34 ninja can’t be wrong

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SEVENTEEN NINJA (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA, 1963) is the typical 60′s Japanese boom film in that:

1.) It’s GREAT.

2.) It’s noir-as-hell – painted in gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography.

3.) It’s also noir-as-hell because (from the gospel of James Ellroy) pretty much everybody in it is fucked. And…

4.) It does what the best shinobi cinema does, pits ninja-vs.-ninja in a world of samurai who would just assume see them all dead.

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Again… and we never get sick of this… the intricacies of the ninja way of life and its weight on the soul of the individual are central to the motivations. Characters are either looking to escape the shadow life, or embrace the dark too readily. Duty is tantamount, but who that duty is to is a major source of disillusionment, and in the end, was it all worth it?

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There are guys…

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There are girls…

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They’re not supposed to fall in love with each other but do. And actually being a human being for once, giving way to normal human emotions, is a cancer to the spartan shadow life the ninja clans needed their agents to live. The heart puts the team, the clan, and the mission in jeopardy.

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In fine ‘born to lose’ form, that mission is essentially impossible, but at the same time impossible to turn down. A vital political document must be rescued from the corrupt clan that stole it. The document has no value to Iga, they’re fighting someone else’s battle here, doing the dirty work with the twisted pride these gloomy movies so often leaned on as a plot device — duty and obligation as a combination of doing what’s ‘right’ and being hired to do something no one thinks is possible but somehow you’ll figure out. It’s like a shadow-hubris in a way, so common to films of this era.

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17N doubles that dynamic though. The conniving clan is fully aware the last of the Iga ninja have been assigned to retrieve the scroll, and have hidden the scroll in a ludicrously over-secure fortress occupied by a full garrison. Whereas the usual ninja commando tactics should work, Iga operatives keep getting caught and killed, one after another, due to the castle’s recently hired in-house anti-ninja specialist from rival Koga!

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In the 1980s, the American ninja films may have taken the hoods out of the feudal era and put them in modern urban environs, but the ninja-vs.-ninja device remained at the genre’s core. Shadow skills taking down hapless guards and run-of-the-mill thugs was always fun second-act fare, but the third act needs your hero and villain to be equally matched for the conflict to actually matter.

Sho Kosugi’s famous “only a ninja can stop a ninja” notion is just as present in the 60s films that inspired him, although more in a larger-scale tactical way. One clan’s ninja are hired as an anti-ninja solution in the way an area overrun by cobras might let lose an imported population of mongoose. The opposing ninja are not only a military threat, they are selling out their own brethren’s way of life, and their’s too by default.

And in the end, everyone is expendable. The snakes may be gone, but who wants a plague of mongoose? The best of all solutions for the samurai clans involved is all of these vermin kill each other off.

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17N is an all-star shinobi affair; Satomi Kotaro is the heroic young ninja stuck between a rock, a hard place and a harder place, while his clan leader played by Ryutaro Otomo suffers under the burden of command, especially when that role requires him to send his men to die. The shadow on the other side of the chess board is superbly rendered by Jushiro Konoe, no stranger to shinobi cinema as hunter (Ninja Gari) or prey (the Yagyu Secret Scrolls series).

Konoe’s ninja exterminator is as intelligent as he is ruthless, sniffing out planted agents and picking off spies with a yari spear like a mantis.

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Great moment here as he senses an intruder, who is armed with a nifty telescoping yari of his own.

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There are two emotional gears grinding against each other in this film. Otomo’s ninja leader positions his men like pawns, sacrificing 16 of them in an effort to put one in just the right spot for a surprise hit. It torments him to the point of self-sacrifice, he’s almost relieved at being captured and tortured, and clings to life only with the hope of seeing the gambit pay off.

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Then there’s the Romeo & Juliet angle, which by the end of the 60s boom actually became a bit tired, but this early entry did it well. Having a romantic couple come out of this bloodbath intact, able to leave “the life” behind and live as loving real humans is the ultimate reward above and beyond the dispatching of duties.

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The Romeo & Juliet angle begins the sequel film as well. SEVENTEEN NINJA 2: THE GREAT BATTLE (JUSHICHININ NO NINJA: DAIKESSEN, 1965 — aka Seventeen Ninja: Amunition and Ambition according to Paghat) sees Hiroki Matsukata take of the mantle of the reluctant man-of-Iga in love with a Koga kunoichi and burdened with an impossible mission.

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Ryutaro Otomo returns in the heart-heavy Iga leader role (this time as Hattori Hanzo) once again facing a heavily guarded fortress and an anti-ninja specialist. Rival ninja Ginza is particularly vicious and driven, perhaps having bought too into the notion that winning here might elevate him out of the shadows. Hanzo, meanwhile, knows they’re both in the typical no-win situation.

