A designer’s rant…

A reader sent me some anime movie poster scans, for which I was grateful, but one of them just struck a nerve – a wrong nerve – and I have to vent.

Some day job background first – I pay the rent as a graphic designer for a performing arts non-profit. I’m faced with the constant challenge of how to represent large scale, grandiose stage productions in poster form, somehow getting across notions of a massive visual spectacle, classical music, high drama and emotion, and a theater-going experience being worth a hefty ticket price in a bad economy.

My budgets are modest and the visual assets at my disposal don’t often do the trick on their own – in short, I rarely have a home-run image landing on my lap, and have to get creative and conceptual to catch people’s eye.

So with that background, what catches my eye? Something like this:

Seriously, what the hell am I looking at here? Ninja Scroll is certified classic, and anime movie posters don’t have to rely on photographic assets as their basis – the sky is the limit to the creativity of the illustrators involved. Yet what we have here is an absolute abortion.

Cluttered mess. Cluster of characters with no central focus on one main hero. Details details details everywhere making the frame so over-crowded you don’t know where to look. Nothing stands out. Nothing “reads.” Nothing is communicated. EPIC FAIL.

And it’s a ninja movie, there’s especially no excuse for this when you have sooooooo iconic a central character type.

Let’s look at some way better posters, mostly from movies nowhere near as good or important as the above.

Mafia vs. Ninja is hardly the classic Ninja Scroll is, being a heart-worn-on-its-sleeve exploitation flick. But what the marketers of exploitation films know is how to draw the eye and deilver a quick, effective image that get’s someone to cue-up at a theater or grab a rental off a video store shelf.

The secret here: put a BIG-ASS-NINJA-HEAD on your poster!

Not hard to do. You can see this is a ninja film from 50 yards away, and it works.

Here’s where that whole idea started, 1981’s genre-launching Enter the Ninja.

Two things going on here – cash in on the big-ass-ninja-head, and feature your expensive imported star, in this case Franco Nero.

Another example of the same notions:

Nowhere near as effective, as the artist possibly wasn’t up to the task of portraying Richard Harrison more face-on. Red ninja on a tight-rope isn’t nearly as effective as big-ass-ninja-head, but the swirling dragon just screams ‘martial arts movie’ so this ends up working in spite of its inferior execution.

Now on the subject of clutter, it’s not always a bad thing. Take these for example:

This Japanese market poster for Ninja III: The Domination “heroes” Sho Kosugi amidst a jumbled mess of images from the film. While not the greatest of layouts, a poster like this hangs in a theater lobby as an enticer for things to come. The audience is there, captive, milling about or waiting in line for snacks, so you have them on the hook already, you can get away with this sort of density.

The purpose of this poster is to relate the hero shot of Kosugi (in a Jubei Yagyu-like get-up that would be familiar to Japanese audiences) to the images of the clearly American film. They’re showing as much of the Hollywood stunts, effects and production values as they can, peppered with an American white girl.

They pull it off, but this is really pushing the clutter envelope. You can have a lot going on in a poster, especially for a fight film, but you need composition to organize it all for effective communication.

Like so:

There are 12 or so warriors in this painting for The Deadly Silver Ninja, which is actually more than the Ninja Scroll poster. The artist, however, uses foreground and background to center your attention on three of those warriors – the hero, the hot chick and the exotic masked villain.

I don’t know who that El Santo-looking weirdo is, but I’m interested, because this poster is so well composed I know where to look. I can see what’s important there – muscly kung-fu dude, go-go girl without pants, strange meance hovering over both – with little effort. Even the long 4-word title comes across right. You can catch a sideways glance of this poster and know it’s a martial arts film about a Silver Ninja. WIN!

Composition can also save a much simpler layout. Take a look at the original U.S. market poster for American Ninja:

Great use of the flag, simple fight scene with two figures. All fine. But the ninja is sort of hidden here and it’s a very stiff arrangement. Clearly a studio posing and not a fight scene.

Now check out this painted Italian market poster:

Damn this thing is beautiful!

Here, an artist uses the limitless opportunity illustration affords to pose and arrange subjects to create a vastly superior version of essentially the same scene. Average Joe American Shinobi still reads as an exciting yank action star, but at the same time the ninja is a lot more prevalent. You’ve got movement, dynamic tension, intersecting lines. This is a fight scene!

But I still say when it comes to shinobi-cinema, you just can’t go wrong with BIG-ASS-NINJA-HEAD:

There’s only one thing that works better:

You can’t beat topless-broad-with-sword. Invincible technique. Flawless victory.

So now that you’re all experts too, let’s make sure not to unleash any more turds like that Ninja Scroll cluster-F that got me going…

Ghana Ninja-rama on eBay!

This amazingness is on eBay right now:

Ghana, West Africa – 1980s. Quasi-legal ‘mobile cinemas’ showed exploitation films on VHS around third-world villages, promoted by off-model movie posters painted by local artists. Luckily for the rest of the world, these miracles of advertising art survived and are circulating galleries, museums and collectors markets.

Check out a bunch here, here and here.

There’s a great book on these ultra-crude but endlessly fascinating hand-painted posters called Extreme Canvas, and martial arts exploitation films are well represented.

Clip art source found

In the days before scanners, throwing “clip art” into a print advertisement took some work. You had to find a cool image to start with, then “threshold” it via a stat camera and toxic chemical-laden rapid processor. And what you were left with was a ‘black-or-white’ result you hoped was close enough to the original’s coolness. And hey, it worked here:

wc5.jpg

Now it CAN be told! That’s the climactic leap from the superb Warring Clans (Sengoku Yaro). See this movie if you haven’t.

