50 years of the 00-Shadow

The Samurai, starting in 1964, may have been Japan’s first shinobi export to the English-speaking world, but that phenom was contained strictly to Australia. So for the rest of us, the first ninja we saw on any screen were flanking Sean Connery.

Fifty… yes 50… years ago, the rest of the world caught its first shrapnel from the 1960s Japanese ninja explosion, as James Bond and an army of modern shinobi wowed global audiences in the film franchise’s fifth entry You Only Live Twice. The shuriken-slinging silver-screen shadows left an indelible impression on British and American audiences likely seeing any sort of ninja for the first time, and for Japanese audiences the film was a foreign studio’s blockbuster franchise validating their homegrown martial espionage history.

But YOLT was more than just a cinematic first — the original book, tie-in newspaper comic strips, and a rare TV special preceding the film also provided a wealth of oft-overlooked ninja pop culture firsts as well.

 

“Advanced Studies” – the first English-language ninja prose

The ninja elements of YOLT were likely germinated during an early 1962 research trip to Japan by the author of the Bond novels Ian Fleming. Himself steeped in the ways of spies and commandos from a storied military career, Fleming and two journalist friends (who would inspire characters in the book) spent time with Judo champion and Asian fighting arts enthusiast Donn Draeger. With the 60s ninja boom in full swing, the hooded icons were everywhere — movies, TV, books, comics, toys, ads for cars and kid’s snacks. Whether it was the influence of martial artists or just osmosis of pop culture, Fleming saw a golden opportunity to snatch something to expose the West to for the first time.

The novel You Only Live Twice was released in 1964, the same year the “Mist Saizo” reboot of Shinobi no Mono, Warrior of the Wind and The Third Ninja were in Japanese theaters, Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru hit kids TV and Kamui Gaiden changed manga forever. The 12th Bond story sees a bottomed-out secret agent on the verge of losing everything, unable to cope with the recent death of his wife at the hands of his nemesis Blofeld (YOLT and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service were adapted in reverse order for the films). Bond is shuffled off by his bosses to Japan on a cupcake of a mission as a last ditch effort to salvage his career, and ends up entangled in the manipulations of the brutish head of the Japanese secret service Tiger Tanaka. Tiger pressures him to assassinate an outré foreign scientist, who in a remote coastal castle has created a “Garden of Death” infested with carnivorous plants, poisonous snakes, volcanic lava pits, piranha pools and deadly insects. The macabre nature preserve has become a Mecca-like spot for Japan’s suicidal to meet their end, and a major black eye for law enforcement and government alike. Handcufed by honor and international protocol, Tanaka needs a foreigner to be the trigger man, and Bond becomes an expendable assassin critical to a high-governmental machination. Not an unfamiliar plot device to those of us who love shinobi cinema.

But the ninja-like political intrigue ends there as, via intel photos, Bond realizes the bizarre botanist is none other than an on-the-lam Blofeld in disguise, living a second life alá Momochi Sandayu in Shinobi no Mono. Now driven by personal revenge, he agrees to play the part of Tanaka’s errand boy.

But its no silenced Walther PPK or sniper rifle assembled out of a brief case for Bond this time — when in Japan, these things are done ninja-style. In the history-making chapter “Advanced Studies,” Tiger Tanaka takes Bond to the ‘Central Mountaineering School,’ a hidden training compound where 007 gets a crash course in the centuries old arts of Iga and Togakure ninjutsu. Night-black and woodland-camouflaged shozoku, kaginawa grappling hook techniques, mizuguno water spiders and more are demonstrated for the somewhat skeptical mod spy. Tanaka is sternly defensive:

…my agents are trained in one of the arts most dreaded in Japan—ninjutsu, which is, literally, the art of stealth or invisibility. All the men you will see have already graduated in at least ten of the eighteen martial arts of bushido, or “ways of the warrior”, and they are now learning to be ninja, or “stealers-in”, which for centuries has been part of the basic training of spies and assassins and saboteurs.

Bond’s typical Brit-colonialist smirk towards the ancient Japanese arts ends quick though, as he is schooled by Tanaka on the necessity of things like a manriki chain hidden in a belt and a simple short fighting staff when operating undercover in a part of the world where guns are strictly illegal and a dead giveaway as to one’s spy status.

Bond is also schooled in how to act Japanese and is disguised, somewhat ninja-style, as a local coal miner. To further the cover, he is embedded with an Ama pearl diver named Kissy Suzuki, a perfect guise to get him close to the shore cliff castle. After some straight up ninja infiltration, Bond finds Blofeld in the Garden of Death, clad head to toe in samurai armor for protection from his own plants. A climactic battle of staff and sword ends with Bond choking the SPECTRE mastermind to death in a brutal moment of raw retribution.

You all remember this from the movie, right? Bond burned out and near suicidal, Donald Pleasence in full Shogun regalia, surrounded by Triffids? No???

Well, that’s because after Ian Fleming’s death in ’64, the films started getting a bit more over the top, even sillier, and traded legit espionage for explosive action and gimmick gadgets. By Thunderball all bets were off on spectacle and expense. YOLT would be the first of the films that totally deviated from its literary source, retaining only the title, a few broad situations, and some character names, for a result unrecognizable from the book.

 

Strips… Comic Strips

The first adaptation of YOLT was actually in newspaper comic strip form. The London Daily Express started adapting Fleming in 1958, and when the movies hit a few years later the 2-3 panel daily strips bridged the look of the Connery films with the prose of the original stories.

