34 ninja can’t be wrong

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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.

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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?

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There are guys…

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There are girls…

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

VN’s birthday look at AKAI KAGEBOSHI – Pt. 4

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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.

JUSHIRO KONOE is another mega-star in the legend-crowded cast here, playing a conflicted Hattori Hanzo.
His men sport the finest in off-the-rack costume shop extras fare. the chunky dude on the right is my hero...
Alas, no one in Japan ever wanted to vary the mission gear in daytime scenes. That grey just isn't doing the job in these cane fields.
Or in the trees.
And the results speak for themselves.

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:

Ninja Warfare in YAGYU BUGEICHO – Part 2

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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!

Ninja warfare in YAGYU BUGEICHO – Part 1

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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…

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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