VN REVISITED – The Illustrated Sho Kosugi

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.

Read more:

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!

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Film and TV April 19, 2014 at 1:11 am.

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Oh, so you want more ENTER?

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 Not a problem. Last post was specific to the Kosugi doubling images, but here’s the remainder of the French lobby pics from Enter the Ninja.

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Don’t know about you cats, but I was totally in love with Susan ‘Dirty Mary’ George.What a career for her!

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Not that Franco ‘Django’ Nero‘s prolific career has been anything to sneeze at. But let’s face it, he was no Mike Stone when it came to the action scenes here…

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Israeli actor Zachi Noy was absolutely great as The Hook, too.

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Posted in Film and TV March 9, 2013 at 8:21 pm.

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Enter the Kosugi!

These French-language market lobby photos for the 1981 release of Enter the Ninja are a bit different than the American marketing and press photos, mainly in that they reveal close-ups of Sho Kosugi doubling for one of the red ninja from the initial training battle sequence.

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Kosugi next to what is likely Mike Stone in in the red ninja suits that would inspire Marvel Comics’ The Hand and myriad 80s action figures.

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This is a great look at the interesting construction of the hoods.

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Kosugi and Stone worked their asses off out in those Philippine woods, doubling in both star and soldier roles.

 

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Posted in Film and TV February 25, 2013 at 11:59 pm.

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ENTER THE NINJA press kit

Cannon’s 1981 press kit for Enter the Ninja featured newspaper-ready B&W ad mats and a 30-page document heralding, and I quote:

…the first Western film to deal solely with the mysterious and elusive art of Ninjutsu. It will set the trend in Martial Arts films for the 80′s, making them the decade of the Ninja…

Well, they weren’t wrong!

Another detail I found intriguing was this:

In the late Fall of 1980, the concept for “ENTER THE NINJA” was brought to producer/director Manahem Golan. Having never produced a Martial Arts film, Mr. Golan was a bit difficult to convince at first. He assumed that everything had been done before in Martial Arts films, but after he was told about the unique art of Ninjutsu, he immediately began preparations on “ENTER THE NINJA.”

Mike Stone is widely credited throughout the document, and other contemporary press, with originating this film, so that must have been one successful lunch meeting. Considering Eric Van Lustbader’s novel The Ninja had been tearing up bookshelves since April of the same year, and The Octagon had been released about six weeks earlier than the said “late Fall”  green light, Golan’s timing could not have been better. The decision to take ninja from villains and henchmen to centerpiece heroes was a damn good one.

I’ve scanned the entire press kit, read it at this link. The pre-release hype and bios of Kosugi and Stone are well worth the read.

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Posted in Film and TV February 3, 2012 at 9:19 pm.

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Re-enter ENTER THE NINJA

(REVISED)

There’s almost 30 years spanning the two home video releases of the movie you see above. THREE DECADES!

Just as we’re facing the death of DVD and brick-and-mortar video retail in general, we finally have Enter the Ninja commercially available. I have to think there’s been some sort of rights issue with this movie since the late 80s. It never made the leap from big-box rental VHS to ‘priced-to-sell’ VHS, then never made the leap to DVD in the 90s. It didn’t make the leap from big-box rental VHS to ‘priced-to-sell’ VHS until 1991, and never made the leap to DVD during that format’s boom. A wide-screen print started airing sparsely on cable a few years back, and now that print is available streaming, and for us non-hard drive or cloud-trusting luddites, MGM’s DVD-On-Demand.

DVD-On-Demand??? The ghetto where cult flicks with tiny niche audiences and moldy-oldy genres no one cares about go to languish like retired golden age celebrities in nursing homes? Really?

ETN never had a digital remastering. Never had a deluxe DVD with making-of extras and behind-the-scenes galleries, no commentary by stars and industry experts. No re-issue on Blu-Ray looking even better than it had previously.

Someone explain to me why! And while you’re at it, why did Revenge of the Ninja only get a shitty full-frame disc and why is Ninja III: The Domination still completely out of print? Why wasn’t there a shuriken-shaped box set of this highly marketable trilogy back when DVD collectibles were smoking hot?

