Kosugi and Van Cleef in Japan

One of the great head-scratchers of the 80s American ninja boom was the NBC TV series The Master, created by Michael Sloan but driven by the one-man craze-catalyst that was Sho Kosugi. On one hand its very existence spoke to the magnitude of ninja’s popularity in 1984, but its utter failure coming at the same time as Kosugi’s departure from Cannon Films can be interpreted as the premature beginning of the end for the boom period.

The Master failed to convert new audiences, and was, quite-honestly, often cringe-worthy to even the staunchest ninja geek. Much of the country never even saw the full run of 13 episodes. I was growing up in New England at the time, and with the Celtics on their way to a championship that year, Larry Bird was pre-empting Max Keller at every opportunity.

Two years later, Trans-World Entertainment would release the series as two-episode clam-shell and hard-shell VHS to the rental market, mildly disguised as “movies” under the title The Master Ninja. Within the next two years the rest of the globe was devouring dubbed or subtitled editions in German, Spanish and a host of other languages.

I’m the most intrigued by these kanji-subtitled Japanese versions:

What must the audience raised on the likes of Shinobi-no-Mono and contemporarily enjoying Kage No Gundan have of thought of this strange American product, what with its traditionally-garbed ninja using archaic weaponry in modern America? Were the stock-in-trade TV villains like greedy land barons, suburban crime lords and small-town evil industrialists harping on the likes of farmers and single moms something that even resonated with the Japanese? Did the action scenes, tailored to American audiences fetishizing signature weapons straight out of mail order catalogs and expecting high-arcing spin-kicks instead of the low-crouched Bujinkan-inspired choreography of the home product impress the Japanese at all?

The home video versions of The Master hit the market at about the same time as the IFD/Filmark stuff from Hong Kong started flooding video stores with titles like Ninja Terminator and Full Metal Ninja. The craze was burning out prematurely, but for NBC and Trans-World they were finally making back their investment with international video sales.

As for the North American market, the riffed-upon versions served up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 1990s were actually seen by more of an audience than any other iteration. The funky “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit sung by the robots remains one of the more beloved moments of that increasingly legendary show.

I wonder if the MST3K home video releases were imported into Japan…

Things you can buy ME for Christmas – Part 1

Most sites give you all sorts of gift giving ideas this time of year, but I’m turning the tables and putting it all on YOU!

Here’s something I’d really enjoy as a gift from one of you folks, original TV Guide advertising art of Lee Van Cleef in The Master!

Masterninja-TVGuide_1

This 18×22″ original was rendered back in mid 1980’s by artist Larry Salk. Crisp, high-contrast illustrations like these would often reproduce better than half-toned photos on the cheaper-than-cheap pulp upon which TV Guide and newspaper TV listing inserts were printed.

Masterninja-TVGuide_2

Yep, this would look awesome hanging on my wall, so hit this eBay link and make with the $500 somebody.

For the next month we’ll be looking at plenty more cool stuff I’d love to own and you as loyal and grateful readers can all pitch in and play Santa… right? RIGHT?!?!? Anyone…

Hello…

Everything I Needed to Know About Ninjutsu I Learned from Carlos Ray Norris, I

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 1

A guest column by MATT WALLACE in honor of THE OCTAGON‘s 30th Birthday!

Chuck Norris has taught me a lot.

He taught me men with bangs who aren’t Matt Damon aren’t necessarily gay. He taught me not all men with mustaches who lived in the 70’s did porn. He taught me that it’s okay to spell the word “commando” with a “K,” as long as it is preceded by the word “karate.” He taught me it’s not just old queens who adopt young, supple African-American boys to raise as their own, but that it takes Chuck Norris to avenge his dead black son’s murder at the hands of a rival martial artist.

Chuck Norris taught me many things, but his greatest lesson was much more than that; it was the definitive epic meditation on a subject as culturally prevalent now as it was in feudal Japan.

In 1980, Chuck Norris wrote a book; with his feet. It was entitled “How to Fight a Ninja” and it is my personal Bible.

Sure, it was packaged as a film. They called it The Octagon. It had everything a cheesy so-called “karate movie” of that era was required to exhibit. It featured honored Asian henchmen such as Gerald Okamura and the Black Star Ninja himself, the man who has played more fake hooded Japanese assassins than any other actor in the history of cinema, Tadashi Yamashita. It was, in fact, the last film made under the 1970’s law that stated any “B” action movie with a testosterone count of five or above had to include a role for Lee Van Cleef.

