On our 9th Birthday, here’s 9 gifts WE gave the world

posted in: 7 - Ninja Miscelany | 0

Nine years ago this weekend, this site’s first posts went live. We typically celebrate the anniversary of our launch by reposting our first feature — press stills from Akai Kageboshi — but we decided to change things up this year. In an effort to expose new readers to some of our best older content, here’s nine birthday-caliber gifts WE gave YOU over the years. Each was a real gem that you’d only find in the VN boutique of ninja-obsessiveness, so while we pat ourselves on the back like needy a-holes chasing a hug, please enjoy our unique gifts to the world:

 

Introducing ‘Tonbei the Mist’ to the rest of the English-speaking world just as The Samurai was hitting DVD in Australia

Concurrent to the Shinobi no Mono films jet propelling Japan’s 1960s ninja craze was the smash hit TV series Onmitsu Kenshi, aka “The Samurai” in Australia. If Shogunate swordsman Shintaro was the samurai Lone Ranger, grey-suited ninja Kiri no Tonbei was his Tonto. Virtually unknown outside of Japan and Australia, we got ahold of early DVD sets of this series from a close friend down under and did our best to make Tonbei the Mist a household name to the rest of the world’s ninja fans. And we’re still bitter as hell the English-dubbed ninja-laden ten seasons of this show never made it to the States during the 80s boom.

 

My gushing review of Isaac Florentine’s Ninja

Scott Adkins might be the last of a dying breed of martial arts action movie regulars. And while his better-known ‘Boyka’ films are indeed superb, Isaac Florentine’s 2010 love letter to all things 80s ninja was just the bees knees. While nowhere near as well known as the contemporary Ninja Assassin or the GI Joe live action films, this flick did the modern ninja superhero thing better than all of them, balancing retro nostalgia and forward-thinking perfectly. There is no bigger advocate for this movie (and its sequel) than this site, and if you were one of the unaware whose throats we pushed this movie down wether you wanted it or not, you’re welcome!

 

Giving the ninja scenes in Shogun their just due

While a massive sensation in its day, the 1980 legendary TV mini-series Shogun has never found much of a new audience since. And while some eye-rolling directed to its white-savior-centricity, Japanese stereotyping and tacky-as-hell score can be rather legit in a modern light, for our purposes here the historical significance of the ninja scenes cannot be understated. Seeds were planted here, impressions made on audience and industry alike. AND, this was a classic Japanese-modelled ninja scene during the time American studios were turning ninja into red-suited billboards for mail-order merchandise. That example should not be forgotten…

 

Gifting this collage of the Enter the Ninja credit sequence to the world

Probably the most virally prolific image we’ve ever published, the few hours I spent screen-capping and collaging the unforgettable credit sequence from Enter the Ninja are still paying off. To this day I see this image all over tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if that gets some young whippersnappers to watch the old gem that is Enter, then it was time well spent indeed.

 

Schooling Storm Shadow fans on the original G.I. Ninja

I’m as big a nerd for the iconic G.I. Joe white ninja as anybody, but the world has largely forgotten his pulp-predecessor Kana – The Human Killing Machine. In the pages of DC’s G.I. Combat, his card-carrying full-bore black ninja turned against his own Japanese government during World War II, joined the Western secret service, and proceeded to rack up an Axis body count that would have made Sgt. Rock proud. This article remains the best source out there for this forgotten chapter of 80s ninja history, and because of it, thousands once ignorant of Kana now know. And knowing is half the ba— ah whatever… 

 

Remembering the lost words of the original hater of the ninja revival

Buried deep in the 1962 book Zen Combat, an otherwise unremarkable collection of articles on Japanese martial arts, is a rather surprising take from a Westerner on what was then a new boom in organized ninjutsu in Japan. Jay Gluck has little-to-no good to say of the new “ninjutsa” [sic] fad, considers it all a bunch of fish tales and charlatanism, and hopes it’ll go nowhere. This is history-making early recognition of ninja in English and deserves to be in more aficionados’ libraries.

 

Starting the endless task of aggregating “Kosugi Kicks”

Shot as a publicity still (and source pic for the painted movie poster) before the release of Enter the Ninja, Sho Kosugi‘s take on the Bruce Lee flying kick added the ninja wardrobe and two wakizashi and immediately become THE icon of the 80s ninja boom. It was endlessly homaged, parodied and shamelessly pirated, hundreds of times over. We’ve been collecting these images for years and haven’t run out yet.

