Wow… the fifth anniversary of this site.
You’ll notice some minor cosmetic and navigation updates for the first time in forever. I suppose some sort of profound editorial is in order, but I’d rather just thank everyone who’s plugged this site and contributed, with much appreciation to the folks on tumblr who actually credit where they found their images. More than anything though, I’d like to welcome you new readers.
I’m not a web guy by any stretch, so this site is built on a simple WordPress blog engine, which makes finding past material a bit tedious (although who doesn’t love endlessly scrolling through years and years of great ninja stuff?), so I’ll center this anniversary article on some of the best pieces we’ve published in the past that you definitely shouldn’t miss. Yes, there’s plenty of great pieces from the last five years – some more wordy than the below, some with more pics, some more profound… but these encapsulate the spirit of the site perfectly I think.
So here’s A HALF-DECADE OF ESSENTIAL VINTAGE NINJA ARTICLES:
1.) THE WEEK-LONG VISUAL BREAKDOWN OF SAMURAI SPY
VN started during an explosion of DVDr trading in fan-subbed Japanese films, granting us access for the first time to decades of old ninja movies that never made it to our shores during the 80s craze. Much of the early tone of this site was Holy crap, we can finally see Mission: Iron Castle! As disc trading has largely become insiders sharing files within invite-only groups, or just YouTube link sharing on social media, a lot of that magic of discovery seems to be waning. That being said, I’ll probably never stop reviewing films via stills, old-school.
The absolute best job VN did of covering a movie this way was a multi-part series on Samurai Spy – a film that’s probably the pinnacle of artistic craft in the genre. Start at the prelude to the four-part series.
2.) CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK AND BEYOND…
It’s my favorite ninja movie ever, it has a digital-era remake to compare the classic original to, and over the years we’ve scored multiple lots of antique press photos from this Ryutaro Otomo vehicle. There might not be a better visually and editorially represented film on this site. Start at the 2009 series CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK, and continue with a great photo follow-up here.
3.) THE ‘NINJA-TO’ ARTICLES AND DEBATES
Three years back, Tim and I were looking at some newly offered high end “ninja swords” coming out of the superior boutique-style brands, which were consistent with trends we had seen in the wall-hanger crap sold in Chinatown smoke shops — the blades were now as long as any traditional samurai sword, the handles just as short, and the guards were still square but had shrunk down from the oversized ones made famous by Kosugi and ilk. Basically, there was now a definite version or style of the ninja-to for the 2000s.
These musings turned to actual digging — looking for the origin of the 80′s style ninja-to in mail order ads, and pouring through 60s Japanese films looking for the precursors. It all raised as many questions as answers, but we put together a pretty good look at the fabled weapon as historical artifact, movie prop and merchandise staple.
Here’s a quick-link to the entire series, and the user feedback is a good read, too.
4.) THE CREDITS THAT LAUNCHED A CRAZE
As much as we love discovering older Japanese fare, this site is run by acolytes of the 80s American ninja craze. I’ve often credited the opening titles to Enter the Ninja as the actual birth moment of the 80s boom — five minutes of pure exotic weapons porn courtesy of Sho Kosugi. I spent a couple hours screen capping and collaging a stills-representation of that greatness, and it went pretty viral. Follow this up with more EtN love: a review of the movie, some foreign lobby cards, and other publicity stills.
5.) THE HOLY GRAIL OF NINJA STATUES
Most of the toys and statues you see on here are actually in the collection of myself or a select few other contributors. Being a decades-long ninja collector, there are treasures I have and others I never realistically hoped to possess. The Franklin Mint “Shadow Warrior” statue was one of these grails, a rare high-end collectible that completely embraced the look and feel of the exploitive Canon films of the era. These were too expensive for most of us when released, have increased in value since, and are fragile as hell to boot, so they aren’t getting any more plentiful to say the least. I had pretty much given up on ever having one, until scoring one in 2010 that was passed over by other buyers due to some damage (what I dubbed a ‘Yakuza wound’). I love how 80s this thing is (even if it was produced in 1990). Check out some other craze-era porcelain here and here, too.
6.) THE EARLIEST NINJUTSU HATER?
