My review of TED AND HIS 46 RONIN, illustrated mostly by pictures from other films…

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Listen up Universal execs! I know exactly what’s gone wrong with your version of 47 Ronin. It’s not a lousy script, minority backlash, a star past his drawing prime, source material un-relatable to the mainstream, or even competition from the Hobbitses like all the critics have been telling you.

It’s lack of commitment.

Let me ‘splain here, beginning with this startling un-ronin-y photo from a testosterone-amped 90s exploitation western:


What would alarm, or outright offend, more — a movie about the gunfight at the OK Corral wherein they got the costumes, environs, props, speech patterns, hairstyles, etc. 100% legit but then fudged the historical truth to sculpt more of a story they wanted, OR a sci-fi version of the same wherein the OK Corral is on the moon, laser fire is exchanged, Wyatt Earp flies around on a jetpack, the Clanton gang are lizard men AND they too fudged the historical facts to sculpt the story they wanted?


Were critical historians paying more scrutiny to the details of a supposedly more credible film like Spielberg’s Lincoln than they were in the accuracy of the stovepipe hat worn in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and other famous portrayals?


Levels of responsibility, and expectations of such respect for ‘truth,’ are proportional to the heir of legitimacy presented by the filmmaker. This is what allows musicals like Chicago and Robin and the Seven Hoods to be enjoyed in their own context parallel to more serious fare of the same theme like Boardwalk Empire and Mob City.


But no film, from any era, country or status of director presents history as 100% straight. It’d make for a tearfully boring film, and the purpose of said media is to entertain. Historians will tell you that even with the best of intentions, My Darling ClementineHour of the GunTombstone and Costner’s Wyatt Earp are Hollywood, not history.


Chushingura has been adapted even more than the OK Corral incident and the lives of its legendary participants, and with the same swinging pendulum of historical accuracies vs. dramatic liberties.

But while an American version of this complex political and cultural tale that ends with the mass suicide of its heroes was ill-advised from the start, (as was mixing a Westerner into the otherwise Japanese cast under the ‘half-breed’ cop-out) the idea of selling a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy epic with feudal Japanese trappings to worldwide audiences was not only noble but financially sound. When it was released, I adored Kadowkawa’s magic and creature-infused post Star Wars version of Satomi Hakkenden known to us as Legend of the Eight Samurai, and it had crazy legs on VHS in multiple languages and markets. So why not unleash something similar now, in a market primed by everything from Crouching Tiger to Game of Thrones?


I won’t climb a soapbox on the soiling of sacred Japanese tales here, nor spout on the yet-another-white-guy-shows-the-native-culture-how-their-warrior-tradition-really-should-be-done bullshit. There are thousands of gallons of venom already spewed across the internet on those subjects. Instead I’ll take somewhat of a 180-degree turn. I think to avoid such criticisms, 47 Ronin should have been MORE fantastic, more over the top, had more of an international cast and not have been set in a straight up Japan but rather a vague “martial world” ala the Hong Kong liquid sword epics.


If Keanu Reeves is your lead, then you’ve already told history to go fuck itself, soooooo… don’t sweat the history, don’t make it look and feel — in general seem — “right.” Instead, make it more surreal. Have the tatoo’d skeleton guy as one of the 47 too, and introduce his pal the chain-weilding emancipated slave from the Ivory Coast, then a Portugeese gun runner straight off the Black Ship and his steam-powered robot show up, followed by an unfrozen caveman or Viking berserker next to a topless Chirstian nun who slays vampires by lactating holy water.  Yes, there would be vampires. And tons of other yokai and Japanese mythology. Then Hercules shows up and they all fight reanimated skeleton warriors… and man does that time-travelling Wyatt Earp’s Laser-Colt come in handy!

OK… cool… but MORE PLEASE!


Plenty of nice ground work was laid for historical fantasy, here, too. The “Dutch Island” formed of Western pirate ships where outre gladiatorial games are held was pretty sweet. The gathering of magical swords to give the 47 an edge over superior numbers was also a good notion. The gigantic silver samurai guy (actually closer to what you wanted from The Wolverine) was excellent and the dragon at the end looked absolutely great! It’s the best Japanese dragon FX ever put on screen. 


