I can finally enjoy THE MASTER

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Back in 1984, at least for this teenage ninja-maniac, four words began a turning point for the ninja craze:

“Hi, I’m Max Keller.”

Timothy Van Patten‘s intro to each episode of The Master has since become iconic for me. His role, the “ugly American” being introduced to the ways of the shinobi, while slathering the screen with sarcasm and slapstick, had my eyes rolling even at 15 when I was starved for anything ninja. Just a few years in to the ninja boom, it was already becoming apparent we weren’t going to get that big A-list Hollywood movie (read why here). Maybe network TV would be a more viable high-profile home. Maybe not.

Enter producer/writer Michael Sloan, a prolific TV talent (Battlestar Galactica, BJ and the Bear) who may first have been exposed to ninja when writing for Quincy, M.E. (the December 1977 episode “Touch of Death” was only the third appearance of a ninja on American television). The Master was his shot as creator and the timing seemed right. While ninja may have been relatively new to TV, and provided a real opportunity to do something unique, the new show’s structure, alas, ended up being Network Formulaic Adventure TV 101 — two misfit leads, would-be hearth-throb kid and older established star from a previous era (spaghetti western legend Lee Van Cleef), obligatory comedy relief and animal sidekick, signature vehicle, “Adventure Town” structure: different town every week with a different predicament for them to interfere with and solve (evil landlord, evil sheriff, evil industrialist, evil rival aerobics instructor, evil hamster rustler etc.), different veteran character actor villain (Clu Gulagher, Doug McClure, William Smith etc.) and different hot damsel to save (Crystal Bernard, a young Demi Moore and Revenge of the Ninja‘s Ashley Ferare included) — lather, rinse, repeat.

The Master could have been set up as a ninja equivalent of Kung-Fu, but instead was a clone of any given episode of Knight Rider or The A-Team re-skinned, with some ninja elements squirted in with a turkey baster. And the juice of that turkey baster was Sho Kosugi.

Kosugi came in to The Master much the same way as his Cannon films — part star, part choreographer, part costumer, part prop master, part stunt double — an almost producer/auteur-level contributor. As the vengeful Okasa — Japanese purist sworn to kill the West’s only ninja master John Peter McAllister after leaving the shadow life to find a daughter he never knew he had — Kosugi’s movie-quality fight scenes were modularly inserted into he plot-of-the-week, never affecting the storyline at hand but certainly being the high point of the show. Even sans the blood and over-the-top kill shots we loved from the movies, these ninja fight interludes always delivered. For us, he was literally the only reason to watch, and the season’s few Okasa-less episodes were instant letdowns.

Despite being firmly entrenched in the cult of all things ninja as a teen in the 80s, even I had a hard time defending The Master back in the day. The visual of a fully-costumed McAllister running into battle with an un-costumed Max Keller defied any logic, and just looked ridiculous. Max should have at least donned some sort of black utility clothing that escalated, as his training continued, into full ninja gear.

The fight and stunt doubling of Van Cleef was obvious to the point of outright humor, almost insulting to both the actor and audience. And it was so often unnecessary — his doubles (Kosugi included) posed and moved just like they themselves would have, never taking in to account they were supposed to be mirroring an old man. Scenes with gratuitous tumbling and multiple somersaults were written in when they never should have been even considered. Martial arts movies are so rife with old master characters, whose movements are minimal and efficient, belying their age and experience and selling the notion of their total dominance of the arts. Their physicality, or lack thereof, is written for their ages. Why this philosophy was never followed is baffling and remains the show’s achilles heel.

The on-screen cheese that resulted from these bad decisions only served to reinforce everything negative any outside critic or detractor thought of the ninja craze. The Master was seen as shlock, took an unfair critical beating, and was even derided within the hardcore front-line ninja freaks. It fared no better at the corporate level. Far from the ratings boon the network suits had hoped for, The Master‘s 13 episodes were often bumped around airing schedules or pre-empted for sports events, and in many parts of the country the entire run was never even broadcast. A second season was out of the question, and while there was still a ton of ninja-sploitation on the horizon, no big studio or TV network was going to back any sort of serious ninja project again.

If The Master wasn’t an outright turning point, it certainly illustrated the plateau of both production quality and Hollywood interest the boom had hit. The glass ceiling had been struck. “Hi, I’m Max Keller” may not have been THE moment the ninja craze jumped the shark, but it certainly was the moment it was fitted for water skis…

The Master‘s relative infamy continued a couple of years later when Transworld Entertainment repackaged the run for VHS rental. The six tapes, retitled The Master Ninja were emblazoned with Kosugi imagery and sometimes steered away from outright recognition of the show. A lot of people brought these home from the video store thinking they were either A.) a new ninja movie they had never heard of, or B.) new episodes of that now obscure ninja show they never got to see. They were neither.

Then something strange happened over the next decade as the show, or parts of it, somehow fell into Public Domain and ended up even more shamelessly repackaged for priced-to-sell budget tapes (and eventual DVD compilations).

This lead directly to The Master‘s biggest audience and an entirely unrelated off-branch of cult fandom apart from us shinobi-nerds, as four episodes of the show (minus original credit sequences) were aired as Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes in 1992-93. The robot host’s ear-wormy “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit remains one of the general public’s most enduring memories of the show.

