Little known fact – American Ninja is the only 80s boom film to have properly licensed mass-produced merchandise.
These grocery store / pharmacy register tchotchkes were obviously for kids, despite being branded with the an R-rated film’s imagery. A “two-penny-toy” manufacturer called Fleetwood produced these in 1985, along with a blowgun target set and a Masters of the Universe-scale generic ninja figure with similar card art.
Interesting that they carry the logo of the decidedly non-kid-friendly film studio Cannon, meaning Fleetwood actually paid to use the American Ninja monicker. Can’t think that they sold any more of the these than they would have by saving those fees and going with simple generic ninja art.
I dig the sketchy brush art used on the decals of the rubber suction shuriken. The hollow cheap plastic knife was molded off a popular piece of training equipment common to dojos in heavy rubber form.
This rubber stamp set shows more of the above art, influenced by both Enter the Ninja and GI Joe‘s Storm Shadow I imagine.
Think they paid Michael Dudikoff anything for his name and likeness?
We’re all off being lazy and patriotic, so in the meantime celebrate the birth of the USA by looking back at low-budget exploitation flick based on a Japanese martial art, produced by Israelis, shot in the Philippines.
A reader sent me some anime movie poster scans, for which I was grateful, but one of them just struck a nerve – a wrong nerve – and I have to vent.
Some day job background first – I pay the rent as a graphic designer for a performing arts non-profit. I’m faced with the constant challenge of how to represent large scale, grandiose stage productions in poster form, somehow getting across notions of a massive visual spectacle, classical music, high drama and emotion, and a theater-going experience being worth a hefty ticket price in a bad economy.
My budgets are modest and the visual assets at my disposal don’t often do the trick on their own – in short, I rarely have a home-run image landing on my lap, and have to get creative and conceptual to catch people’s eye.
So with that background, what catches my eye? Something like this:
Seriously, what the hell am I looking at here? Ninja Scroll is certified classic, and anime movie posters don’t have to rely on photographic assets as their basis – the sky is the limit to the creativity of the illustrators involved. Yet what we have here is an absolute abortion.
Cluttered mess. Cluster of characters with no central focus on one main hero. Details details details everywhere making the frame so over-crowded you don’t know where to look. Nothing stands out. Nothing “reads.” Nothing is communicated. EPIC FAIL.
And it’s a ninja movie, there’s especially no excuse for this when you have sooooooo iconic a central character type.
Let’s look at some way better posters, mostly from movies nowhere near as good or important as the above.
Mafia vs. Ninja is hardly the classic Ninja Scroll is, being a heart-worn-on-its-sleeve exploitation flick. But what the marketers of exploitation films know is how to draw the eye and deilver a quick, effective image that get’s someone to cue-up at a theater or grab a rental off a video store shelf.
The secret here: put a BIG-ASS-NINJA-HEAD on your poster!
Not hard to do. You can see this is a ninja film from 50 yards away, and it works.
Here’s where that whole idea started, 1981’s genre-launching Enter the Ninja.
Two things going on here – cash in on the big-ass-ninja-head, and feature your expensive imported star, in this case Franco Nero.
Another example of the same notions:
Nowhere near as effective, as the artist possibly wasn’t up to the task of portraying Richard Harrison more face-on. Red ninja on a tight-rope isn’t nearly as effective as big-ass-ninja-head, but the swirling dragon just screams ‘martial arts movie’ so this ends up working in spite of its inferior execution.
Now on the subject of clutter, it’s not always a bad thing. Take these for example:
This Japanese market poster for Ninja III: The Domination “heroes” Sho Kosugi amidst a jumbled mess of images from the film. While not the greatest of layouts, a poster like this hangs in a theater lobby as an enticer for things to come. The audience is there, captive, milling about or waiting in line for snacks, so you have them on the hook already, you can get away with this sort of density.
The purpose of this poster is to relate the hero shot of Kosugi (in a Jubei Yagyu-like get-up that would be familiar to Japanese audiences) to the images of the clearly American film. They’re showing as much of the Hollywood stunts, effects and production values as they can, peppered with an American white girl.
