Turnbull calls BULL!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Full disclosure — I’ve been in friendly contact with Stephen Turnbull for a number of years and VintageNinja was a quoted and cited source for this new book.

 

During the 1980s ninja boom one’s shelf was packed with a variety of books on the subject, from seemingly legit self-defense manuals based on generations old hand-to-hand combat, to less…er…responsible…guides to hypnotic mind powers and secret death cult rituals. There were books that explored a little feudal history, a few fiction tomes set in what we assumed was a realistically portrayed past, and manuals for making shadow-tools based on the scribblings of the ancients.

As wide-ranging as that all seems, the English-language writings of the time had one major thing in common — they were coming from the martial arts world and were produced by people in the business of martial arts training. Determining whether or not these authors and publishing houses were legitimate curators of ancient secret scrolls or cash-grabbing charlatans was like negotiating a storm at sea in the dark, and regardless of legitimacy of source, the fact that these texts were coming from martial arts standpoints vs. the historical, sociological and anthropological left us without a guiding lighthouse.

So when in the early 90s (albeit a half-decade too late for the craze fervor) military historian Stephen Turnbull unleashed his Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult, its stance from a history book point of view, with no ‘dog in the fight’ if you will, was a refreshing voice of reason largely free of the agendas and politicking of the martial arts community (particularly those who had brought the arts to the West). It had copious Japanese sources cited, and no ads in the back for training videos, seminars or mail order weapons. The text would later be honed into two smaller paperbacks aimed at military buffs/gamers and younger readers.

Fast forward to the past five years or so where we see a new surge of ninja history-oriented publishing, largely based on new translations of old Japanese texts, and coming from a more diverse variety of sources than the 80s ever saw — pop culture influencers, well-travelled martial artists whose efforts endured the post-craze decades and new youngbloods parlaying social media and new book-release business models into some high-profile apple-cart-upsetting. Out of this same time, Turnbull’s notions of possibly updating his previous work were met with an abundance of new info and a changing landscape of the ninja phenomenon in Japan, and the decision was made to proceed on an entirely new tome. Finally, this week, we have Ninja: Unmasking the Myth, the new hardcover from British publisher Frontline Books.

This is no mere rehashing of old text tempered by a few new discoveries. Instead it dismantles the entire familiar structure of what we consider ninja, and rebuilds it in what turns out to be a rather pragmatic way that for the first time takes EVERYTHING into account — from the most ancient scrolls to the popular media of the 20th century to the tourism business of tomorrow. Canon is questioned, trusted translations of the past are put through a new ringer, and the timeline of development of what is popularly known as ninja is turned on its head.

But this is NOT a hater rant, not a debunking frenzy, but rather an effort to look at a bigger picture based on the fact that the myths of the ninja are as old as the realities, and the process of creating these historical icons has been evolving and mutating constantly for centuries, and will continue to do so.

Turnbull takes to task repeated efforts over multiple historical eras to create a continuity to the feudal past (typically times of peace redefining what went on in previous times of war) as well as the retro-crediting of old military manuals and written histories (both credible and not-so) as being ninja-releated. He highlights the fragility of translating the very terms “shinobi” and “ninjutsu” and ultimately “ninja” and how liberal usage of those translations had been used to ‘cook the books’ so to say, of history to fit a contemporary narrative. Unmasking the Myth also shines new light on who contributed to the cementing of our current notions of ninja and how recently it was all done.

I’m particularly grateful for him including, for the first time in such a book, the genuine role of popular media — from wood-block prints of the late 1800s to early 20th century kids books to the films of the 60s Japanese ninja boom — not as mere footnotes or frosting on the cake, but as vital players in the larger narrative of what has come together to give us the all-too easily accepted definition of the black-hooded set. His treatment of the fabled Fujita Seiko will raise some eyebrows (and probably ires) and he goes on to give the first enlightening exposure to the life and contributions of the man he calls “the inventor of the ninja” Okuse Heishiro, pioneering author and champion of the Iga tourism trade. When it all came together in the 1960s — history texts written for tourists, popularized martial arts, and those same martial artists advising on major mass media projects — we see what he refers to as “a consummate exercise in standard setting” — the release of Shinobi no Mono in cinemas.

