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
Originally published June 2009
With the movie [now in wide release], I’m re-reading and re-loving Shirato Sanpei‘s second run of Kamui manga. The godfather of ninja comics debuted the character in 1964, then re-imagined the property as a more grown up and severe manga in the 80′s. Kamui Gaiden was a critical and financial hit, crossed-over into anime, and inspired [the live action film.] Eclipse Comics made history when they published a 37 issue run in the U.S. as The Legend of Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Story – the first such importation of a Japanese title to our shores.
Here are some terrific combat panels from that run. Sanpei really had a knack for movement, and loved these leaping and tumbling attacks. Despite the amount of dynamic action, you can still ‘read’ what is happening, clearly see the techniques at work and how the killing blows are delivered. Aspiring artists have plenty to learn here:
The grocery list of things I love about this series is long indeed. Kamui is the archetypal skilled loner on the run, trying to leave behind his warrior life but needing those resented skills to survive constant pursuit. It’s a great structure, and over it Sanpei laid some emotionally challenging stories. You could never get too attached to a character, never too comfortable with a setting.
I also love characters with limited arsenals used in increasingly innovative ways. Kamui’s signature short sword and reverse grip technique dispatched 90% of his enemies. A few kunai or shuriken here or there, sometimes a grapple line, were pretty much it.
Eclipse released 37 issues total, starting in 1987. It was late in the ninja craze here, and rarely did the signature black suit appear on covers, so the title may have failed to find the audience it deserved. These gems can be found cheap on eBay, even in complete runs.
The first translated story arc, an incredible parable of struggling fishermen and the inescapability of one’s destined trade, was later collected into two trade paperbacks by VIZ, with reduced art. I prefer the original [stand-alone issues], which often had liner notes on the historical subject matter or the artist’s craft.
Tags: kamui, Shirato Sanpei
There was a time I swore I’d never go longer than a week without a post, then it became 10 days, then two weeks, and suddenly without me noticing there’s been nothing new here for more than a month. That damn calendar crept up on me like a… like a what… like a ninja!
So where have I been? It’s way off-topic, but I’ll share anyway. The Outer Limits, that’s where!
For the past year, it’s been my pleasure (and a HUGE labor of love) to design, photo-edit and mechanically execute this retro-TV entertainment book for Creature Features publishing in Burbank, CA.
March saw not only The Outer Limits at 50‘s triumphant release, but also a big marketing push, gallery event and three big signings. It’s devoured my free time, which ‘real life’ wasn’t leaving much of to start with.
What little time I had for Vintage Ninja was actually filled up with solving a technical problem that exposed potential for a catastrophic security risk. All’s well now, but man for a minute I thought we were going to lose all sorts of content here.
So triumphs and tribulations behind me now, I look forward to a lot more stuff going up here, but not before I take some self-prescribed time off from everything. I’m writing-off April, and will return with new posts in May. Lots of cool stuff on deck, too, from ninja tricycles to plastic forts, newly discovered vintage Japanese films to obscure 80s comics from Europe.
In the meantime, I’ll be recycling some gems from the past you may have missed, so those’ll be new to a lot of you.
Oh, and a couple of recommendations, too! Kurotokagi has new titles for the first time in ages. Seventeen Ninja II and the Japanese original of what most of us knew as Renegade Ninjas are both absolute MUSTS.
I also highly recommend catching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s laced with themes of the reluctant warrior wanting to shed the covert life, fighting against shadow regimes and conspiracies within conspiracies. Familiar ground for us shinobi-cinemafiles.
I hope you are all in good health, are getting out and enjoying some Spring weather and are keeping it ninja!
I’m heading off to Pismo Beach. See y’all in May!
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…
And yes… ninja hoods.
Keith J. Rainville — March, 2014
Tags: Shogun, Stephen K. Hayes, vintage magazines
Medicom has released two new sofubi of Kaiketsu Lion Maru and Tiger Joe, designed by Bear Model.
Not in love with these myself, as they are a bit too detailed and modern in their sculpts. Sofubi are supposed to look like kids toys from the 60s, with soft details and primitive paint jobs. These are actually a bit too skillfully executed for the genre…
Also found some nifty publicity images from KLM and Fuun Lion Maru on tumblr:
A reminder that Vintage Ninja is indeed on tumblr, too — Lucha vs. Ninja: Who Will Win? This is a shared stream from this site and From Parts Unknown, as loaded with cool vintage masked wrestler stuff as it is shinobi. I reblog/repost a lot of related material from others, and revisit some older stuff from the VN archives there too, so it’s worth added us to your feed.
Tags: Lion Maru, sofubi
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…