As for the ad…

This same copy suggesting major revelations of ninjutsu is nearly identical to karate and kung-fu ads from the decade previous. Yet another example of companies taking their stale martial arts offerings and ‘retro-shinobi-fying’ them in the 80s.

 

Yep, let’s just throw the term KOGA around…

Merchandisers love VARIETY of offerings and EXCLUSIVITY of products at the same time. But above all else, they love a healthy PROFIT MARGIN.

To those ends, you see ads like this one from the mid 80s a lot. Take the basic black uniform you currently offer, add some cheapo extra pockets, liberally borrow a region name from history to differentiate your stuff from the next guy’s, and blammo – “The Koga Combat Ninja Uniform.”

The inclusion of free bang-snaps and a light stick must have made this irresistible. I’m thinking that dart hidden at the convergence of neck and spinal column might not have been the best idea, though…

On sale at FUJI ARTS

Don’t own an antique Japanese print of a ninja (or ninja-like) wizard doing TOAD MAGIC? Well, end the shame and embarrassment of it right now over at Japanese art acutioneers Fuji Arts!

I’d love to a be a heavy hitter and score some of these expensive relics, but financial fate has had other plans for me alas, so I was just poking through just the Clearance section of their online offerings. Lo-and-behold I found all sorts of warrior action and monster reptile mayhem! The clearance selection has ‘buy-it-now’ prices, too, with a lot of stuff under $100.

Look at that TOAD MOUNTAIN from this print of the Jiraiya lore!!! I’m ready to move in there and make it VN Headquarters.

NINJA BUGEICHO

So-called “Motion Comics” released on DVD and partially-animated graphic novels adapted for tablet devices are familiar now, but go back a few decades and experiments in using still art in moving media are less frequent, and with mixed results at best.

Probably the best example of these were the 1966 Grantray-Lawrence Marvel cartoons created from re-purposed comic book illustrations, but as cool as seeing Kirby art kinda move around on TV, watching them can be a chore after a while.

I imagine the same is true of the equally legendary Shirato Sanpei‘s NINJA BUGEICHO, a famous manga adapted into a motion picture by experimental cinema genius Nagisa Oshima, using only panel art, camera movements and actor voice overs.

I’ve never seen this rarity, but recently this video “pitch” to Criterion surfaced on YouTube, so one has hope of a release.





Not entirely sure what Criterion would do with this. It’s a niche product even for the already niche ninja movie and vintage Japanese animation fan bases. As evidenced from this Japanese movie poster, even their marketers didn’t know quite what to do with it:

There’s a good article on this film and the frustrations of researching it, by Sean Rogers at The Walrus Blog.

Origins of the 80’s “Ninja-To”

UPDATED!

We had some great response to this post last month, and since then another major find, so I’ve chosen to update and refine it a bit, and repost it as the start of a series of features on the storied and sometimes notorious “Ninja-To.”

Re-Enjoy!

Next to the black pajamas and the myriad shuriken designs adopted by ninja-craze merchants, there probably isn’t a more prevailent icon of 80’s shinobidom than the short-bladed straight-sword heavily marketed as the “Ninja-To.”

A long-handled, two-foot straight blade with plain square hand-guard, the alleged ‘sword of the ninja’ had a retro-fitted martial science all it’s own. The square guard could serve as a step to help you over walls, the sheath held hollow breathing tubes that could double as a blowgun and the end of it doubled as a spearhead or shovel. The un-curved blade was a necessity of the impoverished ninja villages where blacksmithing was much cruder. It also made the short sword easier to draw off the back. They were wielded reverse grip, a signature blade with a signature style…

Good as that all sounds, it is possibly all merchandise-inspired bullshit.

For starters, espionage arts are based on anonymity, so why carry a signature anything? Secondly, straight blades and reverse grips decimate the cutting power of a sword, why do that to yourself? And crude blacksmiths? Weren’t the same guys making all those other exotic assassination gadgets at the same time?

More to the point of this particular post, the popular version of this mass-produced 80’s sword always had shiny brass fittings, a bright-white handle with ornate cord wrapping, and a shiny-as-hell decorative silver blade. Real shadowy!

Regardless of its dubious at best historical pedigree, the Ninja-To was embraced by manufacturers and retailers because it gave them another version of the cheap and cheesy samurai sword to pawn-off on us martial arts marks (and before you ask, yes, guilty as charged, right here).

Tim and I were wondering just when this standardized “ninja sword” entered the retail vernacular, and I just found a pretty damn early mail-order ad for one in this 1977 issue of Black Belt:

Note the costuming on the cover – nothing off-the-rack here, definitely before the common mail order “ninja suit” became standard garb for such shoots. And although Stephen Hayes was becoming a fixture in these mags, the Kosugi-feuled craze was really three or four years away still. I can’t imagine we’ll find another ad a whole lot earlier. (See bottom of post!)

Also interesting to note the $69 price-point, which pretty much stood throughout the 80’s craze, and is still seen today in fact (guess inflation and changing world markets are no threat to the frugal ninja). There are cheap-as-hell sets of three you can score in any city’s Chinatown for $39, some “full-tang” display pieces of varying degrees of ridiculousness around that $70 point from online shops, and then a whole range of high-end stuff using the same design but with ‘battle-ready’ execution. You can see reviews of several superior-made versions of the this maybe-mythical classic at the Sword Buyers Guide.

UPDATE:

Don Roley at the BudoSeek info board, as part of an exhaustive post and series of over three dozen responses on the ‘Ninja-To’ debate found this ad from a 1973 issue of Black Belt!

Damn… 1973?!?!

Take a look at the sword, LOTS of conventions we’ve all previously attributed to the 1980s. And that photo is certainly from the 60s Japanese craze era. This Los Angeles importer was waaaaaay ahead of the curve.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9