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The garish and gory Shaw Bros. shinobi slaughterhouse Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Super Ninjas or in this case just Super Ninjas) is a familiar to readers of this site – we spent a week on the film a while back. These are English-language market B&W press stills, which I scored on 8×10 negatives. I was really excited upon initial inspection of these in the shop, as such large format negs should yield astounding results. But alas, they ended up being rather poorly reproduced from optically transferred positives that probably weren’t that great to start with. They’re contrasty as hell, grainy and have that slight lack of sharpness that comes from even the best photo process reproductions.
Alas, until I can raid some far away Hong Kong filing cabinet for better copies, here’s what I managed to salvage:
It’s no secret here that I loathe camouflage ninja suits, but the bark-like patterns of the Wood Ninja are actually pretty cool.
The lumber lads also had some great claw-based weaponry.
Like or hate FEN (and there are plenty of haters who don’t quite know how to watch this film wit the proper tongue in the appropriate cheek), one is hard pressed to come up with another ninja film, from any country, that put forth more effort. There are dozens of stuntmen, tons of fights and a constant balancing act between the kung-fu stock-in-trade of the Shaw studio and home markets with the imported notions of ninjutsu. The results is one of the most deliriously rewarding pieces of batshit martial cinema ever inflicted on the world…
Via the ever superb Wrong Side of the Art:
I find this English language market distro poster for Five Element Ninjas perplexing. The art makes this look like a team-up film, like a shinobified version of Force Five or something. Furthermore, why with such a visually rich film would you opt for an illustrated poster? These were the flavor of the day, I know, but the characters always end up looking like European barbarians.
So Five Element Ninjas… is this martial arts alchemy experiment the nexus of one craze on the outs and another on the rise, or is it just an embarrassing oddity shunned like a red-headed stepchild by snobs of two different genres?
Although FEN was an international hit, looking back, it didn’t exactly save the ailing Shaw kung-fu genre, did it? If the studio had been able to get over hyper-villifying ninja, and actually create a pro-ninja film, they might have enjoyed more success in the 80’s, especially exporting product to North America. We didn’t want to see evil ninja slaughtered by old 70’s cliches over and over again, we wanted lone ninja bucking the system and kicking-ass around office towers or driving around the country in conversion vans with hamsters. Couldn’t Runme Shaw and Mona Fong see this?!?!?
I really wish Chang Cheh had done a film where ninja and Venoms face-off, and a lone rebel refutes the ninja life for a new home in China, only to have his commando skills save the day in some ironic twist of martial fate. That flick would have been consistent with both the Japanese 60’s themes and the Hong Kong 80’s conventions, and with a ninja as HERO sure as hell would have been a hit in American video stores. Sigh…
What did really happen, though, was the inevitable wave of imitators and knock-offs went on to prove over and over that Chinese ninja stuff had just as much a place on the rental shelves and werewolf circuit theaters as any other country’s output. And man could they kick out more of it cheaper and faster than anyone else. Ninja in the Deadly Trap was produced right on top of FEN, complete with gold lamé ninja and green-clad forest shinobi fighting moonlighting Venoms.
The success these movies had, though, was based on a little shinobi-subterfuge in itself. Anything with a ninja image, or just the word in the title, sold on video in the 80’s no matter how good or bad, trendy or dated, it was. So these kung-fu films with ninja as cannon fodder were profitable by default. And although FEN was a highpoint in the Chinese ninja trade, it was a hopelessly 70’s looking movie, with a dated aesthetic, released in a forward-thinking decade. It’s hard to believe movies like Ninja in the Dragon’s Den and Duel to the Death were being produced right at the same time – they look decades apart.
28 years later, Five Element Ninjas watches better than ever. I have a lot of love for this flick, both as classic Shaw and 80’s ninja camp.
AND THERE’S NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO OWN FEN!
Simply put, if you don’t own the Tokyo Shock (or Region 3 Celestial) Five Element Ninjas DVD, you just haven’t seen the movie!
Previous releases under the Chinese Super Ninjas title were not only pan-and-scan, but significantly censored. But if you appreciate even these releases, you’ll be blown away by how much more of the mayhem there is in REAL Shaw-f’n-Scope, and how great some of the fight choreography is now that you can actually see all the combatants in the frame.
And for the haters – well, here’s where you give this historically significant oddity a second chance. At least hate the REAL version of the film, not the butchered one that’s so easily dismissed.
Take a look at some comparisons:
Pretty amazing what you miss in inferior transfers. Besides the glory of the wideness, correct colors (important in a gimmick movie like this!), and a razor sharp print, there’s also a LOT more gore, and some additional flesh, including this often cut, completely inexplicable scene where one of the clearly male fire ninja reveals himself to be a chick to distract an opponent. Another WTF moment in the one of the most WTF-worthy films in martial arts cinema history.
The imported Celestial DVDs, which have been around for years, feature the wide, remastered print, original language tracks with English subs, and a boatload of trailers from other Shaw Bros. reissues. They’re not all-region though. Not a big deal, for as of March we finally have a North American friendly version from Tokyo Shock, which has in addition to the original language and subs, the familiar cheesy dub we all know and love from back in the day. There’s also an exclusive interview with Lo Meng of the Venoms.
Go on… buy it here, now!
OK, great as gold lamé ninja may be, next week its time to get back to some 60’s Japanese stuff…
BACK IN BLACK!
