I’m delighted – DEE-LIGHTED – to wrap up Monsters and Masks Month 2010 with an early review of Sushi Typhoon’s Alien vs. Ninjafrom action auteurs Seiji Chiba and Yuji Shimomura. This thing’s been a big hit at film festivals the past few months, and having just watched a screener rushed to us from the good folks at Funimation, I can see why.
Only slightly less pixel-based than NINJA GAIDEN.
Alien vs. Ninja does something the likes of Aliens vs. Predator, Freddy vs. Jason, Mega Snake vs. Giant Octopus, even King Kong vs. Godzilla ultimately failed to do; DELIVER on the promise of the title.
What you get here is a bunch of ninja fighting a bunch of aliens. And that’s pretty much it! No overcomplicated story, no extraneous characters or side plots, no taking itself too seriously. The ninja are on screen early, the aliens attack right away. Seems so simple, yet why do all those other ‘versus’ flicks save what you’re there to see for the often too-short final scenes?
Maybe Chiba’s the difference. When a film is written and directed by an action and effects guy, you know he’s going to stay in familiar territory and not try to recreate Citizen Kane.
Although AvN will probably go down in history as the ‘Citizen Kane’ of monster-infused ninjasploitation.
Take some good looking young people with screen fighting skills, put them in the finest custom warrior couture...
...add some pervy fetish costuming and...
...some ludicrous gore bordering on silly and you're set up for a pretty good film.
BUT WAIT! Add a legion of slimy mutating aliens to the mix and you end up with something special.
The eponymous extraterrestrials of AvN are derivative of both Giger’s Alien and… um… FLIPPER. I didn’t like the Soichi Umezawa creature design at first, but as things progress the goofy snouts and cheapness of the suits start to really work with the crazy-8 bonkers tone of the film.
The real gem of AvN is the kunoichi Rin played by Mika Hijii, last seen in Isaac Florentine’s Ninja. Clad in a latex catsuit with armor accentuating all the right bits, she’s cute enough to turn aliens into groping perverts (literally).
Luckily her ninjutsu skills include a variety of splits and leg scissors, and luckier for us, the camera is always in the right spot when such moves are executed.
No better way to dodge a phallic alien tail!
Mika steals the show in the third reel, stomping an alien in the crotch with high-heeled boots (alien’s got nards!), pulling slimy pink alien fetuses (ew!) out of various orifices of zombified ninja, finding the creature’s weak spot – THE TAINT! – and generally scoring all kinds of style points strangling opponents with her legs and thighs.
In a film full of good fights, the showdown with the boss alien is the best. With the alien’s ability to mimic opponents, we actually get a man vs. monster swordfight! Male lead Masanori Mimoto eventually has to bust out some pro wrestling and MMA to take him down, with a few nods to video games in there for good measure. Action Directors Yuji Shimomura and Kensuke Sonomura hit home runs all around.
Alien vs. Ninja watches like a director’s fight reel…with monsters! It is post-Versus Japanese indie cinema at it’s exploitation-budgeted finest. A live action video game that while often played for laughs always delivers serious action.
The fights are so frequent and satisfying, you forgive some flaws. A comedy relief character could be cut out entirely (although his death scene is perhaps the biggest laugh in the movie). The very end goes really hokey digital, too, and is best forgotten.
But you’re not going to have more fun with a ninja movie than this. Watch it with a group, or make it a party flick.
Simple, straight forward, solid. AvN is confident in what it is and doesn’t try to be anything it can’t. It’s a cheeseburger. It’s not claiming to be a steak. And what’s better than a good greasy burger when you’re in the mood?
Alien vs. Ninja is on the festival circuit right now, and due out on domestic DVD sometime this winter. In the meantime check out Death Trance, an earlier Shimomura/Chiba flick also heavy on costuming, creatures and damn good fights.
Read IFC’s “I Can Sum This Movie Up in Three Words” review here.
Alright, so Japan’s burliest sword goon and the cutest pistol-packin’ bounty huntress EVER have been whisked away to the magical land of gold along with a hundred ninja, their spy master, a circus troop and a lunatic cave man. Time to really mix things up with some hulking warriors right out of an archeological dig!