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The second film is a great watch, although lacking some of the subtleties of the first. It’s a more straightforward conflict — destroying a hidden arsenal of muskets that will tip the scales in a political revolt — much less of a soul-wringing chess game is played, although the black-hooded body count racks up the same.

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By ’65 the Japanese ninja boom was approaching apex, shadow skills on display from every studio and on screens big and small. This film doesn’t provide as much exotic gadgetry and arcane skills as its predecessor (or other genre entries of the same time) but the action is still fine.

I love Matsukata in anything. He was the first ninja actor I was exposed to, via Magic Serpent being a staple of Boston UHF TV’s Creature Double Feature in the mid 70s. In that film, he lost his head to a gigantic ninja boomerang. Here, it’s over a gal. What’s a ninja gonna do?

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The trick with these two very similar films is to not watch them back to back. Although the characters are different in name (and cast to a degree), the plot structure and dramatic devices are all the same, as are the bittersweet end results.

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17N 2 was a rarity for the longest time, even in Japan. A video release last year finally put it in the hands of long-curious shinobi-cinemafiles who were FINALLY able to devour it. Beyond that initial excitement, the sequel is a solid ‘B’ to the first and more innovative film’s ‘A’ in my opinion. If you didn’t know of the existence of the 63 original though, the 65 film would be amongst your favorites, and it should be noted you absolutely do not need to be familiar with the first to enjoy the second.

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Two movies, 34 ninja… what’s not to love?

READ MORE:

Weird Wild Realm‘s reviews.

Another review of the first film at Shades of Grey.

 

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Posted in Film and TV November 23, 2014 at 12:35 pm.

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Even more hand-colored CASTLE OF OWLS stills

I just can’t stop rescuing these from dealers in Thailand…

And why not? I love hand-tinted antique photos, and these are from my favorite ninja film ever (and the one I’ve written about the most on this site, too).

Some nice costume details here. I love the briefly seen utility armor seen during the raid and bombardment of Iga.

Wonderful still of what I’ve described as the “Wolf vs. Sheepdog” dynamic in the relationship and rivalry of Juzo and Gohei.

Not every chambara star looked good in ninja duds, in fact some looked downright silly (Toshiro Mifune being a fine example), but man do Ryutaro Otomo‘s square-jawed good looks totally work hooded! It’s all in the eyes, and Otomo is prefectly cast as the unwavering stalwart avenger of his people.

The relationship between Juzo and the kunoichi Kohagi is superbly woven into the already rich narrative. The moment below, when he sniffs her out as a woman of ‘peculiar skills’ despite appearances is just the beginning of their cat-and-mouse interaction.

But he is Otomo, when all is said and done…

The film noir lover in me wants to do-away with the happy ending of this otherwise dark and ironic epic, and have Kohgi be a true femme fatale waiting to turn on the man who thinks he’s turned her, but… the softie in me loves these characters so much I’m glad they make it out of the shadows both literally and figuratively.

Finally, below are some cleaner close-ups from images I posted years ago:

This detail from my older batch had been mechanically marked-up by a Thai mural or poster painter back in the day.

And this close-up is much cleaner than the deteriorating one I originally ran way back.

MORE:

Here’s a quick-link again to previous articles here, including CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK from 2009.

The Jidai-Geki Knights review over at Lard Biscuit.

And hey, why just watch the whole damn film on YouTube!

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Posted in Film and TV November 17, 2012 at 11:07 pm.

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Name the KUROZUKIN actor…

No, this isn’t a contest or anything, I’m just stumped on who this is playing the oft-filmed Black Hood and what year it’s from:

Of course, it could also be one of the myriad Kurama Tengu, as well…

UPDATE:

Thanks to VN readers Daitora and Alex2525 for the translations – that is indeed a very young Ryutaro Otomo, who I barely recognize. Much more familiar with his mid-to-latter career and more square-jawed mature appearance.

 

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Posted in Film and TV August 10, 2011 at 11:54 pm.

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KAIKETSU KUROZUKIN in film

Kaiketsu Kurozukin (The Black Hood) is one of Japan’s most enduring hooded hero properties, with cinematic origins in the silent era and a retooling about once a decade since. We did a brief overview of the property a while back here, with some amazing press stills from a 1960 color entry starring Ryutaro Otomo.

Here’s Otomo five years earlier in Gozonji Kaiketsu Kurozukin Maguna no Hitomi:

Much like the very similar and equally prolific Kurama Tengu, Black Hood’s adventures are set in the 1860s, when the Shogunate was crumbling to the notions of a restored emperor and an end to isolation. Fusing traditional Japanese swordsmanship with proficiency in imported revolvers, he was a fighting symbol of that time of change.