YOLT was syndicated worldwide from 1965-66, artist John McLusky providing what was likely the first ninja in illustrated comic form that any given country outside of Japan had seen to that point. Tanaka’s ninja school scene was metered-out over nine issues.

The artist did his homework on Blofeld’s plant-proof samurai suit, but chose to forgo Bond in full ninja gear. The strips also veered from the book a bit in having Kissy accompany Bond on his infiltration of the castle, and Blofeld’s death is blunted in a way that left room for him to return in the future.

McLusky didn’t seem to have a firm grasp on the ninja suit, but his phantom-like shrouded shinobi are a significant footnote in the history of ninja media outside of Japan.

And… they’d be a lot closer to our idea of ninja than what was to be seen on screen a year or so later.

 

Enter the Scottish Ninja

With vast amounts of the book discarded completely, we can thank the omnipresence of pop culture ninja in mid-60s Japan for swaying the filmmakers to retain the book’s martial arts elements for the big screen YOLT. Producers Albert R. Broccoli & Harry Saltzman and director Lewis Gilbert had followed Fleming’s footsteps for scouting trips to Japan and been treated to local ninja demonstrations, press cameras blazing around them.

One final opportunity to take in a ninja exhibit led to the crew changing a flight back to England, and the original flight subsequently crashed killing all on board. So ninja literally saved the Bond franchise.

The film’s writers Harold Jack Bloom (veteran of shows like Dragnet, Adam 12 and Emergency!) and Roald Dahl (of Willy Wonka and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fame) also spent time in Japan, equally exposed to the ninja craze, and it shows. Debate has ensued since as to whose ideas were whose, but clearly someone saw Shinobi no Mono and its ilk, as scenes common to ninja village training montages are mirrored directly during Bond’s tour of Tiger’s compound.

Dropped was the entire Garden of Death angle (and thankfully Fleming’s notions of the Japanese preoccupation with suicide). In the essentially non-existent ‘continuity’ of the Bond film universe, he had yet to marry and lose his wife to Blofeld, and was not on the down-and-out spiral that began the book. A sci-fi-laden new plot became central to Bond’s deployment to the East — the easy crutch of the Cold War laced with the space race providing a stage for SPECTRE hijacking American and Russian space capsules to a mega-chop-shop hidden in a dormant Japanese volcano. So as usual, it’s up to the British secret service to prevent WWIII.

But they can’t do it without ninja! Enter the film version of Tiger Tanaka, portrayed as suave and resourceful by Japanese screen legend Tetsuro Tamba. Had the book’s physically imposing and brutish Tanaka been faithfully adapted, he would have closely resembled Goldfinger heavy “Odd Job” as portrayed by wrestler Harold Sakata, and that may have jilted audiences. The film’s Tiger was more a tech-savvy shadow living a secret but swag-as-hell lifestyle, a Japanese version of Bond, played by an actor of deliberately smaller physical stature than the franchise’s star.

It also helped that Tamba was no stranger to the ninja genre!

As more spacecraft go missing, the super-powers blame each other and tensions escalate. Bond discovers the secret volcano lair via the famed mini-gyro-copter “Little Nellie” but the clock’s ticking and plans are afoot. In the shadow of the iconic Himeji Castle, movie-Bond get his introduction to movie-shinobi.

Bond: We’ll need a company of first-rate men. Do you have any commandos here? 

Tiger: I have much much better — ninjas. Top secret, Bond-san. This is my ninja training school.

Bond [smirking]: Ninjas?

Tiger: The art of concealment and surprise.

This being said as dozens of screaming martial artists charge into cacophonously loud practice routines. YOLT gets, and doesn’t-get, ninjutsu in equal and undulating amounts.

But the notion of a modern ninja army training at an ancient landmark is just awesome. Tiger’s ninja are top secret, but top secret from who? The public who considers them a myth once outlawed in the feudal past, or merely cartoon superheroes? His own Japanese government even? Tantalizingly little insight is given, leaving plenty to the imagination of the ninja-movie savvy.

Consistent with the film’s effort to portray a Japan as technologically progressive as it is steeped in tradition, Tiger’s ninja themselves epitomize harmony of modern and ancient. While traditional budo is practiced above ground, in a secret labyrinth below, experimental high-tech weapons and tactics are honed. Traditional shozoku shed in favor of modern grey fatigues, turtlenecks and cowls, they go into battle with ancient kaginawa grappling hooks in tandem with the latest in suction cup cat-burgler tech, sword and shuriken alongside futuristic rocket guns.

Hokey as the ninja rocket guns in YOLT seem, they were actually a real thing.

Some frustratingly stupid scenes follow though, as Tiger insists on taking a few precious days while the world is on the verge of nuclear annihilation to give Bond a crash course in bo-staff fighting. But not before the debacle that is “First we must make you Japanese.” The disguise scene, which in the book somewhat worked, here is an absolute joke, and Connery’s bad wig and augmented eyebrow look is universally reviled even by the most loyal of Bond apologists. Of all things to have not cut from the book… and it’s not even necessary. There’s no need for Bond to lurk around as a local gathering intel — they know where the volcano is, they know it’s a secret base. Let Tiger’s ninja commandos do the recon and infiltration, and drop Bond in by jetpack at the last minute!

