Revenge of THE DOMINATION

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Last week a horror movie label called Scream Factory released Ninja III: The Domination on Bluray and DVD.

Just going to let that statement slow burn for a second…

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Not a label with a large martial arts back catalog, not an Asian cinema-friendly label addressing the East’s influence on the West, but a horror label clinging to The Dom‘s kinship to The Exorcist and Poltergeist. Scream Factory was nearly apologetic on social media to its black t-shirt clad Fangoria/Chiller crowd for pushing the envelope of their mission at hand, but the fan base was surprisingly positive at the announcement. Horror blogs reviewed it with the requsite so-bad-its-good slant [groan], and younger audiences are for the first time finding this staggering time capsule of 80s trash culture — aerobics-sploitation, Chess King sweaters and Nagel prints galore. All is good in the world…

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Scream’s release is a stunning transfer of from what I recall is a complete print. The picture is just gorgeous on Bluray (the stills here don’t do it justice), and the accompanying DVD copy is nothing to sneeze at either. I’d call it miles above any previous release, but that’s not saying much as the last time Ninja III was on home video it was a full-frame VHS.

The 80’s ninja boom was represented piss-poorly in the DVD era (which yes, I’m referring to in the past tense), but it seems no film was relegated to limbo longer than this third chapter in the Kosugi/Canon partnership. There were mostly full-frame and “open matte” releases of Revenge of the Ninja, Rage of Honor, the American Ninja flicks, dumped out with little effort and even less fanfare, but for who-knows-why The Dom never made even that cut.

The age of physical media will have now come and gone with no box sets, no deluxe extras, no mind-blowing deleted scenes or making-of docos (save for a business-oriented piece on how The Octagon came together), nor any nostalgic interviews with very alive-and-well stars like Sho Kosugi and sons. (Enter the Ninja and Pray For Death only recently became available either streaming or DVD-on-Demand sans deluxe treatment.)

Even with Ninja Assassin making some waves and the G.I. Joe films putting big-budget ninja action in theaters, no one before Scream Factory saw the audience potential for the now 30 year old material. Kudos to them.

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The big extra on the new release is a commentary track with director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, which at times is just superb, but at others suffers a bit (for our purposes) from being hosted by a horror guy and aimed at other horror guys. A discussion of Kosugi’s eyepatch never touches on the traditional portrayals of Jubei Yagyu nor Sho Kosugi’s connection to Sonny Chiba and the Japan Action Club. We’re ninja geeks, we want to hear that stuff, even if it’s solely prompted by the moderator.

Still, hearing both these guys gush like proud papas about their work is very endearing. They point out Lucinda Dickey‘s work ethic, the merits of practical stunts and real fights in this post-Matrix world, all sorts of goodness.

Another fantastic bonus is Firstenberg’s own photo collection, with some behind-the-scenes stuff none of us have ever seen before.

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Sho Kosugi and his faithful double Steve Lambert on set.

It’s also just great to finally see this film in such a pristine, even enhanced state. The MGM cable channel print of Ninja III wasn’t nearly as detail-revealling as this new transfer, especially viewed on Blu. I noticed for the first time Lucinda Dickey is wearing a really bad wig in all the mountain location scenes, which were evidently shot after she started filming Breakin’ with a shorter, more Pat Benatar-inspired haircut. And yes, she did Ninja III first, a revelation from the commentary.

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So you see completists, you need to erase that shitty compressed bit-torrented rip you probably have of this film (that’s what happens when a cult fave languishes out-of-print too long, studio geniuses) and pick up this new Blu. Don’t think of it as double dipping, it’s like a whole new experience now.

I just wish it had come 5-8 years ago and with interviews of Kosugi and Dickey, packaged with all of Canon’s other ninja movies in black box that lights up from within, spews smoke and plays dramatic theme music while you power-up.

I also want six-pack abs, a 10-inch wang and gas to be under $4.00 a gallon. So, yeah…

ORDER NINJA III on Amazon right now!

Seriously. Eight to ten thousand of you read this site every month, you’re all ninja freaks and you’ve all been a pissed off as I am that the 80s craze films never got the deluxe send-up. Now that one has, we need to mobilize, buy the hell out of it and show the other labels what they’ve been missing out on.

Or even just Scream Factory to consider corresponding releases of Enter and Revenge, or Pray for Death with the fabled extra gore?

Hmmm? Think about it guys…

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NINJA III: THE DOMINATION Euro stills

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These stills from a Turkish/Yugoslav/Romanian market press kit are pretty low in quality, but some are variants from the usual lot seen in American kits.

People don’t give Ninja III: The Domination enough credit. It’s a smart as hell release, blending two familiar genre, with ghostly possession and martial arts fights in equal amounts.

Or did it suffer from its mixed pedigree? It certainly lies more in the MA genre than horror, and you don’t see it listed alongside the Exorcists and Poltergeists in books or articles about retro possession cinema. Maybe there’s too much kicking and stunt work and not enough outright scares?

Maybe its largely overlooked because it’s had no life beyond the VHS era. WHY!?!?!?

 

A designer’s rant…

A reader sent me some anime movie poster scans, for which I was grateful, but one of them just struck a nerve – a wrong nerve – and I have to vent.

Some day job background first – I pay the rent as a graphic designer for a performing arts non-profit. I’m faced with the constant challenge of how to represent large scale, grandiose stage productions in poster form, somehow getting across notions of a massive visual spectacle, classical music, high drama and emotion, and a theater-going experience being worth a hefty ticket price in a bad economy.