Stephen Turnbull and Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi in 1988, from the forward of his 1991 book.

 

IN HIS OWN WORDS

Turnbull’s inclusion of all such aspects of ninja is what makes Unmasking the Myth so PERFECT for the readership of this site. We were fortunate enough to catch the author for an exclusive interview with VN’s particular readership in mind:

VN: Is Unmasking the Myth a replacement for your previous books, or do you see them as a good tandem?

ST: It is definitely a replacement for the 1991 book [Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult], and in fact most of the illustrations in that book will reappear in my next ninja book, which is the ‘unofficial’ training manual (see below!). The Osprey book [Ninja AD 1460–1650 (Warrior series, 2003)] incorporated some revisions to the 1991 text and of course the color plates are very good.

VN: Are you prepared for the seemingly inevitable controversy that this new academic and wide-encompassing work could generate with the martial arts-practicing audiences?

ST: My experience of martial artists is that on the whole they are a serious bunch who value the ideas and origins of their craft. My book is about ninja, not ninjutsu, but I feel I have presented correctly where the notion of a martial art called ninjutsu came from. As my book makes clear, until modern times ninjutsu meant either the art of the shinobi i.e. espionage, or something magical, not a martial art in its own right.

VN: What would you say to someone entrenched in a modern ninjutsu pursuit who may feel under attack here?

ST: I would hope that any reputable instructor would encourage their students to ask questions about where everything really came from and just enjoy it! Even well-established martial arts systems like judo have controversial histories. Ninjutsu as a modern martial art is nothing compared to some awful hybrids I have seen which are a pick and mix mess of Chinese, Korean and Japanese martial arts dressed up with no historical or cultural background whatsoever.

VN: We in the West see a Japanese source for information and assume it is trustworthy and coming from a position of superior knowledge. You are contending that’s not necessarily the case. Do you feel duped by shady Japanese historical beliefs and how do we behind the cultural and language barriers deal with this?

ST: Just because the source is Japanese doesn’t rule it out from academic rigour and investigation. It must be subjected to the same evidence-based criteria that is applied to anything. Yes, you need Japanese language skills for that, which is why I have tried to be scrupulously honest about my conclusions.  

VN: Can you comment on how much historical record seems to be corrupted by translation alone, with “nin” itself being debatable, differences in “shinobi” and “ninja”, the crucial differences in words as nouns vs. adverbs/adjectives, etc. 

ST: Yes, see the quote from [Iga-Ryu Ninja Museum director Jinichi] Kawakami that a ninja is a fictionalised shinobi, and remember that the word shinobi meaning spy and infiltrator appears in a Japanese-to-Portuguese dictionary dating from 1603. The two meanings of nin as secrecy and endurance are fascinating topics in their own right because they keep coming up as ninja evolve.

VN: We’re curious, is this book being translated into Japanese for release there, or have its tenets already been covered in other homegrown texts?

ST: I’m trying; it would be the ultimate compliment! There is however so much in Japanese, particularly from Mie University in the last few years, that I don’t think a Japanese publisher would want the expense of translating stuff back from English. Note however that I have received the greatest friendly cooperation from Japanese authors. Why? First of all they are nice people who respect my honest efforts, but also because for every one person who reads their books 100 will read mine because it is in English, so it is in their interests for them to make sure I get it right and of course credit them, as I do.

VN: Movies like Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and mega-properties like Naruto did a lot to deconstruct the trope of the black suit and hood, and even replaced ‘ninja stars’ with kunai knives as the iconic signature weapon. Yet a decade or so later Japan reclaimed the stereotypical ninja suit and shuriken with a vengeance. That look is probably never going away, is it? 

ST: No its isn’t. Mie [University] seem to draw a firm line between ninja/shinobi/black suit/shuriken etc AND Naruto/orange suit/space ninja…  I am sure we will see ninja in black at the Tokyo Olympics [in 2020].

