9 Essentials of 60s B&W Shinobi Cinema

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Part of Wildgrounds’ 2010 Japanese Cinema Blogathon

The first cinema-based ‘Ninja Craze’ in Japan is pretty well defined by the decade in which it took place – the 1960s. Yes, there were enormously popular manga, highly rated anime on TV, and martial arts practitioners bringing codified shadow skills to the public for the first time. But nothing has the cementing property that cinema does. Conquering the silver screen is conquering culture. It’s the big league of any media trend, and sustained cinema success is what turns a fad into a movement and hits into history.

Black and white ninja movies from the early to mid 1960’s are a niche within a niche, pretty much within a cross cultural niche altogether. But obscure? Hell no. This genre explosion was akin to Spaghetti Westerns or 80’s slasher flicks; a concise representation of a major money making movement that superbly reflected it’s time.

Here then are nine (being the essential number of ninjutsu) must-see flicks that thanks to the modern information era (and some fan-based yo-ho-ho) are now widely available and looking better than ever… with English subtitles. There’s never, NEVER, been a better time to be a ninja movie fan, and here’s some you NEED to hunt down:

1.) Shinobi-no-Mono (aka Ninja 1: A Band of Assassins) 1962

I hesitate to rest on crutches like “genre defining” or even “the Citizen Kane of shinobi cinema,” but man are both of those statements true of this franchise-launching monster. Ninja movies had been made since the silent era, black suits and throwing stars weren’t invented here or anything. But there were spy films made before Dr. No, too. Satsuo Yamamoto‘s Shinobi-no-Mono is the ninja Dr. No, and Raizo Ichikawa would be the boom’s Sean Connery.

With genuine ninjutsu masters on set serving like military advisors for a war movie, this is the film that established credible shadow skills on screen. Gone were the magical wizard antics of 50’s ninja films. Spy gadgets, commando tactics, exotic sword skills and weird weapons would hence be the norm, as would striking use of shadows and light. Shinobi chiaroscuro was here, and EIGHT sequels would follow. (See movie posters here.)

2.) Seventeen Ninja (orig. Jushichinin no Ninja) 1963

Blammo! The craze was off and running, and every kid and cubicle-caged office worker in Japan wanted to be a heroic black clad martial arts super spy. Then along comes a flick like Yatsuo Hasegawa‘s star-studded Seventeen Ninja, which is one of the best examples of the ‘ninja as disposable espionage asset’ theme explored again and again throughout the decade. Slavishly devoted to serving in the shadows, the ninja life pretty much sucked and you were dead meat at the drop of a dime.

Seventeen is a blood-soaked game of human chess between a guilt-ridden spy master (Ryutaro Otomo) and a vicious anti-ninja expert (Jushiro Konoe). It’s all about attrition as life after life is sacrificed. As the bodies pile up, it all comes down to one final emotionally conflicted ninja (Satomi Kotaro) and a simple but risky deception.

3.) Warring Clans (orig. Sengoku Yaro) 1963

A superb example of pop culture and marketability changing the course of a film. Three friendly rivals to fortune and females get caught up in a plot to smuggle guns for the government, with ruthless pirates and an aggressive ninja clan running interference all the way. Okamoto Kihachi‘s comedic actioner doesn’t necessarily need the shadow set, but somewhere along the way this samurai story picked up all sorts of steam when the black hoods were turkey-bastered into the plot. There may not be a more likable and engaging cast of three male leads in a film outside of Three Outlaw Samurai. Absolutely great!  (More on this film here.)

4.) Kagemaru of the Iga Clan (orig. Iga no Kagemaru) 1963

Damn, ’63 was a good year! I had to include at least one kid’s film in the list, and this live-action adaptation of the first multi-media mega property of the ninja boom can be enjoyed by anyone of any age. A plucky young ninja (an early role for genre legend Hiroki Matsukata) fends off a small army of weirdly mutated and super-powered villains in Noboru Ono‘s simple but charming adventure. (See merch and images here.)