Based on Jomon Period ceramics, these costumes are just beyond cool. One of them is rather Dai Majin-like, no?
In the midst of these martial artifacts is this Egyptian-y, Sumerian-y who-knows-what-y warrior woman who under that stone mask is quite the barbarian babe!
But the king of Zipang takes the cake. His bulky armored battle suit is modeled directly from “Dogu” god statuettes from Japan’s prehistory. These things are universally attributed by ‘Ancient Astronaut’ theorists to be space suits worn by extraterrestrial visitors, but Zipang provides a more sound and logical explanation – they were MECHS!
DUH! Ancient Astronauts my ASS… Why wouldn’t stone age Japan be populated by stone age giant robots?
This suit was pretty damn huge, and must have been a bitch to move around in on set. He doesn’t exactly sprint around or get into a Douglas Fairbanks-level acrobatic duel or anything, in fact the movement is right up there with the best of classic sci-fi cinema’s clunky metal men.
And the unlikely mech/tech doesn’t stop there. Hanzo’s demented arsenal of espionage gadgetry is unrivaled in ‘Bamboo Punk.’ C’mon, this is a movie about a magical land of gold populated by mythical monsters and immortal cave men… there really isn’t a need for historical credibility here.
The ratchet-and-wire-sprung claw thing above is a replacement for a hand lost in combat. It can launch off his arm like a Shogun Warrior’s missile hand, with grappling line and everything. Even more absurd (read: awesome) is a binocular/camera rig which codes color photos onto shuriken-shaped discs, which are then thrown into the wind where they home in to HQ. Note the ray skin on the housing, like a katana handle. Nice detail… on an absolutely ridiculous prop!
Sums up this movie pretty well, actually…
The homing messenger shuriken is the most high tech 'ninja star' ever. Ironically in the same movie that uses the most low-tech effects for other shuriken throughout, like these hung on fishing line to simulate flying towards our heroes.
‘Hanzo’ ends up being a pretty fun character (although his outfit looks like it’s made of lawn bags). He’s obsessed with completing his mission to steal the sword to a fanatical degree. His army has all sorts of silly skills, like burrowing through the ground ala Bugs Bunny. But they also move as a cohesive and well-disciplined unit. When the inter-dimensional vortex opens, they try to snag their master out of it by forming the biggest ninja human pyramid ever.
So yeah, Zipang has enough wacked-out shit to keep you guessing throughout what is (inevitably) too long a movie. It gets mired down in the third reel with a lot of conversations and emotional conflicts. However up to then there’s enough cool ninja stuff, beautifully filmed fights and Yuri the Pistol cuteness to carry me, and then some. The stone age Japanese warriors are a rare treat, and the make-up effects and costuming are just great.
Plenty of grey market editions floating out there, including subbed prints from Britain and Taiwan, but the best looking, longest running and best translated is Kurotokagi‘s.
Colorful, crazy. Ambitious as hell. All over the place. Fun. Frustrating…
All describe Kaizo Hayashi‘s 1990 epic Zipang, a positively wacked-out genre bending inter-dimensional adventure littered with exotic warriors and fantastic costumes. This thing is either hitting on every beat of jidai-geki pop culture or can’t decide what it wants to do and won’t commit. Either way, the first-time viewer is left guessing what’s coming next and is pretty exhausted by film’s end.
For out purposes (especially this month), Zipang features an obsessed ninja armed with high-tech Bamboo Punk spy gadgets, his horde of shinobi cannon fodder, a crew of pre-historic warriors in stone and wood armor, and an absolutely amazing Steam Punk “Dogu” god armored suit!
The skinny: Zipang in the mythical land of gold that lies somewhere beyond this plain of existence. A magic sword is said to have the power to transport one to this affluent dimension, so everyone’s after it; from a warlord’s loyal ninja Hanzo to a primitive cave man/prophet to the most colorful swordsman in Japan.
Enter Jigoku (played by the imposing and expressive Masahiro Takashima) part time Kabuki actor, part time square-jawed adventurer, and leader of a band of circus performers with outre warrior arts of their own. One of them is a caddy, carrying around his master’s myriad gimmicked swords, doling them out by number. They also have a pet baby elephant so creepy I don’t even want to mention it again… ever… Brrrrrrrrr…
The film begins with a dizzying assault of genre parody, wherein Jigoku takes on just about every franchise sword hero out there and slashes through as many chambara cliches as time will allow.