From the tender age of six, however, I knew Chuck Norris’ intention was much broader, much more vital. He was teaching me all I would ever need to know about battling those black-clad masters of shadow and death also known as shinobi.

Some of these lessons are so deftly couched in perceptive anachronism that on the surface they may seem absurd, such as what to do when a ninja does something unexpected, like whipping out a pair of sais. Yes, the sai is a Kobudō weapon, part of the family of weapons improvised from farming tools by Okinawan peasants who weren’t allowed to bear arms. Yes, the sai, the kama, and the nunchucks were never actually used by continental Japanese martial artists during the period ninjas historically existed. AND THAT’S WHY IT’S SUCH A SNEAKY BRILLIANT MOVE AND EXACTLY THE KIND OF SHIT A NINJA WILL PULL ON YOUR ASS.

Other lessons dealt in knowledge as esoteric as it is absolute. Thusly…

1) Always keep your arms down and at your sides when throwing an awkward succession of spinning kicks. This demonstrates to the ninja your indestrutibility, as you clearly require no defensive skills. It also pays homage to your background as a traditional Celtic lord of the dance.

2) When he throws a shuriken at you in one frame, but somehow it doesn’t make it to the frame you’re in, possibly because of a lack of practical effects budget/skill, stab yourself with another shuriken and pretend it’s the one that was just thrown at you. This shows the ninja you are courteous. Mannners are for everyone.

3) Ninja can only be defeated by fire. Specifically, kicking the ninja through fire. In the absence of a section of wall that has been set ablaze and oddly is not spreading beyond a five foot diameter, a large pane of prop glass may be substituted. But only in the first act. Because Chuck Norris has read Aristotle’s Poetics and understands the elevation principle of great drama.

4) Your greatest tool in defeating a ninja clan is your background as a singularly gifted, retired professional martial artist who accidentally killed the opponent in his or her last fight and is now tormented by the event. This has been reinforced by Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Sasha Mitchell, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson several more times, among others.

Obviously I’m bullet pointing. The nuances of Master Norris’ visual text are hundredfold and layered deeper than the Hell to which your katana-wielding would be executioner might otherwise send you.

The main point is simple: One day you WILL be attacked by a ninja, or ninja[s]. It might be because you inadvertently saw the face of the head ninja who inexplicably chose to reveal himself to the beautiful woman he was hired to kill seconds before striking her down. It might be because you sought revenge for your dead brother or partner or former teacher or lover or old war buddy. It might be because you’re giving a drug cartel or other crime-related syndicate a hard time just as they’ve begun hiring ninja as their enforcers.

But it will happen.

And on that day, you will need to know what Chuck Norris has been trying for the last thirty years to teach you, if you want to survive.

MATT WALLACE is the author of The Next Fix and approximately one billion short stories, in addition to the podcasted novel The Failed Cities Monologues. Being a martial artist, knife enthusiast, retired pro wrestler and devourer of karate movies, he’s superbly qualified to be a VN guest contributor. Couple weeks ago I bought him a Cold Steel polypropylene katana for his birthday. Yeah, he’s that cool…

Many thanks to Matt for the words. Swing back tomorrow for more Octagon!

Let us now begin an intimate weekend with Chuck and Kyo…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

Tomorrow marks the 30TH (!!!) Anniversary of the release of The Octagon!

Holy shit I’m old…

Rarely credited with starting the American ninja craze of the 80’s, this jewel of the Chuck Norris crown beat Enter the Ninja to theaters by over thirteen months, and found tremendous legs on home video and especially cable. It is said HBO didn’t actually mean “Home Box Office,” but rather “Hey, Beastmaster’s On.” But for my buck, HBO meant “Hey Bro… OCTAGON!” I’m not sure more than a two week span passed in the mid-80’s where I didn’t watch this movie.

Two big features this weekend to celebrate:

Saturday VN welcomes our first guest contributor, two-fisted cyber-scribe Matt Wallace, whose loving ode to The Octagon had me nearly pissing myself a few times over.

I’ll tag back in on Sunday for a look at eight things I love and eight things I hate about what has to be the most up-and-down all-over-the-map clusterfuck of a karate-kicking classic ever filmed.

Thirty years? That’s like, what, three decades? Jeez…

RICHARD NORTON was under the serpentine hood of Kyo the Enforcer, arguably the finest piece of ninja costuming ever done in an American film.