This nonsense is followed, however, by the most pure ninja scene in the whole movie — the famed poison-down-the-thread sequence — almost frame-for-frame lifted from the first Shinobi no Mono film. Granted, there are only so many ways to shoot some things, and if you’re going to crib a scene, do it from the best! These first ninja scenes seen in the West were photographed by Freddie Young, previously responsible for the camerawork on Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago — films that were hardly a practical primer on how to capture dozens of shuriken hitting targets or arcane assassination techniques, so much of YOLTs ninja elements were liberally borrowed from Japanese sources.

Donn Draeger’s influence on YOLT continued, as he was hired to train and fight-double Sean Connery on set, at least while they were in Japan. Dragger’s and a few other consultants’ lessons evidently didn’t take so well because Connery’s staff fighting is abysmal. The actor was on bad terms with the producers even before the fifth Bond flick started shooting and had a legendarily contemptuous relationship with the Japanese press, so spirits on set could not have been high and the result shows in low-energy fight scenes.

When Connery dons the ninja gear it’s downright sad. This is where a traditional ninja suit, or at least a full balaclava-style face mask, could have saved them, as it should have been the obviously more fit Draeger doubling all his costumed scenes…

Japan’s most famous ambassador of all things ninja, Masaaki Hatsumi, was also on the YOLT set, even getting a bit part during the underground train scene. According to pioneering ninjutsu author Andrew Adams, who threw all sorts of shade on YOLT in the August 1967 issue of Black Belt, Hatsumi and a few other consultants washed their hands of the project in frustration that their art wasn’t being done justice.

Adams’ scathing article from Black Belt is available to read here.

Filming of most of the final ninja assault was moved back to Pinewood Studios in London. Lore (aka studio-spun fish tales) states that over 100 of YOLT’s ninja were flown in from Japan, but reality is something different. Over 150 stuntmen, basically every qualified rope-slinger in Europe, were imported for a genuinely spectacular mass line-decension inside a set half the size of a soccer stadium. The thing was literally big enough to land a full-sized helicopter in, and was the franchise’s biggest and most expensive construct to date. This scene is the best illustration of how bloated and opulent Bond was at the time and the excesses they were willing to go to to top the previous film.

Peppered in with the stuntmen were some of the Japanese martial artists from the training compound, and a few instances of shinobi-like scaffold crawling (mirroring castle crawlspace scenes in myriad Japanese films) and typical chambara swordplay stand out amidst the chaos of traditional gunfire and explosions. Beloved and memorable as these bits are (particularly with British audiences who had nothing to compare them to), they leave much to be desired for anyone with a decent Japanese cinema collection. Being done back in England, it’s hard to determine if Draeger or anyone else was on set, and the crew behind the camera was not exactly the most ninja-literate.

And like many other ninja army scenes, bulk-produced ‘one-size-fits-all’ costuming often doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

For his supposedly vital crash-course in ninjutsu, Bond never even picks up a staff (or a rocket gun for that matter). In a poorly-constructed sequence he does throw a shuriken into a guard’s chest, but a better-shot scene has Tanaka disarming Blofeld with one a few moments later. This particular star design, with what looks like rivets in the center, is rather fascinating.

When all is said and done, the ninja army could just as easily have been squads of SAS commandos or various other U.N. special forces. Bond’s own Naval background and subsequent specialized 00 training would have covered knife-throwing anyway, so the entirety of the ninja elements were really just imported exotic-looking seasoning on the same old dish.

 

Second Coming

Since day one, Bond films have, deservedly, come under attack for their treatment of women as one-dimensional used-and-abused sex objects, but YOLT took things to another level. From the pre-credit sequence of Bond being betrayed by an evil Chinese ‘dragon-lady’ to Tiger’s squad of bikini-clad neo-Geisha bathers, any complaint you ever read of orientalism, ‘othering’ and infantilizing ethnic women, ‘yellow fever,’ whatever, are pretty much legit. Un-defendable cheese like Tanaka’s infamous line “…in Japan, men always come first, women come second” makes one more and more uncomfortable, or outright disgusted, with YOLT fifty years later.

Bond scripts, by actual policy dictates of the producers, had him bedding at least three women per film — typically a first-act beauty often meeting a tragic end, then a villainess to seduce and interrogate, and a third act damsel in distress he ends up in flagrante with only to be discovered by his bosses in that requisite “Oh 007!” end shot. YOLT had the opportunity to break that mold as two of the film’s ‘Bond-Girls’ are kancho-like shadow-skilled agents of Tiger’s, and that’s where our complaint about women in YOLT lies — the lost opportunity for modern kunoichi.

The absolutely stunning Akiko Wakabayshi, veteran of kaiju-fare Ghidora the Three Headed Monster and Dogora, plays “Aki” who much like Kohagi in Castle of Owls is a potentially dangerous woman of cunning and skill who may or may not be on our hero’s side. Not part of the original book at all, Aki was designed to represent the new, mod woman of Japan’s future, who augments ages-old kunoichi skills of infiltration and info gathering with a gadget-filled spy car that saves Bond’s neck twice. Wakabayshi just owns the screen, and a better movie would see her with a meatier action role, but alas, she was a first-act Bond Girl and the poison thread awaited…

So enter our bikini-clad Ama diver Mie Hama. In the “Mad Men era” and for a certain breed of individual, “Pearl Divers” = topless smut, making key issues of National Geographic and “artistic” photo books on the subject highly sought after for all the wrong reasons. The producers of YOLT were definitely looking for flesh on screen (watch this episode of the Brit TV doc-series Whickers World for actual footage of them clashing with actresses over being exploited for cheesecake), so Hama’s role was already more objectified than usual. Despite this, she could have had some claws… literally.

