Even more hand-colored CASTLE OF OWLS stills

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I just can’t stop rescuing these from dealers in Thailand…

And why not? I love hand-tinted antique photos, and these are from my favorite ninja film ever (and the one I’ve written about the most on this site, too).

Some nice costume details here. I love the briefly seen utility armor seen during the raid and bombardment of Iga.

Wonderful still of what I’ve described as the “Wolf vs. Sheepdog” dynamic in the relationship and rivalry of Juzo and Gohei.

Not every chambara star looked good in ninja duds, in fact some looked downright silly (Toshiro Mifune being a fine example), but man do Ryutaro Otomo‘s square-jawed good looks totally work hooded! It’s all in the eyes, and Otomo is prefectly cast as the unwavering stalwart avenger of his people.

The relationship between Juzo and the kunoichi Kohagi is superbly woven into the already rich narrative. The moment below, when he sniffs her out as a woman of ‘peculiar skills’ despite appearances is just the beginning of their cat-and-mouse interaction.

But he is Otomo, when all is said and done…

The film noir lover in me wants to do-away with the happy ending of this otherwise dark and ironic epic, and have Kohgi be a true femme fatale waiting to turn on the man who thinks he’s turned her, but… the softie in me loves these characters so much I’m glad they make it out of the shadows both literally and figuratively.

Finally, below are some cleaner close-ups from images I posted years ago:

This detail from my older batch had been mechanically marked-up by a Thai mural or poster painter back in the day.

And this close-up is much cleaner than the deteriorating one I originally ran way back.


Here’s a quick-link again to previous articles here, including CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK from 2009.

The Jidai-Geki Knights review over at Lard Biscuit.

And hey, why just watch the whole damn film on YouTube!

Unknown Hoods – Part 1

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I have three antique sepia-toned photos from Japan featuring ninja and hooded heroes that neither I nor the sellers I liberated them from can identify. Anyone who helps me out will get a giant toad’s worth of gratitude from both me and the shinobifile community at large.

Here’s mystery photo #1:

The seller identified this as being from a 1953 version of Castle of Owls, but that just doesn’t jibe. The Ryotaro Shiba novel Fukuro no Shiro wasn’t written until ’59, and I believe the 1963 classic was the first time it was adapted. Maybe I’m full of it though…

Here’s a close-up of the stars. Anyone? Anyone???

Two more pics coming in the next two days.


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I don’t believe all remakes suck. The ’78 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hammer’s 60’s reimaginings of the Universal monster films of 30 years previous, the Soderberg version of Solaris… all brought something new to the table and were worthy endeavors. But what ALL remakes do is prompt the question WHY? Is this really necessary, is there anything new here, does it have a reason to be, or are we all just jerking off?

ALL of the above is pretty much true with Toho’s 1999 Owl’s Castle (technically a stand-alone adaptation of the Ryotaro Shiba novel and not necessarily a remake of the 1963 Toei film). It doesn’t automatically suck, but you do have to ask WHY, and yeah, it’s a lot of big budget studio wankery and boys playing with burgeoning tech toys.

I’m not going to do a full-on review here. I’m so in love with the original (and am especially jazzed on it this week), any article I write is going to come off negative, and I do ultimately recommend seeing this version. What I will do here is gripe about the remake’s shortcomings, the baffling choices made at times in the crafting of it, and in particular ask why, WHY??? Why was I watching a half decent ninja movie that suddenly turned into a third rate video game sequence?

And I’ll back it up with side-by-side examples.