5.) The Ninja Hunt (orig. Ninja Gari) 1964

A clan is doomed, ninja are the problem, and expendable mercs are hired in a desperate gamble for survival. Enter Wadakuro, a down-and-out ronin played with Deniro-like ferocity by the legendary Jushiro Konoe. Is he fighting for the clan’s protection, or his own vengeful obsession to slaughter everyone in a black hood? And will anyone survive the bloodletting that unfolds?

Jaw-droppingly brutal, Tetsuya Yamaguchi‘s film explores serious emotional depths as a man hired to fight shadows devolves into an even darker creature himself.

At the time of this and Seventeen Ninja, Konoe was also starring in a prolific series called Yagyu Bugeicho (Yagyu Chronicles or Yagyu Secret Scrolls). The eighth entry, Katame no Ninja (aka The One-Eyed Ninja) sees Konoe’s version of Jubei Yagyu lead an army of 64 shinobi swordsmen against an impenatrable fortress in one of the few battle-based ninja flicks ever made. This one is also highly recommended, and just missed this list. (More on this film here.)

6.) The Detective Fencer (orig. Onmitsu Kenshin) 1964

Had to include this for its historical value outside of Japan. Koichi Ose‘s television hero “Shintaro the Samurai” was the first international export of the ninja boom, and caused a sensation in Australia. Generations of Aussie kids grew up on this ninja-infused small-screen serial, and the cast’s live appearances on promo tours down under drew bigger crowds than The Beatles. Detective Fencer is a theatrical chapter of The Samurai, with a dizzying array of gimmicky ninja and Shintaro’s “Tonto”-like sidekick Tonbei the Mist, played by one of Japan’s most popular ninja actors Maki Fuyukichi. (More on The Samurai and Tonbei here.)

7.) The Third Ninja (orig. Daisan no Ninja) 1964

Takeda Shingen unleashes the greatest ninja assassin ever, and it’s up to three lesser-skilled but highly motivated rival shinobi to stop him. Kouno Toshikazu‘s stylish pic is just a superb and well rounded genre entry; great innovative action photography, haunting harmonica-accented score, espionage arsenals vs. anti-ninja booby traps, etc. And Satomi Kotaro‘s conflicted hero is the poster child for the often-explored ‘how do I get out of this doomed life of a ninja and bang this hot chick’ theme. (More on this film here.)

8.) Samurai Spy (orig. Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke) 1965

Masahiro Shinoda‘s masterpiece is, hands down, the artistic apex of the ninja genre. Hell, it’s above the ninja genre, and possibly jidai-geki as a whole. The tale of a beleaguered Sasuke (Koji Takahashi) trying to stay uninvolved in feudal conflicts, but always being sucked into swordplay and shadow-play alike, there’s just no other ninja film like this. From the woozy jazz-laced score to the unconventional fight scenes, Shinoda spat in the face of genre conventions with unparalleled cinematography and a very human story that is barely contained in the trappings of shinobi cinema. This is art here, to the tune of Criterion DVD special edition level. Just wow… (We did a four part breakdown of the visuals in this film starting here.)

9.) Mission Iron Castle (aka Ninja 9, orig. Shinobi no Shu) 1970

The Shinobi-no-Mono series was so successful, it spawned seven sequels in which Raizo Ichikawa played three different lead characters. After his untimely death in 1969 (at only 37, why he’s called Japan’s James Dean), Daiei Studios dipped into the well one more time, making the best 60’s B&W ninja movie ever seen in the otherwise color-dominated year of 1970.

The boom was over, the look and tone were outdated, the choice to market this flick under the beloved Shinobi-no-Mono banner questionable… But damn is this an f’n great movie!

Issei Mori directs Hiroki Matsukata as the reluctant leader of a small band of spies charged with kidnapping a noblewoman from a heavily ninja-proofed castle. Things do not go as planned in what is possibly the darkest and most fatalistic of the already noir-ish 60’s fare. Both the decade and it’s distinctive style of shinobi cinema went out on a high note with Mission Iron Castle. (See the ladies of this film here.)

So what is that, 18, 20 hours of gorgeous black-and-white shadow cinema for you to start on?

There are, of course, lush color films from the same era; The Red Shadow (Akai Kageboshi), Castle of Owls (Ninja Hicho Fukuro no Shiro) and Warrior of the Wind (Kaze no Bushi) making the short list, with Owls being arguably the best ninja movie ever made.