 

Shedding light on the never-made John Carpenter adaptation of Lustbader’s The Ninja

Eric Van Lustbader‘s novel The Ninja was a massive bestseller and must be considered the most successful mainstream media entry into the 80s American boom. It was immediately optioned for a big budget, A-list film that somehow never found traction in Hollywood. We compare the book to various abandoned versions of the proposed script, analyze what the legendary John Carpenter would have done with it, and even speculate on some casting. The most significant event of the ninja craze that never happened unfolds.

 

Shaking and stirring the Bond flick You Only Live Twice

Plenty’s been written about what was then the biggest James Bond film ever, but nowhere else will you find a more in-depth and broad-reaching look at the 1967 ground-breaker from a totally ninja-centric perspective. From the nearly-forgotten newspaper comic strip ninja to the first ever toy kunoichi, we exposed how Britain got English-language ninja a decade and half before our craze. Long-standing Bond media, from official social feeds to fan sites and print mags eagerly picked up on our fresh look, as the film that introduced ninja to the western world turned 50.

 

As we blow out our nine candles, we just want to say thanks to everyone who reads, shares and even contributes to this site.

Who wants cake?

NINJA II now widely available

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 6

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Was it really four years ago that I wrote this gushing review of Scott Adkins and Isaac Florentine‘s throwback NINJA?

Ninja was to the more widely known Ninja Assassin what Deep Impact was to Armageddon or Tombstone to Wyatt Earp — a cheaper, more exploitive and ultimately more enjoyable alternative to a bigger property. Ninja Assassin aimed for a mainstream audience, and largely missed. But worse, with its overly-digital post-Matrix aesthetic it also missed the expectations of the frontline genre enthusiasts. In short, it kinda pissed off old guard martial arts movie maniacs, and us ninja geeks.

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The one thing I felt super guilty about in my dislike of the more-style-than-substance Ninja Assassin was not showing the proper love for Sho Kosugi‘s return to the screen. I supported the flick when it was in theaters, but have never returned to it, and in reading this site you’d hardly knew it existed. However, that guilt is now blunted somewhat, as Adkins, Florentine and, well… A Kosugi… return in Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear!

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Kane Kosugi, that is. All grown up, pretty damned ripped, and looking A LOT like his pop!

As was with the first film, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Writer David White (who also scribed the superb Undisputed 2 and 3) spins a soundly-structured revenge plot that takes advantage of Thailand filming locales, weaves in some genuine ninja lore, but mostly gets the hell out of the way so the fights can take over.

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We’re reunited with Casey and Namiko, now living happily and rebuilding after the dojo-pocalypse of the first film. Things are looking good. Then he goes and gives her a medallion as a symbol of his commitment.

A medallion.

Seriously, he gives her jewelry.

Giving jewelry to a loved one in a martial arts movie…

GOOD IDEA CASEY, WONDER WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT???

By the chiseled-in-stone laws of  the genre, Namiko is immediately killed, launching Casey on the vengeance trail so he can of course eventually slaughter the men responsible, then look down at the pendant, circle of blood now closed and whatnot, and cue the end titles…

And dammit I LOVE these movies and this team for doing this! They don’t hide from the old conventions, they embrace them. This crew is determined to not let the world forget how damn SIMPLE it really is to make a fun martial arts movie.

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Casey’s quest for justice begins with some high-kicking rehab at the dojo of old family friend Nakabara (Kosugi), and even though he seems to know a whole lot about the drug cartel responsible for Namiko’s death, shifty couriers are discretely delivering un-marked packages to him, and he has a goatee, Kane’s obviously not the actual villain of this movie, so yeah, bonding time!

Now here’s where Ninja II drops the awesomeness like carpet bombs!

Nakabara knows three things: 1.) Namiko’s wounds are the result of the signature chain weapon of a ninja-gone-bad named Goro. 2.) this same Goro is running drugs out of Burma, a land heavily populated by stuntmen waiting to have their asses kicked, and 3.) some 75-odd-years-ago, Japan’s fabled “Last Ninja” Fujita Seiko trained a squadron of WWII shinobi and unleashed them in the jungle, where they wreaked bladed havoc on the Allies and hid a bunch of arsenals, just like THIS MAP shows!

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HOT DAMN! Cue the travel montage…

Casey heads out into the jungle, finds an old cache of leather-and-canvas-era ninja gear and the storming of the requisite enemy compound is on.

