Retro-styled like a kid’s vinyl toy from the 60’s, this 10″ figure of Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo from Kage No Gundan (aka Shadow Warriors) is absolutely BOSS! I’m not a big fan of boutique vinyl and the high-end collector market, but when I saw this Marusan limited piece on eBay a couple years ago I had to jump.
I’m blown away by how the Marusan sculptors skirt the fence between fealty of portrait and the sensibilities of children’s toy design. The anatomy is cartoonish, but the accuracy to the property is dead on.
Japanese toy companies like Marusan, Marmit and Bulmark have produced these weird kiddie-styled figures of obscure or adult-oriented properties over the past decade. Guess the idea is to produce the toy you would have had as a toddler if the licensing mentality of today existed back then. No one in their right mind would have licensed Zombie Michael Jackson or Angry Red Planet or myriad R-rated action properties to a vinyl toy line back in the day, but now we can enjoy the ‘what-if’ figures that never were. Limited edition runs mean they can hone in on some beloved cult properties never viable for mass-produced merch, like Matango or the scuba-creature from Atragon, or, yes… Hanzo from the decidedly un-toddler-friendly Shadow Warriors.
When your hero is as spectacularly garbed as the titular lead is in Akai Kageboshi, you need everyone else he’s fighting to provide visual contrast. So in what is one of the most colorfully costumed ninja films of the 60’s, there are some downright dour grunts in the trenches.
Hanzo, in his unassuming grey, is actually the central pillar in all this colorful drama. Twenty years ago, he caught a female spy sneaking into the castle. Wrestling around, the two get so hot and bothered, they have to go at it right on the spot (and knowing how manly ninja are, the inevitable happens).
It leads to a life of loss and regret for him, single motherhood and revenge obsession for her, and a tormented young man raised without a father figure who thinks its normal to meet girls by sneaking into their rooms at night in a chain-mesh hood.
There are some excellent ninja-on-ninja fights throughout AK, and the battle in the cane fields is rather good. See a few scens for yourself in the trailer below:
Yes, indeedy! One year ago today, I posted the first content on Vintage Ninja. 200+ posts, hundreds of pictures and thousands of readers later, I’m pretty damn happy with where everything stands. I’m no web wizard, but the site is pretty functional and has a rather distinctive look. Mainly, though, I wanted the site itself to stay out of the way of the CONTENT.
The sharing of that content was not only the original inspiration for starting VN, but is the fuel that keep it going, and as more and more of you give me feedback, the rewards of the effort grow exponentially. When you web publish, you end up e-meeting all sorts of same minded folk you weren’t sure were out there at all, and it is great to know there’s a population out there who remember the 80’s craze and are rabidly discovering the 60’s media that led to it.
We’ll celebrate our one-year anniversary with a week-long look at the first movie featured on VN – Akai Kageboshi – the other ‘Red Shadow,’ first seen here in the form of decaying and discoloring press kit photos contemporary with its 1961/62 release. Click here to go back to those amazing photos and a more complete rundown of this terrific movie.
Ninja movies of the 50’s were largely centered on colorful wizards and swashbuckers, while the 60’s saw an explosion of grimmer fare based on credible martial arts and espionage techniques. Akai Kageboshi is a perfect bridge between those, with plenty of glamorous characters mixed with all sorts of great fights and daring ninja escapes. And there’s a kick-ass tournament thrown in there, too!
Challenging as it is, the Red Shadow’s mission seems pretty straight forward. But throw in Hattori Hanzo – charged with his pursuit, Jubei Yagyu – a contestant in the tourney who isn’t about to give up his trophy to some masked punk, the crushing reveal of who his father is, and a chance meeting with a gorgeous spear-weilding deb who may turn out to be the love of his life, and things get real busy for our hero.
Tomorrow, a look at the tournament. Wednesday, some nifty ninjutsu. Thursday, a look at Hanzo’s grey-clad commando force. A nice week ahead with a great movie.
While the Sonny Chiba / Japan Action Club TV series is more widely known, it was the really strange 1979/80 film Kage no Gundan: Hattori Hanzo by Eiichi Kudo that started the Shadow Warriors ball rolling.
