34 ninja can’t be wrong

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

17Ninja_art

SEVENTEEN NINJA (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA, 1963) is the typical 60’s Japanese boom film in that:

1.) It’s GREAT.

2.) It’s noir-as-hell — painted in gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography.

3.) It’s also noir-as-hell because (from the gospel of James Ellroy) pretty much everybody in it is fucked. And…

4.) It does what the best shinobi cinema does, pits ninja-vs.-ninja in a world of samurai who would just assume see them all dead.

17Ninja_1

Again… and we never get sick of this… the intricacies of the ninja way of life and its weight on the soul of the individual are central to the motivations. Characters are either looking to escape the shadow life, or embrace the dark too readily. Duty is tantamount, but who that duty is to is a major source of disillusionment, and in the end, was it all worth it?

17Ninja_10

There are guys…

17Ninja_2

There are girls…

17Ninja_3

They’re not supposed to fall in love with each other but do. And actually being a human being for once, giving way to normal human emotions, is a cancer to the spartan shadow life the ninja clans needed their agents to live. The heart puts the team, the clan, and the mission in jeopardy.

17Ninja_7

In fine ‘born to lose’ form, that mission is essentially impossible, but at the same time impossible to turn down. A vital political document must be rescued from the corrupt clan that stole it. The document has no value to Iga, they’re fighting someone else’s battle here, doing the dirty work with the twisted pride these gloomy movies so often leaned on as a plot device — duty and obligation as a combination of doing what’s ‘right’ and being hired to do something no one thinks is possible but somehow you’ll figure out. It’s like a shadow-hubris in a way, so common to films of this era.

17Ninja_4

17N doubles that dynamic though. The conniving clan is fully aware the last of the Iga ninja have been assigned to retrieve the scroll, and have hidden the scroll in a ludicrously over-secure fortress occupied by a full garrison. Whereas the usual ninja commando tactics should work, Iga operatives keep getting caught and killed, one after another, due to the castle’s recently hired in-house anti-ninja specialist from rival Koga!

17Ninja_5

In the 1980s, the American ninja films may have taken the hoods out of the feudal era and put them in modern urban environs, but the ninja-vs.-ninja device remained at the genre’s core. Shadow skills taking down hapless guards and run-of-the-mill thugs was always fun second-act fare, but the third act needs your hero and villain to be equally matched for the conflict to actually matter.

Sho Kosugi’s famous “only a ninja can stop a ninja” notion is just as present in the 60s films that inspired him, although more in a larger-scale tactical way. One clan’s ninja are hired as an anti-ninja solution in the way an area overrun by cobras might let lose an imported population of mongoose. The opposing ninja are not only a military threat, they are selling out their own brethren’s way of life, and their’s too by default.

And in the end, everyone is expendable. The snakes may be gone, but who wants a plague of mongoose? The best of all solutions for the samurai clans involved is all of these vermin kill each other off.

17Ninja_6

17N is an all-star shinobi affair; Satomi Kotaro is the heroic young ninja stuck between a rock, a hard place and a harder place, while his clan leader played by Ryutaro Otomo suffers under the burden of command, especially when that role requires him to send his men to die. The shadow on the other side of the chess board is superbly rendered by Jushiro Konoe, no stranger to shinobi cinema as hunter (Ninja Gari) or prey (the Yagyu Secret Scrolls series).

Konoe’s ninja exterminator is as intelligent as he is ruthless, sniffing out planted agents and picking off spies with a yari spear like a mantis.

17Ninja_8

Great moment here as he senses an intruder, who is armed with a nifty telescoping yari of his own.

17Ninja_9

17Ninja_15

There are two emotional gears grinding against each other in this film. Otomo’s ninja leader positions his men like pawns, sacrificing 16 of them in an effort to put one in just the right spot for a surprise hit. It torments him to the point of self-sacrifice, he’s almost relieved at being captured and tortured, and clings to life only with the hope of seeing the gambit pay off.

17Ninja_1117Ninja_16

Then there’s the Romeo & Juliet angle, which by the end of the 60s boom actually became a bit tired, but this early entry did it well. Having a romantic couple come out of this bloodbath intact, able to leave “the life” behind and live as loving real humans is the ultimate reward above and beyond the dispatching of duties.