But again, none of it was taken far enough — more pirate-freaks, more magic sword powers, and was the giant samurai just an animated suit of armor? I couldn’t tell, and that’s a flaw in a fantasy epic. And don’t stop at one monster at the end, dammit, go full Magic Serpent and have Keanu transform into a giant toad, big-ass-spider (not to be confused with THE Big Ass Spider) or fiery bat monster for a combined kaiju/martial arts climax.

This scene with 47 RONIN’s FX??? Ho-lee-sh*t!

47 Ronin should have jumped deep deep DEEP into the impossible fantasy. Instead, it sort of just waded in the safe shallow end while keeping enough traditional fixtures intact to make trouble for itself. This lack of commitment allowed the haters, while likely never even seeing it, to accuse the film of fingering both history and chambara cinematic traditions in the bung hole, for the sake of being a big American star vehicle. It was born behind this 8-ball and never recovered.

Being fully submerged in the insane fantasy waters would have gotten 47 Ronin off that hook, and maybe then the audience for this movie wouldn’t be rolling its collective eyes at the idea of friggin’ NEO taking a Tom Cruise-level piss on jidai-geki while looking over their shoulders for the imminent arrival of Bill S. Preston, Esq. in a phone booth.

With added fantasy elements, I have much fewer Keanu issues with the marketing on the right.

BUT, I will say this: Hiroyuki Sanada was great. He’s ALWAYS great, and carried much of the film. Were Sanada the lead, and 47 Ronin a subtitled import ala The Promise (in which he also starred), House of Flying Daggers or Curse of the Golden Flower it might have actually made more money in the States. Certainly would have merited an underground fan base akin to that of Ashura, DororoShinobi: Heart Under BladeGoemon and the like. If it had a more shameless exploitation vibe like Man with the Iron Fists it might be finding a modest audience. Or if it was a big budget video game instead of film in the first place, it would have Onimusha level visibility.


Instead, it’s a $175 million dollar debacle for a Hollywood studio, and people LOVE to watch those tentpoles fail. 47 Ronin seems to be taking its place as the half-breed Japanese contender to John Carter, and like that film, it deserves a fairer shake and better box office. I mean come on, it’s no Lone Ranger

Dude? Dude… DUDE!!!

If you’re thinking of going to see this thing, despite the wrongness, despite the shortcomings, know that it’s worth it for Sanada and the dragon on the big screen alone. But hurry up, the clock is ticking on dog…

Abdullah the Butcher wants YOU to see better Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada fare like ROARING THUNDER, TWILIGHT SAMURAI, RINGU and SUNSHINE, or he’ll stick a fork in your head!



Keith J. Rainville — 12/29/13


Aint no Ninja in this Dragon’s Den!

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[Sing that title like an old blues number]

Back in the craze daze, we were all victims of “Shinobified” movie titles — kung-fu flicks, often from the 70’s, with no ninja content whatsoever shamelessly retitled to the likes of Fist of Ninja, Dragon Claw Ninja, Tiger Fist Ninja, Fist of the Dragon Tiger Claw Ninja, Ninja in the Claws of the Dragon Fisted Tiger, 3 Dragon Claw Ninjas and a Little Tiger, Claws of the 7 Magnificent Tiger Dragon Ninja, 12 Angry Tiger Ninja Dragon Clawed Men, ad nauseum…

But here’s a weird reversal — a Hong Kong multi-langual flyer for the decidedly shinobi-rific Ninja in the Dragon’s Den with no visual evidence of Henry Sanada in his fine hooded gear anywhere to be seen.

DragonsDenHK1 DragonsDenHK2

Muscular Jackie Chan-lookin’ home-town hero aside, when you consider the martial movie spirit of the mid 80’s, this was NOT good marketing.

The Mexicans got it better!


And to see the photos that carnival banner-esque painting was based on, click here to see the chock-full-o-ninja Japanese program for the same film, with images like this:


Now, so as not to take a total shit on Conan Lee, I’ll make a tangental plug here for a new four-disc set coming out from Shout Factory in July that features a futuristic and post-apocalyptic sci-fi b-movie orgy, including 80s ensemble exploitation entry Eliminators!



