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…
Think back to the early 80s. Remember how all of a sudden every mail order company had magazine ads for TONS of ninja merch? How were all these vendors able to pounce so quick on a trend and stock so much product in between releases of Kosugi films and Hayes books?
Well, quite a bit of it was recycled inventory (or new casts from mechanical tooling and designs of previously existing items), altered with a fresh coat of matte-black paint and hastily stenciled NINJA logos. Sais, nunchaku, Chinese-style throwing stars stamped with Bruce Lee’s face — all hold-overs from the kung-fu boom of the 70s — now given new life as “ninja gear.” It didn’t stop at kung-fu stuff either, as modern police batons, farming sickles sold in pairs, “Rambo knives” and even wooden boomerangs were hastily shinobi-fied for the new fad’s fervent market.
The same sort of spike in exploitive face-lifting of old weaponry has been happening again this past 18 months or so, although somewhat less apparent to the martial arts world, as the stuff is largely marketed to a more mainstream audience – zombie fans.
Thank goodness we have all these color-coordinated sharp-pointees available so all the WALKING DEAD cosplayers can save us from the apocalypse!
Take the same machetes, cheap copies of special forces daggers, fantasy and pirate blades inspired by hit movie series of the past decade, and anything else littering Chinatown smoke shops and cruddy swap meets, then just cover the steel with gloss black paint, spatter some red for simulated blood, make the handle or wrapping the most garish neon green you can find, and blammo — instant anti-zombie arsenal! At least half-a-dozen companies have ‘zombie fighter’ offshoot inventories of their usual offerings, and thus a thousand knock-off lines.
Skulls, bio-hazard symbols and grunge fonts have replaced the silhouetted ninja and kanji, but the execution is remarkably similar. Anything can and has been zombified – logic-be-damned – from shuriken, tantos and Naruto-knock-off kunai to survival hatchets, pistol crossbows and BB-guns. Can lime green Thor hammers and Captain America shields with skulls all over them be far behind?
(If any of you find a green Cap shield anywhere, I’m soooo a buyer!)
Plenty of samurai and ninja gear has been re-released in green lately, too. Katana were the first big items out there, a proven commodity courtesy of The Walking Dead. The bio-hazard tsuba are rather inspired, too. Then it gets rather silly, seeing as a lot of ninja weapons are close quarters fare, or small projectile weapons designed to carry poisons. Hardly threats to mindlessly chomping cannibals that can only be stopped by a crushed cranium.
Bayonets with laser-pointers, Rambo knives in zombie couture and shuriken that look more like band logos than viable projectiles are probably not going to get you through the Z-outbreak.
Come to think of it, a lot of ninja skills are rendered moot in a word where Romero-model zombies plague the earth. Quiet movement, evasion, survival skills sure, but disguise, illusion, fear and taking advantage of superstitions, mind-games and whatnot… all pretty useless against the shambling hordes. And best trade that blowgun for a suppressed carbine, too.
But again, this stuff isn’t being produced based on logic or originality. They’re using and re-using what they’ve got on hand from previous crazes, regardless of how sound Max Brooks would find it.
Oh… and zombies aren’t real. There’s that… But it doesn’t mean people aren’t willing to stock up on fun toys!
The overly “extreme” Klingon-like close-quarters implements above lack the penetration or crushing power necessary to do the job, and all those barbs and hooks can just get a shambler tangled up on top of you. But dude… they’re like so metal…
On the other hand, narrow stiletto-like swords, tactical spears and elongated trepanning hammers are quite viable in the fictional worlds of Romero and Fulci.
And if a ‘zed’ does get ahold of you, a two-way hatchet/hammer combo or elongated stabbing spike with triangular blade are essential hold-out pieces.
Zombie taget boards are awesome, especially when sold with a pile of cheap-ass throwing knives! The piece on the right is positively sublime, with its inclusion of the robotic monsters from the vintage Republic serial THE PHANTOM CREEPS.
But these take the cake! Life-sized rubber dummies filled with fake blood, and there’s even a SHOCKWAVES-esque Nazi zombie. Hell, I’d throw shuriken at these for fun, neon green or otherwise.
We’re living in future-camp-in-the-making, people, mark my words. Just like the now nostalgic 80s, in 20 or 30 years we’ll look back at all this anti-zombie gear as so dated, so of this period, it’ll be just as kitschy as a ‘ninja’ fingerless glove or Japanese-fusion Nagel print.
I wonder, will someone start a “Vintage Zombie” site at that point?
There’s plenty of exploitive cinematic reference to hone your “Z” skills, too…
I’ve had this old beater copy of Zen Combat – Jay Gluck‘s ground-breaking 1962 treatise on Japanese martial arts – for years but never got around to cracking open its aging pages until recently. Finding a full chapter on ninja, written two decades before the craze, was a delightful surprise. It’s a very interesting read, for the information presented yes, but more for its warts-and-all attitude towards the then burgeoning Japanese ninja boom.
