Crafted in Hollywood, shot in Japan

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 BeginsMortal 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.


Ninja Boomerang – so close but yet so far…

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?


I wouldn’t keep a knife that close to my junk…

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…

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:


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…

So in conclusion…

Look at that poor, little, unassuming sword down there. Why is that cute little fella the center of such controversy? Why do so many try to use the straight blade as a fulcrum to separate the ‘men from the boys’ in the bi-partisan ninjutsu communities? Why is associating it with the silver screen an automatic indictment of the entire ninja movie genre?

I’ve spent two months of research and writing to hone a lifetime of opinions I had toward the sword, tried to look at all sides, all angles, and having come out the other side of five articles, have any of those opinions changed?

What I believed before:

1.) The notion of a single, signature “ninja sword” is nonsense, and broad sweeping statements to the absolute fact that all ninja used these is is both ignorant and irresponsible.

2.) If the thing really was the official sword of the ninja, why didn’t it ever appear in Japanese media?

3.) The regulation ‘Ninja-To’ is largely a construct of American movies and mail order merch houses.

What I believe now:

1.) Stronger than ever – you cannot attribute a single blade style to an entire population of military specialists and martial artists with activity spanning hundreds of years. But isn’t it equally unfair to claim the blade never existed at all?

2.) I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for life now, but I still cannot find an example of the stereotypical sword in any ninja media pre-dating the 1982 American film Revenge of the Ninja. I really wanted to find one, too…

3.) No, the sword wasn’t invented by mail order companies or any movie prop master in the early 80s, BUT one can certainly see how American ninja media and magazine ads fiercely perpetuated the notion of the exclusive blade here more than anywhere else.

And some additional enlightenments:

— The practitioners who embrace this blade are under constant criticism by those who don’t. I was mildly aware of the politics in the Ninjutsu community, but never realized what a symbol the sword is and the weight it carries in the endless debates of legitimacy of schools and styles.

— There is a chicken-and-egg relationship between merchandisers, movie makers and martial artists as to who introduced the sword to the rest of the world and who is at fault for making it the stereotype it is.

— Centuries of feudal activity in such a heavily militarized country is bound to produce an instance of a straight, square guarded sword used by somebody somewhere. The blade on display in museums and sold mail order as early as 1973 likely existed in history, but I’m waiting to see some hard proof of a connection to shinobi. It is unlikely any such evidence would point to an exclusivity of the signature sword type, regardless.

And something else I noticed, specifically in my own school of thought. I have a bit of an elitist attitude toward the ‘Nija-To’ myself. I see it as a symbol, too – for lack of research, lack of depth in someone’s film literacy, lack of ability to look outside the stereotypes. It also dates a ninja fan. If that sword is an icon for you, you’re a child of the 80s. It is not the blade of the Naruto kids, and while I don’t have much use for that property, I do appreciate the dent it has made in the formerly narrow and strict visual shorthand of ninja here.

In closing, I wanted to thank everyone again for responses, comments, corrections and leads to other research. These articles weren’t about proving a point or convincing anyone to one side or another. They were about eroding the notion of absolute definitions regardless of what one believes.

The more information we can all share on the subject, the better off we all are.

Keith J. Rainville

March 2011

The ones that lasted, the ones we’ve made, and the one that got away

At the apex of the 80’s ninja boom, I was in my early teens, had disposable income from odd jobs and a dad willing to put his name as an adult on a mail-in order to a martial arts supply company. Despite these blessings, and being a big mark for any and all ninja merch, I never owned the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To.’

I had just enough knowledge of Japanese film and TV to have gained an affinity for the curved shorter blades with square guards, plus a real contempt for stuff like Asian World of Martial Arts‘ camouflage ninja sword. As the craze movies got cheesier I increasingly associated the regulation blade with everything wrong and frustrating about the genre.

The craze waned concurrent with graduation and college, so stuff went into storage. In the mid 2000s I cracked open some of those long-stored and half-forgotten archives and was pleasantly surprised at what had survived.

This is my original “Ninja Bokken” from Dolan’s Sports. This thing was bashed against trees, other wooden swords, Tim’s head, and my brother’s head (he had a more typical straight version that broke, HA!).

It was taped-up white one winter, the blade was once painted silver to stand in for a real sword in some abandoned home movie plan, then it was stored away with a golf club tube as a sheath in a garbage bag that magically preserved it from the elements and a termite-infested basement. Amazingly it’s right as rain today, and I treasure this thing above any other piece I have.

Another treasure didn’t fare as well in storage, but then it wasn’t that pretty to start with… a T.J. Craig ‘Real’ Ninja Sword. Tim and I sent a summer’s worth of saved and scrounged nickels and dimes to some obscure address in Canada for these after seeing the no-frills ad in Ninja or Black Belt.