Gold, brown, blue, red and beige schemes aside, FEN also has a damn nifty commando raid where a platoon of black-clad ninja adeptly bypass the kung-fu compound’s ample defenses and lay waste to the remaining students. It is probably the best tactical ninja action in any Hong Kong / Chinese movie.
The garishly colored elemental ninja may be the gimmick of FEN, but the overall commentary on the Japanese and what is heavy-handedly portrayed as their insidious martial art is actually better embodied in these black-clad shinobi segments. It really is as simple as black and white in the end, save for the copious red gore of course, as more and more kung-fu heroes throw their lives away defending the honorable notions of the Chinese martial world.
Tomorrow wraps up Five Days of FEN with a look at the Tokyo Shock DVD release vs. previously available versions, and some final thoughts on why this movie worked, but ultimately didn’t work, for the studio.
By day three, most of you should be rushing out to some store to buy FEN, and won’t be reading this. However, for you stalwarts still clinging to obsolete concepts like credibility and logic in your movies, let me assault with the azure awesomeness that is…
THE WATER NINJA!
The kung-fu traditionalists next encounter what is supposed to be a babbling brook with a picturesque bridge and whatnot. What it actually was… the dankest, grimiest and coldest looking indoor water tank set ever built. Makes the day-glow blue suits even sillier.
If nothing else, the water ninja sequences are centered on pole fighting, and in a Chang Cheh film, that means some f’n awesome fights! Its probably the most kung-fuey of the environs, but that’s fine, as the next element takes things back to some rather nifty ninjutsu, with…
THE FIRE NINJA!
Okay, side rant; I HATE red ninja suits. They’re the product of American movies, and since the initial training battle in Enter the Ninja, we haven’t been able to get over them. Red ninja suits are all over Marvel Comics, GI Joe action figures, and alas, Hong Kong films. At least these guys have a logical connection to the demented chromatic themes of FEN.
The fire ninja sequences are the perfect example of the bizarre hybrid frequency on which FEN operates. For every researched, credible weapon or technique featured, there’s a completely ridiculous follow-up that makes this movie something like martial arts science fantasy. As a fan, you either have to embrace its dada-ist nature or skip the movie all together. Your loss though, especially if you’re a gore hound, because here come…
THE EARTH NINJA!
It is with a mighty ‘sploof’ that the earth ninja burst forth from the dirt, and man do they fight DIRTY!
The earth ninja scenes, especially the initial slaughter sequence, are almost tough to watch. There are literally Venom entrails dangling around in the grass, and naughty bits are pierced and perforated like swiss cheese. GRUE-SOME.
Tomorrow on Five Days of FEN, a whole ton of ninja in…gasp…black suits?!?! And a mesh-clad hottie in the mix.
Okay, so our noble defenders of traditional kung-fu (and kung-fu box office) have accepted the challenge of the invading Japanese genre- uh, army, and away we go – down the yellow brick path of vengeance to…
THE GOLD NINJA!
FEN consists of four major battle campaigns. We start with a straight-up duel between rival schools, with the evil group assisted by a shinobi grandmaster ‘ringer,’ who sets the plot in motion. The heroic dojo then breaks up into squads to face the five elemental crews one-by-one, and are absolutely SLAUGHTERED! Next, the ninja destroy what’s left of the school in an all out commando raid. Finally, four survivors hulk-up and figure out exotic new techniques. They retrace the steps of their fallen brothers, solving the puzzle of the elemental fighting gimmicks in equally brutal and shocking fashion as the initial meeting.
Its a simple but super effective structure for a non-stop actioner like FEN.
THE WOOD NINJA!
Right in the middle of the candy-dish of colorful ninja comes the only credible costuming of the elemental gimmicks. The wood ninja camouflage is actually superb, but their disguise methods are downright comedic.
The wood ninja may make the most sense in a lot of ways, but this is the crazy-8 bonkers world of Five Element Ninjas, so that common sense approach is eventually punished by the most brutal of all the ninja downfalls. The heroes assemble elaborate chain-and-sickles that double as capture hooks, and – with a smile – literally dismember the woodland shinobi!
Tomorrow, Five Days of FEN continues with the most grisly killings yet.
1982 – Hey, you… Kung-Fu Genre. Yeah you, the dominant force in martial arts exploitation in the 70’s. Y’know that flesh wound you got last year from that Golan-Globus ninja flick? Yeah, the one next the scar you got in that octagonal training compound before that? Well, guess what… Those weren’t just scratches. You’ve had blowfish poison running through your veins all this time, and now you are about to DIE!
If there’s a single movie that marks the passing of the torch from the Kung-Fu 70’s to the Ninja 80’s, it is Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Super Ninjas). Made by the Shaw Brothers as an answer to the upstart ninja boom. It centered on ‘Venoms’-like wu-shu warriors defending their martial traditions against the vile invader that was ninjutsu, ironically at the very time the studio was battling for grindhouse screens to the new black-hooded wave.
So was this blood-soaked meeting of two genres an attempt for Shaw to adapt to a new decade and cash-in, or was it metaphoric wishful thinking from an over-the-hill former champ? We’ll explore those notions over the next week, as we celebrate the anniversary of its original release with FIVE DAYS OF FIVE ELEMENT NINJA!
Over the next four days we’ll look at the various elemental shinobi gimmicks and other bat-shit crazy mayhem that makes FEN one of the best movies of EITHER the ninja or kung-fu genres.
And here’s the 2007 Asian-market DVD release trailer from Celestial, which plays up the Venoms angle hard and takes itself way too seriously:
Tomorrow, Five Days of FEN continues with the first elements…