Toshiro Mifune: Ninja???

Everyone knows Toshiro Mifune, right? Shogun, warlord, admiral, ronin. But who knew he once played a ninja!?!?

Born on this day in 1920, let’s celebrate Mifune’s birthday with a look at a lesser-known chapter of his storied career – two ninja films he made with legendary director Hiroshi Inagaki.

Yagyu Bugeicho (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls, 1957) and Yagyu Begeicho: Soryu Hiken (Yagyu Secret Scrolls: Two Secret Swords, 1958) were two parts of what was possibly a planned but never finished trilogy. The story of the Yagyu clan’s struggle to keep their secrets under wraps is one of the most filmed in Japanese cinema history. A significant version, or two, has been produced every decade since the silent era, and contemporary to the two Mifune/Inagaki flicks, three other studios released different takes on the same basic tale.

In a nutshell, the Yagyu were the Shogun’s appointed sword instructors and held considerable power and influence in the government. Varying from film to film, they are either a force of good secretly keeping the peace (like Jushiro Konoe’s long running series), or an evil network of clandestine agents enforcing their own bloody agendas (as in the Lone Wolf and Cub films). Records of their martial arts techniques, roster of operatives or accounts of past and current shenanigans are kept in a number of scrolls that can either ruin their noble efforts or expose their insidious conspiracies, so everyone from the highest officials to the lowest of ninja are after them.

Here, the Yagyu are a sinister shadow empire, and when three scrolls go missing, victimized clans and desperate shinobi spring into action. Regardless of how they are portrayed, the Yagyu are always willing to throw countless family members to their deaths in defense of their secrets, so the action is on.

Enter two ninja brothers – Tasaburo (Mifune) and Senshiro (Koji Tsuruta) – last seen together a year previous as Miyamoto Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki on the beach of Ganryu Island in Inagaki’s famed Samurai Trilogy. Tasaburo accidentally gets involved in the scroll hunt, and sticks around for the affections of an intense princess played by Yoshiko Kuga. Senshiro is more duty bound, blindly loyal to the shadowy head of his ninja clan.

Brothers they may be, the two are in conflict most of the film, clashing over differences in motivation and their relations with women, but blood ends up thicker than paper. One of many secrets these shinobi carry is their unwillingness to harm each other regardless of orders.

Facing-off with each over the course of the two films is the ever present Jubei Yagyu, played in the squnty-eyed mode by Jotaro Togami. He’s great on screen, driven beyond family ties, deadly and intimidating.

These are Inagaki films, so one-on-one formal sword duels, often absent in the ninja genre, are mandatory – and they are superb, too.

Tempted as the director is to fall into familiar territory like the above, these are still definitely ninja movies. Bridging two different eras of distinctly styled shinobi cinema, they are more in the pre-Shinobi-no-Mono swashbuckling hero style, but with a healthy dose of the social commentary and familiar themes of trying to leave the shadow life more associated with the next decade.

Ninja here are spies of a lower caste than the samurai around them, but their exotic skills are portrayed in a positive light. Inagaki loves effects-laden escape scenes, like this innovative use of fireballs.

But in tandem with classical pre-60′s ninja wizard tricks like this web gag. There’s even a brief bit of legit ninja ‘magic’ in the second film, somewhat at odds with the established credible reality around it.

There’s some nice commando gear featured, too, but without the outright fetishization of the shadow tools the 60s craze leaned on so heavily.

Each brother has his own signature shuriken, but they both use similar long swords with noticeably elongated handles. Veeeerrrrry cool! I love this Yagyu thug’s hand cannon, too!

What I’m rather ga-ga about these movies is Inagaki’s treatment of the ninja costumes. Mission gear varies between simple black to charcoal grey to lighter hues, depending on the situation at hand. Why is this adaptive costuming so rare in shinobi cinema?

Another Inagaki ‘innovation’ – which really should be a lot more commonly seen but inexplicably isn’t – is reversible mission gear. Most of the ninja suits double as casual street wear, and there are some neat transition scenes.

The second film also features some superb pilgrim-basket-hat-on-pilgrim-basket-hat violence.

Inagaki’s Yagyu films are positively magnificent – full of heroism, intrigue and tragedy; loaded with tense fight scenes and improbable escapes. The cinematography is on a level above the usual ninja fare. I adore stage-set ‘exteriors’ and he’s got some of the most stunning fake skies I’ve ever seen.

If there are any complaints here, it’s with the womens’ roles. Not unlike the women in The Samurai Trilogy, jilted for the greater love of swords, the otherwise strong female leads are pushed aside literally and metaphorically at any hint of combat.

Yoshiko Kuga’s doomed princess is a strong character, until she becomes little more than a walking plot device. Mifune’s conflicted ninja leaves ‘the life’ and gives-in to his passions momentarily, but not without tragic results that suck him right back into the secret scroll whirlpool. His brother has women flinging themselves at him left and right, including the jaw-droppingly beautiful Mariko Okada, who steals the second film as a wild-haired street dancer as trapped by the ninja life as either of the brothers. She ends up another of Inagaki’s unfulfilled widows of the warrior’s way.