But… trying to stay positive, and in the spirit of BETTER-F’N-LATE-THAN-F’N-NEVER, here’s a look at what you can finally buy on one-off DVD from MGM (and for those of you who actually know what century it is, watch instantly on Amazon or Netflix):

As pioneering as ETN was to the Western ninja genre, as a movie in a wider sense it rests on a whole lot of rusty old cliches; the white guy becomes the best at some exotic Asian fighting art, he walks the world alone using his ancient skills to battle modern crime, evil industrialists put damsels in distress, hook-handed hunchbacked henchmen get dispatched with quippy one-liners, etc. and so forth. But ETN did all those things with generously added NINJA VIOLENCE, so we didn’t care!

The current MGM release is a straight transfer of a rather clean and crisp print. They didn’t go in and remaster it frame-by-frame or anything, but it generally looks fine, and I for one dig film grain and pock-marks once in a while to remind me of how much of an old fart I am.

Proper aspect ratio is a bit of a mystery here. The physical disc claims 16×9 1.85LBX, and it looks like a proper widescreen print. However, the more full-frame streaming version on Netflix (via the Starz cable network) definitely has more picture on top and bottom despite the sides being lopped off. One, or both, are cropping here, but both are vast improvements over the pan-and-scan VHS era.

Proper aspect ratio was a bit of a mystery here, but thanks to some astute VN readers and a projectionist buddy, I’m a bit clearer on it. ETN was shot “open matte,” which in a reverse of the usual widescreen-vs-TV print comparison, actually yields more picture the squarer it is shown. Theatrical prints actually sliced the top and bottom of the frame, which was restored for TV prints. This isn’t exactly the preferred technique of the David Leans and Sergio Leones of the film auteur realm, but for exploitation movies intended to have serious legs on home video formats it lent all sorts of presentation flexibility.

DVD picture

Starz/Netflix streaming

I’ve watched the film in both aspects, but I’ll proceed reviewing the physical ‘widescreen’ disc, as I prefer it’s clarity and stability over the varying qualities of streaming. The manufactured-to-order DVD includes the original trailer as a sole extra. It performed fine for me in computer, DVD and Blu-ray decks. It looks great up-sampled in a Blu-ray player on a 1080p flatscreen, with great improvement in color (reds in particular).

Another big improvement is the brightness of formerly dark and inky scenes, where you lost all details. Hasegawa’s raid on the ranch compound now reads a lot cleaner and clearer. And although some colors are actually nicer on the Netflix print, streaming pictures don’t maintain quite the same subtlety of blacks.

I watch this new print with nostalgia, sure, but more with historical perspective, which is greatly enhanced by the new clarity. For instance, it’s easier than ever to see how much Franco Nero looks like a douche in a white ninja suit. Ironically mustached hipsters must love this flick…

I was kinda bummed out to realize the hoods were just cheap spandex. I always thought Kosugi’s in particular was made of sturdier stuff.

Seeing the film bigger, brighter and sharper than ever before also makes it easy to spot when Mike Stone and Sho Kosugi are doubling. A distraction for first-timers just trying to enjoy the flick, but for those of us who’ve seen ETN a few dozen times, it’s a nifty new aspect, and would make one hell of a drinking game.

I’m obsessed with props, and one of the things I love about ETN is it doesn’t feature the same old off-the-rack weaponry seen in most subsequent American ninja flicks. All of this stuff is unique, no Asian World of Martial Arts canned goods here.

However, every time the new print shows off a nicely made custom prop (like this rather rugged looking shuko, which in latter movies would be a mail order nylon version)…

…it soon exposes another that was hastily made and never intended to be scrutinized so.

But then all that goes away when you experience the glory… and I do mean GLORY… of Christopher George‘s magnificent death scene.

So in general, if you are a lifelong fan of the 80s Cannon fare, you’ll love this new edition of Enter the Ninja. It’s just as awesome, and cheesy, and cringe-worthy, and then awesome again, as you remember – but now brighter and clearer than ever.

