‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in manga

Depending on what school of thought you believe, the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is either pure myth propagated by popular media or martial tradition traced back centuries in Japan. Well, if EITHER of those is true, then you’d think the short, straight bladed sword with square guard would show up in manga once in a while. But it doesn’t.

Depictions of ninja swords in manga are a mixed bag over the decades, but a lot of what you see are short, curved blades of the less-decorated variety, worn as often through the belt as they are on the back.

This might be little more than artistic preference. I think illustrators like Mitsuteru Yokoyama (above) and Shirato Sanpei liked drawing the curved blade, as it adds a sense of dynamic movement not necessarily there with a swinging straight blade.

It’s also important to keep in mind manga artists work on insane deadlines, so consistency of blade style can vary from panel to panel. One can find an isolated drawing or two with what looks like a straight sword, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a deliberate statement of sword preference.

Here’s a few samples of the manga ninja sword (or lack thereof):

WAIT! Osamu Tezuka‘s I Am Sarutobi (circa 1960) has a short, shealth-less, apparently straight blade! It also has a lead character with stubs for feet and eyes the size of grapefruits, so you can’t exactly lean on the exacting design here…

Kagemaru of Iga‘s curved blade (starting in 1961) seemed to change length depending on the panel layout and dramatic effect intended. This was one of the most influential properties of the 60s Japanese craze, but Yokoyama never made that strong a statement about sword style. The 1963 film adaptation used a standard katana.

Sanpei, however, was much more of a realist, especially later in his career. However both the mid 60s and early 80s incarnations of Kamui saw the character use nothing more exotic than a dressed-down wakizashi, although it was slung in the small of the back in a signature style. These panels are from the 80s Eclipse reprints, and may be partly indicative of why this superb, heady series never fully connected with mainstream ninja fans in the America. No black suit for the hero, no regulation ‘Ninja-To,’ so less visual shorthand to attract otherwise Kosugi-crazed shinobifiles.

Takao Saito‘s hit ninja properties also featured short, curved blades for their ninja. The 1969 shinobi massacre known as Kage Gari (The Shadow Hunters) is again all short curved swords, sometimes with square guards and worn on the back, but there is variety in there as well. Again, you also see some quickly rendered blades that’ll look straight at first glance.

Zanpei Kumotori (1976-78) dispensed with the sword entirely, in favor of a long tanto cribbed in the small of his back. LOVE that minimalist statement, reminiscent of Sasuke’s commando kit in Samurai Spy.

Goseki Kojima stuck to curved blades as well in the 1970 Lone Wolf and Cub series. These panels are a perfect example of perspective and speed of delivery making a curved sword look like straight for a second. This is why I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the “evidence” of old book illustrations pointing to the existence of the straight sword.

And here’s a similar look three decades later, a Kunoichi’s blade from the same team’s Path of the Assassin (Hanzo no Mon).

Now, I don’t have the most complete library of vintage ninja manga in north America or anything, but what I do have samples most of the significant series and stages of development, and the only thing I have that actually embraces the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is this 1993 series called Mujina by Aihara Koji. In an example of the snake biting its own tail, his ninja use the western craze-era notion of the regulation ninja sword, complete with catalog stock picture for reference. Eeewww…and it’s the long bladed, small guarded variety, too. This book is trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy, and the catalog ninja sword may be part of that misguided effort.

So, it wasn’t Japanese comics that cemented the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ into the our mindset, NOR did manga artists for the past half-century embrace the alleged martial arts history that should have been apparent in their own country.

FILM though… as we’ll see next post… is a lot more partisan an art form.

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Posted in Books and Manga and History and Martial Arts March 5, 2011 at 6:02 am.

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KAGEMARU board game

I have no idea what this game was (some sort of sliding-type deal from a kids’ magazine, with punch-out tokens) but man is the character art laced throughout the board amazing or what?

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Collectibles August 25, 2010 at 7:13 am.

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IGA NO KAGEMARU laserdisc inserts: Part 2

Additional images from the inserts of the laserdisc of the 1963 “Kagaemaru of Iga” live action film:

A villainous rogues gallery: both the live action film's and...

...the manga originals from which they were adapted.

Man do I love that illo in blue of the random evil ninja!

One of the most colorful movie posters of the 60's ninja craze. Just gorgeous.

See more at Black Sun.

Visit the creator’s official website (Japanese) here, with some great manga cover galleries under the “Published” link.

Buy the really fun 1963 film at Kurotokagi.

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Posted in Film and TV March 30, 2010 at 8:54 am.

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IGA NO KAGEMARU laserdisc inserts: Part 1

Inspired by Shonen King‘s excellent work over at Black Sun, here’s some of the stills from the inserts of Toho’s Iga no Kagemaru laserdisc:

One thing I love about this movie is Hiroki Matsukata's wardrobe, namely the floppy hood - unique to this film entirely. It was designed to reflect the stylized hood drawn by Yokoyama in the manga.

Shingo Yamashiro may have been too handsome to be the film's boss villain.

This weird collage of a live-action still and a drawing from the manga is actually inserted into the movie. Some weird editing tricks and illustrations pop up, especially at the baffling climax of the film.