A Kurozukin knock-off is the first to go down...
...followed by a not-so-blind ersatz Zatoichi...
...a Tange Saizen and even, what? Who is that? D'Artagnon? Cyrano?
Besides this pretty-damn-funny sequence, there’s also a phenomenal battle with a horde of basket-hatted soldiers on a rather familiar narrow bridge. Jigoku finally meets his match, though, in the form of the cutest damn bounty hunter EVER, Yuri the Pistol!
Narumi Yasuda plays this perky little go-getter armed with a double-barrelled musket pistol and the cutest bangs in Japanese history. Swoon! The impossibly adorable Yuri is the real gem of this movie, chasing the sword, trying not to fall for Jigoku, and ultimately serving as the level-headed catalyst who makes sure everyone’s fighting for what’s right.
The pursuit of the sword spans two dimensions, the mythical blade changing hands from the circus troop to Hanzo’s ninja army (a rather disciplined and impressive group) to a screaming stone-age primitive thrown from his own time.
It's like a whole army of Eagle Force SAVITARs!
And then they’re all whisked away to a place where it rains gold and armored behemoths walk the land…
We’ll look at some rarely, if ever, portrayed figures out of Japan’s ancient past tomorrow, as well as Hanzo’s wacky arsenal and yet another cute chick!
The hit of last year’s Monsters and Masks Month was the aging collection of press stills from the 1961 Toei programmer Strike of the Jaguma(Kaiju Jaguma no Moshu). So this year I thought we’d take an in-depth look at the film itself, which has some of the coolest masks ever seen in Japanese cinema.
Strike is a one-hour serial-like adventure, part of what would have originally been a double bill of period-set flicks aimed at kids. There are a lot of similarities in tone and structure to the Republic serials American children flocked to for Saturday matinees; everything here is white-hat heroics and over-the-top black-hat villains.
A gang of thieving kidnappers has the locals terrified. Called “The Jaguma,” they dress in outre demon masks so frightening rumors persist they are actually otherworldly creatures. No home, no matter how well fortified, is safe, and beautiful women are their targets.
The Jaguma’s muscle is a massive gorilla-like monster that I will confidently refer to as a YETI because of its white coat and interchangeability with a dozen or so other critters in snow-bound horror flicks from around the globe (man, if only Snow Beast had a suit this good).
There’s plenty of room for interpretation as to wether or not this is a actual yeti or simply a burly gangster gimmicked up in a costume. The filmmakers made little or no attempt to hide the man behind the mask, not even a simple black-out hood. So maybe he’s just the weirdest of the weird tribe of cutthroats, or a furry perv with a Son of Kong fetish?
But then, it is super-naturally strong and impervious to sword wounds.
But then again, they’re not even trying to hide that zipper! Hmmm. Maybe I’m looking for logic in all the wrong places here.
Anyway… Japanese cinema superstar Satomi Kotaro plays the film’s hero Jutaro. The black sheep of a revered samurai clan, he lives an adventurous life on his own terms. His father’s been charged with stopping the Jaguma, so in he comes to aid the cause from the shadows.
Martial skills and an apparent background in pro wrestling are going to come in handy!
In a relatively single-dimensional flick like this (it watches like Golden Age comic books read), the menace at hand is often the real star, and the Jaguma are absolutely spectacular villains.
Shinobi-like skills of ambush and infiltration abound, as does historical ninjutsu‘s“Onibi-no-Jutsu” (The Art of the Demon’s Fire) – described by Masaaki Hatsumi in Ninjutsu: History and Traditionas the use of pyrotechnics coupled with devil masks as a psychological attack.
SIDE RANT: See, this is why people are obsessed with the notion of ninjutsu and the alleged place of ninja in history. Cuz it’s so fucking cool! Do Tae Kwon Do or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu have codified techniques for blasting roman candles at superstitious guards while wearing a devil mask? Fuck no…
I don’t think the classical shadow arts had any formal technique of the tactical deployment of a yeti, though.