They pull it off, but this is really pushing the clutter envelope. You can have a lot going on in a poster, especially for a fight film, but you need composition to organize it all for effective communication.
There are 12 or so warriors in this painting for The Deadly Silver Ninja, which is actually more than the Ninja Scroll poster. The artist, however, uses foreground and background to center your attention on three of those warriors – the hero, the hot chick and the exotic masked villain.
I don’t know who that El Santo-looking weirdo is, but I’m interested, because this poster is so well composed I know where to look. I can see what’s important there – muscly kung-fu dude, go-go girl without pants, strange meance hovering over both – with little effort. Even the long 4-word title comes across right. You can catch a sideways glance of this poster and know it’s a martial arts film about a Silver Ninja. WIN!
Composition can also save a much simpler layout. Take a look at the original U.S. market poster for American Ninja:
Great use of the flag, simple fight scene with two figures. All fine. But the ninja is sort of hidden here and it’s a very stiff arrangement. Clearly a studio posing and not a fight scene.
Now check out this painted Italian market poster:
Damn this thing is beautiful!
Here, an artist uses the limitless opportunity illustration affords to pose and arrange subjects to create a vastly superior version of essentially the same scene. Average Joe American Shinobi still reads as an exciting yank action star, but at the same time the ninja is a lot more prevalent. You’ve got movement, dynamic tension, intersecting lines. This is a fight scene!
But I still say when it comes to shinobi-cinema, you just can’t go wrong with BIG-ASS-NINJA-HEAD:
There’s only one thing that works better:
You can’t beat topless-broad-with-sword. Invincible technique. Flawless victory.
So now that you’re all experts too, let’s make sure not to unleash any more turds like that Ninja Scroll cluster-F that got me going…
Ghana, West Africa – 1980s. Quasi-legal ‘mobile cinemas’ showed exploitation films on VHS around third-world villages, promoted by off-model movie posters painted by local artists. Luckily for the rest of the world, these miracles of advertising art survived and are circulating galleries, museums and collectors markets.
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.
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.
Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.
They’ll call you the lesser American Ninja. They’ll say you weren’t even a replacement as much as you were a placeholder, a mask-filler brought in while Michael Dudikoff was auditioning for soap opera guest spots. They’ll say you didn’t take over the franchise after Dudikoff foiled the evil Super Ninja eugenics program in AN2 (aptly and hilariously subtitled The Confrontation); you were just keeping it warm for him.
I’m here to tell you something, David: BALLS TO THAT.
You need to take some personal inventory, son. Michael Dudikoff only made it as far as the Army Rangers. You were a top operative in the CIA. You facilitated Steve James’ rise from Dudikoff’s uniform-clad straight man sidekick to the bandana-wearing, double Chinese broadsword-wielding Afro Ninja he became when you stepped into the tabi boots as Sean Davidson, American Ninja 2.0. And lest we forget, on the Swayze Scale of 80’s-early 90’s action hero hair yours was Swayzier than Dudikoff’s by a factor of at least five.
Did Dudikoff battle the villains you did? Did he lead the Blood Hunt (a.k.a. American Ninja III) in his debut? Did he track down a cure after a feared international terrorist known only as “The Cobra” and played by former child evangelist and quasi-pop star Marjoe Gortner infected him with a deadly virus? In the process did he defeat said Cobra’s legion of clones, including the franchise’s sole hot female ninja assassin?
Dudikoff did not.
Now the hard part. They’ll say Dudikoff had to come save your ass (and the ass of your couldn’t-hold-Steve-James’-jock replacement black sidekick) in the fourth installment, a.k.a. The Annihilation. Fuck that. I choose to believe you simply had too much integrity and respect for the franchise to participate in that inexplicable second act Road Warrior-esque gangfight sequence for which they brought Dudikoff back. And you still gave us the third best “lone warrior constructing a tactical bow and arrow” scene in cinematic history, following only Arnold in Predator and Sly in Rambo: First Blood Part II.
You were one-half of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew. Never forget that.