The “Kissy Suzuki” of the book, while certainly under the influence of Tanaka, wasn’t an outright card-carrying spy-deb, but the film upgraded her to a full-on field agent. However Hama’s English was so bad, her speaking part was slashed to a bare minimum and the role was cut down. We don’t see her do a whole lot other than pose as a bride and act as a messenger, and she didn’t even get to change into cool ninja gear for the final assault. This behind-the-scenes shot below of the actress posing with traditional kaginawa is as close as we get to anything legit kunoichi, but no such scene appears in the final film.

The contrast of what YOLT could have done with these otherwise ‘eye candy’ female leads is more acute when you look at the contemporary ninja films coming out of Japan that had superior female action roles — the afore mentioned Castle of Owls, Akai Kageboshi and Seventeen Ninja coming immediately to mind.

 

Stars… Throwing Stars

Now, do pay attention 007… Technically, YOLT was not the first time an exotic ninja arsenal was seen on the screen by a Western audience. A one-hour teaser special called Welcome to Japan Mr. Bond was assembled by the studio for British TV in advance of the box office premiere. The big shocker lead was the news that James Bond was finally getting married, but to which of the storied Bond Girls? Recurring cast members like Desmond “Q” Llewelyn and Lois “Money Penny” Maxwell shot new segments to serve as mortar between rehashed clips of love scenes and action sequences from the first four Bond films. These sorts of ‘greatest hits’ specials were a boon for audiences in the days before cable reruns and VHS, as they were literally the only way one could relive the past movies, save for occasional network screenings.

At about 45 minutes in, Moneypenny tracks Q down in MI6’s underground weapons lab, littered with props from the previous films, and particularly the components of Little Nellie. She sees a table full of quirky antiques and can’t help her curiosity. Q informs her they were sent by Tiger Tanaka, and describes the relics as “An odd mixture of the very modern and the very primitive… Some of these weapons have been in existence for centuries!”

After an eye-opening demonstration of an explosive “black egg” (although these were white), Q points out a kaginawa “used for wall scaling” amidst an arsenal of spears, halberds and kusarigama. Then he and two lab techs start throwing shuriken around like they’re playing drunken darts in a pub.

The weapons and props here are absolutely legit too, right off the wall of some dojo, nothing out of a catalog…

Welcome to Japan Mr. Bond can be found on the latest DVD and Bluray discs of YOLT. I love this tiny little nugget, and I love the idea that all this gear is somewhere in London waiting to be rediscovered.

 

Cars… Plastic Cars

I’d love to live in a world where YOLT, merchandised to the gills the way films post Planet of the Apes and Star Wars were, inspired a line of little plastic shuriken emblazoned with “007” stickers, or vinyl Tanaka ninja figures on zip lines with a cardboard volcano backdrop. Sadly, this is not our world.

Bond didn’t pack his signature Aston Martin for the trip to Japan, so the most plentiful merch to come out of YOLT were replica Toyota 2000GTs. Much was made of the car at the time, being a custom convertible specially modified for the film (and Connery’s size), and miniatures augmented with non-film but play-friendly features like hidden missiles abound.

Reissues of 1967 toys from companies like Corgi are easy to find nowadays too, alongside new fare like this superb Little Nellie.

Below is my original Corgi #336, complete with its little rubber driver figure of Aki. I only bring this up because if… IF… you consider the Aki character to be a modern kunoichi, then this little 1967 nubbin is indeed the very first ninja figure made in the West.

A stunning likeness, no?

I also LOVE this Rising Sun-like kanji-emblazoned badge on the bottom of the car!

Alas, the tiny rubber Aki was the only Japanese element adapted to merchandise. Brit figure manufacturer Gilbert steered away from the ninja outfit in favor of Bond in his sailor gear from a brief scene at the film’s beginning. Toy weapons were merely repackages of previously molded Walther PPKs with box art that usually depicted the volcano. If YOLT had been released in the 80s, the merchandise would have been an entirely different story!

But man oh man was there some weird cool stuff in Japan! The below “Marui Spy Arm Series” model kits, crazy obscure until a full run of them showed up on North American eBay earlier this year, aren’t officially YOLT licensed, but the manufacturer was clearly honing in on what was hot in 1967.

Great painting of Tetsuro Tamba! I love that these semi-functional model kits were just as hybrid of ancient and modern as the movie was — they’re blade-based high-tech gadgets.

  

Seems like similar kits were knocked-off for Bond and Tiger’s competitors, too! Maybe this company had pockets deep enough to license both big properties, but the lack of any “007” branding or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. logos leads me to believe they just liberally suggested officialness in their package art.

Each of these went for upwards of $500 if you’re curious… (and, NO, I was not the buyer, dammit)

YOLT wouldn’t see much other licensing util the RPG boom of the 80s, when the Bond films were adapted into spy versions of Dungeons and Dragons. I dig the cover art for the module book below, which keeps the repelling ninja army while going a little nuts on the hero costuming.

And this one is 100% a product of the 80s ninja craze.

To this day, no one’s produced any proper ninja toys from YOLT. I just can’t forgive this plane of reality for that.