Kurozukin is a master of disguise, observing urban intrigue as a fortune teller, then donning a variety of international identities to insert himself into the political struggle at hand. With a penchant for smoke bomb-covered getaways, and a costume that is essentially off-the-rack shinobi night mission gear, Black Hood is the most ninja-like of Japan’s hooded vigilante set.

And he’ll pop a cap in your ass!

The same year saw Otomo return in Gozonji Kaiketsu Kurozukin Dai-Niwa Shinsengumi Tsuigeki. I LOVE this movie, both actor and character are in superb form here.

The chest is full of gold that can help topple the Shogunate. Is Kurozukin’s two-pistoled escort enough to get the chest through a gauntlet of sinister Shinsengumi?

The absolute highlight of this film is an incognito Kurozukin donning a parade dog (lion? dragon?) to fend off a gang of thugs. They are spooked and stymied by this outré offense, as he bites their blades and head-butts them into submission.

The film ends with a memorable showdown on a narrow road, as a stalwart Black Hood – modern pistols drawn – marches toward a Shinsegumi force armed with obsolete Japanese muskets.

1960′s Ayaushi! Kaiketsu Kuro-Zukin had an even more Western-y climax, as the Hood leads a wagon train of Chinese expatriates through a mob of political conspirators swarming like Indians. He even wore an ornate pistol rig worthy of Hopalong Cassidy.

The combination of western firearms and traditional swords must have registered on Tomisaburo Wakayama, as not only his Bounty Hunter series attests, but also his own stab at the character in 1981.

This made for TV Kaiketsu Kurozukin is somewhat of a phone-in, trying litle new with the character, repeating familiar swordplay, and using recycled music from other Katsu productions. But hey, it’s Wakayama fighting guys in tengu masks…

No, this wasn’t goodbye for the oft-renewed character. There’s at least one more version (1990) and I can’t imagine the 2000s went by without at least some sort of TV revisiting. I want to see this character reimagined as female, similar to what’s been done with The Purple Hood and Tange Saizen.

The more frequently rebooted character is Kurama Tengu — same weapons, same hood, but silk kimono and sandals replacing the ninja gear. We’ll do a similar feature on the anti-Shogunate masked mountain demon in the future.

Meanwhile you can find all the hooded heroes at Kurotokagi !


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Posted in Film and TV February 12, 2011 at 6:25 pm.

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A little MAGIC SERPENT to start things off

Surely the apex of shinobi-kaiju cinema, Magic Serpent (for the Sandy Frank/AIP-exposed) or Kairyu Dai-Kessen, is a no brainer to start of Monsters and Masks 2010!

This is a staged publicity shot, you rarely if ever get that clear a shot of the two dueling ninja transformed into giant pagoda-crushing critters. That is one loooong-legged toad…

Serpent is available in two different forms; the English-dubbed full-frame “Magic Serpent” cut is on a Gamera double feature disc, and a widescreen Japanese language print with grey market subs is circulating as “Dragon Showdown” or “Battle of the Dragons.” I recommend both, as I grew up with the former’s goofy translations and Godzilla sound-effects, but love the original’s kids chorus theme song and widescreen glory.

Hiroki Matsukata and Ryutaro Otomo posed with their amphibious alter-egos.

French market title MONSTERS OF THE APOCALYPSE ignores the ninja-ness of this masterpiece for some reason. YOUNG FLYING HERO is an un-official Thai sequel/knockoff.

This French market re-title of the above, cashing-in on the 80's ninja VHS rental boom, is THE FUCKING BOMB!!! Look at that misleading cover art. C'est magnifique!

Further reading:

We did a big write up on this last year: Part 1 / Part 2

The un-official Thai sequel sounds like a real blast, too. TarsTarkas.net

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Posted in Film and TV October 1, 2010 at 12:18 am.

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VN’s birthday look at AKAI KAGEBOSHI – Pt. 2

Not only is Akai Kageboshi a great ninja movie that spans the colorful flamboyant 50′s and grimmer realistic 60′s, it’s also a damn nifty TOURNAMENT MOVIE!

The tournament is one of the strongest devices in martial arts cinema. It’s single location/single set format is cheap and easy for filmmakers, it’s a vehicle for a wide variety of performers and showcases all sorts of fighting choreography in one little neat package. With a tourney movie, you don’t so much tell a story as you do “book” an athletic drama – the scriptwriter can be part pro-wrestling promoter. You don’t need necessarily much more than the competition structure to make an engaging film.

AK, though, actually balances an intricate and emotional plot with the tourney device, taking the contest’s strengths and weaving them into the layered story. Best of all, you get all sorts of interesting characters with different styles and weapons.

RYUTARO OTOMO stars as Jubei Yagyu, whose presence is huge in both the tournament and the intrigue at large. Otomo plays the legendary figure with a simple shut eye rather than the iconic eyepatch, and he's a swordsman of superhuman stature. Too cool!