VN: From the “Cool Japan” campaign to the current boom of tourism redefining ninja as ‘hybrid acrobat/theme park stage performer’ — the invented tradition is once again undergoing mutation. Any speculation as to where we go from here?

ST: The ‘ninja as physical and moral exemplar for youth’ is very hot right now, but that is so Japanese it won’t travel. Western audiences would just laugh at the idea.

VN: Doing what you do as a historian, knowing what you know — are there any ninja movies or shows you still outright enjoy?

ST: Shinobi no Kuni – [aka Mumon: Land of Stealth and Mumon: Land of the Ninja, 2017] is great fun. Seventeen Ninja and Castle of Owls are also favourites. Of course I love watching You Only Live Twice just to laugh!

VN: Finally, for the person who just finished your book and wants more, where’s the next step?

ST: OK, the next step, I am afraid, is another book by me! Thames and Hudson do a superb series for young readers called ‘unofficial manuals’. The brief is to be historically accurate and also light-hearted. So far it includes gladiators, vikings, samurai (by me) and pirates (also by me). The author has to assume a persona, so I have written it as if I was a ninjutsu Grand Master in 1798. Because of that I can write with full conviction that ninja really existed. It’s a bit like Mansenshukai with jokes! (and loads of pictures). Chapters include ‘how to climb into a castle’; ‘how to blow things up’. I have really enjoyed doing it; it will appear in May 2019.

 

The famous/infamous illustration from Ehon Tailo ki depicting an isolated assassination attempt is used as an example in the new book of both retro-ninja-attribution, as well as any sort of antique depiction of anyone in black as ‘evidence’ of the continuity of ninja history.

 

BUT DOES HE BELIEVE IN SANTA?

Unmasking the Myth does just that. While the new book’s criticisms and deconstructions steer towards a larger, more positive effort, I have to believe there will be readers who feel some sacred scroll is being blasphemed. I somewhat sardonically want to see the reaction to his entire chapter focused on Fujita Seiko basically inventing the “ninja star” in the 1930s.

But Turnbull is refreshingly realistic in where this book stands and how it’ll impact the world. While he takes particular task to the notion of Iga being the fountain from which all ninja waters flowed, he also realizes the Iga tourism board isn’t going to stop selling pink and red ninja suits in the museum gift shop anytime soon, either.

A complete skeptic can look at Unmasking‘s conclusions as a begrudging admission by an established expert that the entirety of the field is romanticized fiction and nonsense. A complete zealot could see the same as undermining their martial faith and the sworn testimony of their arts’ ancestry. But those in the middle should come away with an understanding of how time fogs truth and how the funneling of elements into a desired narrative can create an entirely artificial “history” based on unrelated facts. And not to be lost in it all — when the tall tales and fish stories are actually as old as the legit history they are embellishing, the endurance of such is a phenom worthy of study itself.

When it comes to a fascination with anything ninja, we can plunge a foot in the waters of alluring black-hooded fantasy, as long as the other foot is planted firmly on shore. Ninja: Unmasking the Myth is therefore essential beach reading.

Turnbull doesn’t shy away from admitting that he himself was not only a victim of previously-sacred but unsound research, but also how he profited from the popular tropes and iconography of the ninja as an author (and will seemingly continue to do so).

This book has suggested several models for the ninja’s origins as ancient Chines spies, lower-class Japanese criminals, independent jizamurai from Iga and Koka, special forces in a daimyo’s regular army, palace guards who specialized in intelligence work, spiritual exemplars, masked assassins or fictional magicians. The reality of the situation is that all are correct because the ninja is an invented tradition and its inventors could and did choose whatever they wanted.

But what an invention it is! The ninja myth is a complex and dynamic entity that is still evolving today. 

He also ultimately encourages us all to continue our fascination with the ninja, but to do so with a tempered mentality and an arsenal of new knowledge now available.

…I believe that there is so much that is historically authentic among the ninja’s antecedents that the invention of the ninja tradition lies less in the creation of imaginative elements than in an inspiring blending of genuine ones. 