Jay Gluck may just have been the first Westerner to write about ninjutsu, with a chapter on the emergence of modern shinobi schools in Japan in his 1962 book Zen Combat. It predates the first articles by Arthur Adams in Black Belt, and the publication of You Only Live Twice. It isn’t a cover feature during the boom, isn’t a lead piece designed to sell copies of anything, so it has a raw honesty. Maybe too raw — Gluck didn’t debunk ninja history, but he surely had no use for the 60s Japanese ninja boom nor any of the modern practitioners of what he called “dirty weapon” martial arts. This is an essential read and a little-known chapter of ninjutsu’s exposure in the West.
7.) KANA — THE 4-COLOR FOREFATHER OF SNAKE-EYES AND STORM SHADOW
As much as we love Shirato Sanpei’s work and other legendary ninja manga, there are plenty of sites out there covering them already. VN is probably the only spot anywhere featuring indepth looks at long-forgotten pioneering works like GI Combat‘s KANA back-up stories. These nearly pre-craze stories got the drop on GI Joe‘s ninja characters by years, but have fallen into relative obscurity.
8.) HOLOGRAM STICKER-PALOOZA
It’s no secret, I love cheap ninja crap from the 80s! Battery operated toys, plastic swords, vending machine prizes, lousy generic figures, and yes… these once ubiquitous, now super rare holographic stickers. With art crudely sketched from martial arts magazine mail order ads or stolen from video covers, few things are more of the time than these capsule machine decals. As soon as I posted these, they became kinda hot on eBay and are now nigh-impossible to score cheap. Sorry guys…
9.) INTRODUCING SHINTARO AND TONBEI TO NON-AUSTRALIANS
One truly baffling and infuriating thing we were denied in the 80s up here was The Samurai (orig. Onmitsu Kenshin), a fully English-dubbed 10-season ninja-infused Japanese TV show that was literally bigger than The Beatles in Australia in the 1960s. Why was this broadcast or VHS-ready product not imported? WHY?!?!? Luckily, Siren Video in Oz made it available on DVD in the mid 2000s, and I had friends in the right places, so we ended up being THE portal for this major yet obscure chapter of ninja media history for those outside the land down under.
So what’s in store for the future?
Well, sadly, my time is going to be less free than ever but I’m committed to at least two posts per month. I’d love to write and design some sort of book that reflects this site, and may just do something on my own in the next year or so unless another publisher wants to step up. I’d also really like to get some interviews while the men and women who made the 80s craze are still around and available. And I’m certainly not about to stop buying cheap 80s merch and snapping up rare movies from overseas.
Thanks for being here with us everyone, we’ll try to continue delivering for another five years…
Keith J. Rainville — June, 2014
Couple years ago now, one of my sources for the hand-colored press stills from Thailand that have so contributed to the identity of this site contacted me with some new offerings. A lot of it was stuff I already had or didn’t want, but there were some gems, so I agreed to take them (regardless of the increasingly inflated prices asked). A few days later, however, I hadn’t heard back, so I nudged and got a weird response.
To paraphrase, ‘That was you who bought them, right?’
Turns out the rocket scientist seller threw them up on eBay, and assumed I knew and was the one who nabbed them with a Buy-It-Now.
The really frustrating thing, they went for less than I agreed to give them directly. Honestly!!!
Well, years later, I guess the bitterness has subsided enough that I can make eye contact once again with the images they had emailed me in a cruel lure. Grrrrrrrrr…. getting angry again just writing this post…
Well, before I turn green and start smashing, here’s a pile of posed publicity stills from flicks like Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai (aka Toruwakamaru, the Koga Ninja), one of the Rytaro Otomo Kurozukin flicks, Akai Kageboshi (aka The Red Shadow), and some others I forget…
Yep… any and all of these would look pretty damned nifty on my wall.
Congrats to the lucky buyer though, you’ve got some treasures. Oh, and if hard times ever hit, I’m always in the market!
Tags: AKAI KAGEBOSHI, kurozukin, Thai press kits, Toruwakamaru
A neat little menko card, likely from the 60s, featuring characters from Onmitsu Kenshin, the ground-breaking TV series beloved in Australia as The Samurai.
It’s pretty rare to see a color image from this seminal B&W series, and what few exist are mostly colorized monochrome shots like this. Too bad the halftone screens and registrations on photo menkos are always so wretched.
Tags: menko, Shintaro, The Samurai
Maker unknown. Sellers, long forgotten. Year — probably sometime in the 1980s.
Logic… a mystery.
Another fantastic, crap-tastic, relic from the days of blanket vendors outside subway stops, swapmeet junk toy booth and Chinatown gift shops.