My budgets are modest and the visual assets at my disposal don’t often do the trick on their own – in short, I rarely have a home-run image landing on my lap, and have to get creative and conceptual to catch people’s eye.

So with that background, what catches my eye? Something like this:

Seriously, what the hell am I looking at here? Ninja Scroll is certified classic, and anime movie posters don’t have to rely on photographic assets as their basis – the sky is the limit to the creativity of the illustrators involved. Yet what we have here is an absolute abortion.

Cluttered mess. Cluster of characters with no central focus on one main hero. Details details details everywhere making the frame so over-crowded you don’t know where to look. Nothing stands out. Nothing “reads.” Nothing is communicated. EPIC FAIL.

And it’s a ninja movie, there’s especially no excuse for this when you have sooooooo iconic a central character type.

Let’s look at some way better posters, mostly from movies nowhere near as good or important as the above.

Mafia vs. Ninja is hardly the classic Ninja Scroll is, being a heart-worn-on-its-sleeve exploitation flick. But what the marketers of exploitation films know is how to draw the eye and deilver a quick, effective image that get’s someone to cue-up at a theater or grab a rental off a video store shelf.

The secret here: put a BIG-ASS-NINJA-HEAD on your poster!

Not hard to do. You can see this is a ninja film from 50 yards away, and it works.

Here’s where that whole idea started, 1981’s genre-launching Enter the Ninja.

Two things going on here – cash in on the big-ass-ninja-head, and feature your expensive imported star, in this case Franco Nero.

Another example of the same notions:

Nowhere near as effective, as the artist possibly wasn’t up to the task of portraying Richard Harrison more face-on. Red ninja on a tight-rope isn’t nearly as effective as big-ass-ninja-head, but the swirling dragon just screams ‘martial arts movie’ so this ends up working in spite of its inferior execution.

Now on the subject of clutter, it’s not always a bad thing. Take these for example:

This Japanese market poster for Ninja III: The Domination “heroes” Sho Kosugi amidst a jumbled mess of images from the film. While not the greatest of layouts, a poster like this hangs in a theater lobby as an enticer for things to come. The audience is there, captive, milling about or waiting in line for snacks, so you have them on the hook already, you can get away with this sort of density.

The purpose of this poster is to relate the hero shot of Kosugi (in a Jubei Yagyu-like get-up that would be familiar to Japanese audiences) to the images of the clearly American film. They’re showing as much of the Hollywood stunts, effects and production values as they can, peppered with an American white girl.

They pull it off, but this is really pushing the clutter envelope. You can have a lot going on in a poster, especially for a fight film, but you need composition to organize it all for effective communication.

Like so:

There are 12 or so warriors in this painting for The Deadly Silver Ninja, which is actually more than the Ninja Scroll poster. The artist, however, uses foreground and background to center your attention on three of those warriors – the hero, the hot chick and the exotic masked villain.

I don’t know who that El Santo-looking weirdo is, but I’m interested, because this poster is so well composed I know where to look. I can see what’s important there – muscly kung-fu dude, go-go girl without pants, strange meance hovering over both – with little effort. Even the long 4-word title comes across right. You can catch a sideways glance of this poster and know it’s a martial arts film about a Silver Ninja. WIN!

Composition can also save a much simpler layout. Take a look at the original U.S. market poster for American Ninja:

Great use of the flag, simple fight scene with two figures. All fine. But the ninja is sort of hidden here and it’s a very stiff arrangement. Clearly a studio posing and not a fight scene.

Now check out this painted Italian market poster:

Damn this thing is beautiful!

Here, an artist uses the limitless opportunity illustration affords to pose and arrange subjects to create a vastly superior version of essentially the same scene. Average Joe American Shinobi still reads as an exciting yank action star, but at the same time the ninja is a lot more prevalent. You’ve got movement, dynamic tension, intersecting lines. This is a fight scene!

But I still say when it comes to shinobi-cinema, you just can’t go wrong with BIG-ASS-NINJA-HEAD:

There’s only one thing that works better:

You can’t beat topless-broad-with-sword. Invincible technique. Flawless victory.

So now that you’re all experts too, let’s make sure not to unleash any more turds like that Ninja Scroll cluster-F that got me going…

Some film posters on a Friday

Let’s look at some quirky foreign movie posters, testament to the global nature of the 80’s craze.

Painted poster (later the VHS box art) to the Tadashi Yamashita vehicle THE SHINOBI NINJA, easily the most redundant title of the 80's. It's a Japan/Hong Kong co-pro, but that painting is of a very American ninja suit, right out of your average Karate Depot. Anyone know what language this is or market it's for? Polish? Pakistani?
BARBARELLA 2? LADY BEASTMASTER? No, it's not some Michael Ironside vs. the Amazonian Excalibur mash-up either. It's simply an oversexed Italian poster for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION!
My guess is THE FLYING BOY is a Korean version of the 'Watari' or 'Sarutobei Sasuke' sort of adult-killing boy heroes. Would love to see this weirdness...
Also going to guess that these shinobi-fied ladies aren't actually in this film, and that rather than a genuine 3-D spectacle, it's a run of the mill Hong Kong kung-fu flick from the 70's. Awesome poster art though.
Meanwhile in Japan, the rebooted KAMUI hits anime. Love the weird dimensions of this piece, great layout.

Coming in the next day or so, more weird movie posters, this time featuring illustrations and paintings of Sho Kosugi (regardless of wether or not he was actually in the film).

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.