Wizards in theatre masks (part 2)

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Let’s see what becomes of this ‘ornery Oni, this clandestine kabuki killer, this… maniacal maladjusted masked magician…

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For starters, this shinobi master-of-disguise shows up to prompt along our heroes, showing up at odd times both on the street and in dream sequences.
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AND our good old pal the fire-spittin' snakey-poo makes a gratuitous dream realm cameo!
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In this shadow-realm encounter, the villain summons an army of yokai-masked ninja shockers. You never good a good look at them though, but the masks could be reused from flicks like GOLDEN PEACOCK CASTLE.

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Amazing how simple but effective fire-bursts are on screen. Here, the hero and heroine take the heat in the dream world.
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This get-up is almost cooler sans the crazy hair.

Gotta admit, at film’s end I’m kinda lost. They seem to switch villains, going after a daimyo instead of the evil wizard. Or maybe he hasn’t actually been evil this whole time, and is one of the good guys all along? Or he’s defeated and the hero poses as him for the insider super surprise mega tricker?

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As much as I hate to go live with an examination of a movie without really knowing it’s details and editorial, the imagery here is to cool to wait for an eventual research breakthrough or a fan sub surfacing. I spent the 90’s writing about mostly unsubbed or dubbed Mexican masked wrestler movies while having precious little command of the Spanish language, and sometimes VN is no different. There’s a certain joy to floundering in the waters dammed by the language barrier – movies like this become somewhat dada-ist and delightfully baffling when you’re not hung up on plot holes or mis-translations and whatnot.

Wizards in theatre masks (part 1)

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I have a non-subbed copy of a movie called Ninjutsu Suikoden Inazuma Kotengu, and boy is this a nifty little flick! I know it’s from 1958, Toei Studios, directed by Masaharu Matsumura, starring Chiyonosuke Azuma and Yumiko Hasegawa… and NOTHING else.

But, this being the height of Masks and Monsters Month, here’s a couple dozen caps of the coolest masked scenes:

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Optical effects in this movie represent magic breaking the physical planes of time and space. Wizards come and go with swirling kalliedescopes of color. Several confrontations take place in other-worldly dreamscapes and shadow dimensions. And the masks seem to empower the sorcerers to greater good and evil.

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Dunno who this guy is, but I do know that he 1.) has a killer wardrobe, 2.) is up to no good, and 3.) has shadow sorcery skills, judging from that ninjutsu hand gesture.
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The old 'walking out of a tree' gag is as old as the optical printer, and works just fine.
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Notice his prisoner on the far right...
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That's a cute-as-a-muffin kunoichi with the power to transform into a dove or a tarantula, both handy in her role as a spy for the evil wizard.

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Seems she tries to defy her naughty boss and go legit, but he's having none of it, and things don't end well for her alas.

Tomorrow, more masks and magic from this film, and a cameo by a creature favorite!

Ninja vs. Yeti in STRIKE OF THE JAGUMA!!!

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The 1961 Satomi Kotaro adventure vehichle Kaiju Jaguma no Moshu (aka “Strike of the Jaguma”) is an absolute miracle of bizarre villains and over-the-top costuming. This has become cliche around here, but if the picture above isn’t enough to get you bouncing around the web in a buying frenzy, then you’re on the wrong site.

A gang of thugs is terrorizing local villages, but they aren’t just any hoodlums – their ranks wear ninja gear and masks, their leader is a whip-wielding fiend in an ornate demon get-up, and his number-one heavy is a white gorilla. Possibly a yeti. Or at least a guy in a yeti costume who’s REALLY dedicated to his gimmick and never takes it off. You be the judge…

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These Thai press kit stills, contemporary to the film’s release, show the superb range of costuming, even for the un-masked hero. The hour-long film (probably run as a double bill) is a fine example of a frugal “programmer” that while often silly delivers on action and character design in droves. Flicks like this made a lot of kids wide-eyed and happy.

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There are a couple of real ‘No f’n way!’ moments in this one – none more jaw-droppingly awesome than Kotaro’s dispatching of the white-gorilla-man-yeti-thing with, naturally, a gorilla-press slam that would make any pro wrestler proud.

For more, read Paghat’s review here, a French review here, and see a few screen caps here.

MAGIC SERPENT (part 2)

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The main-event of Kairyu Daikessen is an extended kaiju beatdown between dragon and toad, with a castle destroyed in the process.

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This longshot actually begins a DIALOG scene between the monsters! They cut old-school rasslin' promos on each other, then proceed to have fun storming the castle.

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In Japan, dragons don't breathe fire, toads do.
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But the dragon is a big hoser himself, so it's a pretty even fight.
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It's toad warrior vs. reindeer rex is the original MMA (Mixed Monster Attack).

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This giant spider (species: Arachnus Deus Ex Machinatus) flies in at the last moment to save the day.

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And in the fashion of all good movies, it ends with an explosion.