So it’s like still enjoying Christmas once you’re too old to believe in Santa Claus. And who doesn’t love Christmas, especially if there are some mail order ninja stars under the tree…

Keith J. Rainville — May, 2018

 

Buy the new book on Amazon.

AND, there are plenty of copies of the old book available used, too.

The author’s official website has plenty of additional material as well.

Equally notable colleague of Turnbull Johnathan Clements provided an insightful review of the book with some background here.

 

New from Kosugi and Firstenberg

Sho Kosugi returns to home video with a series of training DVDs via Masters Magazine! An expansion on his 1980’s VHS release Master ClassThe Art of Hollywood Ninja Action Film Making is a five part ‘course’ on ninja-centric choreography and cinematography straight from Kosugi himself. Disc or download will cost you around $150 but promises priceless insight from a proven master of action from the movie screen to the gaming console.

Learn more at MastersMag.com.

Whereas Master Class was in a grey area between self-defense instructional and screen fighting demo realms, this new set is targeted more at practical tutorials for those looking for careers on the screen (silver or green) or behind the camera.

Meanwhile, Kosugi’s former director Sam Firstenberg shows up in two new interviews:

Action-Flix.com

and

CoolAssCinema.com

Firstenberg also has a Kickstarter for his career-centric autobiography, which promises to clock in at a whopping 600 pages!

Sam Firstenberg not only has amazing stories to tell from his Cannon Films days, he tells them in an extraordinarily engaging and charming manner.

Can’t wait to get ahold of all this stuff…

 

8 ninja vendors I accidentally found on Etsy

I had never even been on Etsy before last Christmas, when a friend who practically lives on there turned me on to some jewelry crafters for Christmas gifts. So while there, I did a quick “ninja” and “shinobi” search and what do you know!

Most of the below vendors sell on eBay and off their own sites as well, but as I found them all on Etsy in one fell swoop it’s there that will serve as a gateway.

Bakezori — Need a custom ninja suit in the Japanese historical tradition? Is that even a question? Well, check out Bakezori — well reviewed by martial artist, historical reinactors and cosplayers alike.

Gaucho Ninja Leather — Where Asian World of Martial Arts meets the fashion runways of Spain, check out Gaucho Ninja Leather’s coture-grade leather tabi!

Ninpo Mart —  I salute weapon-smiths who offer non-lethal variety training gear, and by non-lethal I mean I won’t kill myself using any of it. Probably. Anyway, this is the first place I’ve ever seen rubber training claws.

Siamurai —   “Siam-urai”… see what they did there? Siamese-fusion Tokyo street fashion, a modern version of ancient Japanese dress, or Hammer pants of a less shiny variety? You be the judge. Man, these are so beautiful.

Shinbudo – Know what a $400 wooden sword looks like? I didn’t either until I started poking around at the jaw-dropping wood work and transcendent craft at hand here. Amazing training lumber!!! Make sure to go to their main website for more…

Shinobi Gear — More sharp-pointees in safer rubber for training, including rare, obscure and exotic tools you don’t usually see in the typical dojo.

Ronin Minatures — Great selection of gaming-style 1/32 ninja and samurai figurines, both painted and raw lead. Gorgeous sculpts, and they really did their homework.

Terrible Weapons — Get out your damned credit card right damned now because weapon-smith Jason Blakey is now offering 3D-printer replicas of Lee Van Cleef’s pendant from The Master! I was the first kid on my block with one, be the first on yours…

Happy hunting…

NINJA DART BOARDS

One staple of martial arts mail order that not only made the transition from the kung-fu 70s to the ninja 80s was the dart board. What started as “Chinese throwing star target boards” quickly transitioned into the profoundly more successful “ninja shuriken target boards.”