NINJA WARS press book

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It was one of the few Japanese ninja movies that actually made it to U.S. shores in the 80s, and what a weird choice. Full of fantasy special effects, bizarre super powered evil monks, sadism and rape and decapitated girls walking around, it was an exploitation feast for teenaged cable addicts, even if there was nary a black hood to be seen. It was Kadokawa’s big budget Iga Ninpocho, known here as Ninja Wars.

And this was the US press press book from 1983:

This painting was the U.S. poster and sometimes VHS clamshell package. Painted in 1982, it's still pretty 70's.
I could never quite make out this detail back when I had the VHS.
Back cover of the book featured Henry Sanada over the more familiar in the U.S. Sonny Chiba.

Sanada and pop-star Noriko Watanabe in her first film were BANK in Japan.
Chiba had a small but important role, and his Japan Action Club was responsible for fights and stunts galore.
Mikio Narita as the evil wizard Kashin Koji was our fave character. The dubbed English voice was over-the-top sinister and we used to imitate it all the time.
The "Devil Monks" had surreal super powers and/or signature weapons. They were downright monstrous, and this film bordered on the horror genre at all times.
Pro wrestler Strong Kobayashi as Kongo dwarfed the rest of the cast.

Ninja Wars didn’t get a whole ton of traction during the craze, mostly because of the lack of black hoods in both the film and its marketing. HBO even pushed it as a surreal Japanese art film rather than a martial arts exploitation movie, which wasn’t that huge a stretch…

If Ninja Wars was ‘art’ then it was a demented piece of fantasy art painted on the side of some oversexed pervert’s conversion van. Mutant super monks, bat shit-crazy wizards, undead hotties with transplanted heads, fat chicks on aphrodisiacs gettin’ nekkid, flying gags and crazy stunts, acid barf of doom. Wow…

Ninja Wars may be to 80s shinobi cinema what Lucio Fulci’s Conquest was to Conan knock-offs – the weird bastard stepchild that does and doesn’t belong to the genre, and who can tell if it’s brilliant art or a total piece of shit lost in its own pretension and trying way to hard to shock?

The 2005 Adness DVD of Ninja Wars was the first time it was released uncut, widescreen and in Japanese, and it’s well worth seeking out on the secondary market. But I’ve also kept a public domain DVD and an old clamshell VHS just to have that godawful dub I so loved as a craze-era teen.

Some ninja blood over at ‘Sangre Yakuza’

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Sangre Yakuza is an excellent Spanish-language blog full of Japanese gang-war movie posters, topless sukebans, tattoo’d girls in bondage (like the above kunoichi-esque bandit about to get abused), and karate-kickin’ honeys.

And lo-and-behold some sword-slinging shinobi once in a while…

There’s also plenty of sci-fi, kaiju and tokusatsu (particularly panty shots), so something for everyone over there.

Meanwhile, we’ve got the first update in 7-8 months from the excellent photo blog Asian Drill Pop. Let’s hope they keep it up and start updating the rest of the family – Ultra Guro and Blonde Zombies.

And of course there’s always great stuff to dig through over at Wrong Side of the Art.

NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN Japanese program stills (part 2)

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Ninja in the Dragon’s Den is that rare Chinese/HK movie that actually gives props to Japanese martial arts. Henry Sanada‘s shinobi is every bit the equal of Conan Lee‘s kung-fu hero, and when the misunderstandings that led to their antagonism are cleared up, they become an unbeatable duo.

This water wheel scene is one of several signature duels in this fight-bloated flick.

The heart of the film takes place in said “Dragon’s Den” – a tricked out tower of ninja death, chock full of anti-shinobi booby traps and hidden gimmicks.

The twin short swords were Sanada's specialty in the 80's ninja flicks he did. These could well be the very same props used in SHOGUN's NINJA.

NitDD was an indie production (Seasonal Film Corp.) with inconsistent distribution over the years. Seems to be in public domain now, as it’s part of a lot of cheap multi-pack DVDs rather than getting a remastered/restored release. There are a few decent grey market releases, but the definitive print is frustratingly elusive. I have one that’s complete, original language with subs, and looks great, but is full frame. Another is is widescreen, but cut (the cut scenes are included as extras) with English dub only and a transfer that’s inky and soft. German and British R2 discs seem to combine the best of both, but never all of both, and the PAL conversions are always a bit wonky anyway.