Yeah… strange… a real head scratcher. Damn weird even. Sometimes stunning, sometimes baffling, sometimes laughable in an uncomfortable way that makes you nervous you’re missing something profound, and not chucking at the prolonged fucking FOOTBALL game the rival ninjas clans have in the middle of this thing. Or the inexplicable tar-covered monster ninja. There’s all sorts of stuff that just makes no sense, but then again, maybe it’s genius. I dunno…
The marketing was equally strange. Check out the poster above. Yeah, that crumpled tin foil as a the background. Those costumes, with the football shoulder pads, are right out of the movie, but the hockey or drama masks are never worn. These phantom-y figures, though, are the primary icons of the campaign.
Football. NOT making that up. Find it and see for yourself…
Koike and Kojima’s astounding Path of the Assassin has ended with volume 15, released last month from Dark Horse Comics. To say the abrupt ending is unsatisfying would be an understatement, have to wonder if this was cancelled in Japan prematurely back in the day. Doesn’t seem like a deliberate, or strategic, ending from either an editorial or emotional point-of-view.
I’m really going to miss this series, but one advantage to a series of graphic novels with a terminus is people tend to put their used collections up on eBay and Craigslist, so it’s a great opportunity to score it as a complete set if you don’t already own it all.
(adapted from an article originally published on Ninja80.com)
“Ninja” is a relatively modern word that has come to summarize a wide range of military practices, martial arts traditions and popular entertainment themes in one iconic black-hooded package.
The black suit (worn day or night), requisite throwing stars and straight sword, arsenals of weird spy gadgets, superhuman athleticism, near-magical powers of stealth and hypnosis, mastery of arcane poisons and assassination techniques, fanatical cult dedication in contrast to a mercenary nature — all qualities irrevocably tied to the shinobi. However one can argue that ninja never did exist in the broadly summarized way we see them now. A lot of people profited greatly from propagating a completely unreal story of the shinobi, and there’s seven or eight centuries worth of mythmaking and mass marketing to deal with while sifting for the historical truth.
You can look at ninja history in three different aspects:
Military History (OR: A History of Common Sense in Japanese Warfare)
Ninja, or more specifically shinobi-ku — units of warriors trained in specialized commando tactics — hold a special fascination for modern military historians. In an age of ritualized combat and strict codes of battlefield behavior, the use of these units became one of history’s first organized applications of what we today call Special Forces. Typical samurai behavior, like challenging each other to duels or collecting heads of fallen rivals for personal glory, did not an efficient battlefield campaign make. So, going as far back as the 1300s, “shadow-skilled” specialists were used for then novel tasks like monitoring troop movements, mapping layouts of enemy strongholds, and targeting command figures to disrupt enemy maneuvers.
By the 1500s, feudal lords were using castle raiding units to sneak into enemy fortresses dressed as guards, starting fires or attacking other guards to suggest a fortress mutiny, generally causing all sorts of anarchy inside while the formal military crept forward outside. A variety of specialized military or employed mercenary troops throughout Japan’s feudal era can be considered under the vague “ninja” umbrella: rappa were bandit gangs used to plague enemy territories, kusa referred to special sentries hidden in tall grass, sutekamari no jutsu was the practice of leaving snipers behind retreating armies to take shots at the advancing enemy’s officers, and kesshi were suicide squads.
In the 1580s, Japan was unified by the Napoleon-like Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and 23 years later Ieyasu Tokugawa became Shogun. The bloodsoaked fuedal era was over, as was the boom period for outré military specialists and contractors. The need for shinobi-ku on the battlefield may have waned, but the perceived need of the shadow-skill set was a different matter entirely. Their techniques were seen as vital to keeping the machinations of the new peace well oiled.