Jutaro battles the monster thug two or three times, the final battle coming down to hand-to-hand combat. Luckily, the beast’s arsenal of sumo-esque moves and Mugatu-like flailing are no match for some good Aikido, and…
…the GORILLA PRESS SLAM!!!
After hurtling the yeti-man-thingy into a tree trunk (evidently fatal), it’s on to the final showdown with the Duke-A-Numba-One Jaguma himself, and his bull whip anchored by a wheel shuriken. Look out!
Again, simple kid’s stuff here. Good defeats evil, the scheme by a corrupt official is foiled and a crooked merchant is revealed to be blah blah blah… The plot is entirely forgettable. The Jaguma and the yeti? Positively unforgettable!
You can score this flick for $15 from Kurotokagi. Like with a lot of the stuff I’ve featured this month, monster fans may get a bigger kick out of it than strict Jidai-geki buffs. As both, I think it’s a damn hoot!
We’ll leave you with another look at some details from the vintage press stills from last year’s post (check out the whole set here):
I've noticed in scrutinizing this shot the tunics the Jaguma wear are intended to portray European fashions. The gang has a tie-in with a shady importer of goods from Portugal.
While never identified as a 'ninja,' Jutaro has been away in the mountains for three years practicing his skills. He's certainly dressed consistently with that pre-SHINOBI-NO-MONO magical ninja hero look.
A cheaper and more hastily produced sequel, Kibakichi 2 forgoes the wolf vs. samurai clan and whole village of monsters caliber of storyline in favor of a one-on-one conflict between the fanged hero and a female survivor of his same tribe.
Not nearly as ambitious as the first, K2 is actually more satisfying in a certain way. There’s more of a B-Monster-movie feel, but at the same time it’s set-bound exteriors and garish creature villains give it a certain vintage Shaw Brothers vibe.
We've looked at Hanya and Oni masks this month, here's a rare representation of the actual demons themselves!
This lizardy, serepenteeny boss villain is the first of the Shaw-esque critters. LOVE this design.
And the main baddie is right out of a Shaw sorcerer flick!
The big problem with Kibakichi 2 is the budget, which sadly means less monster suit time on screen. Kiba is only partially wolfed-up for most of the fights. WEAK!
However, there’s a pretty neat sword girl in the form of Anju (Miki Tanaka), another survivor from Kibakichi’s cursed tribe. She wants revenge for his inadvertent role in her family’s slaughter, and doles out punishment with an enormous bladed boomerang (familiar to you Inuyasha fans).
And yeah, she’s also got a little secret…
So not only do you get the weird Japanese feudal lycanthrope, you get an even rarer mutation – the female werewolf. A Japanese female werewolf. With martial arts skills.
And then they fight!
Once again, you’re frustrated because you had to wait out an overly involved flick to get to the creature climax, and there’s never going to be enough wolf suit time on screen. But like the first flick, what is there is pretty f’n cool.
The furry duel was shot in-studio with a fake interior that really harkens back to classic Shaw Bros. While cherry blossoms fall, the two whirl around like hippy dervishes. The combat tries to approach the kaiju-judo awesomeness that is War of the Gargantuas, but it’s just not long enough, dammit!
And yeah, at the end, they go there…
This cheese aside, I almost like the second movie more than the first. They’re both frustrating, but you can pan enough gold from these waters to make the viewings well worth it. It’s not like the samurai werewolf genre is that crowded.
Both films had extensive grey/black market proliferation, and eventually a domestic DVD release with English dub and subs. The label went under I believe, so it’s secondary market time if you’re looking. A chase I’d say is worhty of the effort.
A raggedy, reticent ronin meandering through the dusty Japanese wasteland letting his sword do the talking. Sounds all too familiar, but this particular bushido bum has a secret!
Yep, he’s a mother fuckin’ werewolf!!!
2004 saw this promising follow-up to Tomo’o Haraguchi‘s Sakuya Yokaiden (see our post a week or two back), the equally monster-infused Kibakichi: Bakko Yokaiden (aka Werewolf Warrior). The film and a same-year sequel yielded mixed results. On the negative side, they were long, overly talky, dark and brooding films centered on a dark and brooding hero.