However it is the black and white poetry of hooded espionage like in the films above that really define the 60’s ninja boom.

SAMURAI SPY – Quick Close-Ups

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Wrapping up our 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

Evidenced by the previous entries in this series, director Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi were out to baffle the viewer visually as much as their lead character Sarutobi Sasuke was confounded by the intrigue around him.

But in the middle of all the conflicting actor movements, confusing geometry and misleading framing, frequent quick-cut close-ups and extreme close-ups are contrastingly stark. They are brilliantly photographed, crisp and clear. Their conventionality makes them striking in the foggy visual environs of the rest of the film.

Many tools and weapons attributed to shinobi are multi-functional. A grappling hook can also serve as a disarming capture line, perfectly illustrated here.
Ninja live and die by the shuriken. The prop master in SS chose some pretty deadly looking blades!

An example of close-up intercut with resulting actions. Sasuke hurls a pile of shuriken at enemy samurai with devastating efficiency.
This sequence actually illustrates many of the themes we've looked at this week - off-kilter character placement, movement vs. framing, etc.
Superb lost limb cutaways during night fights. Not an easy thing to capture correctly.

SS is somewhat lean on gadgetry, but when an exotic tool of the trade appears, it's something you've never seen in any other movie. I absolutely LOVE this hybrid axe / trenching tool / dagger / cudgel thingy!
And I'm pretty sure this is the only big-screen use of a truly bizarre implement called a KONPEI - a chain slid though a tube handle with a weight on one end and a spiked ring on the other.

Fitting to end a look at one of, if not the, weirdest ninja movies ever made with shots of one of the damned strangest weapons ever. (Read all about it and others in Serge Mol’s excellent Classical Weaponry of Japan)

I’m no professor in the art of filmmaking, and I’m probably butchering some of the visual vocabulary I learned in college, but what I’ve tried to get across this week is how rarified the air is around Samurai Spy. Adventurous and experimental as hell, there’s nothing else quite like it during the 60’s craze. It may be above the rest of the genre, but it also still pays off with the basics we all look for in a vintage ninja film.

If nothing else, it gives visuals like the above consistently. You just can’t take your eyes off this flick.

See it… just to see it.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

SAMURAI SPY – Theatrical Combat Posing

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The 3rd of a 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

Without knowing even the decade they’re from, you can date ninja films from the way the actors and stuntmen move and pose. In the 50’s, movie wizards mimicked traditional paintings and gestured like kabuki actors. In the 80’s Sonny Chiba had his JAC folk posing like superheroes. The 2000s saw digitally assisted non-martial artists take over lead roles, so the filmmakers were always trying to hide the lack of physicality of pop stars or teen idols.

The redefined shinobi of the 60’s Japanese craze were coached by legit martial practitioners like Masaaki Hatsumi, with emphasis on credibility. The posing was right out of secret scrolls, they moved like commandos and did arcane spy tricks no one had seen before. From Raizo Ishikawa on the big screen to Maki Fuyukichi on TV, there was definitely a visual vocabulary used by the ninja stars of the day.

BUT… as we’ve established the last two days, Shinoda just had to do things differently, and Samurai Spy features some truly odd character posing and combat staging in some of the wierdest framing set-ups ever.

Sasuke, cornered like a rat, surrounded by aggressive enemies, strikes these defiant hero poses. There is, however, a certain quality of fear behind the bravado. He's stiff, uneasy, vulnerable, and remarkably under-armed for the full-scale battle he's entered.

Tanba's Sakon is a total contrast. He's a shifty spy with a lot to hide, but he hides in plain sight - from the white robes to these decidedly un-ninja-like, Musashi-esque twin sword poses. His is an equally false bravado, maybe brought on by overconfidence.

This duel is as stiff and ritualized as kabuki theater. There is no flow, each move is isolated, stopped on a beat, and followed by an overly dramatic gesture in return. A primitive fight amidst an amazingly advanced and complex film that always leaves you guessing...

From the way Sasuke holds his katana to the placement of crucial characters way to the sides of uncluttered frames, everything in SS is different from its contemporaries. The more I scrutinize this film, the more I’m thinking it might be the weirdest ninja movie ever made.