63 credit
Let's start with the very first thing you see in both flicks - the title screen. Here's the 63 original, a simple graphical burn over a woodgrain background, which I absolutely ADORE as a designer.
The remake's titles use illos of the ninjutsu hand power symbols over a digitally rendered blossom. Yeah, I'm thinking the same thing you all are - FEMININE PRODUCT LABEL!
BUT... there is a crow-barred-in shot of an actual OWL in this movie, unlike the original. Thumbs up to that at least.
Things go wrong quick though. Shots like this digital recreation of a Ukiyo-e painting take the place of normal interiors. Jarringly different than anything else around them, shots like this do little more than distract the viewer from the movie as a whole.
And we so don't need over-complicated shots of the armies leaving for the invasion of Korea or...
...this whooshing pan of an all-digi Edo that is so sub-video game quality it's embarrassing. Nintendo was a production partner on this film, and was insanely proud of these FX sequences. There's even a doco extra on the DVDs celebrating the achievements of the FX crew. ME, I just can't imagine how bad this looked theatrically in Japan.
This is the worst of the digital sequences, a totally unnecessary rooftop run from above with a primitive animated figure. Again, you ask WHY. Compare this to the matching shot from the original below...
This castle wall and roof are part of a public landmark and still available for shooting today. Look how gorgeous that vanishing point is. It's a real shot, and a better shot.
This, however, is the most egregious of the digital sequences. Toward film's end, Juzo gets lost in a maze of identical screen doors - sort of a security system to trap invaders I guess. Not only is the background all super crispy blatantly digital rendering, but eventually the 'shot' switches to a POV deal right out of a first-person shooter game. MISERABLE!
It's not all bad, though. This is a nice composite of a tight rope walk, although nowhere near as impressive or convincing of the danger of such a feat as the original's below:
When you have this familiar set-up (it's in lots of movies, and there are woodblock prints from centuries past that use the same composition), you get better scale, the notion of height, and a separation of nature and man-made structure that conveys the gravity of the invasion. Compared to billable computer hours, probably cheaper to do, too...
Although a bit fake looking, even by 1999 standards, this rooftop meeting of Juzo and Gohei does actually take advantage of what digital can (and should) do - provide a location that can't be had by practical means.
And they did construct some sets, they just didn't have the discipline to stay in them and not surrender the movie to computer animators. This is a nice rooftop...
...and I love this set-bound 'exterior' too, a real throwback (that Buddha head reminds one of NINJA WARS). Thing of it is, even when there is a nice (and real) shot, the standards of photographic excellence set by the original are just too high for a favorable comparison. Check out some examples below:
Depth of field for DAYS!
Foreground, background, placement of action... Trees in the way of both character and viewer, symbolizing Juzo's negotiation of the cluttered intrigue afoot...
...and superbly staged COMBAT. In this case, the duel is minimized by the (real) architecture around them, driving home the smallness of their personal conflict amidst massive political and social movements around them.
The same combat scenes in the remake are stiff, upright, conventional...
...and nothing to brag about in the martial arts choreography department either.
And while I like the new Juzo duds...
...the Gohei get-up is pretty dumb. I get the whole 'he sold out and is rich now, so this is his upscale pimped-out night ops coture', but c'mon, give us SOME credibility.
Switching to the women of the newer version, you may think at first glance there's a credibility issue here, too, but not so. The remake's older and far less innocent Kizaru hides in plain sight as a circus tightrope walker in this adorable ensemble.
Awful late 90's compositing here, too.
Yep, that's a ninja dwarf.
The new Kizaru is not only a fully baptized shinobi, she's involved in a shadow crime spree, and has given herself sexually to Gohei out of a flawed sense of duty. Her character is largely sabotaged from minute one, and things don't end well for her.
Actress Riona Hazuki has little to work with here, and mostly just pouts (and is gorgeous doing so, BTW). Ignoring the original's optimistic subplot of young love entirely, it seems the filmmakers just wanted the character out of the way in favor of the Juzo/Kohagi dynamic.
That dynamic, however, is anything but... Actors Kiichi Nakai and Mayu Tsuruta have little chemistry, and she has no credibility as a femme fatale with lethal skills.


The one MAJOR prop I and just about every reviewer gave OWL'S CASTLE though, was the casting of our beloved MAKO as Hideyoshi. Awesome to see him in a Japanese role!

Owl’s Castle was a big deal when it came out, a box office hit and a herald of digital period fare to come. But it’s a victim of it’s time, like The Last Starfighter or Stormriders… it’s the movie that takes the painful steps forward, but is pretty sad to look at once we’re beyond those first steps and into the era of stuff like Azumi.

Thing is, even if you forgive the FX nonsense, you’re not left with much. This is a somber, dour take on the tale, stuck on the notion, like many modern remakes, of being dark and gritty and severe.

Yes, there is art here. Director Masahiro Shinoda was also responsible for the absolutely classic Samurai Spy. And there are big fans of this version, too, but I’ve never heard a gushing review Owl’s Castle by someone who had actually seen Castle of Owls

This wraps up CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK here at VN. We’ll be back October 1st to begin a month of ninja vs. monsters in celebration of Halloween!