All these years later, we finally see a proper home release of The Master on DVD and Bluray from Kino Lorber. It’s a few-frills package — case design is Van Cleef-centric (Kosugi’s Okasa might have been a better choice) but what really counts is the show has never looked better, especially compared to some of the shoddy Public Domain releases still festering out there. The only extras are trailers from Kosugi and Van Cleef films, which is a real shame because there were extensive photo shoots done of the cast in costume prior to its debut (see several at Getty Images here).

The network ran some striking illustrated ads for the show, as well:

And a gallery of what was often superb international VHS packaging (see the Japanese releases here) would have been great too:

While these new releases of The Master and its competing network’s predecessor The Last Ninja may lack the deluxe treatments we’d love, the fact that the entire American output from the 1980s ninja craze has FINALLY been remastered (no pun intended) and preserved for our digital world is indeed excellent. I’m happy to own it in one nice complete, and fully legal, package.

So yes, I can finally enjoy The Master now. And I don’t just mean it’s finally available, I mean actually enjoy it.

The perspective of we fans now in our 40s versus us as butt-hurt dweebs in our teens makes that possible. The Kosugi moments from the show are worth it alone, and in hindsight now, we didn’t have enough of them back in the day, as the craze was cut short and Kosugi moved on to less ninja-centric projects. The chain-mail-clad Okasa stands as one of Kosugi’s most iconic get-ups, and there’s enough of his weapons-flourished karate-based fights and custom exotic arsenal throughout the series to keep things interesting. I also appreciate the wealth of character actors and classic California locations, the formulas and tropes now have nostalgic charm, and damnit you just don’t see conversion vans on the road anymore.

Pick up this set, it’ll be better than you remember…

 

OTHER RANDOM OBSERVATIONS:

• Robert Clouse, director of Enter the Dragon, The Big Brawl and more, helmed the show’s first episode “Max” — which means Clouse stands alone in history as directing Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Sho Kosugi (as well as Cynthia Rothrock, Samo Hung, Bolo Yeung and others).

 Michael Sloan would learn from the experience, and go on to create and write for the more prosperous The Equalizer and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

I’d love to know when in the process of this show coming together Lee Van Cleef was settled on as the star. There’s no bigger fan of “The Bad” than me, but as structured, this project made him look just, well… bad. From a Hollywood perspective, hiring “The Man with the Gunsight Eyes” made sense, but there was a big difference between those gunsight eyes squinting from beneath a black hat, with that hawk nose and predator scowl like a grim reaper of the Italian West, and those same eyes leering out of an ill-fitting American mail-order-style ninja mask. Considering the way the doubling was done, would a younger actor have been a better choice? Maybe John Saxon? There’s just too much of a gap in the logic of the casting to the practices on-set for me to think Van Cleef was Plan A. Maybe a better idea would have been to put Van Patten in the suit, like he’s the ninja nerd wanting to don the full gear, and let Van Cleef be the slow-burning cool cat he was in The Octagon.

• The “Hostages” episode is a stand out for many as it cast David McCallum as the villain and George Lazenby as a British spy, an on-screen pairing of a Man from U.N.C.L.E. and a James Bond. However this wasn’t as history-making as it sounds, as the pair shared screen time in the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. from one year previous, also written by Michael Sloan.

• Bill Conti‘s music, particularly the theme, is an absolute legit classic of action TV craft. The opening credits are just superb, too. In this current wave of 80s fetish and retro appreciation, younger generations need to be cued in to this absolute gem of motion and graphic design from back in the day.

• The excellent Korean character actor Soon-Tek Oh plays a ninja from a rival clan in the “Out-of-Time-Step” episode, looking a bit awkward with what was clearly his first dabbling with ninja stuff. The next year he’d star opposite Chuck Norris in the memorable Missing in Action II: The Beginning. Do yourself a favor and check this movie out if you never have, or if it’s been a while. His final fight with Braddock is a lot better than here.

• Living the past 18 years in southern California I now recognize some of the classic locales used in The Master — the historic Bradbury Building (best known from the end of Blade Runner), Vasquez Rocks (where Kirk battled the Gorn on Star Trek) and in the intro credits we see the oft-filmed Japanese house and gardens owned by Shirley Temple, used also in the opening massacre of Revenge of the Ninja.

• For those to young too remember Eight is EnoughThe White Shadow or Class of 1984, the name Timothy Van Patten will sound familiar. Learning director’s chops on Michael Sloan’s The Equalizer he’d go on to helm some superb TV episodes on series such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and Black Mirror.

• One of my biggest fears in the first decade of the 2000s, when all sorts of old TV was getting remade as self-deprecating comedy drek, was a Master film with the likes of an Owen Wilson or Ben Stiller making complete fun of the ninja craze. My biggest dream today is a dead-serious reboot starring Kane Kosugi as Okasa, Scott Glenn as McAllister, and a redefined ‘Max’ being his half-Japanese daughter being trained at breakneck speed as they flee across the world escaping butterfly-emblemed assassins at every turn. Someone get on that, will ya!

• And one final observation… fuck hamsters.

 

MORE:

All the tropes of The Master

As usual, ShoKosugiTheNinja.com is the best repository of imagery.

BUY THE MASTER ON AMAZON

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…

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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.