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!

Wolf vs. Sheepdog

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CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK continues with some miscellaneous awesomeness centered on the the conflict between Juzo (Ryutaro Otomo) and Gohei (Minoru Ohki). As I’ve mentioned previously, this initially plays out like the old Sam the Sheepdog vs. Ralph the Wolf Looney Toons, with the rivals being friendly and familiar, then punching-in and letting the sparks fly like there’s no tomorrow.

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The initial reunion of the clansmen on-the-lam: a warm, nostalgic meeting where the appreciation the two have for each other and their entwined past is evident. It's also the last friendly conversation they have...
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Part of the 'owls' symbolism is the notion of the hunter in the trees and the perspective of the hunted on the ground, like a mouse in the brush.
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As shuriken come out of nowhere and 'thunk' in trees barely missing their targets, pans of ominous darkened tree canopies are intercut, producing a real tension, even a sense of dread. This is the one ninja movie that really conveys how terrifying a shuriken fight in the dark would actually be.
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After an epic struggle, it comes down to man-on-man in a torrential downpour, with a symbolic chain line tying the two combatants together.

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The last time Juzo uses his sword is not to kill the shogun, but rather to cut that chain, and thus his bounds to the ultimately self-destructive shadow life.

And a note to makers of new ninja films, the above image is beyond F’N AWESOME, and it’s just one of countless brilliant shots in this masterpiece. Man and weapon composed with striking geometry. Actors convincing of rage, angst, fear, and pain with only their eyes visible. Shadow skills used in dark environs with delicate lighting being just enough to expose all the action. It’s ALL here.

Castle of Owls should be the standard to which you craft your trade… NOW GET TO IT!

Kunoichi in CASTLE OF OWLS

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While the overt conflict of Castle of Owls may be the wolf-vs-sheepdog of Juzo and Gohei, there is a deeper interior conflict in both men played out by their relationships to women, all of whom are deadly female ninja themselves. So let’s take at look at the mysterious manipulator Kohagi (Hizuno Takachiho) and the teen cutie Kizaru (Chiyoko Honma).

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Upon arriving in Edo, Juzo is shadowed and sized up. He doesn’t fall for his ‘guide’ Kohagi’s proper lady act for a minute, and draws down on her.
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Her hand forced, she produces a hidden blade in her umbrella in an impressive display of martial arts savvy. She coyly laughs-off the encounter, but at the same time, Juzo just sniffed her out as kunoichi right away. BUSTED!
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‘No dear, that’s just my sword handle… but don’t get me wrong, I AM glad to see you.’
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Hizuno’s face is all angles and killer expressions. She’s absolutely gorgeous, but at the same time conveys a definite quality of lethal shrewdness.

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But lo-and-behold, is she even hotter in full mission gear?
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When picking an actress to play kunoichi, CAST FOR THE EYES! They did so here for sure. 
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A lot of ninja gals in 60’s films look better in hoods than more modern flicks because of the contemporary eye make-up.
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This hooded femme fatale is a full-on HAMMER, and at this point in the film is f’n with Juzo’s head big time. Is she fox, or foe?
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Meanwhile, Kizaru, a child survivor survivor of the Iga massacre that started this whole revenge quest, is now blossoming into womanhood, and finding young love herself. Betrothed to the traitor Gohei, she rejects that arrangement and swears to kill him. She then falls for Juzo’s apprentice Kumotaro (Kawarazaki Choichiro), a wannabe shinobi who is still innocent. 
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That innocence is central to the sub plot of the youngsters. Kizaru’s got a burgeoning shadow skill set of her own, but has yet to spill blood. She’s one step further down the trail of blood than Kumotaro, and as she is drawn by the outer currents of the revenge whirlpool herself, her redemption will come in resisting the pull of the assassin life.
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It’s probably safe to let a guy cop a feel when you have the skills to tear his arm off his torso…
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At film’s end, the equally conflicted Kohagi embodies Juzo’s triumphant character turn. He is faced with the opportunity to have his vengeance, or a future with a woman in equal need of redemption. 
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Finally kill the shogun after ten years, or run off with a smoking hot babe in a soaking wet ninja suit? Hmmm…
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Back-to-back debates, with Juzo and Gohei facing opposite directions, happen throughout the film. This time, the conflict between former clansmen over blood and honor is over, and the talk is now between man and woman over the future and their very humanity.