Off topic a bit – if you want another budo tournament movie, the same Ryutaro Otomo stars in Festival of Swordsmen, which is absolutely fantastic. Get both titles here!

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Posted in Film and TV June 8, 2010 at 8:29 am.

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Hey VN, It’s Ya BERFDAY!

Yes, indeedy! One year ago today, I posted the first content on Vintage Ninja. 200+ posts, hundreds of pictures and thousands of readers later, I’m pretty damn happy with where everything stands. I’m no web wizard, but the site is pretty functional and  has a rather distinctive look. Mainly, though, I wanted the site itself to stay out of the way of the CONTENT.

The sharing of that content was not only the original inspiration for starting VN, but is the fuel that keep it going, and as more and more of you give me feedback, the rewards of the effort grow exponentially. When you web publish, you end up e-meeting all sorts of same minded folk you weren’t sure were out there at all, and it is great to know there’s a population out there who remember the 80′s craze and are rabidly discovering the 60′s media that led to it.

We’ll celebrate our one-year anniversary with a week-long look at the first movie featured on VN – Akai Kageboshi – the other ‘Red Shadow,’ first seen here in the form of decaying and discoloring press kit photos contemporary with its 1961/62 release. Click here to go back to those amazing photos and a more complete rundown of this terrific movie.

Ninja movies of the 50′s were largely centered on colorful wizards and swashbuckers, while the 60′s saw an explosion of grimmer fare based on credible martial arts and espionage techniques. Akai Kageboshi is a perfect bridge between those, with plenty of glamorous characters mixed with all sorts of great fights and daring ninja escapes. And there’s a kick-ass tournament thrown in there, too!

HASHIZO OKAWA plays the title character, the bastard son of two ninja entangled in a multi-generational conflict.

If there's one thing decidedly 50's about this movie, it's the lush, colorful costuming. Here, mother and son are disguised as a traveling magic act.

Mom is a kunoichi who blew an important mission decades before. She's now obsessed with completing that mission using her son as the muscle.

This tattoo is half of the puzzle leading to secrets that could topple the Shogunate. The other half of the key is contained in one of ten prized sword blades being awarded in a martial arts tournament. Her son must defeat each winner and steal their trophy sword - a plot structure guaranteeing a pile of awesome fights!

And does the kid ever have the wardrobe to pull the whole thing off!

Challenging as it is, the Red Shadow’s mission seems pretty straight forward. But throw in Hattori Hanzo – charged with his pursuit, Jubei Yagyu – a contestant in the tourney who isn’t about to give up his trophy to some masked punk, the crushing reveal of who his father is, and a chance meeting with a gorgeous spear-weilding deb who may turn out to be the love of his life, and things get real busy for our hero.

Tomorrow, a look at the tournament. Wednesday, some nifty ninjutsu. Thursday, a look at Hanzo’s grey-clad commando force. A nice week ahead with a great movie.

And, you can always buy it from Kurotokagi-gumi‘s ‘Ninja Collection.’

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Posted in Film and TV June 7, 2010 at 8:47 am.

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Another look: CASTLE OF OWLS

In looking at repurposing color images for B&W print ads, I tried to look for zones of photos that weren’t necessarily the original focus. Blowing up some of these areas produced a lot more grain, which when thrown into B&W makes these old Castle of Owls photos look even older. Love this detail above from the color original first seen here in September 2009.

As much as the print production artist in me loves the historical connection made by these mechanical pencil lines on the press photos, used by mural painters my guess, they are a real drag when you want to really see the image.

Flipped and tightened this one. Y'know, CASTLE OF OWLS would have made a damn good B&W movie.

I will never get tired of this image, in any form.

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Posted in Art and Advertising April 27, 2010 at 8:39 am.

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Alas, I have no idea…

…what movie (or movies) these are from, but they certainly are on-topic for the month!

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Awesome hair, awesomer nose!

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That's Ryutaro Otomo on the left, I believe. Guessing this is from late 50's or very early 60's, the pre-SHINOBI-NO-MONO years when ninja were still colorful swashbucklers, mischievous wizards, or both.

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The crimson goblin get-up looks out of NINJUTSU SUIKODEN INAZUMA KOTENGU, but not the rest of the scene...

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Again, these are from a cache of press kit still rescued from a Thai ad agency. The pencilled grid lines would have been reference for someone doing a wall-mural or large painted poster of the image triangle-by-triangle.

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Everything seems to have worked out A-OK. Whole lotta oni masks in the one...

If anyone can shed some light on the images above, drop yer beloved e-publisher a line at unknownpubs-at-yahoo-dot-com.

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Posted in Film and TV October 29, 2009 at 9:15 am.

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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.

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Posted in Film and TV October 16, 2009 at 1:00 am.

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