Zen Combat is a collection of new and re-purposed articles from late 50s/early 60s martial arts mags, which at the time were more like trade publications and newsletters for a community of professionals and ‘pro-sumers’ rather than the media-influenced glossy fare they became post Bruce Lee. Gluck was an Asian culture expert and practicing martial artist (travelling in circles with the great Mas Oyama) living part-time in Japan during a time when all things ninja were exploding in popularity. His poise is like that of an old-school Rolling Stones fan wading through a crowd of girls screaming for One Direction. The result is one of the more honest, if not overly skeptical essays on the matter you’ll find.
This article wasn’t a cover feature designed to sell magazine copies during a craze. There is no slant toward any emerging school, pressure from a publisher not to offend advertisers or effort to fan the flames of an exploding fad. For that, I think its a valuable read regardless if one agrees with Gluck’s findings.
The book is out of print, and the author no longer with us, so until Zen Combat becomes a commercial entity again, here’s scans of my vintage copy of the “The Magician: Ninjutsa” [sic] article. Have at it…
Gluck’s personal connection to shinobi history is little more than family anecdote, but the fish tales actually serve to illustrate a fundamental frustration with studying the moving target that is historical shadow arts and ancient espionage.
Gluck is a bit of a hater here, but aside from dispersions on “cockeyed karate” experts I really dig his analysis of “dirty weapons” and the practical truth behind alleged artifacts that populated the cases of the new wave of ninja museums and tourists attractions.
Interesting that despite looking down his nose at ninja-mania, Gluck isn’t a debunker. He buys into the black suit, and even makes parallels with kabuki stage blackout wear, but not a direct connection based on outright doubt as many have since.
Gluck also embraces the notions of specialized walks and runs as legit techniques of ninjutsu, seen in a lot of contemporary film and TV in “that man, he runs like a ninja” scenes. Check out Festival of Swordsmen or any of the Onmitsu Kensin (aka The Samurai) seasons for this.
I absolutely LOVE the line “People may look at him, but they will not see him,” which foreshadows similar notions Joseph Stefano wrote in “The Invisibles” episode of The Outer Limits two years later:
You do not know these men. You may have looked at them, but you did not see them. They are newspapers blowing down a gutter on a windy night.
You do not know these men. You may have looked at them, but you did not see them. They are the wind that blows newspapers down a gutter on a windy night — and sweeps the gutter clean.
Stephano’s prose served as the “control voice” narration at the beginning and end of an episode centered on secret government agents battling an even more secret alien invasion conspiracy. Their heroics will never be known to man, nor will the threat they defeated ever be realized by a public secure in its ignorance of what almost just went down.
The “control voice” lines could just as well describe the value of good ninja, whose genuine exploits are (perhaps to history’s benefit?) lost in the fog of family anecdotes, fish tales spun by fraudulent martial artists cashing in on fads and mass media whipping up a big craze. Or so Jay Gluck postulated…
I’d love to see what he would have written twenty years after the publication of Zen Combat. If Gluck was dubious of all the “last ninja” schools then, what would he have thought of what went down in the 80s?
Is it just me, or did the two piece hood common to North American merchandisers completely suck?
A mainstay of retailers like Asian World of Martial Arts, the common American ninja head gear was made of a heavy duty outer hood tied over a thin spandex/lycra balaclava. The under-mask was fine on it’s own, but the outer hood was a joke. It completely killed your peripheral vision and nothing really anchored it to the under piece, so the hood sometimes stayed in place when you turned your head, making the fit even worse.
Amazingly, ads like the above didn’t even hide those facts. Take a look at the illustration, you can see the lack of vision the crappy design provided. IN A DRAWING! The artist could have fixed that, portrayed them a little more functional, but no. He or she chose to stay accurate to what I’m guessing was photo reference, and clearly none of the subjects can see a thing.
I still have one of these suits (in black) from back in the day, and played with the hood a few years back for a photo shoot. It was just as shitty as I remembered. So we made this deal in all of 30 seconds with two 16″ pieces of black cotton fabric. Kinda makes the notion of buying a prefab hood silly…
Now on the other hand, these 80′s merch hoods always intrigued me:
I never saw these hoods in person, and am still really curious as to their quality. The big superhero-like logo on the forehead notwithstanding, they seems like a decent design, more or less out of Japanese 60s cinema.
If anyone had one of these or still does, comment below or drop us a line, I’d love to know more.
Y’know what’s awesome about publishing this site? Having readers that go by monikers like “The Silent Cutter.”
Check out this video he sent of some mat cutting, but mostly be like me – JEALOUS AS FUCK – of the fantastic sectional couch weapons cache at the beginning!