The positive:werewolf vs. monster wire-work martial arts!
Ryuji Harada plays the title character, a wandering swordsman from a tribe of Ainu lycanthropes. One of the last survivors of a massacre, when he finds a remote village populated by yokai on the lam, he bonds with the creatures and offers protection from an evil samurai clan (who have a monster or two on their own payroll).
Plenty of classic yokai here, including some reused from SAKUYA.
The villains have anachronistic Matrix fashions, imported machine guns and golden hand-grenades… but alas, no silver bullets, so Kibakichi kicks their ass! Eventually…
The appeal of Haraguchi’s flicks is definitely the creature design, and in this case it’s soooo good, you don’t mind the plodding movie you’ve had to yawn through to get to the climactic transformation and monster battle. Yeah, Kiba’s in full-on wolf mode for only the final fight, and you really need more of him in monster-power-up form paced throughout the film.
The best monster movies have escalating creature scenes, the best martial arts actioners have escalating fight scenes. Kibakichi has neither, saving both the creature and combat stuff for the very end.
But that ending has a samurai wolf-man doing Hong Kong rolls and throwing spastic jump kicks!
The Kibakichi flicks get love and hate from varying audiences. I myself am way too biased, because I love anything with a village of monsters.
If you’re a monster kid, you love it, because this is a crazy Japanese mutation on the ages old werewolf genre. But from a martial arts cinema standpoint, you might resent all the padding from the creature scenes. The critter fights aren’t as clean as your average tokusatsu TV, either. And as far as where this film falls in the yokai scheme, it’s probably the grimmest portrayal of them, nowhere near as charming as Sakuya or the Daiei trilogy.
But hey, werewolf wireworks! I mean shit…
Tomorrow we look at the sequel, which has an entirely different martial flavor…
Is there a more perfectly 80′s manga creator than Buichi Terasawa? His art – augmented by then fledgling computer graphics – oozes MTV, Nagel, neon, hair products. His samurai wore suit jackets with the sleeves pulled up; traditional garb filtered through new wave and aerobics fashion.
After cyber-punk classics like Space Pirate Cobra and Goku – Midnight Eye, he snuck in a retro-futurist piece of what I guess you’d call ‘Bamboo Punk,’ a ninja and demon-infused epic called Karasutengu Kabuto (aka Raven Tengu Kabuto or just Kabuto).
Spend any time looking at Terasawa’s body of work, and you notice some things;
His heroes have BIG hair (as did their creator).
He loves ASS (especially the thonged variety), and there’s plenty of bootylicious swordgirls around.
Everyone has a GREAT time fighting. His worlds are a fun place for a dashing hair-metal hero.
His character design (especially the supporting casts) are always interesting and out-of-the-box.
There’s great tech (even in the period book).
In general his self-indulgent books are fun as hell.
A major pioneer in the integration of computers and the printed page, Terasawa’s properties translated very well to electronic media, and the fact that his heroes and heroines are often blonde caucasians didn’t hurt for worldwide distribution in myriad languages.
While Kabuto wasn’t nearly as prolific as Cobra, you can see all sorts of stuff that would influence manga, anime and video games for decades. Plenty of masks and monsters, too!
Uber villain vs. ensemble cast: Kuroyasa Douki is the armored ebodiment of eternal evil, with Kabuto and crew of shinobi and demi-gods standing in his way.
"North Genbu" the Red Tengu is just awesome. He's the big muscle, and has the phallic nose to prove it.
Spider head-crawlers right out of John Carpenter's THING remake.
"South Suzaku" is pretty much everyone's favorite character. This buxom blonde divine kunoichi is always getting into clothes-ripping, flesh-revealing trouble.
This nine-headed, mask-spewing demon is as big a perv as Terasawa!
Buichi Teraswa is perhaps single-handedly responsible for the 90′s-00′s kunoichi look. Suzaku’s ninja go-go outfit, based on bits and pieces of historical garb and anachronistic costumes seen in Onmitsu Doshin shows and 80′s Kadokawa flicks, has been copied endlessly. Takara’s ultra-collectible “Cy-Girl Shadow” 1:6 scale figure is a direct lift.