Wolf vs. Sheepdog

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CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK continues with some miscellaneous awesomeness centered on the the conflict between Juzo (Ryutaro Otomo) and Gohei (Minoru Ohki). As I’ve mentioned previously, this initially plays out like the old Sam the Sheepdog vs. Ralph the Wolf Looney Toons, with the rivals being friendly and familiar, then punching-in and letting the sparks fly like there’s no tomorrow.

The initial reunion of the clansmen on-the-lam: a warm, nostalgic meeting where the appreciation the two have for each other and their entwined past is evident. It's also the last friendly conversation they have...
Part of the 'owls' symbolism is the notion of the hunter in the trees and the perspective of the hunted on the ground, like a mouse in the brush.
As shuriken come out of nowhere and 'thunk' in trees barely missing their targets, pans of ominous darkened tree canopies are intercut, producing a real tension, even a sense of dread. This is the one ninja movie that really conveys how terrifying a shuriken fight in the dark would actually be.
After an epic struggle, it comes down to man-on-man in a torrential downpour, with a symbolic chain line tying the two combatants together.


The last time Juzo uses his sword is not to kill the shogun, but rather to cut that chain, and thus his bounds to the ultimately self-destructive shadow life.

And a note to makers of new ninja films, the above image is beyond F’N AWESOME, and it’s just one of countless brilliant shots in this masterpiece. Man and weapon composed with striking geometry. Actors convincing of rage, angst, fear, and pain with only their eyes visible. Shadow skills used in dark environs with delicate lighting being just enough to expose all the action. It’s ALL here.

Castle of Owls should be the standard to which you craft your trade… NOW GET TO IT!

Kunoichi in CASTLE OF OWLS

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While the overt conflict of Castle of Owls may be the wolf-vs-sheepdog of Juzo and Gohei, there is a deeper interior conflict in both men played out by their relationships to women, all of whom are deadly female ninja themselves. So let’s take at look at the mysterious manipulator Kohagi (Hizuno Takachiho) and the teen cutie Kizaru (Chiyoko Honma).

Upon arriving in Edo, Juzo is shadowed and sized up. He doesn’t fall for his ‘guide’ Kohagi’s proper lady act for a minute, and draws down on her.
Her hand forced, she produces a hidden blade in her umbrella in an impressive display of martial arts savvy. She coyly laughs-off the encounter, but at the same time, Juzo just sniffed her out as kunoichi right away. BUSTED!
‘No dear, that’s just my sword handle… but don’t get me wrong, I AM glad to see you.’
Hizuno’s face is all angles and killer expressions. She’s absolutely gorgeous, but at the same time conveys a definite quality of lethal shrewdness.



But lo-and-behold, is she even hotter in full mission gear?
When picking an actress to play kunoichi, CAST FOR THE EYES! They did so here for sure. 
A lot of ninja gals in 60’s films look better in hoods than more modern flicks because of the contemporary eye make-up.
This hooded femme fatale is a full-on HAMMER, and at this point in the film is f’n with Juzo’s head big time. Is she fox, or foe?
Meanwhile, Kizaru, a child survivor survivor of the Iga massacre that started this whole revenge quest, is now blossoming into womanhood, and finding young love herself. Betrothed to the traitor Gohei, she rejects that arrangement and swears to kill him. She then falls for Juzo’s apprentice Kumotaro (Kawarazaki Choichiro), a wannabe shinobi who is still innocent. 
That innocence is central to the sub plot of the youngsters. Kizaru’s got a burgeoning shadow skill set of her own, but has yet to spill blood. She’s one step further down the trail of blood than Kumotaro, and as she is drawn by the outer currents of the revenge whirlpool herself, her redemption will come in resisting the pull of the assassin life.
It’s probably safe to let a guy cop a feel when you have the skills to tear his arm off his torso…
At film’s end, the equally conflicted Kohagi embodies Juzo’s triumphant character turn. He is faced with the opportunity to have his vengeance, or a future with a woman in equal need of redemption. 
Finally kill the shogun after ten years, or run off with a smoking hot babe in a soaking wet ninja suit? Hmmm…
Back-to-back debates, with Juzo and Gohei facing opposite directions, happen throughout the film. This time, the conflict between former clansmen over blood and honor is over, and the talk is now between man and woman over the future and their very humanity.


But look at her, is there really a debate here?