 

You Only NIN Twice

Post YOLT, Connery would leave the franchise, the superb John Barry score would be shamelessly stolen for dozens of cheap kung-fu flicks from Hong Kong, Tamba would star in another 72,000 jidai-geki films and, notably for our purposes here, Japan’s answer to The Man From UNCLE, I-SPY Mission: Impossible and the lot — Key Hunter. Mie Hama had a date with a robotic gorilla in King Kong Escapes. Poor Akiko Wakabayashi, after surviving monsters like Godzilla and Sean Connery, retired from an on-set injury, having made just two more films.

Donn Draeger would go on to publish his pioneering book Ninjutsu: The Art of Invisibility. Teaser copy on the cover read:

Asia had the original James Bond. Here in this fascinating book read about the ninja, the masters of invisibility and deception who flourished as highly trained espionage agents in feudal-age Japan.

Audiences in the West wouldn’t see those ninja again until the 1970s, with wildly inconsistent portrayals in TV shows like Kung-Fu, Baretta, Quincy, M.E. and the contemptible Sam Peckinpaw film The Killer Elite.

Two decades later, ninja, of a sort, would return to Bond though, as more traditional shozoku-like stealth suits were briefly used by high-kicking, net-flinging members of a Hong Kong drug police unit in the Timothy Dalton-led 1989 film License to Kill. The squad was commanded by Japanese-American genre actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in a bit part, playing Chinese. I remember first seeing this film, thinking for a minute he was a reboot of Tiger Tanaka, hopes immediately crushed… another grudge I hold with reality.

Despite the world-wide ninja craze of the previous seven years before License, this would be the closest the franchise ever got to the feudal era equivalents of its “00” agents again.

 

When You Think Twice…

You Only Live Twice isn’t a ninja movie to most of the world, but it is a lot of different things to different people. Bond fanatics at the time were fixated on Connery’s much-ballyhood departure from the role, announced mid-production and taking all sorts of fire away from the opening. Bond fans now can look at it as the end of the classic Connery run. Few can argue this particular John Barry score ranks among the series’ best. The massive volcano set is immortalized in Bond lore as the apex of architectural extravagance. The Little Nellie helicopter scene, gratuitous as it is, remains one of the series’ best dogfights and that gyro-copter has toured the globe. For feminists YOLT is perhaps the most egregious of the films. For book fans it’s the sad end to the “Blofeld Trilogy” and Fleming’s last, and perhaps least, work. YOLT is also the source of much of what was parodied the the Austin Powers films, and younger audiences just can’t watch it with a straight face. (Little do they realize that before Dr. Evil OR Blofeld did the super villain with the cat bit, Tomisaburo Wakayama did it as Oda Nobunaga in Shinobi no Mono.)

For us here, You Only Live Twice is essentially the West’s first ninja movie, but it is also the West’s first BAD ninja movie. As much as I’ve loved this film my whole life, the missed opportunities are too numerous to put aside. For a movie taking pains to show the ancient Japanese methods in tandem with the futuristic new, where was the scene of a traditional black shozoku at least in a display case with the new outfits aside for contrast? And while the notion of a nation steeped in tradition radically updating its ancient espionage pedigree to the new space age is amazing, other leaps of logic trip you up like weeds in the book’s Garden of Death.

Take that Garden for instance… here’s Tiger, handcuffed and unable to assassinate Blofeld with any homegrown asset, thus manipulating Bond into being his trigger man. But if you think about it, he’s got myriad modern ninja on the payroll with full expertise of poisons at their disposal. And their target is a man surrounded by killer plants, insects and reptiles. They can’t possible bump him off and make it look like a gardening accident???

Jump to the movie. Here’s this army of ninja, experts on silent infiltration and whatnot, and they’re basically reduced to being cannon fodder in a very loud full-frontal assault into a well-lit volcano complex. While there are plenty of martial arts on display, there is precious little shadow work in a script essentially replicating the gimmicked final battle of Thunderball (and later Moonraker).

YOLT is one of those movies you love to hate, and hate to love, all at once. I mean, I’ve only seen it like 50 times or so over the course of my life. First seeing it on TV as a kid in the 70s, the ninja elements wouldn’t have registered as anything more than karate or kung-fu stuff. And during the 80s craze my expectations of ninja were so narrow and demanding of black suits and hoods, I didn’t even recognize it as a ninja movie.

Maybe the frustration at the undelivered potential of YOLT, and the weak and rare ninja fare that followed in the 1970s, is what made fully-dedicated outright ninja movies like The Octagon and Enter the Ninja such a welcomed, and craze-inspiring revelation.

But… we wouldn’t have gotten there without You Only Live Twice. Happy 50th Birthday Tiger, Aki, Kissy and all your anonymous grey hooded pals!

Keith J. Rainville — 6/11/2017

 

Images of the films You Only Live Twice and License to Kill are ©Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. Excepts from the book You Only Live Twice in both prose and strip are ©Gildrose Productions, 1964. Excepts from Both used here for editorial review and under Fair Use.

 

RELATED:

Eric Van Lustbader on YOLT‘s influence on The Ninja

A huge collection of memorabilia here.

As always, articles on VN are meant more to open-up and encourage discussion than they are to make definitive statements, and we are always looking for additional info and insight into our topics. To that end we’ve specifically opened up Comments for this article and can also be reached via email at krainville-at-vintageninja-dot-net.