More coming tomorrow. In the meantime, buy the really fun 1963 film at Kurotokagi.

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Posted in Film and TV March 28, 2010 at 8:54 pm.

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Great KAGEMARU stuff, too!

See, I get busy with day jobs, tax prep and real life shit, and all these other sites start kicking my ass…

I just love the Black Sun blog, but he’s above and beyond awesome this week with a great look at the multi-media sensation Kagemaru of Iga!

Good god do I need whatever that puppet version of the Yokoyama shinobi-hero is in my life!

We’ve got some modest entries on this prolific mega-property here, here, here and here, but now I fell the impetus to put some more stuff up. To the scanner!

Stay tuned kage-maniacs…

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Posted in Film and TV March 27, 2010 at 5:26 pm.

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Kaiju in AKAKAGE (part 2)

The Red Shadow kid’s TV series ran 52 episodes over two years. Six of those episodes were later cut together into movies released under titles like Ninjascope (The Magical World of the Ninjas) in Australia and Latin America.

They were also mis-labeled to cash in on the success of another ninja kid’s film Dai Ninjutsu Eiga Watari, so if you get a chance to see something like Watari the Conqueror, Watari and the Fantasticks, Watari and the Seven Monsters or The Magic Sword of Watari, the ninja boy in question is NOT the axe-weilding hero of the 1966 masterpiece, it’s just that twerp Aokage in rather grainy TV footage blown-up for the big screen.

Again, these were all over TV and theaters everywhere else in the world but here… So check out the monsters we missed:

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This were-cat-looking thing is my absolute fave!

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Red Shadow's jeweled mask, combined with his powered-up katana, produced these never-fail monster-exterminating lightning bolts.

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If you’ve never seen an episode of the original show or one of the dubbed composite movies, but the above seem strangely familiar, it’s because the character made a guest appearance in a time-spanning episode of Yokoyama’s landmark Giant Robo / Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot series.

READ MORE:

The Henshin Hall of Fame

Watari-Akakage fan page

Creepy human head mask from Japan

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Posted in Film and TV October 28, 2009 at 9:15 am.

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Kaiju in AKAKAGE (part 1)

Seems Japan has been beset by giant monsters forever, and luckily for us today heroes like Ultraman are around to fend them off. But in the fuedal era, centuries before any space-faring monster fighters, laser-weilding science patrols or little kids with watches that summoned giant robots were around, it was up to a select few NINJA to do these monsters in.

Enter multi-media shinobi superhero Red Shadow, the coifed creature killer of Kamen no Ninja Akakage.

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This government-charged agent of justice (played by Sakaguchi Yûzaburô) could fly, shoot eye beams, summon a magic twister, and all sorts of other jazz. He and partners Aokakge (Blue Shadow, the requisite snot-nosed-brat, played by Yoshinobu Kaneko) and the veteran Shirokage (White Shadow, another one of Maki Fuyukichi‘s several ninja franchise roles) also loved throwing really potent hand grenades at monsters until everything in sight exploded.

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With this flashy ninja vs. giant monster format, prolific shinobi creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama‘s “Masked Ninja Akakage” jumped from hit manga in ’66 to Toei’s first color tokustatsu series in ’67, and has since seen revivals in anime and live action cinema. It is the often goofy but eminently lovable kid’s show that is highest regarded in that chain… Looking at these images, it’s not hard to see why:

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Know what I love most about this shot of the main baddie of the series? It allows me to use a term like "Harryhausen-esque!"

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These optical printer composites were still pretty new territory, especially in color and on a television budget. Sometimes they're rather good, other times not so much, but they are never a deal breaker.

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The tried-and-true model stomping session is always good, though...

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Good use of rear projection. The color exposure differences sometimes hinder these shots, but again, the color format was new.

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Miniature figures and modestly-budgeted modelscapes were often complemented by fire or smoke spitting critters that lent increased dynamics to otherwise cheesy-looking scenes.

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This familiar giant toad is probably the very suit from MAGIC SERPENT, or at least poured from the same foam rubber molds - note the indent on the nose where in the previous movie the glowing horn would have been.

TOMORROW – a whole pile of sponge-suit monsters!


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Posted in Film and TV October 27, 2009 at 9:20 am.

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Meaty thighs and a taste for steel. She’s a keeper!

Yokoyama kunoichi

Great art by prolific shinobi manga magnate Mitsuteru Yokoyama.

Someone throw my a translation, will ya… apart from the headline kanji for ‘ninja’, what are the subheads and copy here?

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Posted in Books and Manga and Sword Girls September 10, 2009 at 10:31 pm.

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KAGEMARU merch

If only this were MY stuff…

A collection of Kagemaru of Iga merch from a Yokoyama art book.

Kagemaru merch

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Posted in Collectibles and Toys and Statues September 8, 2009 at 11:54 pm.

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More KAGEMARU…

Yep, it’s official – I LOVE the hooded Kagemaru and hate the unhooded drawings.

kagemaru01.jpg

kagemaru06.jpg

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Say, while you’re here, check out the newly updated Kagemaru vinyl figure post over in Toys and Statues!

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Posted in Books and Manga July 26, 2009 at 12:49 am.

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