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“Chinese Throwing Stars” were popularized in Western world by scenes in the Bond film You Only Live Twice and later the Kung-Fu TV series, and were sold by Chinatown junk shops and martial mail order mavens long before the ninja boom. This “dragon design” target board was little more than a cheap dart board sans the wire target frame. Variants of this graphical layout were painted onto 15″ boards and sold by most if not all major suppliers until the early 1980s, when THIS happened:

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It might say “Kung-Fu” in the corner, but Asian World of Martial Arts knew damn well who they were selling to in 1982. The traditional dragon design still adorned the opposite side of this new panel, which featured silhouettes of common retail ninja suits, canon “Ninja-To” swords, manji-sais and yes — NINJA THROWING STARS! (And all of these items were available from AWMA, too…)

This had to be one of if not the most ubiquitous items of the 80s craze era. Nerdy teens had them in their bedrooms, every dojo had one on some wall. Luckily for the modern collector, so many were made for so long, they’re relatively easy to find even now. There’s a super cheap vintage boxed one on eBay now in fact, right here!

And yes, there’s even one in the VN office:

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Back in the day, we used to joke that when sensei or sifu was around the dojo, the more respectable dragon side was displayed, but if they were gone and the ninja-boom-era inmates were running the asylum it was time to flip it over to the shinobi side.

Knock-offs and variants of the AWMA ninja board were sold by other manufacturers, too:

ninja_dartboard_2

I remember this design being around well into the 90s, and made of much cheaper stuff. Somebody somewhere is probably making them today

The thing was with these boards, they absolutely SUCKED as shuriken targets. The pub dart board material was designed for the needle tips of competition darts, not a wedge-shaped, often dull as a butter knife, throwing blade point. Between the material being too dense and the shuriken being too lightweight, they bounced more than they stuck. Heaven forbid you had great aim and hit the rock-hard red center plug, too, as sometimes that sent the projectile 180-degrees back at you. And if you were a super genius throwing ninja stars indoors, the ricochets got painful and even costly real quick.

We used to use multiple layers of corrugated cardboard nailed to pine planks, and threw outside. Even then, those Chinatown stars (with the holes drilled into them for chains to technically make them necklaces in the eyes of the law) rarely stuck anyway. There was better luck to be had with bigger, better designed blunt-ended stuff originally from Japan:

ninja_dartboard_6

Nowadays, a much better idea all around are these super cheap, but rather effective, rubber shuriken and foam-board sets all over eBay and various online suppliers. Where were these in 1982 when cheap stars were pinging around my bedroom and ricocheting into the insteps of my bare feet?

ninja_dartboard_4

If only Asian World of Martial Arts would offer this in the 15″ ninja style…

 

This post BLOWS!

From our friends at Vintage Nunchaku comes a feature on a critical piece of survival equipment that helped us get through the 1980s — The Jivaro Blowgun.

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The Jivaro Blowgun: This was serious “ninja stuff.”

First of all you had to be able to find them, they weren’t listed in Black Belt, Inside Kung Fu or any of the other major martial arts magazines. That meant you had to be familiar with magazines such as Solder of Fortune, Warriors or similar titles.

ninja-blowgun_2

Second, at least in the beginning, you had to be able to build your weapon. You literally got a long piece of aluminum tube, some brown rubber hose, a bunch of spring steel rods and some beads on a string. You boiled the rubber hose until it expanded and you then put those handguards on your blowgun before they shrunk. That done you installed the mouthpiece. As for darts, you stripped a bead off the cord, cut the spring steel to the desired length, heated it in a candle and then inserted it into the bead (if you were smart you followed the cord channel) and it literally melted into the plastic bead which hardened.

ninja-blowgun_3

It was a lot of work but it was a good system. You cut long darts for hunting and small darts for target practice or applications where a smaller less noticeable dart would be preferred. You could be a ninja without a sword, but there was no way you could be a ninja without a blowgun. This was the epitome of silent and deadly, it was the true signature weapon.

Jivaro blowguns go back at least as far as 1978 (that’s when I ordered my first one from an issue of SOF and were available until the mid 80s. I literally had about a dozen of these in that time. I had six foot ones for long range target use and I made them in lengths from two feet to four and a half feet to have a portable weapon for “missions.” I had some wrapped in black electrical tape for night use and even had a couple done in white athletic tape for winter use when I moved up north.

ninja-blowgun_4

Around 1984 they started shipping them completely assembled and they switched to a cheap plastic cone dart. Thankfully I had hundreds of beads on a string and lots of spring steel rods because those cone darts were junk. They were too light for any real accuracy. The bead darts on the other hand were amazingly accurate and from a 4.5″ blowgun I could nail lizards on trees from 30 feet away. I could put 12 darts in the same tree from twice that distance in a 6 inch group.