The sheath can break a brick! How could we not want that??? We had such romantic notions of this dealer – the low-brow ad with weird items next to all the other slick, photo-laden spreads with the same old crap month after month. To us, it wasn’t dodgy. It wasn’t cheap. It was code. This was the real stuff, hidden behind a primitive ad others with less insight would brush off. But we had a hunch we were on to something. This ad played a silent flute only we could hear!

So off went $150 or so, Canadian. And we waited. And waited. And waited. Months later we got the local postmaster involved, and a few weeks after that, a rag-tag bundle showed up at my door.

Elation turned to mild heartbreak. The execution of the swords was about as good as the ad.

These truly were the storied ‘crudely ground slab of rough steel’ forged by impoverished ninja of legend. The chisel tips were useless. The sheaths were hastily folded and crimped steel, and scraped the blades loudly with every draw – hardly the stealth weapon. The handles were barely-finished wood with acute square edges, splinters abounding.

Nothing had been misrepresented, but no triumphant ‘See, we knew it! Told ya so world!’ was going down either.

So we sandpapered and filed and taped and did what we could to make them workable, then off to the woods. At the first whack of a thin green sapling, the blades bent. BENT! Less cutting power than a flea market machete…

We hated these things, and ourselves, and wondered if our money would have been better spent on the “Ninja Hand Cannon” or “Assassin Cloaks” but what was done was done.

Every few years, we’d independently break these out and do some more cosmetic work. Tim ground the handles down to round. He got his blade pretty damn sharp if memory serves. I learned the hard way that hockey stick tape has surprisingly little shock-absorbing properties, so I added some cord-wrapping to mine. Gave it a rustic feel, as did wrapping the sheath in 50 feet of black rope.

Times cures wounded pride and squandered funds, and with my current perspective, I look at this survivor (albeit a bit rusty, but nothing steel wool won’t take care of) with warm nostalgia.

Here’s a newer piece:

I’m no swordsmith or craftsman of any skill, but I dabble and experiment once in a while. This is a prop I made in 2004 for a photo shoot for the old Ninja80 site, deliberately fashioned to look like a 60s Japanese movie sword. Started out with a knock-off “practical full-tang” wakizashi from either BudK or a shop in Chinatown, elongated the handle, slapped some leftover cord and leather remnants on there one night, and got what stage prop guys call “good from afar, far from good” results. Looked OK – and definitley not off-the-rack –  in the pics though, and that’s what counted.

Custom ordered these last year from an eBay sword shop out of Hong Kong that is either defunct or changed their name. (There’s a few other sellers with the same goods now.) Nice thing was they let me get katana handles on wakizashi blades, and had a variety of wrappings and fixtures. I love the brown twine handle, and while I dislike ornate gold stuff, they had a set-up that was toad themed, 50s ninja wizard style!

So with this array of non-stereotypical “ninja swords” in hand, do I regret a hole in the collection?

Frankly, there is one that got away, and considering my passed biases and the tone of these articles lately, there’s irony here. But if I could go back and grab one of these back in the day, I would:

This is the OFFICIAL “S-K Ninja Sword” sold by Sho Kosugi Ninja Enterprises, Inc. There’s a real chicken-and-egg relationship between his fealty to this style blade on screen and the sale of a merchandised version off.

These gimmicked blades, possibly in a variety of metals and finishes, were sold out of  a mail order house and official fan club newsletter in San Gabriel, California.

Yeah, if I was going to own a regulation “Ninja-To” – I’d want it to be the one that actually IS the stereotype, the sword of  Kosugi, the sword of Lucinda Dickey, of Lee Van Cleef…

Maybe the only thing I’d want more than this is the TOY version!

Next time, we wrap all this sword talk up with one final thought –  has the research (and responses) lead to more questions than answers?

‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in American vs. Japanese films

One thing you hear over and over from the anti-‘Ninja-To’-sword-haters-club is the blade is “pure Hollywood.” Before this recent spat of research and over-scrutinizing swords in old movies, I used to argue against that notion; the Japanese studios got ninja ‘wrong’ decades before we did, right? And the blade was sold mail order well before our ninja boom, so Hollywood sure didn’t invent the sword. It wasn’t even used in The Octagon (1980) or Enter the Ninja (1981).

BUT, what can be said is “pure Hollywood” is the narrow strictness of the visual shorthand for ninja. From 1982’s Revenge of the Ninja onward, the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ was absolutely chiseled into the vocabulary of ninja in American film and TV. The sword was so well branded here, Kosugi or Dudikoff using a curved blade would have been seen as a blasphemous prop master’s error.