He also created the costumes for the exploitation flick Kunoichi Ninpocho, cementing the 2-piece bikini-kimono / Roman loin-cloth style outfit you see in all the shinobi soft porn now. The man likes the exposed thighs, and who’s to argue?
Need further proof of Terasawa’s perv worn on his sleeve? Check out a memorable clip from the Kabuto manga. Tongue-in-cheek for sure, but which cheek?
Many thanks to Eddie Mort for giving us some monster-ific shots from his in-development animated series Dead Ringo. This stuff is drawn from inspiration like The Samurai, Dororo and a huge stack of old ninja movies borrowed from yours truly, and you can really see the work’s fealty to the best the ninja genre has offered in the past. That being said, it also looks like nothing else on TV right now anywhere…
Lone wandering swordsman with shadow skills and a serious agenda. Demon ninja mowed down week after week. If Dead Ringo ever sees the light of day, it’s going to be a better world!
Meet the “Demon Yasha” gang – a group of oni-themed, ninja-garbed, thieves and killers being chased down by one of feudal Edo’s many secret police forces in Edo O Kiru V.
If you’re unfamiliar with 70′s and 80′s period cop shows, here’s the basic rundown:
- They LITTERED Japanese prime-time TV for decades ala Law and Order or CSI now. A hugely successful genre, with shows outlasting multiple cast changes and social climates.
- Like the aforementioned modern American shows, they were ensemble casts formed around an attractive male lead, who was usually someone of position who instead of leading the easy life dedicated himself to helping the people of the city. Casts of helpers were often rounded out by someone with shadow-spy skills, an ace swordsman, a beautiful woman with hidden blade in her hair or banjo or some other civilian implement, a tomboy gal with surprising martial skills, a reformed criminal with inside connections, etc. and so forth.
- The operations are centered in some sort of public place where rumors and info can be obtained – a bar, bath house, inn, restaurant, etc.
- Someone new comes into town each week with a problem in tow, a who’s-who of genre regulars.
- Even though they all operate in a small, crowded urban area, they constantly go undercover with no one recognizing anyone else.
- There is at least one totally kick-ass sword fight per show, often a small team vs seemingly overwhelming odds.
This formula held true of all sorts of shows, from ‘secret police’ classics like Onmitsu Doshin to Chiba’s outright ninja-based Kage no Gundan.
Teruhiko Saigo plays a samurai magistrate slumming it with the commoners, doling out his own justice on the side. The real charm of this particular season of Edo O Kiru was his wife, a female sword expert played by the gorgeous Keiko Matsuzaka, donning the iconic “Purple Hood” to aid her man’s covert crusades.
The first episode of the fifth series in EoK‘s twenty-plus season run saw not only the female Purple Hood, but also a masked villainess leading a gang of cutthroats and a woman inheriting the jutte baton from her slain father, becoming Edo’s first policewoman.
Saigo’s “Kin-San” is a popular character with varying incarnations. He’s all about justice, so he goes into battle with his sword turned backwards, delivering non-lethal blows to cripple foes until the legit law shows up.
But it’s the female version of the “Purple Hood” vigilante hero that’s the real charm for me…
You can grab two episodes of Edo O Kiru V with English subs from Kurotokagi. I also recommend their 2-ep disc of Sue Shihomi appearances on”Edo Dragnet” (Onmitsu Doshin) in, surprise, the tomboy-with-martial-skills role.
About fifteen years ago now, I purchased a small collection of Bullmark Tiger Mask vinyl figures (like these) at a toy show in Ohio. Erroneously in that batch was this 13″ Kaiketsu Lion Maru figure, vintage early 70′s. It has no manufacturer’s markings or date, and I’ve been told it is likely a Chinese knock-off or unlicensed piece, which makes it even cooler.
I’m assuming this piece is indeed contemporary with the show’s original run, as it was in a collection of early 70′s vinyl that has never been reissued. It’s in amazing shape for its age, too. The rooted hair is still silky, no splits on the vinyl cape or cuffs, rubber boots still soft. I’m lucky I guess. Over the years I’ve entertained some offers from other collectors on this, but you’d have to be swinging some heavy yen…
The Dokuro ninja jobber is a modern piece in the same vein, released late 2009.