wait…

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