This head is actually somewhat familiar, I’ve seen it at various sizes for key rings, clip-on figurines, puppets, etc.
There’s an excellent tradition of putting rather inappropriate properties on silly wind-up tricycles, from vintage superheroes to modern day collectible companies doing it for the sheer irony. So why not a black clad martial assassinon a bright orange bell-laden kid’s bike?
Tags: Generic toys
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!
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
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!
2.) Scraper Blades
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.
3.) Triangular chisels and carving tools
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
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
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!!!
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.
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…
We’re phasing out the old “Sword Girls” category and have migrated the posts over to other more appropriate Categories – mostly FIlm and TV. Nothing’s been deleted, just moved to better homes.
Click back soon for a whole new Category here…
You find some real gems in the dollar boxes and discount bins of comic book stores sometimes. This was a recent find, the early 80s chambara graphic novel series Kogaratsu by the Belgian creative team of Serge ‘Bosse’ Bosmans and Marc ‘Michetz’ Degroide. A company called Comcat Comics translated this ninja-riddled tale in the early 90s, well after the craze, which may account for its premature cancellation in the US and UK.
The artwork and storytelling certainly weren’t lacking, and while the English-language Volume 1 isn’t as ninja-heavy as its cover promises, what is there is superbly executed.
These guys definitely did their homework, as the costuming, gear and curved swords are right out of Japanese books and films.
This tale of a ronin’s love gone wrong was originally serialized in a magazine called Spirou.
13 collections followed, looking to be of the typically superior European print and binding quality.
I may search these out, as the art is pretty damned great. There are quite a few scanlations online if you poke around, too.
Artist Michetz also did various art plates, posters, prints, portfolios, etc., many featuring erotic swordswomen. These are all over eBay, but pricey alas.
As is this fantastic ninja print! This could be worth the exchange rate and international shipping though…
Originally published February, 2010
Have owned this “sugoroku” illustrated game board for years but am finally discovering the actual nature of it.
Click the image for a huge-ass scan of this.
Essentially a Japanese version of Chutes and Ladders, these thin paper game boards have been produced for centuries in one form or another (read here about an older version of the game based on backgammon and made illegal twice in Japanese history).
I’ve seen several based on chambara, tokusatsu and boys adventure anime, but this one is a melting pot of various ninja properties – or is at least meant to EVOKE those properties. Yeah, I’m thinking characters owned by multiple studios or TV networks appearing on one product means unlicensed…
Man, some of this art is just precious. Without being able to read the captions, I’m seeing illos that are certainly meant to be Masked Ninja Akakage and Kagemaru of Iga there, and a villain that could be a skull shocker from Lion Maru or a shinobi-fied Golden Bat.
Tags: Sugoroku games
Originally published August, 2011
This line of rather poorly sculpted and often more poorly painted porcelain statues was EVERYWHERE during the 80s craze – Chinatown video shops, flea market vendors, martial arts supply stores, the Smithsonian’s souvenir stand, ball park peanut vendors, the Automat right above the jello fruit cocktails, etc…
Generally 5-7″ in total height, they were hollow, painted with a gristly matte-finish paint that attracted dust like a magnet, and,rather fragile. It’s amazing any of them survived the period. I’ve been able to put together a collection of half a dozen in the past five years but it hasn’t been easy.
This is the most baffling of them – the ninja stabbing himself in the head like a Suicide King in a deck of cards. WTF?!?!
He’s even leaning forward like a drunkard, enough that he doesn’t stand without tipping. So strange…
The iconic KOSUGI KICK is well represented in this line as well.
Any of the poses that had negative spaces (bridges), especially sword blades, are especially hard to find intact. This one survived the 80s, 90s and half the 2000s before I won it on eBay. And when I got it in the mail the sword blade was in three pieces. Luckily, super glue takes to porcelain nicely.
I’ve seen two more designs online. I guess that’s a blowgun on the left, although where the hell is he aiming? And the bowman on the right has to be the hardest to find unbroken.
And here’s a crudely recasted variant from Europe, made of heavy solid resin on a wood base, painted even worse than the porcelain originals. Weird…
Originally published January, 2010.