The Japanese were, as with manga, much less narrow in their use of screen props, however their use of a sword for a shinobi character carried additional editorial significance. Whereas American films were typically ninja vs. mobsters, drug lords, night shift security guards and sometimes other ninja, Japanese movies typically featured ninja vs. samurai.

Samurai use long, ornate blades that make statements of their social rank and wealth. A ninja’s cruder, less decorated blade is an indication of lower social rank. It says his sword is not his soul, but a tool to get a job done. At the same time, the shorter blade when used against full-length katana in the hands of an armored warrior says volumes about the ninja’s skill and courage.

So let’s take a look at some different swords in the hands of shinobi. We’ll start with the most historically credible ninja films ever made – the Shinobi-no-mono series.

But hey! Is that a straight blade???

I’ve had a few people refer me to this photo in opposition to statements I’ve made about the lack of short, straight blades in Japanese ninja films. And yeah, that is Raizo Ichikawa holding an apparently straight blade made by a studio prop master under the guidance of tech advisors like Takamatsu Toshitsugu and Masaaki Hatsumi.

But look again:

Hmmm. Why was the poster image altered to reflect a more traditional sword? Or was the publicity photo above retouched? And was it altered by Daiei back in the 60s or by Animeigo for their recent DVD packaging?

[UPDATE: Or as VN reader Kent Wood points out, is the above image just a scan from a book that is bending at the spine, thus distorting the page? I think he’s right! I think I’m missing the forest for the trees…]

Point I’m making here is even with the Bujinkan tech advisors on board, the blades are inconsistent between the Shinobi-no-Mono films, and they sometimes change from shot to shot. So don’t go putting too much importance behind any single still.

Above, two publicity shots with two different props. Rather than an editorial statement, this is more likely just the difference between what is called a “hero prop” – in this case a character’s signature sword, which they only might have produced a few copies of – and a more disposable prop used as a ‘stunt double’ if you will, for quick-cut fight scenes where the piece is more likely to be damaged.

Raizo’s “hero props” changed from film to film as well – note the different tsuba below. Sheath length also varied, but the blade was always short (signature Hatsumi!).

And not all Daiei ninja used such swords. Battle scenes involving multiple extras and stuntmen as Iga clansmen revert to plain katana and wakizashi. Budget saving measure, or where they embracing the notion that blades would differ from man to man, mission to mission?

Now, I’ll pose a question to everyone who’s seen these films.

I think there’s actually an ever so slight CURVE to this blade. What do you all think?

Hard to tell. I’d kill to see this prop, if it still exists. If there is a curve, it is so minor, changing perspective straightens it right out.

And here’s another question – why the hell hasn’t someone replicated this awesome baby and sold me ten of them? WHY?!?!?

Meanwhile on the small screen, Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia) was absolutely bursting with ninja during its 60s-long run. Prop swords varied from season to season, with a limited TV budgets always the deciding factor in style.

Note Tonbei the Mist‘s wakizashi with oversized round tsuba, in comparison to the standard swords of the hero Shintaro. The good Iga ninja always used these, while the evil ninja clan-of-the-season would have various plain swords. There was, however, a recurring sword used for the several seasons’ boss villains – an absolutely monstrous ‘horse cutter’ (I think?) with a handle as long as its blade. I love this freaky thing!

The 60s weren’t all gritty, B&W, espionage-based, hard ninjutsu, though. There were as many swashbuckling adventurers and colorful plucky heroes as tormented shadow dwellers. Plenty of heroes who were of otherwise samurai status as well, so they used their same trusty blades when on night missions.

Ninja with samurai swords or samurai in ninja garb? Counter-clockwise from top NINJA HICHO FUKURO NO SHIRO (Castle of Owls), AKAI KEGEBOSHI (The Red Shadow), KAZE NO BUSHI (Warrior of the Wind)

However, the 70’s was a decade where ninja on the big screen were less likely to be the hero, and more likely to be fodder butchered by a surly sword-swinging ronin. The financial and scheduling realities of movie and TV production usually trumped any desired fealty to martial tradition or obscure history, so these disposable ninja carried off-the-rack, bulk produced props that didn’t require exclusive tooling or smithing. There were a lot of wakizashi blades with katana handles, and shorter curved swords with square guards, like this:

That’s one of dozens of ninja mowed down in the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and the above style sword was standard issue in 70s and 80s films.

Here’s a better look at what Japanese filmmakers considered the ‘Ninja-To’ pretty much at the same time as we were buying the straight versions made famous by Hayes and Kosugi:

Shogun’s Ninja (Ninja Bugeicho: Momochi Sandayu – 1981) features two competing forces of ninja, both using the same medium length curved blades with plain handles and square guards.