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But look at her, is there really a debate here?

Women in Castle of Owls represent the future, the salvation of love, domesticity, peace and the abandonment of the shadow life. One woman is saved from the trail of blood she has been down her entire life. She risks all to save herself (and her man), and in doing so is the model for the next generation’s heroine, who is ultimately spared the black suit and all it entails.

Two interesting side notes on the actresses: As part of the movie’s promotion, Chiyoko Honma hosted a series of short promo films wherein she interviewed ninjutsu grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi, who would demo a different ninja weapon in each short. A year after Castle of Owls, Hizuno Takachiho married chambara superstar Koichi “Shintaro the Samurai” Ose! Man, that’s a vintage ninja power couple if there ever was one…

B&W stills from OWLS

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The Japanese DVD of Castle of Owls has a modest gallery of B&W set-shot publicity stills:

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Juzo’s kid sister is violated and commits suicide as Iga is routed, a big motivator in his quest for revenge..

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Yeah, this is the effect ninja have on women, and even the deadliest of kunoichi fall before the awesome manliness of Ryutaro Otomo’s chin…

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Mom, Dad, I found a shogun, can I keep him? Can I?

CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK continues with an in depth look at the ninja women of the film, and a side-by-side comparison of the photography of the original film vs. the digital FX of the 1999 remake.

Stay tuned owlettes…

More aging CASTLE OF OWLS stills

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Hey, that’s the rest of the image from the home-page header! Yep, yer right.

It’s also perhaps the most striking image of Ryutaro Otomo from Toho’s publicity shoots. Those spike shuriken are just awesome. Otomo’s stern, strong eyes lend a commanding character wether he’s in full hood and mask, or partial as above.

The color moray patterns in all these 45-year old press/lobby stills is from deteriorating chemistry shrinking from the surface of the paper. Despite Castle of Owls being a lush color masterpiece, these photos were B&W and manually tinited. Color repro wasn’t quite a reality yet for mass market campaigns everwhere. The grid lines pencilled over the photos are most likely from a sign painter, who would have transferred this photo section by section onto a larger canvass or city wall somewhere. Being a marketing graphic designer by day myself, I just love the notion of these photos tacked up around a busy art department decades ago…

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The above is from one of several encounters the former clansmen have over the movie. These fights are superbly edited, quick battles that end with even quicker escapes – the way a ninja-vs.-ninja conflict should be fought. When the two first meet after a decade in hiding, it’s almost like those old Looney Tunes with Sam the Sheepdog and Ralph the Wolf – they meet, cajole and catch up with each other, then punch a time clock and it’s on, shuriken singing from the shadows of tree-tops!

Despite the escalation of their conflict, there’s still a history, and an affection for each other. In the end, it makes the resolution all the more tragic. You won’t find many better character journeys, either – Otomo’s conflicted ninja is a different, better human being by film’s end.

The 1963 Toei classic, directed by Japanese cinema legend Eiichi Kudo, is out there in the trading communities full subbed, sometimes with extras. It’s also known under the title “Samurai Spies” (not to confused with the Criterion release of Samurai Spy). The much lauded but oddly flawed (and gratuitously digital FX-laden) remake Owl’s Castle has various domestic and all-region international releases as well. It’s well worth seeing, if for nothing else than it’s place in history as launching the digital age of shinobi-cinema.

More Owls in the next few days…

CASTLE OF OWLS publicity stills from Thailand

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Inspired by Gobi’s awesome sketch from this post, I’ve declared this CASTLE OF OWLS WEEK at Vintage Ninja!

I’m not saying the 1963 Ryutaro Otomo action-drama is the best ninja movie ever made, but damn if it isn’t my absolute favorite. It’s pretty much in the top ten, if not top 5, of all of us shinobi-cinema-files, too.

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Castle of Owls (Ninja hicho fukuro no shiro) is set up as a pretty straightforward revenge tale, but turns into a great exploration of the often visited theme of the lone ninja trying to escape the shadow life.

After the massacre of Iga, surviving suppa scatter across Japan, waiting for the day they can take their revenge on the Shogun. One (Otomo) does nothing but train, taking his skills to the next level. Another initially goes undercover as an ambitious samurai on a strong career path, but over the years sells out and actually wants the good life. After a decade, the time has come to strike, but can the stalwart Otomo succeed with a former blood brother now a motivated rival with an equal array of shadow skills in his way?