17Ninja_1417Ninja_13

The Romeo & Juliet angle begins the sequel film as well. SEVENTEEN NINJA 2: THE GREAT BATTLE (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA: DAIKESSEN, 1965 — aka Seventeen Ninja: Amunition and Ambition according to Paghat) sees Hiroki Matsukata take of the mantle of the reluctant man-of-Iga in love with a Koga kunoichi and burdened with an impossible mission.

17Ninja2_1 17Ninja2_217Ninja2_6 17Ninja2_7

Ryutaro Otomo returns in the heart-heavy Iga leader role (this time as Hattori Hanzo) once again facing a heavily guarded fortress and an anti-ninja specialist. Rival ninja Ginza is particularly vicious and driven, perhaps having bought too into the notion that winning here might elevate him out of the shadows. Hanzo, meanwhile, knows they’re both in the typical no-win situation.

17Ninja2_1117Ninja2_9

The second film is a great watch, although lacking some of the subtleties of the first. It’s a more straightforward conflict — destroying a hidden arsenal of muskets that will tip the scales in a political revolt — much less of a soul-wringing chess game is played, although the black-hooded body count racks up the same.

17Ninja2_1017Ninja2_8

By ’65 the Japanese ninja boom was approaching apex, shadow skills on display from every studio and on screens big and small. This film doesn’t provide as much exotic gadgetry and arcane skills as its predecessor (or other genre entries of the same time) but the action is still fine.

I love Matsukata in anything. He was the first ninja actor I was exposed to, via Magic Serpent being a staple of Boston UHF TV’s Creature Double Feature in the mid 70s. In that film, he lost his head to a gigantic ninja boomerang. Here, it’s over a gal. What’s a ninja gonna do?

17Ninja2_4 17Ninja2_5

The trick with these two very similar films is to not watch them back to back. Although the characters are different in name (and cast to a degree), the plot structure and dramatic devices are all the same, as are the bittersweet end results.

17Ninja2_3

17Ninja2_13

17N 2 was a rarity for the longest time, even in Japan. A video release last year finally put it in the hands of long-curious shinobi-cinemafiles who were FINALLY able to devour it. Beyond that initial excitement, the sequel is a solid ‘B’ to the first and more innovative film’s ‘A’ in my opinion. If you didn’t know of the existence of the 63 original though, the 65 film would be amongst your favorites, and it should be noted you absolutely do not need to be familiar with the first to enjoy the second.

17Ninja2_12

Two movies, 34 ninja… what’s not to love?

READ MORE:

Weird Wild Realm‘s reviews.

Another review of the first film at Shades of Grey.

 

A little MAGIC SERPENT to start things off

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 3

Surely the apex of shinobi-kaiju cinema, Magic Serpent (for the Sandy Frank/AIP-exposed) or Kairyu Dai-Kessen, is a no brainer to start of Monsters and Masks 2010!

This is a staged publicity shot, you rarely if ever get that clear a shot of the two dueling ninja transformed into giant pagoda-crushing critters. That is one loooong-legged toad…

Serpent is available in two different forms; the English-dubbed full-frame “Magic Serpent” cut is on a Gamera double feature disc, and a widescreen Japanese language print with grey market subs is circulating as “Dragon Showdown” or “Battle of the Dragons.” I recommend both, as I grew up with the former’s goofy translations and Godzilla sound-effects, but love the original’s kids chorus theme song and widescreen glory.

Hiroki Matsukata and Ryutaro Otomo posed with their amphibious alter-egos.
French market title MONSTERS OF THE APOCALYPSE ignores the ninja-ness of this masterpiece for some reason. YOUNG FLYING HERO is an un-official Thai sequel/knockoff.
This French market re-title of the above, cashing-in on the 80's ninja VHS rental boom, is THE FUCKING BOMB!!! Look at that misleading cover art. C'est magnifique!

Further reading:

We did a big write up on this last year: Part 1 / Part 2

The un-official Thai sequel sounds like a real blast, too. TarsTarkas.net