Kairyu Daikessen is actually more available now than it ever was back in the day. Beautiful widescreen subtitled editions are floating the trader seas under titles like “Dragon Showdown.” The only legit US release is burried on a double feature disc with a Gamera flick, and it’s the pan and scan AIP dub. The American version has it’s charm though, as all the monster “voices” were replaced by ones more familiar to US audiences (Godzilla, Rodan, Ebirah included).

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Here’s some additional ephemera from the rare but beloved film:

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Japanese publicity departments were superb at crafting these staged press photos that would summarize the movie in a scene that never actually happens. Best use of this practice ever is in the press stuff for WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Google it.
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I'd possibly be willing to trade a kidney (not necessarily mine) for this set of 7" vinyl dolls from, I believe, Marusan or Marmitt.

The unsung kaiju-ninja epic MAGIC SERPENT (part 1)

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Kairyu Daikessen was a 1966 Toei fusion of ninja revenge and giant monster magic. It delivered in spades on both fronts and was a fantastic movie.

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Then it was picked up by American International Pictures for English-language distribution, and has since wallowed in international obscurity. Does it have a cult following based on sporadic UHF TV airings and grindhouse circuit screenings? Sure. But it should be A LOT better known.

So why hasn’t this flick been one of the most exploited and re-issued titles of all time? It should have at least B-grade kaiju status, under Godzilla and Gamera for sure, but right up there with the Gargantuas at least. It should have been a staple rental during the ninja craze, but for some reason has never been marketed for it’s shinobi content.

The blame starts at the AIP re-title, which you may have seen in TV Guide listings and in DVD discount bins for years, never knowing what you were missing – MAGIC SERPENT.

Magic fucking Serpent???

No one could have figured out a way to glom onto some other genres and trends with a strategic retitle bearing a little more dramatic flair? How about Samurai Serpent? Shogun’s Serpent? The Dragon Ninja? War of the Ninja Monsters?

The fact that one movie can have THIS:

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and THIS:

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AND be translated into English and still be widely anonymous to both kaijufiles and shinobimaniacs is just a crime of marketing and exploitation NEGLECT! Dammit all to hell, it ends here!!!

I will now assault you with images of this masterpiece until you find it and buy it and love it like you should have all these years…

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Yep, that's a big ass bladed boomerang! Early in the film, an assassin uses it to cut off the hero's head.
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Fortunately, Jiraiya (Hiroki Matsukata) has mad ninja wizard skills and can fully function decapitated. That's his wise-cracking disembodied head on the left, taunting the ninja his body just captured.
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He also throws around FX-laden trickery like the trusty old magic energy snare.
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But his sworn enemy Orochimaru (Ryutaro Otomo) is not without special effects of his own. LOVE this animated energy cloud, despite the bad opticals.
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But when the swordplay and shadow sills fail, it's time to get down with some big time GIANT MONSTER SUMMONING! Orochimaru transforms into the film's eponymous critter, one of the best kaiju ever put on screen in my opinion...
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BUT WAIT! Who's this uninvited peeing tom?

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Oh yeah, our hero sure as hell can summon and embody a glowing eyed giant horny toad! Let the games begin!!!

Coming in part two, MONSTER FIGHTS!

Creatures in SATOMI HAKKENDEN (part 2)

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Last time we looked at a version of the much-adapted Satomi Hakkenden from the golden age of Japanese swashbucklers. But it is a newer version most of us are familiar with, Legend of the Eight Samurai (aka Legend of the Eight Ninjas).

Produced by Kadokawa as a neo-chambara for the post-Star Wars age, it featured a cast of action legends and teen idols, amazing sets and costumes, and big budget optical effects.

And some downright frightening creature and corpse effects!

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Released to werewolf circuits and video rental markets all over the world in 1983, the film's title was often Shinobi-fied to entice craze-era audiences.
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It's the exploitation 80's people, let's get some blood and bodies on the screen!
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The "Legend" version's marquee creature FX bit is this downright horrifying transformation of an old grandma into a massive killer centipede.

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The creature they built is absolutely great, yanked around by wires in cramped sets with frantic camera movement to create a tense, energetic and ultimately very effective monster fight.

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Snakey-poo is back in this version, nicely updated.
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Ambitious and skillful wire-work provides for some dynamic kidnappings. The serpents have a taste for hotties...
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...like Estuko Shihomi, who is superb in what is a rather non-tomboy role for her.

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She's got poisonous blood and can never be loved by a man. Her evil counterpart is the snakemaster, and the only man who could love her and live. Thus, they must fight and die, and in the artistic confines of what must be the Klimt room of the villain's lair.

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Wandering wildly from the source and other adaptations, the villainess here is Queen Tamasuza (Mari Natsuki), who has traded the kabuki make-up for nude blood-bathing.
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And ends up another well-made corpse, the victim of a very 80's magic laser arrow.

This Kinji Fukusaku-directed masterpiece of the era deserves a more thorough write-up someday, but for this month it’s all about the monsters. The Adness DVD from a few years back is superb and easy to come by. I highly recommend, even if there isn’t a toad in this version.