The two piece blowgun seemed like a good idea but the reality is it came apart at the wrong time, rattled no matter how you packed or slung it and the connection seemed to lessen accuracy. I found I could get almost the same results from one half of the two piece blowgun compared to the fully assembled weapon. Nothing beat a full size 6-foot blowgun, but it wasn’t exactly portable.

Sadly the majority of my Jivaro blowguns went to ninja heaven as they were destroyed in training. The only one that remains is a 1983 vintage six foot model that thankfully is in perfect condition…because you never see these come up for sale and the new ones don’t even come close.

As with most things from my younger days, I wish I had bought a couple extras.

— Vintage Nunchaku —

ninja-blowgun_1

We at Vintage Ninja never had Jivaro blowguns, opting for self-made (and vastly inferior) fare instead. I did have a plastic toy blowgun for suction darts that was actually branded from the American Ninja film, though, if that counts.

While an actual effective blowgun took some work, skill and practice, and some serious lung capacity, making non-functional but convincing movie-prop grade blowguns is much easier. Ours is a decorative bamboo rod from a florists with some twine embellishments. If we did it, anyone can!

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The oldest days of the Shuriken trade

We’re delighted to present the first of hopefully many editorial exchanges with the superb VINTAGE NUNCHAKU communityfound on Facebook here. This ‘other VN’ is the best fountain of info anywhere on old mail order advertising from the kung-fu craze to the ninja boom, and the collections of now antique weaponry amassed there will drop your jaw. We’re happy to expand their reach beyond Facebook (where page traffic is often limited based on how much admins pay for the right to communicate with their members) and give their research efforts another archive in case the mighty blue F one day goes the way of Friendster and MySpace.

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While the main focus of Vintage Nunchaku is the famed “karate sticks” — particularly the legendary stuff offered by Dolan’s Sports — there’s plenty of ninja fare as well. Scroll on through and note how many of the old scans of catalog pages and magazine ads have identical layouts and offerings from one martial arts fad to another, with cosmetic alterations like black paint and “NINJA!” typography being the only difference from one decade to the next.

Let’s start off here with a look at some of the earliest print adverts for Shuriken:

shuriken_5

FROM VINTAGE NUNCHAKU — The oldest advertisement for shuriken found to date. Scanned from the December 1967 issue of Black Belt magazine. Factoring for inflation, that set of two would cost about $35.00 today. Wonder if any of these “Albuquerque” shuriken darts even still exist. This advertisement, nor any other from the same company, is not found in any other Black Belt issues from 1967 or 1968 — which would make them that much more rare today.

I’m blown away that not only were shrink being imported into the U.S. in ’67, but that they were referred to as “Ninja Darts” — hell, “Ninja”-anything for that matter. Pre-80s ninja boom we always called them “Chinese Throwing Stars” with only David Carradine tossing around those thick, heavy wheels for reference. But this ad seems to be an aberration.

The below ad from Asian World of Martial Arts ran 10 years later, and despite the super early ninja-like star-chucker illustrated up top, is more indicative of the kung-fu-craze mail order scene:

shuriken_2

Again, much of the above would have some sort of black-colored, “NINJA”-stenciled version by 1984 or so.

Now, on to some of the gems of Vintage Nunchaku‘s beyond-enviable collections…

shuriken_1

One black, one gold, one silver — a ‘senban’ for any occasion! I can’t believe cases for these once ubiquitous mail-order sets survived the decades. Note the countries of origin, Japan and Korea, an era long before everything was cheap shit made in China.

shuriken_3

And then this grail original!!!

shuriken_4

Companies are still producing knock-offs of this 80’s boom staple, they’re all over eBay, dirt malls, swap meets and Chinatown smoke shops. And yes, I still think a shrunken belt buckle puts a sharp-pointee way too close to your junk…

OK, if you’ve never scrolled through Vintage Nunchaku, go now! Join the community, posts some pictures of your own old stuff, drool over the loot of others. The experts over there can identify anything you find in the attic, and are always looking to buy, sell and trade!