*As a side note, is there a film with a wider pendulum swing of great costuming (above) and laughable bullshit (below)? These hunter cammo suits give me douche chills.*

The same year, Enter the Ninja began Sho Kosugi‘s assault on America. Mike Stone‘s weaponry was custom, not mail order, and the swords were closer to the Japanese studio model.

But in 1983, the smoking chest was opened, and there it was!

From Revenge of the Ninja on, Kosugi was in charge of choreography and props, and never strayed from the short, straight blade with long handle and square guard – used by ALL ninja – heroes, villains, rival clans, students, masters… everyone.

He even made his own in Pray for Death (1985), a scene that drove Tim and I nuts because the sword he supposedly forged real quick during his power-up montage ends up a fully decorated blade with ornate hammon line, right out of the prop bin.

*And that dumb-ass helmet ranks with the cammo gear above!*

When the Cannon Films ninja mantle was passed to Michael Dudikoff, so too was the now requisite ‘Ninja-To,’ seen throughout the five American Ninja films that closed out the 80s craze.

And at the same time in Japan? Masaaki Hatsumi was a big part of the kids’ show World Ninja War Jiraiya (Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya – 1988), which featured a variety of outre ninja-based characters with just as wide a variety of swords.

Curved swords…

Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.

‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in manga

Depending on what school of thought you believe, the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is either pure myth propagated by popular media or martial tradition traced back centuries in Japan. Well, if EITHER of those is true, then you’d think the short, straight bladed sword with square guard would show up in manga once in a while. But it doesn’t.

Depictions of ninja swords in manga are a mixed bag over the decades, but a lot of what you see are short, curved blades of the less-decorated variety, worn as often through the belt as they are on the back.

This might be little more than artistic preference. I think illustrators like Mitsuteru Yokoyama (above) and Shirato Sanpei liked drawing the curved blade, as it adds a sense of dynamic movement not necessarily there with a swinging straight blade.

It’s also important to keep in mind manga artists work on insane deadlines, so consistency of blade style can vary from panel to panel. One can find an isolated drawing or two with what looks like a straight sword, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a deliberate statement of sword preference.

Here’s a few samples of the manga ninja sword (or lack thereof):

WAIT! Osamu Tezuka‘s I Am Sarutobi (circa 1960) has a short, shealth-less, apparently straight blade! It also has a lead character with stubs for feet and eyes the size of grapefruits, so you can’t exactly lean on the exacting design here…

Kagemaru of Iga‘s curved blade (starting in 1961) seemed to change length depending on the panel layout and dramatic effect intended. This was one of the most influential properties of the 60s Japanese craze, but Yokoyama never made that strong a statement about sword style. The 1963 film adaptation used a standard katana.

Sanpei, however, was much more of a realist, especially later in his career. However both the mid 60s and early 80s incarnations of Kamui saw the character use nothing more exotic than a dressed-down wakizashi, although it was slung in the small of the back in a signature style. These panels are from the 80s Eclipse reprints, and may be partly indicative of why this superb, heady series never fully connected with mainstream ninja fans in the America. No black suit for the hero, no regulation ‘Ninja-To,’ so less visual shorthand to attract otherwise Kosugi-crazed shinobifiles.

Takao Saito‘s hit ninja properties also featured short, curved blades for their ninja. The 1969 shinobi massacre known as Kage Gari (The Shadow Hunters) is again all short curved swords, sometimes with square guards and worn on the back, but there is variety in there as well. Again, you also see some quickly rendered blades that’ll look straight at first glance.

Zanpei Kumotori (1976-78) dispensed with the sword entirely, in favor of a long tanto cribbed in the small of his back. LOVE that minimalist statement, reminiscent of Sasuke’s commando kit in Samurai Spy.

Goseki Kojima stuck to curved blades as well in the 1970 Lone Wolf and Cub series. These panels are a perfect example of perspective and speed of delivery making a curved sword look like straight for a second. This is why I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the “evidence” of old book illustrations pointing to the existence of the straight sword.

And here’s a similar look three decades later, a Kunoichi’s blade from the same team’s Path of the Assassin (Hanzo no Mon).

Now, I don’t have the most complete library of vintage ninja manga in north America or anything, but what I do have samples most of the significant series and stages of development, and the only thing I have that actually embraces the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is this 1993 series called Mujina by Aihara Koji. In an example of the snake biting its own tail, his ninja use the western craze-era notion of the regulation ninja sword, complete with catalog stock picture for reference. Eeewww…and it’s the long bladed, small guarded variety, too. This book is trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy, and the catalog ninja sword may be part of that misguided effort.

So, it wasn’t Japanese comics that cemented the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ into the our mindset, NOR did manga artists for the past half-century embrace the alleged martial arts history that should have been apparent in their own country.

FILM though… as we’ll see next post… is a lot more partisan an art form.