 

‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in American vs. Japanese films

One thing you hear over and over from the anti-‘Ninja-To’-sword-haters-club is the blade is “pure Hollywood.” Before this recent spat of research and over-scrutinizing swords in old movies, I used to argue against that notion; the Japanese studios got ninja ‘wrong’ decades before we did, right? And the blade was sold mail order well before our ninja boom, so Hollywood sure didn’t invent the sword. It wasn’t even used in The Octagon (1980) or Enter the Ninja (1981).

BUT, what can be said is “pure Hollywood” is the narrow strictness of the visual shorthand for ninja. From 1982’s Revenge of the Ninja onward, the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ was absolutely chiseled into the vocabulary of ninja in American film and TV. The sword was so well branded here, Kosugi or Dudikoff using a curved blade would have been seen as a blasphemous prop master’s error.

The Japanese were, as with manga, much less narrow in their use of screen props, however their use of a sword for a shinobi character carried additional editorial significance. Whereas American films were typically ninja vs. mobsters, drug lords, night shift security guards and sometimes other ninja, Japanese movies typically featured ninja vs. samurai.

Samurai use long, ornate blades that make statements of their social rank and wealth. A ninja’s cruder, less decorated blade is an indication of lower social rank. It says his sword is not his soul, but a tool to get a job done. At the same time, the shorter blade when used against full-length katana in the hands of an armored warrior says volumes about the ninja’s skill and courage.

So let’s take a look at some different swords in the hands of shinobi. We’ll start with the most historically credible ninja films ever made – the Shinobi-no-mono series.

But hey! Is that a straight blade???

I’ve had a few people refer me to this photo in opposition to statements I’ve made about the lack of short, straight blades in Japanese ninja films. And yeah, that is Raizo Ichikawa holding an apparently straight blade made by a studio prop master under the guidance of tech advisors like Takamatsu Toshitsugu and Masaaki Hatsumi.

But look again:

Hmmm. Why was the poster image altered to reflect a more traditional sword? Or was the publicity photo above retouched? And was it altered by Daiei back in the 60s or by Animeigo for their recent DVD packaging?

[UPDATE: Or as VN reader Kent Wood points out, is the above image just a scan from a book that is bending at the spine, thus distorting the page? I think he’s right! I think I’m missing the forest for the trees…]

Point I’m making here is even with the Bujinkan tech advisors on board, the blades are inconsistent between the Shinobi-no-Mono films, and they sometimes change from shot to shot. So don’t go putting too much importance behind any single still.

Above, two publicity shots with two different props. Rather than an editorial statement, this is more likely just the difference between what is called a “hero prop” – in this case a character’s signature sword, which they only might have produced a few copies of – and a more disposable prop used as a ‘stunt double’ if you will, for quick-cut fight scenes where the piece is more likely to be damaged.

Raizo’s “hero props” changed from film to film as well – note the different tsuba below. Sheath length also varied, but the blade was always short (signature Hatsumi!).

And not all Daiei ninja used such swords. Battle scenes involving multiple extras and stuntmen as Iga clansmen revert to plain katana and wakizashi. Budget saving measure, or where they embracing the notion that blades would differ from man to man, mission to mission?

Now, I’ll pose a question to everyone who’s seen these films.

I think there’s actually an ever so slight CURVE to this blade. What do you all think?

Hard to tell. I’d kill to see this prop, if it still exists. If there is a curve, it is so minor, changing perspective straightens it right out.

And here’s another question – why the hell hasn’t someone replicated this awesome baby and sold me ten of them? WHY?!?!?

Meanwhile on the small screen, Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia) was absolutely bursting with ninja during its 60s-long run. Prop swords varied from season to season, with a limited TV budgets always the deciding factor in style.

Note Tonbei the Mist‘s wakizashi with oversized round tsuba, in comparison to the standard swords of the hero Shintaro. The good Iga ninja always used these, while the evil ninja clan-of-the-season would have various plain swords. There was, however, a recurring sword used for the several seasons’ boss villains – an absolutely monstrous ‘horse cutter’ (I think?) with a handle as long as its blade. I love this freaky thing!

The 60s weren’t all gritty, B&W, espionage-based, hard ninjutsu, though. There were as many swashbuckling adventurers and colorful plucky heroes as tormented shadow dwellers. Plenty of heroes who were of otherwise samurai status as well, so they used their same trusty blades when on night missions.

Ninja with samurai swords or samurai in ninja garb? Counter-clockwise from top NINJA HICHO FUKURO NO SHIRO (Castle of Owls), AKAI KEGEBOSHI (The Red Shadow), KAZE NO BUSHI (Warrior of the Wind)

However, the 70’s was a decade where ninja on the big screen were less likely to be the hero, and more likely to be fodder butchered by a surly sword-swinging ronin. The financial and scheduling realities of movie and TV production usually trumped any desired fealty to martial tradition or obscure history, so these disposable ninja carried off-the-rack, bulk produced props that didn’t require exclusive tooling or smithing. There were a lot of wakizashi blades with katana handles, and shorter curved swords with square guards, like this:

That’s one of dozens of ninja mowed down in the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and the above style sword was standard issue in 70s and 80s films.

Here’s a better look at what Japanese filmmakers considered the ‘Ninja-To’ pretty much at the same time as we were buying the straight versions made famous by Hayes and Kosugi:

Shogun’s Ninja (Ninja Bugeicho: Momochi Sandayu – 1981) features two competing forces of ninja, both using the same medium length curved blades with plain handles and square guards.