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Owls has everything: credible ninjutsu mixed with solid action, an engaging story, a great supporting cast surrounding Otomo’s star power, gorgeous cinematography and color… it delivers on all fronts.

More about the movie later this week along with more vintage stills!

KAIKETSU KUROZUKIN press stills

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I must admit I’ve had a difficult time in researching this post, and the pedigree of the property involved. Reading below, it’ll become pretty evident that while yes, I have a network of nerds who can identify any antique handgun known to man, what I actually lack is a good Japanese translator and a reader of kanji. So while the language barrier sometimes betrays an embarrassing lack of authority in this sight, I really do try to make up for it in passion and enthusiasm for collecting. Bear with me, one day we’ll have the overseas research covered just as well as the peripherals like revolvers and printing techniques and all the other garbage I bring to the table… ONWARD!

There are three prolific not-necessarily-ninja hooded heroes in Japanese cinema: the masked Anti-Shogunist (just made that word up!) Kurama Tengu, the purple-hooded detective swordsman Murasaki Zukin, and this pistol-packin’ force of justice KAIKETSU KUROZUKIN.

Think of him as a chambara Lone Ranger, or a Zorro in ninja-wear… And any problem he couldn’t solve with 12 bullets would be just as easily diffused by a quick-drawn katana off the back.

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“Kaiketsu” is a great Japanese word used to describe a man of greatness or extraordinary deeds, pretty much used to modify a corresponding name or term into a hero. “Kurozukin” (or split as ‘kuro-zukin’) is literally Black Hood. So in American pulp-hero terms, it’d end up something like “The Amazing Black Hood” or “Black Hood: Man of Adventure” or something equally grand.

KK was an adventurer who would insert himself into all sorts of political intrigue and conspiracies as the Shogunate crumbled in the late 1860s. He was a catalyst for justice, making trouble for those that deserved it and protecting those caught up in conflicts bigger than themselves.

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The above staged publicity stills were shot B&W, then hand tinted. I got these in a batch of similar pieces rescued from a newspaper or ad agency in Thailand.

Kurozukin adventures date back to the silent film era, and the property has seen some sort of revival in just about every decade since. Although not a ninja character, more often than not the studios used off-the-rack shinobi costuming for the hero, accented with some amazing Western pistol rigs and saddles that would make Gene Autry proud.

Kurozukin’s “Oater”-esque saddle rig and gunbelt are unlikely, but plausible. The double-action revolvers however are Smith & Wesson “Military and Police” Model 1905s, about 40 years too early. Most every Kurozukin film, poster or still I’ve seen suffers the same sort of snafu. They either just weren’t sweating the historical detail, or the prop guys had a wealth of military surplus on-hand in post-war Japan, but less access to frontier replicas.

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"Honestly sir, we were just watching TV..."

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This still was shot on set of the 1960 film Ayaushi! Kaiketsu Kuro-Zukin (Danger! Magnificent Black-Hooded Man or The Black Hooded Man in Peril). That’s the always amazing Ryutaro Otomo in the get-up. He played the character in a series of eight films starting in 1955.

I’ve only seen an un-subbed inky and fuzzy VHS boot of this flick so forgive the vagueries. The conflict revolves around a Chinese delegation – perhaps a troupe of traveling entertainers – trying to escape a conspiracy in Japan. The last act sees their wagon-train chased by an army of villains, with all sorts of gunfire and horseplay. VERY much Republic serial Western fare.

Here are some screen caps – apologies for the quality…

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Check out that amazing hairdo!!!

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The first two films of Otomo’s series are out there in the ‘trading community’ and well worth hunting down. The second film has a great fight where an incognito Kurozukin fights off, and humiliates, multiple attackers using the wooden ‘bite’ of a parade dragon head. Also out there is an 80’s incarnation starring none other than Tomisaburo Wakayama.

MANY THANKS TO: Gaijin84 and Gringo Solitario of the Ninja Dojo, and pistoleros David J. Schow and Ken Valentine)

Chinese flyer for “Black Ninja”

Sepia-tone 2-sided flyer for the Ryutaro Otomo ninja vehicle Maboroshi Kurozukin Yamine Toku-Kage (can’t confirm that title or translate, although the words for black hood, phantom, and shadow are in there…) from Singapore – possibly late 60’s?