Ieyasu Tokugawa perhaps saw it best, and rewarded the famed warrior Hattori Hanzo and the surviving ‘men of Iga’ jobs as his personal bodyguards. Iga province, fabled birthplace of the ninja, had been seen as a major threat by Tokugawa’s predecessor Oda Nobunaga. He invaded the mountainous territory in 1579, and was routed by a display of guerilla tactics that must have horrified the samurai army of 12,000. He returned two years later with six armies (44,000 troops) and in a brutal application of the ‘scorched earth policy’ razed the modest province and decimated its population. After Nobunaga’s untimely death, Tokugawa sheltered the remnants of Iga’s warrior elite as his own, both surrounding himself with a capable guard and eliminating a potential vengeful threat by co-opting the very people previously so feared. The example was followed by much of the new politic, ninja were a must-have addition to any insecure lord’s peacetime army.
Regardless of how legit the threat of shinobi agents actually was, ninja paranoia made for good business, particularly for anti-ninja consultants (often ninja themselves) as well as architects specializing in anti-ninja housing. Equipped with slippery walls, hidden viewports and creaking floors, these ninja-proof buildings are actually popular tourist attractions today.
Martial Arts Traditions (and the not-so-secret secret scrolls)
Sun Tzu’s profound Art of War introduced the very concepts of special forces, intelligence gathering and sabotage to the Japanese as far back as the 7th Century AD. That seed grew into a thriving industry for samurai families choosing to specialize in “shadow skills.” Contrary to traditions of ritualized warfare and rigid martial arts practices, these services required out-of-the-box training, innovative methods, and an array of gadgetry that would baffle anyone outside the discipline.
When the age of internal warfare ceased in Japan, centuries of shadow skills were saved from obscurity by astute families adapting the successes of the battlefield to the new political era facing them. Loosely organized tricks of the trade were codified into “ryu” — what we would call ‘styles’ — sort of organic museums of martial arts traditions. Here’s where you get the vaunted “secret scrolls” being handed down through generations, rife with brushed ink illustrations of archaic weapons and curious spyware. As the world grew up and ninja were less and less needed (or in many opinions, the world caught up to the shinobi), some of these ryu endured as a sort of archeological record of a martial past.
Togakure Ryu was one such enduring tradition, and this style ensured it’s survival like no other — it embraced modern media and expanded it’s teaching’s worldwide. The style’s last full Grandmaster Toshitsugu Takamatsu spent the last 15 years of his life training the current godfather of worldwide ninjutsu Masaki Hatsumi. Together they served as technical advisors to popular ninja films and found great success publishing ninja books. Hatsumi trained Europeans and Americans in the traditions of his art and licensed them to spread the ryu worldwide, fueling a global explosion of modern ninja training in the 1980s.
Popular Entertainment (a scroll may tell a thousand secret words, but a PICTURE…)
It is the iconography of the ninja — the alluring image of the black-suited warrior with the exotic weapons — that more often than not defines “ninja.” Sensationalized notions of the ninja go back as far as the shinobi’s genuine history, and were even encouraged back in the day by families hiring-out their services or commandos planting terrifying ideas into already paranoid palace guards.
Ninja ‘fish tales’ and popular lore go back to the 1500s (and further by some definitions), and were kept alive by kodanshi traveling performers and kabuki stage dramas. Popular novels and illustrations of the 1700-1800s finally lock down the image of the shinobi in the classic black suit and sinister mask. A lot of what I call “retro-shinobification” took place, too, as historical figures were given credit for being ninja whether they had been or not. Myriad military commanders and common thieves had their portraits inked-over with black night suits and their bios spiced up with sensational shinobi activity.
In general, popular lore became popular media and the image and notion of what the public WANTED to believe was “ninja” replaced any credible military history or martial arts tradition.
The 20th Century saw three distinct “ninja booms”:
1910-1920s – A monkey in every kid’s pocket! Tachikawa Bunko (Pocket Books) become all the rage when the 40th volume of the kid’s novel series features the “Leaping Monkey” Sarutobi Sasuke. Previously, ninja were portrayed as vile villains or trouble-making wizards, but now shinobi were redefined as superheroes, and we’ve never looked back.
1960s – Ninja come to manga and the movies! The 60’s saw explosions in both whimsical fantasy flicks and historically credible fare both on the pulp page and the silver screen. Anything and everything ninja sold, they were all over TV, the toy shelf, product advertising and even pornography. Although some of this media wave was exported to markets in Australia and Italy, none of it made it here. We were SOOOOOOO robbed!