 

A phenomenal vintage weaponry collection

Love vintage mail-order weaponry and training gear from the 80’s ninja craze?

Want to completely lose your shit?

Then click on this link and read the short article LOFT TREASURES AND YOUTHFUL MEMORIES: MY BROTHER & I WERE NINJA WARRIORS from the U.K. sharp-pointee collector’s site Weaponology! Click on the pics, they blow up HUGE. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

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OK, you back?

I mean, man oh man oh man that collection. So much vintage ninja drooling going on here. That FAN!!! And it’s a Kosugi Kick, too.

If an article like this is right up your alley, then you really should be following Vintage Nunchaku on Facebook — a veritable font of knowledge on vintage gear and merch, old magazine ads and mail-order catalogs and more.

I’ll also take this moment to plug another super valuable resource for craze-era material — MA-Mags.com. It’s a huge database of titles, cover scans and publication dates of most every English-language martial arts periodical ever, including tons of 80s ninja goodness.

Do you have a vintage spread like this? Or even modern equivalents inspired by the 80s craze era? We’d love to see some reader submissions of collection photos. Drop a line to unknownpubs@yahoo.com.

loft-treasures_2
A spread of VN’s inventory of mostly stage-quality props and ‘made-safe’ weapons spanning three decades of repurposed merch and tool-bench kit-bashing.

 

Crude weapons from ENTER

Scored this odd publicity still, which is not in the usual press kits I’ve found from Enter the Ninja. It’s kind of a dingy, soft pic that may have been left on the cutting room floor somewhere.

But while the quality is nothing to write home about, there’s all sorts of prop weapon porn here!

(click the image to expand huge)

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While Enter was the movie that introduced the one-weapon-one-kill notion that ruled ninja movies in America for the next decade, it was produced before most of the standard ninja arsenal was being mass produced and sold outside Japan. The “Kosugi sword” would become widely available in a few variants via mail order and martial arts supply stores shortly after, and by Revenge of the Ninja the Canon crews could outfit an entire film from mass market merchandise.

But the Enter arsenals were all custom jobs and modifications, or re-purposed kung-fu weapons, like those wide-horned sais. You get a great look at how crude the swords were here, too…

ETN-weapons2 ETN-weapons1

Enter sparked the ninja boom in the US, but it also cemented some of the BS notions that drive a lot of martial arts purists and ninjutsu historians crazy, too. Black suits were worn in daylight situations and red and white suits were essentially superhero outfits, missing only a big “N” shield on the chests. Fetishized archaic weapons were adopted in modern situations where a silenced pistol would have solved all problems, hardly the utilitarian practice that kept historical ninja alive during the feudal era. And non-ninja weapons like tonfa and nunchaku were used prominently, while nary a weighted chain nor black egg was to be seen.

But… nunchaku sold, and ninja-nunchaku sold even better. The very promise of the weapon made famous by Bruce Lee sold movie tickets as well, so there you go.

And while we’re on the subject, if you’re on Facebook I highly recommend following Vintage Nunchaku — great old ads and photos of an amazing collection abound. I’d kill for a pair of those hallowed Dolan’s Sports swivel-chucks!

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6 Things You Can Buy at Hardware Stores That REALLY Look Like Ninja Weapons

There was a period during the 80s ninja craze that the staff of this site were legally too young to buy mail order weapons. We were utterly bitter at the time, but looking back on it now, it was probably a good thing we couldn’t write checks or get money orders from the drugstore in our early teens. The one time we folded cash into tin foil and mailed it off to some shady foreign outfit selling sharp-pointees from the back of Black Belt, we got burned on the deal — nothing ever arrived, no refunds on cash sent via post, no help from anyone at home or at the post office who would have busted us for trying this in the first place. Lesson learned. For all we knew, one of the moms intercepted the package on us, which lead to another fine idea — renting a PO box so we could keep the parents out of the mail order equation. Our local postmaster declined 13-year-old me on that too.