*As a side note, is there a film with a wider pendulum swing of great costuming (above) and laughable bullshit (below)? These hunter cammo suits give me douche chills.*

The same year, Enter the Ninja began Sho Kosugi‘s assault on America. Mike Stone‘s weaponry was custom, not mail order, and the swords were closer to the Japanese studio model.

But in 1983, the smoking chest was opened, and there it was!

From Revenge of the Ninja on, Kosugi was in charge of choreography and props, and never strayed from the short, straight blade with long handle and square guard – used by ALL ninja – heroes, villains, rival clans, students, masters… everyone.

He even made his own in Pray for Death (1985), a scene that drove Tim and I nuts because the sword he supposedly forged real quick during his power-up montage ends up a fully decorated blade with ornate hammon line, right out of the prop bin.

*And that dumb-ass helmet ranks with the cammo gear above!*

When the Cannon Films ninja mantle was passed to Michael Dudikoff, so too was the now requisite ‘Ninja-To,’ seen throughout the five American Ninja films that closed out the 80s craze.

And at the same time in Japan? Masaaki Hatsumi was a big part of the kids’ show World Ninja War Jiraiya (Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya – 1988), which featured a variety of outre ninja-based characters with just as wide a variety of swords.

Curved swords…

Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.

E-debate rages on notorious ‘Ninja-To’

Martial arts are a lot like religion – you can’t have a discussion, it’s an argument. You can’t have an opinion, you take sides. And just like religions draw lines in the sand over buildings, relics and figures, so too has the ninjutsu community focused considerable scrutiny toward the alleged ‘ninja sword.’

Conflicting ‘evidence’ abounds – museums displays here, pictures in karate mags there, eyewitnesses, experts and amateurs all weighing in (*I* fall in there somewhere, ahem…), and too often folks deliver their opinions in over-confident, absolute terms.

‘They existed alright…’

‘My friend trained in Japan in the 80s and he saw the scroll…’

‘Nope, they’re a myth. The proof is in an old issue of…’

And it is those broad, matter-of-fact statements that really escalate the tone and language of these debates. You don’t have to look far, however, to see how contradictory ‘reliable information’ can actually be:

Image from Arthur Adams' NINJA: THE INVISIBLE ASSASSINS, a 1970 expansion of articles from the 60s, and America's first notion of a sword suited for shinobi espionage work. Note: CURVED, but with other elements of the stereotyped Ninja-To, like the shovel tip on the scabbard.
By the early to mid-80s, this was regulation ninja gear. In CAMMO even! Ever notice the short blades got longer and the oversized square guards got smaller as time went on?

The professionals are just as conflicted, no more evident than in the internet jousting between martial artists/authors/historians that starts with this article by Bujinkan instructor Don Roley on the BudoSeek info board, here:

The Myth of the Straight-Bladed Ninja Sword (read the extensive comments as well)

Mr. Roley’s thesis in short: The stereotypical straight sword is myth, it wasn’t part of the 60’s movement in Japan, Masaaki Hatsumi never used one and shouldn’t be blamed for its proliferation. Rather, Stephen K. Hayes is largely responsible for the erroneous notion that this is the signature and exclusive blade of ninjutsu.

Retorts actually came from Stephen K. Hayes himself!

“Ninja Sword” Non-Controversy

Hayes’ points: Such swords existed, but weren’t a “badge of official ninja-ness.” He admits his written works over the 80s both embraced the stereotype and guarded against it, to the point that the debate is often “silly” and folks should get on with it already.

Then, sitting somewhere between the two is historian/author Antony Cummins:

Cummins originally comes from the doubters camp ala Roley, but comes to defend Hayes as not being the source of the debatable blade. He points to illustrated reference in antiquity to straight-bladed, square guarded swords used by Ashigaru foot soldiers – so such blades may have existed – but emphasizes the lack of evidence relating directly to anything ninja.

For fairness sake, here’s some counter-vids as well, I find this one both amusing and informative, simply for the additional pictures:

Cummins might be a little too eager to state the absolute certainty of his ‘evidence’ (something a historian should be especially weary of), but I really like is his overall summation that “There was no such thing as a specifically generated ninja sword, there were swords ninja used.” Same way there is no official gun of the bank robber. Well said!

And this is probably the healthiest attitude to have on the subject. Martial arts are part history and part faith in oral traditions where that hard data gaps. At the same time, lore and pop media notions come from some nugget of truth somewhere.

To blanket state that the sword is myth is as irresponsible as saying it is absolute fact.

Two images from the Hatsumi (and Hayes) book NINJUTSU: HISTORY AND TRADITION, showing BOTH a curved short blade (similar to what the Bujinkan endorses now)...
...and the more stereotypical sword, seen also in the 1973 mail order ad below.

And here's the very same blade in the display case of the Iga Ueno ninja museum. Neither sword is actually DATED in the display, not uncommon practice for what are more tourist attractions than museums (think Tombstone, AZ for an American equivalent).
Hayes would go on to lend his name to both curved and straight training gear.

So where does Vintage Ninja stand on all this? Think Switzerland. We ain’t got a dawg in this fight…

Tim has trained with both straight and curved blades, and can defend either’s merits. I, being the Japanese media nerd above all else, prefer the curved blades most often seen in their film, TV and comics (posts on these will follow shortly).

Neither of us like to see blanket definitive statements insisting there was or wasn’t one signature ninja sword.