Another thing a little distracting about these films is Mifune himself. In 1957 he was already a massive screen presence, but since then we’ve come to know him (especially in the West) as imperious and dominating. Our Mifune is more a shogun, a sensei, a noble even as a raggedy ronin, than he is a commoner on his heels, as in a film like Stray Dog perhaps.

With this perspective, he can look a bit silly scurrying around in ninja wear. I don’t 100% get the sense that this man belongs crawling around in the rafters or eavesdropping from below the floorboards.

I guess it depends on one’s exposure to Mifune’s broad range of work, much of it unseen in the U.S.

Regardless, Mifune’s Yagyu flicks are a must-see, as much a curiosity for Mifune or Inagaki fans as they are shinobifiles, and the broad sweeping adventure afoot will leave anyone entertained.

I myself am curious about the existence of a third film. The second is open-ended and ripe for serialization, and Inagaki was obviously trilogy-oriented. Mifune, however, may have been too busy with the SIX other movies he was in in 1958, including a little gem called The Hidden Fortress.

So if you want to commemorate what would have been Toshiro Mifune’s 91st birthday, grab these films from Kurotokagi.

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Posted in Film and TV March 31, 2011 at 10:55 pm.

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VN’s birthday look at AKAI KAGEBOSHI – Pt. 2

Not only is Akai Kageboshi a great ninja movie that spans the colorful flamboyant 50′s and grimmer realistic 60′s, it’s also a damn nifty TOURNAMENT MOVIE!

The tournament is one of the strongest devices in martial arts cinema. It’s single location/single set format is cheap and easy for filmmakers, it’s a vehicle for a wide variety of performers and showcases all sorts of fighting choreography in one little neat package. With a tourney movie, you don’t so much tell a story as you do “book” an athletic drama – the scriptwriter can be part pro-wrestling promoter. You don’t need necessarily much more than the competition structure to make an engaging film.

AK, though, actually balances an intricate and emotional plot with the tourney device, taking the contest’s strengths and weaving them into the layered story. Best of all, you get all sorts of interesting characters with different styles and weapons.

RYUTARO OTOMO stars as Jubei Yagyu, whose presence is huge in both the tournament and the intrigue at large. Otomo plays the legendary figure with a simple shut eye rather than the iconic eyepatch, and he's a swordsman of superhuman stature. Too cool!

Off topic a bit – if you want another budo tournament movie, the same Ryutaro Otomo stars in Festival of Swordsmen, which is absolutely fantastic. Get both titles here!

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Posted in Film and TV June 8, 2010 at 8:29 am.

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Hey VN, It’s Ya BERFDAY!

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!

HASHIZO OKAWA plays the title character, the bastard son of two ninja entangled in a multi-generational conflict.

If there's one thing decidedly 50's about this movie, it's the lush, colorful costuming. Here, mother and son are disguised as a traveling magic act.

Mom is a kunoichi who blew an important mission decades before. She's now obsessed with completing that mission using her son as the muscle.

This tattoo is half of the puzzle leading to secrets that could topple the Shogunate. The other half of the key is contained in one of ten prized sword blades being awarded in a martial arts tournament. Her son must defeat each winner and steal their trophy sword - a plot structure guaranteeing a pile of awesome fights!

And does the kid ever have the wardrobe to pull the whole thing off!

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.

And, you can always buy it from Kurotokagi-gumi‘s ‘Ninja Collection.’

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Posted in Film and TV June 7, 2010 at 8:47 am.

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Ninja Warfare in YAGYU BUGEICHO – Part 2

Last time we set things up for the Yagyu’s apocalyptic assault on a impregnable fortress. Yagyu Bugeicho: Katame no Ninja is an all too rare shinobi WAR movie. Unleash the dogs…

Director Shoji Matsumura took familiar characters and stories, but added a lot of ninja and some amazing B&W photography to give the material poignance in the 60's craze.

Gorgeous photography here. Fights abound here, but one-on-one duels are set aside as...

...every viable shadow-skilled swordsman of the Yagyu clan is assembled for an impossible mission.

The force's numbers are represented by the growing collection of 'gasa' travelling hats in the family chambers. These will continue to be an important symbol throughout the film.

The basket hats are eventually shed for battle gear, and left behind by men who know full well they probably won't need them again.

This is the kind of war movie that sets up a battle even the non-military erudite can look at and tell how completely fucked one side is. The key to breaching the fortress walls is throwing enough bodies against them to hopefully get lucky...

The Yagyu are charged with retrieving a stolen shipment of repeating rifles, an arsenal that would be an absolute political game changer. Those rifles, however, end up turned on them as they attack an already formidable keep.

Dozens of Yagyu are sacrificed as kamikaze-like human bombs before the walls are penetrated, and equally brutal close quarters combat begins.

The battlefield is left littered with dead ninja from both sides.

And in the end, the deserted 'gasa' of the fallen are their only graves.

Not exactly your feel-good action-comedy buddy pic here… Katame no Ninja is downright brutal in its human attrition. The tone is a far, far cry from the often jaunty tone of the series earlier entries. The Yagyu clan is absolutely decimated by film’s end, making one wonder if Konoe and crew were trying to end the series.