This guy adds a smoke machine, some under-lighting and a synth theme song to this set-up, and he’s BIG TIME.
Kosugi's cache in REVENGE OF THE NINJA inspired us all.
For the curious, the sword he’s using is by a manufacturer called Hung Shing True Sharp, and the some of the other gear is by an excellent Detroit-based weaponsmith you can find on Facebook under Iga Tengu.
Halfway through this really funny trailer to Dark Maze Studios‘ homage to everything IFD you’ll see the equally jealousy-inspiring hollow boombox weapons cache! This makes me outright furious I didn’t think of it first, and in 1982.
Stupid punk kid, put down the ColecoVision and get to damn work…
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.
He’s been an icon of martial arts magazine covers for decades, is one of the most recognizable Asian character actors of our age and he pioneered his own signature version of the Chinese hook sword!
He’s Gerald Okamura of course – martial artist, actor, stunt man, weaponsmith and having met him briefly earlier this year, I can personally attest to him being a hell of a nice guy.
Being an Asian actor in Hollywood requires adaptability, and Okamura was as at-home in a 70s kung-fu craze role as he was in a ninja or yakuza film. He was in BOTH Big Trouble in Little China and Showdown in Little Tokyo! Think about it.
I love that he played a brutal instructor in both The Octagon at the birth of the ninja boom and again decades later during the modern renaissance in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
But for all that movie work, and there’s a lot of it, I first got to know the intimidating mug of Gerald Okamura on the covers of Inside Kung-Fu magazine. These are my personal faves:
Too bad the photographer had to die to get this shot, but it was worth it!
And here’s another piece of ninja history from Okamura-san’s career – a late 80′s Lite beer commercial wherein a who’s who of martial arts action legends backed-up comedian Joe Piscopo.
Seriously! Tadashi Yamashita actually IN his costume from American Ninja!?!?
Have a Happy Birthday Mr. Gerald Okamura, and here’s hoping to see you in a slew of films and magazines to come!
These mostly un-marked, supposedly pre-war postcards, have been showing up at some of the cheesier souvenir shops in LA’s Little Tokyo. Authentic antique or not, the imagery is great. I’m no student of kabuki theater, but I do know wizard and warrior characters when I see them, and I gotta think some of these gaudy dudes have to be giant toad summoners. Is there a Jiraiya is the house?
My favorite above – look at the huge square handguards on the curved swords. So cool!
What I love about kabuki make-up is the outright cartooning that goes on, like the exaggerated age lines in the character below.
And who’s this? Monkey King, Japanese style. Guess this monkey ‘went East’ before heading West…
Oooh! Photographic proof of ancient ninja in black night mission gear!
Likely a thief character, but certainly visual raw material for future generation’s retro-shinobi-fication. Curious about the origin of that knot-under-nose hood-style, which you see in movies and TV on bandits and cat burglars.
Man, how 80s would that satin jacket have been? And I wonder what “scribe-spike-etc.” were.
This is a pretty dumb ad – lots of vague category and price ranges on unspecified items, but with an order form attached. In the days before the internet, return forms were crucial and this ad was probably not a big success. Love this illo at the center though:
I roll my eyes as much as the rest of you when it comes to The Last Samurai, and the ninja scene is just as cheesy and unconcerned with history as the rest of the movie. However, when I had a chance to snag one of the costumes used in the film, I jumped.
I work for a performing arts company world-reknowned for its costuming, and I’ve developed a serious appreciation of movie and stage duds, and the ways they differ.
Stage costuming tends to be more rugged, as it is used for multiple performances and often subsequently rented to another company in another city. The creators have an advantage in that they are seen from afar, so materials like leather can double for steel.
Movie costuming, on the other hand, needs to hold-up only for that shoot, sometimes even a single take, but it is also subject to camera close-ups, needing to look authentic when projected in 70mm big screen glory.
This screen-used costume from Last Samurai actually embodies a lot of both construction philosophies. It’s pretty durable, and uses leather to sort of read as lacquered armor and steel in spots, if you squint.
Come to think of it, that scene is so frenetically shot and frantically edited, they could be wearing Addidas track suits and you’d hardly know the difference.
There’s a very nice mixture of textiles, no one section of the costume blends into another. The grains and weaves vary and the color hues alternate dark greys, browns and blacks so the suit looks more complex.
I passed on another suit at an auction, as I thought it crossed a line with the liberties it took – just not Japanese enough, conjured Batman Begins, Mortal Kombat and ancient China more than Japan. Here are the catalog pics:
The absolute lamest thing about these suits are the hoods. Simple head wraps made of two rectangle of cloths, with big, bulky knots in the back. Not much effort spent there.
For you non-Hollywoodians, lots like this show up on eBay all the time. Happy hunting.