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Goro is played by Shun Suguta, a veteran character actor of over 100 films, including Ichi the Killer. He knows how to pose and gesture like a deadly lunatic, and is pretty damned great as the master of the barbed manriki chain.

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Casey kills a pile of guards, has a brutal fight with Goro’s right hand heavy, then disposes of the villain amidst the light of a burning drug empire. Case closed…

OR IS IT?

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It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Adkins and Kosugi were cast together for a reason, and after a big surprise reveal the final chapter of Shadow of a Tear sees them tear each other apart, trashing room after room, alternating arsenals and exotic flying spin kicks in equal amounts. Absolutely great! One almost nostalgically roots for Kane here, and I swear if he had his rocket-assisted weapon-laden Huffy from Pray for Death, Adkins would have been toast!

Once again, Florentine and friends deliver a hybrid of two distinct eras of martial arts cinemas — weapon-centric ninja combat of the 1980s and the high-kicking spinning and jumping combo-based movie kick-boxing that ruled the 1990s. Both are retro by now, and the heart and soul of each period is retained, and embellished with some modern touches. One modern crutch they NEVER lean on though is the ubiquitous and utterly contemptible shakey-cam. No jittering camera trickery to hide the casting of non-martial artists or overwhelming digital fixes that for many of us have ruined fight scenes in modern action cinema.

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The purists (aka haters) out there will complain that either the ninja stuff ruins a perfectly good kick-boxing movie, OR that the kick-boxing ruins a perfectly good ninja film. Obviously I come from the ninja side of things, and if there’s one complaint with Ninja II it’s that it leans a lot more to the 90s side of things than the more 80s-centric first film.

In fact, one could almost edit out the ninja elements entirely and still wind up with a conventional martial revenge film. Perhaps an Undisputed-related script was retro-shinobi-fied here? A bit of a shame, as the idea of the Fujita Seiko legacy, powering up with antique WWII gear, etc. is so damn great I wanted it more at the center of the film.

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Historical images of the fabled “Last Koga Ninja”

The reality, however, is that combining the shadowy ninja visuals with the more contemporary unarmed combat makes these movies a whole lot easier to market to worldwide audiences, and as these are genuine indie movies they need each and every sale.

So VN is officially giving Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear 5 (Ninja) Stars. It’s an essential purchase for any ninja movie buff.

It’s really important we all support this movie, too. It does well enough, we’re that much closer to a fourth Undisputed getting funded. By purchasing and spreading the word, you’re not only rewarding the filmmakers who worked their asses off here, you’re checking a YES vote towards old school movie martial arts, towards holding the camera still and letting legit screen fighters and skilled choreographers do their thing. And you’re not letting the 80s ninja craze be forgotten.

Misters Florentine, Adkins and Kosugi… THANK YOU!

Buy Ninja II on Amazon in Bluray or DVD formats.

Available to Netflix streaming subscribers here.

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I have such insane love for this press still from REVENGE OF THE NINJA…

10 Things I love about Isaac Florentine’s NINJA

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp. Deep Impact vs. Armageddon. Films rushed out ahead of bigger budgeted studio tentpoles that ended up being better, more satifying and in general more FUN films. Its happened again (albeit a little late in this country) as Isaac Florentine‘s throwback Ninja kicks all kinds of ass over last year’s forgettable and regrettable Ninja Assassin.

Ninja Assassin took itself way too seriously, had poorly filmed fights and was too slick for its own good. It looked expensive, but in what was an ultimately dumb movie, you end up resenting that bigger budget feel. I can’t remember liking much of any of it, save for Sho Kosugi’s big screen comeback.

Exploitation films are a guilty pleasure to many because they are cheap and fun as hell, and what money they do have is spent in the right places – hiring more stunt guys and martial artists and blowing more shit up. When Golan-Globus beat the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja to the screen with Enter the Ninja, they proved how little money the genre needed to totally work (and the proposed major studio project never went anywhere as a result).

Fast forward three decades and here we are with Ninja, a throwback romp full of weapons fights and black costumes. Damn if it isn’t as warming to my soul as the 80’s Canon fare was back in the day. As a lover of that 80’s clamshell VHS and late-night cable period, as well as 90’s direct-to-video fare, I have to salute this film’s fighting spirit!

Here’s ten reasons to buy/rent/stream this thing NOW:

(images ©Nu Image / First Look Studios)

1.) Illustrated pre-credits and a logo using shuriken as one of the letters

The graphic designer side of me gives thumbs up all around.