Tim puts it very well, and I’ll paraphrase: If a law enforcement historian made the claim “All American police in the 20th Century wore blue uniforms and carried .38 caliber service revolvers” would it be true? Some did. A lot did. A lot wore brown or green and carried .45 automatics, too. So while there is truth there, its not the only truth, and stating it so authoritatively makes the statement wrong in general.

So if you’re a martial artist taking sides in the debate, lighten up. Martial arts evolve. The fact that these arts are no longer in-use battlefield practices means they’ve been abstracted from their native form already. Evolution of an art to fit new times is just as important as maintaining its traditions. And wasn’t ninjutsu the most adaptable and organic of all martial practices to start with?

If you want to train with a short, straight blade with a square guard, knock yourself out. Sure, it’s a standard of the mail order business, but it had to have come from somewhere to begin with, right? On the other hand, if you want to make a ninja movie where those blades aren’t used in favor of some other screen aesthetic, go nuts too!

There’s really no need to declare your fealty to one school of thought or the other. And anyone asking you to needs to think for a minute about the debate at large. If there’s this much conflicting thought, and this much contradictory ‘evidence,’ maybe there is no absolute truth to be had.

Next time: Ninja swords in manga, followed by the differences in movie props between Japan and the U.S.


 

JIRAIYA photo book (part 2 of 2)

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 1

World-Wide Ninja War Jiraiya may have been centered on a single hero, but it was the wide range of supporting characters, global guest stars and villains-of-the-week that were the show’s strength.

Masaaki Hatsumi and his fictional kin operate out of the real Togakure Bujinkan. Note the silhouette from the firey credit sequence, where some distinctive ninjutsu kicks are thrown.
Inspired by the notion of the Olympics, ninja from every corner of the globe got involved in the war, including Yanks and Brits.
Awesome as the main villain's costume was, his troops... maybe not so much. Chuunin Benikiba, the villainess at center, is stuck in one of the most unflattering female costumes in TV history. I've had a vinyl figure of her for decades and never knew it was supposed to be female until recently.
The 'karasutengu' crow ninja are a great idea, but the goofy eyes KILL the whole design. They look like spokes characters from some fast food chain. Recurring baddie Hoshinin Retsuga looks like he bought his ninja gear at Chess King!

OK, so after three days of Jiraiya, what do y’all think? I know folks who LOVE this show’s dizzying array of characters and Japan Action Club-esque action. Others just can’t stand how 80’s it is, and yeah, it is definitely a product of its time.

To me, it seems like the thing just came a few years too late. By 88-89 the craze was waning world-wide. The same show in 84-85 might have been a bigger sensation, including here.

If for nothing else, comb the greyer markets for eps of this oddity just to see the integration of genuine ninjutsu with over the top superhero antics. I mean Hatsumi in a kids’ show, who knew?

JIRAIYA photo book (part 1 of 2)

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 1

A noble ninja family battles an ancient demon and his evil hordes, with international ninja from around the globe thrown into the mix. Gimmicked vehicles, soaring stunt work and plenty of explosions in rock quarries are on tap. It’s World-Wide Ninja War Jiraiya, as seen in a 1988 photo book:

MESH was used in most all of the costuming to connect the modern superhero costumes to feudal-era costuming.
Female costuming here is oddly weak. The hero's younger sister has the best gear by far.

Tomorrow, some of the weirdest ‘shockers’ ever and some reeeealy 80’s costumes.

World-Wide Ninja Olympics?

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

If you’re a big enough toy geek, the 1988 Japanese tokusatsu series Worldwide Ninja War Jiraiya (Sekai ninja sen Jiraiya) will look somewhat familiar. The action-packed “Metal Hero” show was never exported to the States, but some of the toys were — the absolutely awful line of floppy rubber figures in hard plastic armor known as “Tacky Stretchoid Warriors.”

While these gummy figures positively sucked, the source series is a pretty damned good example of 80’s superhero television, packed with tons of colorful characters, high-flying stuntwork, explosive action, and some historically significant cast members.

Takumi Tsutsui stars as the young hero Jiraiya, as shinobi as he is Red Ranger.
Modern Iga grandmaster Tetsuzan Yamaji was, appropriately, played by ninjutsu legend Masaaki Hatsumi! The godfather of modern ninjutsu, Hatsumi was also tech advisor on the SHINOBI-NO-MONO films, showing the range of media projects he influenced with genuine shadow arts.
Arch-villain Oninin Dokusai is one of the best deigned TV villains ever.

Jiraiya’s plot unfolded over 50 episodes; a ninja family entrusted for centuries to guard the secret of an alien treasure races against an ancient demon to unlock its considerable powers. Complicating matters is a colorful cast of international ninja with mixed allegiances — a superb plot device said to be inspired by the Seoul Olympics.

In-dojo training sequences with Togakure-Ryu grandmaster Hatsumi and appearances by several of his ninjutsu students give this show a unique quality. Mixed in with the genre-requisite explosions and decorated vehicles are some genuine martial arts. This kids’ show may have been the most Hatsumi and the Togakure were involved in a media property since their genre-defining technical advisory role in the Shinobi-no-Mono films.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll have a pile of pages from a nice photo book of the series, showing both some timeless tokusatsu designs and some hopelessly 80’s fashions.

Meanwhile, there’s a nice show gallery at the French-language Space Sheriff blog and a brief write-up on the American toys at the PrimeTime Toystore.