Tomorrow: Often flashing so fast they barely register, we look at some absolutely gorgeous cutaway close-ups, and one of the strangest ninja weapons ever put on screen.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

SAMURAI SPY – Use of Shadow (and Light) to Obscure Characters

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The 2nd of a 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

Last time we established the agenda of director Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi to mirror the confusion and conflict of Sasuke with an equal amount of visual disruption for the viewer. From the opening frames, characters are obscured from what in a more conventional film would be normal view. Shadows are nothing new in post Shinobi-no-mono films, but Samurai Spy uses sunlight and mist just as often.

The first scenes in which we see Sasuke, he's nervously wandering a misty cane field, knowing he's being followed, but also realizing he can't see ten feet in front of him either.
Later, an uneasy cease-fire with Sakon, where motivations and morals are obscured by the same reeds. It's a long scene, and the bright cane is constantly (and deliberately) interfering in the composition.
When we do pull out of the frustrating reeds, its to overly wide and distant shots like this. The very distance obscures...
But, this wouldn't be a ninja movie without shadows. They use contrast and chiaroscuro so effectively here, even the white-robed Sakon is thrown into menacing shadow.

Even the conventional use of shadow - during invasions, escapes, hiding, etc. is on a level above the rival films of the time. Just amazing.
But then you get shots like this, which in anyone else's movie is a huge mistake. It's a full-on fight scene, you know who's who, but they chose to hide Sasuke's face. Almost like engaging in the combat is obscuring his very identity from himself.
Overhead shots also obscure the faces - and thus the emotions - of characters. I really love how this shot in a courtyard has a similar texture to the shark skin of the title card.

There is so much mist in daylight at film's end, I can actually picture the climax without revealing any spoilers!

Poor Sasuke… who is friend, who is enemy? Is he doing right or wrong? Is there even a right or wrong to be found? There are no easy answers, regardless of the lighting conditions.

Tomorrow: – some of the weirdest theatrical combat posing and framing ever.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

SAMURAI SPY – Geometry and Lines in Composition

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The 1st of a 4-part look at the visual qualities of Masahiro Shinoda’s Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke

A diagonal cut over a square grid, the interrupting movement of the spy actually reinforces the fact he's somewhere he doesn't belong.

It doesn’t take long to realize that director Masahiro Shinoda and cinematographer Masao Kosugi were up to something different in Samurai Spy. Different for a ninja movie, or any movie really. The use of lines to point the eye of the viewer is fundamental movie making, but here, the lines are often pointing away from the central character or action of the scene. Other times they crash into each other or cross at weird points. The geometry provides visual clues that pay off with lies, broken rules of compositional physics designed to confuse the viewer as much as the political and moral intrigue of the plot is confusing Sasuke himself.

Sasuke faces Sakon for the first time. The angles are like borders or fences to cross, in addition to the distance, before they can fight. It's a batle that shouldn't even really happen at this point, and it ends with a surprising explosion of upward movement that breaks the gridlines of the bridge. Bridges play an important part later as well.

In the liner notes of Criterion’s DVD, Alain Silver, author of the indispensable The Samurai Film, refers to the visual craft of SS as a “graphic scheme” with “angular and conflicting lines of force,” and those lines clutter frames, confuse the viewer, and ultimately support an underlying theme of the movie – nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. You can’t even trust the photography…

Capture lines pull the main character in every direction, just like the plot.
A stoic and rather geometric pose defies the arrows pelting the grid lines of the door behind Sasuke. As it plays out on screen, this whole escape sequence is just tense as all hell.

Samurai Spy ends with a lot of action atop elevated foot bridges. Sakon and Sasuke first meet on a suspension rope bridge, with the martial arts action (stunning slow-motion leaps) defying the horizontal confining lines of the architecture on which they fight. Their final meeting is on a seemingly endless linear walkway. An easy metaphor would have been for the final battle to take place at this bridge’s end, but fighting in the middle of this long expanse makes the symbollic timing of their skirmish just as unpredictable (and like a real life conflict, illogical) as the rest of the film.

It all comes down to dramatic theatrical fight poses (discussion of these coming day 3) interrupting the grid lines of tilled land and constructed bridge. Astounding planning went into these fights that, while nothing to write home about in the raw martial arts department, convey real tension and high drama via composition instead.