Creatures in SATOMI HAKKENDEN (part 1)

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It’s one of Japan’s greatest literary works, has been turned into kabuki, manga, films, serials and TV series, and is essentially the origin of Japan’s preoccupation with the ‘assemble the team’ motif in cinema. It is Satomi Hakkenden, and it’s movie versions are often chock full of creatures and critters and creepy crawlies of epic proportions.

Here’s several caps of the monstrous incarnations of the evil sorceress from the 1959 Toei 3-part serial-esque adaptation:

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Aobiku (Rieko Matsukaze) is a second-generation evil sorceress out for revenge on the noble Satomi clan.
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She can turn dead leaves into these mytical ninja foot soldiers, but...
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...would rather send the family's signature creature, the giant serpent, on her evil errands.
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A few shots of the serpents are gorgeously animated.

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Lord Satomi’s pet Yatsufasa is the greatest dog EVER! He fetches the decapitated heads of fallen warlords from the battle field on command. When Aobiku’s mother Shirobiku sends a serpent after the family, the dog hulks up big time and fights it off. Killed in the scrap, Yatsufasa then explodes into a mystical cloud that sends off eight “beads of virtue” across the land. Years later, eight samurai will find those beads and come together to yadda yadda, you know the rest…

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Aobiku also likes to do her own dirty work, transforming into this flying bat creature for nocturnal kidnapping raids on the Satomi.

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This is my favorite of her other forms, a reptile man!

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LOVE this head design, and it looks as good as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy flicks, sans the digital assists.
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This version of "Satomi" has a definitive giant toad magic sequence that would be copied for years after.

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The same showdown between fire-breathing serpent and mist-belching magic toad happened in the seminal ninja wizard film NINJUTSU GOZEN JIRAI, but in B&W was nowhere near as cool.

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At the epic's climax, warrior wizard Inuyama Dosetsu (Satomi Kotaro) defeats Aobiku with magic and blade alike, but only after busting out this fine example of a Grecco-Roman ankle lock!

The three one-hour 1959 films are pretty great (subbed versions under titles like Eight Brave Brothers are out in the ‘trading community’), but it is another, higher profile Satomi Hakkenden film from the 80’s that we outside of Japan know most – Kodokawa’s Legend of the Eight Samurai. More on that version’s horific creatures tomorrow.

Monsters IN Masks?

You just can’t beat no-name, unlicensed ninja toy lines from the 80’s. Sometimes, low-end toy companies got a little adventurous, a little strange in their action figure design. But no one got more downright demented than ‘Select Merchandise’ did with their 1985 line “Ninja Defender / Ninja Assassin”… NO ONE!

It’s pure f’n brilliance!!!

OK, say you’re attacked by a muscley ninja in a yellow and brown safari-striped outfit. You fend him off with your trusty shoge and six-inch standing punch, but then BLAMMO! He pulls his mask off and sure enough, HE’S A WEREWOLF! A muscley katana-weilding werewolf trained in ninjutsu… Yeah, at this point, you would call it a day.

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Above is the Ninja Assassin portion of the line, sans the hoods. L to R: Strykor, Werewolf, Reaper, Terminator and Pincer. I just adore the notion that a cyborg shadow or spider-headed shinobi would want to conceal their identity with a mask. ‘No one can know I’m really the Grim Reaper moonlighting as a suppa!’

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The human side of things, the Defenders, are actually pretty lame by comparison. There’s a surfer dude called Wipeout, a Rambo knock-off named Ringo, and a character with the inexplicable name “Rotund San.”

As is the case with many low-end lines, the distro was spotty and they are RARE AS HELL now. They fetch a fortune on eBay, and even compulsive ninja hoarders like me have a hard time finding them complete with hoods and weapons. Fortunately, the monsters are the easier ones to find, as they are certainly the coolest of the lot.

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And while we’re discussing American flicks…

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…and it being horror-themed Halloween month, we’d be remiss in not throwing a shout out to what was the most ambitious of the 80’s Canon flicks, Ninja III: The Domination.

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Japanese posters for an American ninja... Gotta wonder what the home crowd thought of these weird Yank flicks.

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The delicious desert that was Domination was part Kosugi ninja vehicle, part Exorcist, with a little Flashdance thrown in and a thick, sugary frosting of 80’s cop revenge cliches topping it all. Sho Kosugi wore the Jubei eyepatch, Lucinda Dickey avoided another Breakin‘ sequel and got to do some kooky effects scenes, and there were possibly the best staged ninja battle scenes we saw before getting ahold of the real stuff from Japan later on.

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Ninja III wasn’t actually a sequel to Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, but it certainly tied-up the triumvirate of movies that really cemented ninja films as the dominant martial arts exploitation sub-genre of the decade. Sadly, it was never topped in budget, artistic ambition or general fimmaking effort during the craze. The films got cheaper and cheesier until the genre was all but surrendered to turtles and kicking kiddies.

And can anyone explain to me why Domination and Enter aren’t in print on DVD??? Seriously…

Read great blog reviews at Internal Bleeding and  Where the Long Tail Ends, and see and read all sorts of keen Kosugi-ness at the excellent fan site Sho Kosugi: the Ninja.

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