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Enjoy some whacked-out ‘Chingrish’ below:

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That image above looks a lot like the live-action Iga no Kagemaru film, or perhaps just an identical costume?

I haven’t seen this film, but I’m dying to know who the “Bat Swordsman” is, if he uses bats in combat, and what the scorpion relation is…

Here’s a Japanese poster for the same. Check out that tsuba-less sword on the left! You gotta have sack to weild a weapon like that, as you pretty much eliminate a lot of kendo’s defenses from an opposing sword.

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AKAI KAGEBOSHI – the other ‘red shadow’

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Can a respectable, accomplished beautiful woman from noble samurai family possibly say no to a hooded bedroom invader so clearly superior in his warrior fashion sense? I think not!

I may have started this site just to find a good home for this picture. Seriously.

Said hood is Hashizo Okawa, the shinobi son trying to exact revenge on behalf of his tattooed ninja mom-done-wrong in the 1961 Toei film Akai Kageboshi. It’s part tournament movie, part mulit-generational mystery, part ninja romance – all with a supporting cast of staggering chambara manliness.

It all starts with our old pal Hattori Hanzo, played by Jushiro Konoe of Ninja Hunt and the Yagu Secret Scrolls series, who intercepts a ninja on a castle incursion. During their struggle, he realizes his prey is actually a woman, and the two are so turned-on by each other’s shinobi sex appeal, they have at it on the spot.

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Couple decades later, that same lady of the shadows is a bitter and obsessed ninja MILF who has trained her son, the offspring of that fateful encounter, in the family trade. Decked out in all sorts of gorgeous ornate get-ups, he is ‘The Red Shadow’ – the instrument of her revenge.

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The plot, from that set-up, is full of twists and turns and amazing characters. Sonny-boy’s mission is to collect 10 swords, one of which has part of a map etched onto it’s handle that when matched up with mom’s killer tats will lead them to a Shogunate treasure and vindicate her failure as a shadow agent. The ten swords, however, are the prizes in a martial arts tournament, so Red has to snatch the blades from the victors every night.

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This goes along fine, as long as the winners are old semi-retired swordsmen or young hotties practicing Naginata, but when one of the victors is Jubei F’N Yagu, played by Ryutaro Otomo, it’s a whole different deal!

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Red throws everything in his ninja repertoire at Jubei, just to see it all bounce harmlessly off his square jaw. Jubei, meanwhile, butts his way into the intrigue afoot, then Hanzo comes out of retirement, Red falls in love, snakes fall from the ceiling and shuriken sing through the night air…

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So yeah, Akai Kegeboshi is a pretty damn essential film, for those of you who haven’t seen it. Grey marketeers and fan-subbers have made it readily available, too, so there’s no excuses. Despite literal translations, would be a good idea to refer to this maybe as “The Crimson Shadow” or “The Scarlet Shadow” or something else, as the name “Red Shadow” has a rather significant pedigree elsewhere…

Here’s a ton of images, like the above, from Thai press kits released contemporary with the film’s original theatrical run.

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Staged publicity shot, shows how amazing the costumes are in this film. That bo shuriken looks pretty deadly…
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A staged combat shot from the publicity kit. AK is actually light on black-suited cannon fodder.
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Check out the ornate fan designs on that tsuba!
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That’s Keiko Okawa as Yuri, halberd expert and Shadow’s main squeeze.
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Otomo’s Jubei dispenses with the otherwise signature (maybe cliché) eyepatch for a perhaps more intimidating wink of doom. The film does a great job of portraying Yagyu as an omnipotent force of nature with a sword, and Shadow is in WAY over his head facing him.
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Shadow is also no match one-on-one for the veteran Hanzo, it’s everything he can do just to escape these encounters. And there are some really cool escapes, too.
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The bit where someone has come so close to getting slashed in the head, their straw hat has a triangle cut in it is so damn cool…
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Bit of a spoiler here, but it’s not like you don’t see it coming from a mile off. And yes, by contractual obligation, the final showdown is in the shadow of Mt. Fuji.

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I’ll wrap this up with some close-up scans of the mission gear. LOVE that mesh soft-armor hood!

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Don’t let these sepia-tone and B&W press photos fool you, Akai Kageboshi is a beautiful color film. The print that’s floating about the ‘trading communities’ is probably from TV and is pretty inky, though – but by no means a deal breaker.

SEE IT!

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