1980s – We Want Our Black Ninja, AND WE WANT HIM NOW! American film studios race to get out a ninja flick, based on the buzz created by Eric Van Lustbader‘s best-selling novel The Ninja. Alas, the exploitation filmmakers beat the big guys to the punch, and for better or worse, Sho Kosugi, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff would come to define ninja to American audiences. At the same time, ninja training became the rage in the martial arts world, the turtles hit comics and TV, and ninja were everywhere… EVERYWHERE! It was a grand decade in black, but eventually the very word ‘ninja’ became poison. Media witch-hunters chose mail order weapons as the ruin-of-society-du-jour. Ninja movies devolved into horrendous Hong Kong exploitation, or trite kids comedies. Then the kickboxers took over martial arts cinema in the 90’s and ninja were yesterday’s news. We never got that high-end American ninja movie we should have, and the rental market went to the gutter-grade material so quick there was nary a thought to import the high-end Japanese stuff from decades past.
This humble article is less about ninja history than it is an illustration of WHY ninja history is so challenging. The skeptical historian can call B.S. on the very existence of ninja, the martial arts student can have blind faith in the pedigree of his “secret way,” and the movie buff can wander the grey area in between.
Then there’s this thought – even if it’s all a bunch of hype, isn’t 500+ years of lore and sensationalism history unto itself?
Can a respectable, accomplished beautiful woman from noble samurai family possibly say no to a hooded bedroom invader so clearly superior in his warrior fashion sense? I think not!
I may have started this site just to find a good home for this picture. Seriously.
Said hood is Hashizo Okawa, the shinobi son trying to exact revenge on behalf of his tattooed ninja mom-done-wrong in the 1961 Toei film Akai Kageboshi. It’s part tournament movie, part mulit-generational mystery, part ninja romance – all with a supporting cast of staggering chambara manliness.
It all starts with our old pal Hattori Hanzo, played by Jushiro Konoe of Ninja Hunt and the Yagu Secret Scrolls series, who intercepts a ninja on a castle incursion. During their struggle, he realizes his prey is actually a woman, and the two are so turned-on by each other’s shinobi sex appeal, they have at it on the spot.
Couple decades later, that same lady of the shadows is a bitter and obsessed ninja MILF who has trained her son, the offspring of that fateful encounter, in the family trade. Decked out in all sorts of gorgeous ornate get-ups, he is ‘The Red Shadow’ – the instrument of her revenge.
The plot, from that set-up, is full of twists and turns and amazing characters. Sonny-boy’s mission is to collect 10 swords, one of which has part of a map etched onto it’s handle that when matched up with mom’s killer tats will lead them to a Shogunate treasure and vindicate her failure as a shadow agent. The ten swords, however, are the prizes in a martial arts tournament, so Red has to snatch the blades from the victors every night.
This goes along fine, as long as the winners are old semi-retired swordsmen or young hotties practicing Naginata, but when one of the victors is Jubei F’N Yagu, played by Ryutaro Otomo, it’s a whole different deal!
Red throws everything in his ninja repertoire at Jubei, just to see it all bounce harmlessly off his square jaw. Jubei, meanwhile, butts his way into the intrigue afoot, then Hanzo comes out of retirement, Red falls in love, snakes fall from the ceiling and shuriken sing through the night air…
So yeah, Akai Kegeboshi is a pretty damn essential film, for those of you who haven’t seen it. Grey marketeers and fan-subbers have made it readily available, too, so there’s no excuses. Despite literal translations, would be a good idea to refer to this maybe as “The Crimson Shadow” or “The Scarlet Shadow” or something else, as the name “Red Shadow” has a rather significant pedigree elsewhere…
Here’s a ton of images, like the above, from Thai press kits released contemporary with the film’s original theatrical run.
I’ll wrap this up with some close-up scans of the mission gear. LOVE that mesh soft-armor hood!
Don’t let these sepia-tone and B&W press photos fool you, Akai Kageboshi is a beautiful color film. The print that’s floating about the ‘trading communities’ is probably from TV and is pretty inky, though – but by no means a deal breaker.