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…

Enter the Red Ninja!

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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.

‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in American vs. Japanese films

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.

Ninja with samurai swords or samurai in ninja garb? Counter-clockwise from top NINJA HICHO FUKURO NO SHIRO (Castle of Owls), AKAI KEGEBOSHI (The Red Shadow), KAZE NO BUSHI (Warrior of the Wind)

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.

Curved swords…

Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.

The Illustrated Sho Kosugi

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!  And Thailand!

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