Women in Castle of Owls represent the future, the salvation of love, domesticity, peace and the abandonment of the shadow life. One woman is saved from the trail of blood she has been down her entire life. She risks all to save herself (and her man), and in doing so is the model for the next generation’s heroine, who is ultimately spared the black suit and all it entails.

Two interesting side notes on the actresses: As part of the movie’s promotion, Chiyoko Honma hosted a series of short promo films wherein she interviewed ninjutsu grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi, who would demo a different ninja weapon in each short. A year after Castle of Owls, Hizuno Takachiho married chambara superstar Koichi “Shintaro the Samurai” Ose! Man, that’s a vintage ninja power couple if there ever was one…

B&W stills from OWLS

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The Japanese DVD of Castle of Owls has a modest gallery of B&W set-shot publicity stills:

Juzo’s kid sister is violated and commits suicide as Iga is routed, a big motivator in his quest for revenge..



Yeah, this is the effect ninja have on women, and even the deadliest of kunoichi fall before the awesome manliness of Ryutaro Otomo’s chin…





Mom, Dad, I found a shogun, can I keep him? Can I?

CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK continues with an in depth look at the ninja women of the film, and a side-by-side comparison of the photography of the original film vs. the digital FX of the 1999 remake.

Stay tuned owlettes…

More aging CASTLE OF OWLS stills

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Hey, that’s the rest of the image from the home-page header! Yep, yer right.

It’s also perhaps the most striking image of Ryutaro Otomo from Toho’s publicity shoots. Those spike shuriken are just awesome. Otomo’s stern, strong eyes lend a commanding character wether he’s in full hood and mask, or partial as above.

The color moray patterns in all these 45-year old press/lobby stills is from deteriorating chemistry shrinking from the surface of the paper. Despite Castle of Owls being a lush color masterpiece, these photos were B&W and manually tinited. Color repro wasn’t quite a reality yet for mass market campaigns everwhere. The grid lines pencilled over the photos are most likely from a sign painter, who would have transferred this photo section by section onto a larger canvass or city wall somewhere. Being a marketing graphic designer by day myself, I just love the notion of these photos tacked up around a busy art department decades ago…



The above is from one of several encounters the former clansmen have over the movie. These fights are superbly edited, quick battles that end with even quicker escapes – the way a ninja-vs.-ninja conflict should be fought. When the two first meet after a decade in hiding, it’s almost like those old Looney Tunes with Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf – they meet, cajole and catch up with each other, then punch a time clock and it’s on, shuriken singing from the shadows of tree-tops!

Despite the escalation of their conflict, there’s still a history, and an affection for each other. In the end, it makes the resolution all the more tragic. You won’t find many better character journeys, either – Otomo’s conflicted ninja is a different, better human being by film’s end.

The 1963 Toei classic, directed by Japanese cinema legend Eiichi Kudo, is out there in the trading communities full subbed, sometimes with extras. It’s also known under the title “Samurai Spies” (not to confused with the Criterion release of Samurai Spy). The much lauded but oddly flawed (and gratuitously digital FX-laden) remake Owl’s Castle has various domestic and all-region international releases as well. It’s well worth seeing, if for nothing else than it’s place in history as launching the digital age of shinobi-cinema.

More Owls in the next few days…

CASTLE OF OWLS publicity stills from Thailand

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Inspired by Gobi’s awesome sketch from this post, I’ve declared this CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK at Vintage Ninja!

I’m not saying the 1963 Ryutaro Otomo action-drama is the best ninja movie ever made, but damn if it isn’t my absolute favorite. It’s pretty much in the top ten, if not top 5, of all of us shinobi-cinema-files, too.


Castle of Owls (Ninja hicho fukuro no shiro) is set up as a pretty straightforward revenge tale, but turns into a great exploration of the often visited theme of the lone ninja trying to escape the shadow life.

After the massacre of Iga, surviving suppa scatter across Japan, waiting for the day they can take their revenge on the Shogun. One (Otomo) does nothing but train, taking his skills to the next level. Another initially goes undercover as an ambitious samurai on a strong career path, but over the years sells out and actually wants the good life. After a decade, the time has come to strike, but can the stalwart Otomo succeed with a former blood brother now a motivated rival with an equal array of shadow skills in his way?



Owls has everything: credible ninjutsu mixed with solid action, an engaging story, a great supporting cast surrounding Otomo’s star power, gorgeous cinematography and color… it delivers on all fronts.

More about the movie later this week along with more vintage stills!