Where’s Criterion when you need them?

NINJA IN THE DRAGON’S DEN Japanese program stills (part 1)

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The 1982 Corey Yuen crossover actioner Long zhi ren zhe (aka Ninja in the Dragon’s Den and Legend of the Ninja) was a double vehicle, with two equally marketable leading men. Conan Lee was *going to be* the more muscular, harder-edged Jackie Chan. Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada was taking off as the prodigy of the Japan Action Club, with Roaring Fire and Ninja Wars, plus a stint on Kage no Gundan, all in the same year.

Each man could be given lead billing in his native land, leaving the other to be billed as an exotic import from another country. Win-win.

These press stills are from the Japanese theatrical release program, and there’s a lot of them, so I’ll break this down into installments.

Note the differences in head gear from the staged publicity shot above and the on-set still from the film below. Different gauntlets, too. This might have been an early version of the costume, or a second suit used in the MANY stunt shots throughout.

Sanada plays a ninja on the vengeance trail, hunting down all those responsible for his father’s death years earlier. His final target has lived in exile in China, where he’s trained a local to become a formidable martial artist himself. These two clash, much to the chagrin of ‘uncle’ who on his deathbed reveals some decades old secrets that unite the fighters as martial arts soul brothers. Just in time, too, as they are attacked by an evil wizard and his Shaolin army!

It’s a fight-PACKED flick, with some kung-fu slapstick, rather good ninja-on-ninja action, a long battle in a shinobi-proofed pagoda and some of the best kung-fu vs. ninja stuff ever filmed.

Yuen did a superb job melding Japanese and Chinese movie martial arts. Sanada’s screen ninjutsu is mutated with some high kicks, spins and flourish to be more compatible with Lee’s screen kung-fu, which was always a bit stiffer and more Japanese karate-like than a lot of his Hong Kong contemporaries.

Conan Lee may not have had the prolific, multi-genre career Sanada went on to, but his fight scenes on stilts in this flick are absolutely unforgettable. He followed up NitDD with roles in beloved 80’s camp Gymkata and played a ninja in the sci-fi schlocker Eliminators, before nearly killing himself in an insane stunt in Tiger on the Beat II.

Sanada’s ninja gear here is a perfect nexus of 60’s and 70’s Japanese move/TV and the less pillowy, more lean cut used in American ninja films in the 80’s. The armored headband motif would largely disappear in the 80’s though, and not make a comeback until the 2000’s with Naruto. This shot was the inspiration for the Mexican painted lobby card we featured way back here.

A pile more stills coming tomorrow. In the meantime, some further reading:

The Illuminated Lantern has a great write up here, including some lyrics from the absolutely unforgettable theme song!

The ancient in web years but enduringly invaluable “Return of the Ninjas” site also has a review with package art and posters here.

One of the more common grey market releases was reviewed at HK DVD Heaven.

Ninja Blowing Gun???

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Don’t know if this is old stock, a warehouse find, or new print runs, but has all sorts of old 80’s ninja posters for sale, and CHEAP!



I got these two CLASSICS for Christmas, 1983 I think… I still have them, too! I absolutely love that these Kosugi posters are still available somewhere. That jump kick pose was bitten by movie posters, VHS clamshells, toy packages and more, endlessly, and you still see it once in a while…


But I never had this one… Man, if I had ANY wall space, I’d be on this like a bad smell.


And where has this Henry Sanada poster from Ninja in the Dragon’s Den been all my life???

Most of these are 24×36″, probably on cheap gloss – like they should be – and retail for less than FIVE BUCKS!

I’ve never ordered from, and the site seems a bit dodgy (parts of it possibly not updated since 2004) so who knows… I may place a test order to see what comes through. Will keep y’all posted.

Mexican lobby card – Ninja in the Dragon’s Den

It never really breached the Times Square grindhouse and werewolf circuits here in the States, but the Hong Kong / Japanese co-production Ninja in the Dragon Den was certainly an international hit.

Here’s some totally original painted artwork from the Mexican release. Most international ad campaigns for the film centered on either of the two matinee idols involved – Henry Sanada and Conan Lee, and where their names didn’t mean as much, it was photos of Sanada’s superb ninja costuming that carried the ads.

But in Mexico, they often opted for totally original art.