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.
Made a trip out recently to a mainstay of martial retail in SoCal, Valley Martial Arts. They’ve always got something weird and exotic, with plenty of non-catalog-familiar merch. Plus you have a decent chance of running into a famous practitioner, stunt choreographer or actor shopping there.
I’ve been going to VMA for a decade, and every time I’m in there I ask them to sell me a dusty old relic stuck to the wall above the entrance – THE NINJA BOOMERANG!
But it’s no use – the display dates back to the 80′s, a time capsule from the ninja boom, and a lot of that stuff is long extinct. Can’t say I blame them for clinging to a real piece of history – I certainly would – but damn do I want that cheap piece of ninja-sploitation crap!!!
Oh Ninja Boomerang! You phantom leftover from an era when stenciling ‘ninja’ on anything and everything made it sell better. Is there another one of you out there, having survived the 80s, waiting for a new home… MY HOME?
Despite the profusion of mail order ads and supply shops, the 1980s was actually a somewhat oppressed decade when it came to martial arts collectibles. And when you look at an ad like this, it’s kind of easy to see why.
Heaven help the poor soul who actually wanted to train back then. Goods like these lumped any collector or practitioner into a public perception pool pissed in by crazed vigilantes, unhinged survivalists and blade-obsessed Travis Bickle wannabees.
I mean, who actually wanted to wear something like this, never mind conceal a dagger inside of it? Remember the Bruce Lee/ninja-fixated psycho David Patrick Kelly played in Dreamscape? HE WOULD! He was the role model for ordering these.
With questionable material like this out there drawing attention to itself, it made getting a decent sword or pair of durable nunchuks a real adventure, especially in certain states.
But I wonder if many of these even made it out of the warehouse into anyone’s mail box.
80′s mail order martial arts suppliers lived under the threat of legal shut down at any time. Some kid would poke an eye out, or some mugger would be caught with something mis-identified as a ‘deadly ninja sword,’ and lawmakers looking for cheap press would raise all sorts of alarms, promising to rid the streets of assassin tchotchkes.
For the most part, it was a lot of hot air. However the occasional swap-meet sting or raid on a Chinatown curio shop would result in products disappearing from ads, or states being added to the “cannot ship-to” list in the fine print of the catalogs.
What’s really weird is a lot of the goods back then were aluminum alloys, unsharpened chrome-plated tin and other decoration-grade materials. A decade later, it seems much of the paranoia disappeared (or some loophole in importation laws was found), and every flea market was suddenly infested with razor sharp real steel swords from China.
The new grades of cheap sword you find in plague-like quantity on eBay now are a heinous combination of sharp blades and cheap handles, and more dangerous than anything ever sold by mail order back in the 80s.
Well, more than anything save the sculpted ninja buckle stabber…