Finally, David, I know you had no control over the decision to label your foray into ninja family films alongside the youngest of the Reyes clan and a post-Karate Kid mortgage-gotta-get-paid Pat Morita as the fifth American Ninja installment, despite the fact said film had nothing to do with the franchise. You were just another martial artist-cum-actor with rugged good looks trying to make his way. I forgive you.
The point is simply this, David. In a quintessential B-movie franchise, you were a purer B-movie actor than Michael Dudikoff could ever hope to be.
(dictated, not read)
EDITORS POSTSCRIPT: Thanks again to Matt f’n Wallace for the guest spot. A smidge younger than me, Matt sprouted his exploitation genre pubes to a later fare of direct-to-video and cable fromage. His tolerances for Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Sasha Mitchell are of extraordinary magnitude. He has my gratitude for taking the four bullets for me that are the American Ninja sequels.These increasingly cheap and at times deliriously inept films lingered well into the kickboxing craze, embracing the worst parts of the original; primary-colored ninja, cheesy fortress dojos, increasingly silly ‘boss’ villains, high-kicking fights replacing anything resembling ninjutsu, etc. Despite the on-and-off presence of talents like Mile Stone and Steve James, each of these sequels was a nail in the coffin of 80’s shinobi-mania. They say ‘Only A Ninja Can Stop A Ninja.’ Well, starting in 1985, it took an American Ninja (or five) to stop the American ninja craze.
As a footnote to our American Ninja celebratory gripe-fest, here’s a mystifying trade ad from what has to be the early part of 1985, wherein Cannon heralded an upcoming project:
Right studio, right producers, right creative team, right title, right logo. BUT… what the hell?
Now trade ads are always talking shit. They run in industry-only newsrags promoting movies as if the deals are set in stone, sometimes implying they’re in the can, but the reality is these ads are often window dressing for the money hunt. Would-be producers work these things up to stir interest or tip on-the-fence investors over the edge. More often that not the movie promised never gets made or mutates into something way different.
So was “American Ninja” a Sho Kosugi lvehicle at one point, or were they just coyly suggesting that he might be involved in a pending deal. Or did they just see his image as their’s to use regardless of his involvement or lack thereof? Kosugi had left Cannon at this point for what turned out to be far less greener pastures, so maybe this was an attempt to lure him back?
The “American Ninja” title has a shadowy history of its own, too. I have an image stuck in my head of one of these trade ads I saw years ago wherein a Chuck Norris project carried the same name, and would kill to find it somewhere (if it even exists). Maybe it became The Octagon? Kosugi’s own 9 Deaths of the Ninja was called “American Ninja” in some European markets. And the American Ninja we know and love was actually called “American Warrior” during development and as late as the trailer, changing titles at the 11th hour (the ‘Warrior’ title remained in some foreign releases).
A mystery indeed. Too bad I’m the only guy in Hollywood who actually cares about this stuff…
Man thanks to VN reader Dan for the following clarifications:
“in regards to the whole Sho Kosugi / American Ninja thing, here’s how it went down from what I remember reading and subsequently pieced together. The trade ad you have of Cannon’s “American Ninja” project featuring Sho was likely done before he left Cannon (possibly during post-production on NINJA III), so they undoubtely planned to have their #1 ninja star in the film (possibly in the role that went to Tadashi Yamashita). After Sho left Cannon they planned to getChuck Norris to star as the “American Ninja” (as seen in the attached trade ad), but obviously that didn’t work out and they got Michael Dudikoff. Meanwhile, Sho filmed his first non-Cannon movie, a film with the working title “American Ninja”, which was written and directed by “Enter the Ninja” 2nd Unit Director Emmett Alston. The movie was released as “9 Deaths of the Ninja” and Cannon’s “American Warrior” was therefore able to reclaim the “American Ninja” title and did so (at least in most markets). By the way, you can’t really tell from the attached pic, but the ninja gi Chuck is wearing is the same one worn by David Chung, Lucinda Dickey, and Alan Amiel (their fight double) in NINJA III… The Black Ninja outfit which is really grayish-green. Pretty wild, huh?”