2.) Scott Adkins – MARTIAL ARTS ACTION STAR!

He's 'Casey' - American ninja student in Japan. In an age of mainstream actors and pop stars being digitally composited into wire-assisted fight scenes, Adkins is what the genre needs again - a real fucking karate guy on screen! Seems like he works out on occasion, too...

3.) Cute-as-a-button Mika Hijii

She's the hot daughter of the dojo's sensei. When the school's #1 Japanese student (Tsuyoshi Ihara) sees Casey making the moves, whadda ya think is gonna happen? Hijii is a real trooper in this, getting thrown around like a 90's HK heroine. Her posing is excellent and she blends seamlessly with her stunt double in some very nice action scenes.

4.) Wait a minute… is that Fumio Demura!?!?

I marked out for not only a training sequence cameo but a full-on fight scene with legendary karate / weapons expert Fumio Demura, a familiar face in martial arts mags and books in the 80's.

5.) Actual effort expended on costume design.

OK, you have an evil student who decides to throw away tradition and strike out on his own as a modern merc. Of course he'd update the gear to reflect 21st century tech. The evil Masazuka's costume is definitely in the Blade / Snake Eyes vein, and considering those property's successes, not a bad decision by the film makers.
Night vision for a ninja (makes all sorts of sense) via a rather video-game-like visor that turns any fight scene into a first-person shooter.
I'm thinking the filmmakers consider this flying wing gimmick something right out of BATMAN, but in reality it has a much older pedigree, harkening back to the spy kite from such properties as AKAKAGE.
Casey's more traditional gear is of the MORTAL KOMBAT vein. Makes sense, as Florentine's resume includes POWER RANGERS and the unsung WMAC MASTERS.

6.) Evil cult led by even more evil international industrialist!

I really lost it when this scene came on - such a throwback to an era I so miss. Not that you needed extra villainy in a ninja-laden betrayal / love traingle flick, but why the hell not. Combining both the evil hooded cult with the logo altar and secret warehouse chamber AND the evil industrialist cliches is sheer brilliance.

7.) Power-up scenes and hidden weapon caches

More tenets of the 80's genre! Hand symbol power-up in front of weapons chest - CHECK! Although by strict union rules, this chest should light up from below and emit smoke...

Hidden closet full of martial gear - CHECK! Again, some smoke would have been nice...

8.) Actually trying something different with fight scenes.

Florentine employs all sorts of effects tricks and editing gimmicks to add some new life. Some work, some could be seen as annoying, but at least he's thinking and TRYING to push the envelope. This sword sequence with a sort of vapor trail effect is pretty damn nifty.

9.) No daytime night mission gear!

Ninja has some really nice night time lighting, exterior compositing, and low light cinematography.

Florentine never puts a ninja in night gear in a sunlit scene. Seems like a common sense thing, but even the best of the 60's Japanese films did stupid shit with black clad ninja running around in cane fields in broad daylight.
See, with the right lighting (and it is excellent throughout), you can put a black-clad figure against pavement and still read details. Well done!

10.) The “Only a Ninja Can Stop A Ninja” commandment is obeyed in full…

Its traditional weapons vs. high tech violations of tradition in the climactic ninja-on-ninja showdown!

Man was this movie like seeing an old friend. Overall, Ninja looks great and is the product of a director who cares about martial arts. I wish this had gotten US theatrical and stolen some of Ninja Assassin‘s thunder, but at least it beats it to the home video shelf.

If you were raised on Kosugi/Dudikoff fare, I think you’ll dig the retro soul of this movie. I almost want to dub it down to an old VHS tape and watch it full frame to see if it can really hang with Pray for Death and The Octagon.

The 2000’s model of American martial arts cinema was built on Blade and The Matrix, while a generation of young movie goers have only seen big screen shinobi via Batman Begins and GI Joe. Florentine’s Ninja addresses those aesthetics, but processes them through an 80’s/90’s martial exploitation model that puts a genuine karate guy in the lead and delivers on everything you could ask for in a modestly budgeted but ambitious actioner.

In short, this is the FUN American ninja movie we all wanted last year but didn’t get. See it!

Amazon has the best price on this of anyone – buy it here.

And while yer at it, the same team is responsible for the superb 2007 film Undisputed 2 – a throwback to 90’s kickboxing flicks, complete with illegal prison fighting rings! Absolutely awesome combat, with a sequel coming.