Again, in retrospect… thank you adults!

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BUT! No hardware store could prevent you from buying a tile scraper, right? Aubuchon Hardware in downtown Whitinsville, Massachusetts became our impromptu armorers supply depot for a number of years. Wooden dowels and door chains for nunchaku, tent spikes and ice scrapers that could be ground down into all sorts of troublesome devices, they even had bamboo shoots in their little gardening section that could perfectly house the blades from the clam-shucking knives they sold in the next aisle — instant yari!

And that was just a piss-ant mill-town local, what would we have done if we had access to a modern Home Depot???

Why, we could have just hauled off and scored any number of the below ninja-ish goodies:

1.) Gardening Forks

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The most legal and least suspicious implement on the list. With some heating up and bending in a vice, and some common clothesline attached, you’ve got a decent enough looking kaginawa climbing or capture line. Of course none of these things are meant to hold your weight, you imbecilic pre-tween ninja dweebs who just fell out of a tree!

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2.) Scraper Blades

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Wow, these really look like off-the-rack shuriken right? Well, they’ve got the wrong type of edging for a thrown weapon and don’t have the weight to penetrate. Plus, let’s face it, unless your dad owned a plumbing or flooring business and you were well known at the store for apprenticing during the summer, even the dope behind the register at the hardware store knows you’re buying these with deluded dreams of Dudikoff-ness, and you’ll likely be denied the purchase.

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3.) Triangular chisels and carving tools

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Find a heavy enough solid steel awl, wood gouge or spike chisel and it’s pretty much a bo-shuriken already. We never did though. Despite having a strong tradition in Japanese martial arts and showing up in more historical records, the 80s were all about “ninja stars” and we didn’t really have the literacy of these arguably more effective throwers. With myriad industrial and hobby applications (the above are both repair tools for stringed musical instruments) one could buy these things freely without looking too too much like a mass murderer waiting to happen, too…

4.) Meat and/or Fishing Hooks

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Another alternative to kanigawa climbing implements are common meat and fishing hooks. The trick here was to completely bypass the hardware and sporting good stores with their suspicious employees staring at your NINJA t-shirt, and snag rusty old beaters at flea markets as antiques. Y’know, for hanging plants from and crap, like for mom or something. Yeah…

Man, that bottom one looks like something out of Hellraiser or a Lobo comic!

5.) Pole Climbers

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Here’s a modern pice of hardware that’s probably better than anything allegedly crafted by shinobi back in the feudal era. These lower leg gauntlets with spikes extending past the arch of the foot are used by electricians and lumberjacks alike. I remember watching a MaBell repair guy scurry up a phone pole like a… like a what… A NINJA!!!… right outside my 8th grade karate school, and it looked cooler than anything in any Canon film!

Now granted, you can’t just buy these at any old shop. We always assumed you had to be some sort of licensed phone repair dude to score such gear, might still be true. Although EVERYTHING is available on eBay nowadays.

6.) Meat Handling Claws!!!

No shit, these are real, and you can get them on Amazon even! If you’re short on cash, why not rebuild your credit?

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Y’know how pulled pork gets pulled? These bad boys right here. Yeah, had these been around and easily available back then, I’d probably just be getting out of the joint now having killed a kid or would still be sporting the scars of my own self-mauling during some spastic play-time night mission.

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Fortunately, my weapon-smithing skills were absolutely abysmal, and I never hurt myself or anyone else. To this day I’m better at fashioning stage and screen props, which is what I should have been doing in the 80s. Why don’t I have hours of video footage of home-ninja-movies???

Got any self-fashioned improvised hardware stories from your own misspent youth? We’d LOVE to hear them, and see pics too. Respond below or mail us at unknownpubs-at-yahoo-dot-com!

Oh, and if you’re a parent, keep your kids out of hardware stores. Do the same thing and buy them skateboards, airsoft guns and fireworks instead…

 

To hood, or not to hood?

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.

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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.

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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?

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

 

 

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