If you only see one Yagyu Bugeicho film, this should probably be it, if for nothing else than the rare military battle nature of it. Of course, all of them are recommendable (most with ninja, too), and the good news is, you can buy TEN different YB titles here!

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Posted in Film and TV January 21, 2010 at 9:15 am.

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Ninja warfare in YAGYU BUGEICHO – Part 1

Spent a lot of time on American and Chinese posters and packaging lately, so let’s take things back to where it really all starts with this site – 60′s Japanese films. This will be the first of several posts on B&W shinobi cinema.

Chambara icon Jushiro Konoe knew a good thing when he saw it.

The 1962 semi-historical Toei actioner Yagyu Begeicho (aka The Yagyu Secret Scrolls, Yagyu Chronicles, or Yagyu Military Arts) was nothing necessarily new or groundbreaking – Jubei Yagyu was a known figure, and the ‘secret scrolls’ thing had been done a few years previous by Hiroshi Inagaki with Toshiro Mifune for rival studio Toho. But Konoe and director Shoji Matsumura knew that similar elements repurposed in the fervor of the Shinobi-no-Mono craze would make for a sure fire homer, and were they right. Konoe would return for EIGHT sequels in the next two years! The property even jumped to TV in 1965. Now that’s running with a hit…

Original poster art used in current DVD packaging. Note that Jubei doesn't have the trademark tsuba eyepatch until the third film - the epic takes him through quite a few years.

Next to the superb swordplay of Konoe and frequent guest star roles for his matinee idol son Hiroki Matsukata, a big part of the YB success formula had to be the presence of the black suited ninja. Regardless of the intrigue afoot or out-numbered sword fights Jubei found himself in, there was always a black-clad listener under the floor boards, or hooded cat burglar making off with a sacred parchment. Ninja were crucial to this series, and the eighth installment has perhaps the most ninja of any 60′s craze film.

Yagyu Bugeicho: Katame no Ninja (Yagyu Chronicles 8: The One-Eyed Ninja) is somewhat unique in that it has an all out military BATTLE between rival shinobi armies. It’s like the ninja Longest Day, complete with a castle siege and a body count like Gettysburg.

The credit sequence, painted titles over rolling waves, has strobe-cuts of these weird illos of Jubei and the tools of the ninja.

In the first seven films, the 'Yagyu secret scrolls' are the object of conflict, but in the eighth, they bear a grim mission for the clan from the Shogunate.

Matsukata plays a conflicted shadow-skilled swordsman, duty bound to the same mission as Jubei, but also his sworn enemy. It's a complex relationship.

Ninja spies and military advisors abound, with a variety of looks.

Bust most of them end up dead...

This battle plan is little more than a suicide mission for the dozens of Yagyu ninja agents assembled, but duty calls.

Political intrigue, valuable hostages, and a cache of imported repeating rifles await in this nigh-impenetrable fortress!

CONTINUED TOMORROW – with perhaps the most horiffic ninja battle ever…

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Posted in Film and TV January 20, 2010 at 9:15 am.

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Konoe’s Jubei

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Found at the superb photo-blog DRILLPOP.

Great VHS clamshell art from the 1963 flick Yagyu Bugeicho: Kengo Midare Gumo (aka Yagyu Chronicles 7: The Cloud of Disorder). This prolific B&W ninja series starring Jushiro Konoe is just great, track these down… My fave is the eighth film, Yagyu Bugeicho: Katame no Ninja (aka Yagyu Chronicles 8: The One-Eyed Ninja), which for all out ninja warfare is tough to beat.

God I love that chain eyepatch!

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Posted in Film and TV August 1, 2009 at 11:33 pm.

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AKAI KAGEBOSHI – the other ‘red shadow’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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…

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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.

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Staged publicity shot, shows how amazing the costumes are in this film. That bo shuriken looks pretty deadly...

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A staged combat shot from the publicity kit. AK is actually light on black-suited cannon fodder.

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Hashizo Okawa publicity pose - check out the ornate fan designs on that tsuba!

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That’s Keiko Okawa as Yuri, halberd expert and Shadow’s main squeeze.

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Otomo's Jubei dispenses with the otherwise signature (maybe cliché) eyepatch for a perhaps more intimidating wink of doom. The film does a great job of portraying Yagyu as an omnipotent force of nature with a sword, and Shadow is in WAY over his head facing him.

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Shadow is also no match one-on-one for the veteran Hanzo, it's everything he can do just to escape these encounters. And there are some really cool escapes, too.

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The bit where someone has come so close to getting slashed in the head, their straw hat has a triangle cut in it is so damn cool...

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Bit of a spoiler here, but it's not like you don't see it coming from a mile off. And yes, by contractual obligation, the final showdown is in the shadow of Mt. Fuji.

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I’ll wrap this up with some close-up scans of the mission gear. LOVE that mesh soft-armor hood!

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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.

SEE IT!

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Posted in Film and TV June 7, 2009 at 5:15 pm.

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