If you’re not of the right age, however, there’s nothing in this or any other version of ETN that’s going to convert you. You didn’t have our childhood, or our grindhouse or drive-in experiences, or our repeated trips to the video store and contented VHS viewings, never knowing how much better 60s Japanese stuff was… because we didn’t have it.

I for one am grateful to have perspective enough to love both, and I’m delighted to finally own a good copy of this long-neglected genre jumpstarter.

 

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Many thanks to KC and the other you-know-who-you-are shadow dwellers for the new insights.

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Posted in Film and TV February 1, 2012 at 12:40 am.

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The Credits that Launched a Craze

Slammed as I’ve been, I just now got around to watching the MGM DVD-On-Demand of Enter the Ninja. Full review and some other ETN bonuses going up later this week, but in the meantime let’s just take a moment to appreciate how great the credit sequence of this craze-igniting film was.

(click for full size)

It’s not like these supposedly debuting “ninja” were anything new to American audiences in October of 1981. We’d seen them in a Bond film and a Peckinpaw flick, as exotic threats on a few TV series, assassins in Shogun, Norris-fodder in The Octagon, etc. But when a movie brazenly adopts the “Enter the…” naming convention you’re expecting a martial arts vanguard, a genre definer. And with this credit sequence, Mike Stone, Sho Kosugi and Cannon Films gave us that.

Featuring a night mission-clad Kosugi swinging white-painted weapons on a subtly lit blacked-out set, ETN delivered instant weapons fetish!

Shinobi historical pedigree or otherwise, what we saw was the black suit and a ton of exotic martial arts gear. Not espionage equipment, not disguises or trickery, no military intelligence, no mysticism or any other heady concept. Just ninja suits and tons of weapons. They distilled ninjutsu down into its most easily exploited and marketable aspects, then once those visuals were delivered, transposed the notions of the historical art onto the tried-and-true ‘modern-day warrior wanders the world doing right using ancient skills’ model already familiar to Western audiences, and boom – craze formula SET.

This montage of exotic dances of death set to lurid percussion was broken only by the movie’s introductory fight sequence. If you weren’t hooked on the credits, ten bloody minutes of ninja-on-ninja violence followed, and if you weren’t a shinobi-cinemafile by then, it wasn’t going to happen.

Good, bad or indifferent, the formula for 80s American ninja films was pretty much set in stone right here.

More on this film all week.

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Posted in Film and TV January 29, 2012 at 10:59 pm.

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Yugoslavian ENTER THE NINJA pub pics

These are from a set of POORLY repro’d press/publicity photos from Enter the Ninja‘s Yugoslavian theatrical release. Wonder if that amazing Kosugi credit sequence had the same craze-launching lighting bolt effect on European audiences that it did for us?

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Posted in Film and TV September 15, 2011 at 12:02 am.

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Kosugi Decapitated!

This is a press still from the climax of Enter the Ninja, which shows some great detail all but missed is the actual film.

I guess if you paused the DVD or Blu-Ray of Enter at the right instant, you could see this… oh, what. That’s right. This seminal film isn’t available by any legit commercial means. Thanks ninja-hating world!

 

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Posted in Film and TV July 27, 2011 at 1:26 am.

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A designer’s rant…

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.

Like so:

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…

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Film and TV May 20, 2011 at 1:22 am.

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Enter the Red Ninja!

What’s going on in this picture???

Yep, you’re right!

Another hapless red ninja gets pig-stuck by a movie hero.

Well what did you think was happening? You people disgust me sometimes… honestly.

Franco Nero impales a hapless jobber in the landmark opening fight scene of Enter the Ninja. Has a red ninja EVER won a fight? Ever SURVIVED a fight even?

And is it just me or does that disemboweled dork look like Sho Kosugi doing double-duty on set? Thinking Kosugi and Mike Stone did a lot of the up-close fight work during the whole shoot.

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Posted in Film and TV May 6, 2011 at 6:44 am.

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