In the 80′s, Sho Kosugi posed for over 73 billion photos in full night gear, laden with weapons, in magazines like Black Belt, Ninja, even Karate Illustrated and Inside Kung Fu. Yet when it comes to movie and video game ad campaigns, you often see painted and illustrated images of him instead – many leaving a lot to be desired. Sometimes it was agencies not wanting to pay royalties to photographers. Other times it was unscrupulous art departments not having any legal right to use a Kosugi image whatsoever, but wanting the box office rub. Either way, some very interesting artistic mutations occurred…
It started in 1981 of course, with Enter the Ninja. Golan-Globus scooped the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s mega hit novel The Ninja with this exploitation gem (the American genre never recovered), for which Kosugi did some publicity photo posing. An air brushed version of what we’ll call THE KOSUGI KICK appeared on some of the posters (and VHS packaging), and soon after a retail poster we all had on our wall. The Kosugi Kick was henceforth knocked-off 15.3 trillion times, and you still see it today once in a while. The pose is one of THE lingering icons of the 80′s craze, perhaps the definitive image of the era.
The follow-up to Enter, and the movie that cemented “the ninja craze” as the big thing in martial arts (and martial arts cinema) for the decade, Revenge of the Ninja, had a pretty dynamite painted poster itself. What’s easy to forget about the superb Revenge is that in it, Kosugi made history – an Asian actor being the single male lead, and in only his second film in the U.S. In reality, Bruce Lee never did that, being co-top-billed with John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (although after his death, amidst the kung-fu boom, the campaigns changed to feature him much more).
Ironically the painted art has little-to-no resemblance to Kosugi, but damn what composition! Back in the day, though, we were tortured by the the ‘inauthentic’ details like the Western military knife tucked into his tunic, and the Chinese ‘kung-fu shoes’ in place of tabi. The fact that this supposed invisible assassin in concealing night gear has a red belt, chrome-finish weapons strapped all over him, and a huge family crest akin to a superhero’s chest emblem telling the world who he is didn’t bother us at all though… Such was the logic of 80′s ninja fans.
The fact that the American key art wasn’t Kosugi outright may have led to some of the mysterious variants overseas, like the below Franch-language market poster. Perhaps they really wanted to feature the star?
The above painting is based on the companion retail poster to the famous Kosugi Kick piece, seen below left. Why they didn’t use the original photo is anyone’s guess – couldn’t find the source, couldn’t meet on a price, didn;t even try… Next to that is detail from the illustrated sleeve for the priced-to-sell VHS re-issue of Revenge, late 80′s-early 90′s. Even though there was a photo-based poster in the 80′s, used often in Europe, that same art didn’t make it to Spanish markets, evidenced by the painted version far right. All in all, there are remarkably few images used to promote this movie, but the versions of those few images are myriad.
Pray For Death was, for many, the last ‘good’ Kosugi entry in the craze era – a genuine piece of ninja-sploitation, surrounded by legends of ‘uncut’ gorier versions screened in dark corners of Europe and everything. While many thought Kosugi’s weapons and armor were downright silly, but it seems many (especially foreign ad men) thought it was pretty righteous:
No, Kosugi was NOT in Shaolin Fighters vs. Ninja (or Ninja Against Shaolin, or Ninja vs. Shaolin Guards, or Shaolin Fights Ninja, or any of the dozens of other versions and re-titles of the concept that were out there), but you sure wouldn’t know it from the poster above. More painted art was done for the taxing 9 Deaths of the Ninja, and again the foreign markets were on their own page with the key art. I guess when your movie looks like this…
…you’re tempted to hide it behind more craze-palatable images of hooded ninja, even if it means evoking the competition – Michael Dudikoff!
Strange to think of foreign ad artists toiling over these painted Sho Kosugi images, when in some neglected drawer at the offices of Inside Kung Fu, hundreds of amazing photos were sitting there, untapped. Exploitation films, however, have promotional resources akin to their low budgets. Campaigns turn around fast. There are language barriers between markets. Logistical and financial hurdles everywhere. So it ends up easier just to wing it and barf out some weird illo.
Chances are, the same box office take would have been made either way.
Sho Kosugi: The Ninja fansite, with tons of galleries, including mag covers and movie posters.
S.K. Productions – Kosugi’s official website.
Really fun write up and video of 9 Deaths of the Ninja.
If you think these paintings are a bit off, check out the stuff from Ghana!
Tags: 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA, Enter the Ninja, Kosugi Kick, Pray for Death, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, Sho Kosugi, VHS art, vintage magazines