Tomorrow: both shadows AND light serve to obscure characters and add mystery.

Buy the highly recommended Criterion DVD at VN’s Amazon store.

A visual breakdown of SAMURAI SPY (intro)

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It was the Summer of 1984, the height and heat of the American craze. Revenge of the Ninja was running on HBO, Ninja III: The Domination was about to hit theaters, Spanish-dubbed episodes of Lone Wolf and Cub ran on late-night Galavision. We thought we were sated.

Then, this little gem hit newsstands:

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s articles showed us a frustratingly limited glimpse of the source waters of our American ninja craze. SAMURAI SPY was prominently pictured.

I bought the very copy pictured here of Inside Kung-Fu‘s special issue The Master Ninja: Warrior of the Night because like all shinobi-obsessed teens at the time, you bought ANYTHING ninja-related, and magazines by the ream. This one had more than the usual Hayes techniques and weapons fetish, though, it had four articles on film. The one that just KILLED us was “Challenge of the Ninja Films.”

Six pages of myths made real – like photo proof of the Loch Ness Monster to a cryptozoologist – we stared dumbfounded at actual evidence of Japanese ninja films. GOOD ninja films, serious, artistically superior, historically credible ninja films. Ninja films we had no chance of seeing. It was wondrous and torturous at the same time. Shinobi-no-Mono? Watari? What were these fantastic alien entities whose very notion was as baffling as the monolith was to the monkey-men of 2001: A Space Odyssey?!?!?

OK, I gotta reign myself in here…

The short of it: 15-year old Keith was rather tormented by the fact that a Samurai Spy was out there, and the U.N. wasn’t passing a global resolution to put it in his hands immediately. That’s why decades later, 36-year old Keith was all over the Criterion DVD release of said Samurai Spy like a fly on shit. FINALLY!

I just adore this title card. The background is a macro-photo of a sword hilt covered in shark or ray skin.
The film’s star KOJI TAKAHASHI has as striking a face and profile as any other visual in the film. Criterion’s DVD release has the typically superb packaging design.

So now, four and a half years after the 2005 Masahiro Shinoda retrospecticve box set raised the ceiling for me on how artistically adventurous a ninja movie could be, I’m delighted to actually express some editorial adoration. The 1965 redefining of the often visited Sarutobi Sasuke character is a film that while certainly released in the fervor of the 60’s Japanese craze, was on a level above much of its competition. Maybe too far above for some.

Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke is not an easy film to process. Brilliant to some, failure to others. Most ninja fans see it on the highest end of the shinobi scale, while many chambara or general Japanese cinemaphiles see it on the lower end of the Shinoda/samurai scale.

TETSURO TANBA is masterful as the villain in the white monks robes.

Me, after all these years, I was probably going to love SS no matter what. But repeated viewings over the last four years have cemented it as a personal fave, mainly for it’s visual quality. It is with a little intimidation that I now present some of those qualities. This is an important film to me, with a long history, so I wanted VN’s exploration of it to be something special.

Thus, I’ll approach this a lot differently than other articles here. I’m going to break down Shinoda’s striking visuals into four categories apparent throughout the film;

– Geometry and Lines in Composition

– Use of Shadow (and Light) to Obscure Characters

– Theatrical Combat Posing

– Dramatic Use of Quick Close-Ups

Samurai Spy is a much-reviewed film, but I haven’t seen anyone really break-down its visual language. I hope I do it justice.

SAMURAI SPY features some great use of slow motion during combat. The staging is innovative as hell, fights here don’t look like anything else in shinobi cinema.
Couple of nifty innovative transitions, too, however the real underlying strength of SS is…
…the cinematography of MASAO KOSUGI. Even the everyday street scenes display a phenomenal command of light and shadow, and depth of field.

Part 1 of 4 starts tomorrow. In the meantime:

Buy the superb Criterion DVD from Amazon.

Read an erudite chihuahua’s review of both this film and other versions of Sasuke at a sight we often recommend, The Weird Wild Realm, which in a neato piece of universal convergence, is supervised by none other than the writer of that very same 1984 article!