If you’re a dinosaur like me, then you still dig physical media and package art when it comes to your video library. To that end, I’m a regular customer of the Warner Archive DVD-On Demand service. Tons of great titles, especially if you’re into 60s and 70s made-for-TV sci-fi and horror fare. Not so much by way of martial arts films or classic Japanese cinemathough, save for this nugget which was just made available:
The 1959 animated feature Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke was given an English treatment by MGM and released a year later as Magic Boy. There may have been some low-rent video tape releases of this, but I believe this is the first time a clean, crisp digitally mastered version has seen the light of day, and in its original 16×9 aspect ratio, too.
From the Warner press release:
MAGIC BOY (1960) Magically-gifted boy Sasuke lives in peace, deep in the forest with his animal pals and his elder sister, Oyu. After their forest sanctuary is violated by a demon witch who devours one of Sasuke’s animal companions, he vows vengeance. Leaving the forest, the boy sets out to master his magical gifts by making a pilgrimage to the home of the wizard, Hakuunsai. While Sasuke learns the ways of magic, Yakusha, the demon witch, terrorizes the countryside, and Sasuke works to complete his training in time. Magic Boy aka Shunen Sarutobi Sasuke is a classic piece of anime history — the first full-length animated feature produced in Japan to reach the shores of the United States. With much of the original storyline left untouched and centering on pop culture staple hero Sarutobi Sasuke (think Bomba the Jungle Boy crossed with a ninja), Magic Boy is an enchanting precursor to decades of imported Japanese ani-magic. 16×9 Widescreen
In a nice bit of coinkidink, this past weekend Roy Ware of the awesome Black Sun posted some great imagery of an entirely different Sasuke, an animated film known in English-speaking markets as “Magic Boy.”
Occurs to me, with a domestic release in 1961, this would be the first ninja movie ever seen in the United States, well before the dubbed Magic Serpent. I don’t recall ever seeing this Disney-esque epic on VHS during the craze, but it had to have come out somewhere. Unless by the 80′s distributors were too sensitive about kids throwing knives around…
Another neat fact, two different retro-media blogs ran features on incarnations of Sasuke without mentioning fucking Naruto. Ah shit, I just did.
Discovering Sarutobi Sasuke Senjogadake no Himatsuri has been an eye-opener. The below caps will attest to how well-rounded the film is, hitting genre beats from both the super hero sorcerer spectacle-50s and the grim and grittier shinobi-spy 60s at the same time.
The costumers used all sorts of hood and mask styles to differentiate various shinobi.
Sasuke’s relationship with the femme fatale goes from dodging shuriken to dodging affection. This poor gal, caught between an uber-noble hero and a viciously manipulative villain, ultimately pays for being on the wrong road to start with then making some bad decisions along the way.
This ceiling-crawl special effects sequence is both innovative and effective as hell, as good or better a bit as anything in the 60s craze. The ceiling is actually a floor with the actor crawling across it, flipped upside down when optically composited with the right-side-up room footage. Wonder why we didn’t see this compositing technique more often after this flick?
The ninja-vs.-ninja action goes from darkened hallways and crawlspaces to rooftops at night. However, while there are plenty of scenes more in tune with the espionage-based shinobi-cinema of a decade later, the fighting is still rather swash-buckler-y (yep, just made that term up) and very much of the 50′s. The whole jump up/jump cut disappearance thing is way WAAAY overdone, too. One of the best things about the 60s craze was the elimination of these cheesy camera tricks in favor of realistic movements coached by genuine ninjutsu practitioners serving as on-set advisors.
But damn, this has got to be one of, if not the, best pre-craze movies for credible hood and mask capers.
Said hoods are ultimately shed for the final duel, fought atop a mountain (and an indoor mountain-top set, never matching well when intercut alas). Weapons are parried and elemental ninja magics are exchanged, and, surprise, a redemptive act of self-sacrifice by a certain emotionally scarred female saves the day.
I just LOVE this film, but a word of warning before you go and buy. The print shown on Japan’s jidai-geki channel is alarmingly flawed – tons of flutter and frame jogs, especially on edits where special effects occur. It is hazy in places and inky in others, and the sound pops a lot. If this is the only print in circulation, I can see why there’s been no rush to put it on DVD, the thing is a mess.
That being said, beggars can’t be choosers. Maybe there’s a Criterion-level Blu-Ray on the horizon from Japan. Maybe pigs will fly.
OR… maybe **somebody** out there will sub this thing and make it available here first. I’ve got a DVD box cover pic just waiting…
Sarutobi Sasuke Senjogadake no Himatsuri is not even available in Japan, however you can buy it from Kurotokagi‘s non-subbed DVD-R lists here.
Four months ago or so I ran some vintage publicity stills from movies I couldn’t identify. Well, thanks to VN commenter Robert “ShinobiShaw” Kibodeaux we got some IDs soon after, and I’m finally getting around to putting up these caps from the very film this mystery image came from:
Sarutobi Sasuke Senjogadake no Himatsuri was a 1950* Daiei production that for its time is surprisingly well rounded in its genre credentials. There’s plenty of hooded commando action, shuriken flying in the trees, some elemental magic summoning, and a stunning kunocihi to boot. I have embarrassingly little hard data on this flick, and have only seen a non-subtitled inky-as-hell print, but here goes:
Fujita Susumu, a prolific actor whose career spanned essential jidai-geki, kaiju and WWII films alike, stars as a Sasuke more in the Samurai Spy vein than in the often seen trouble-making kid or outright sorcerer variety. Over the course of the film, he struggles with black-clad ninja rivals (the main baddie played by vet Tsukigata Ryunosuke I believe) and negotiates a love triangle with a his noble village sweetheart and a kunoichi who although pledged to do Sasuke in inevitably falls for him.
Our hero is in grey once again. There's some pretty cool infiltration, spying and rope fighting stuff here.
Director ADACHI NOBUO makes great use of rooftop sets...
...impressive set-bound "exteriors" and...
...just as impressive real exteriors.
Gathering what I can from my front row seat behind the language barrier, seems Sasuke is pursued by ninja who assume he’s guilty of killing their elder on the battlefield and stealing his secret scroll. Truth of it is, the old man saw Sasuke as an honorable warrior, and before dying of natural causes, actually entrusted him with the treasure as his last act.
What's sexier than a vengeful beauty in armor?
A vengeful beauty in ninja gear!
I am completely SMITTEN with the conflicted kunoichi sworn to kill the man she’s slowly falling in love with. (The credits list two actresses: Chieko Soma and Minagawa Reiko, I just don’t know who’s who.**)
But par for the rules of genre, vengeful ninja women NEVER get the guy and live happily ever after. There’s always the ‘princess’ figure, in this case a local gal Sasuke’s hooked on, whose loyalty, chaste and general tolerance for damsel-in-distressdom is ultimately rewarded.
I'm a sucker for hard features on Japanese women, big schnozes and ninja girls. What's not to love here? SWOOON!
Some wacky wildlife in this film, too. The credits use a cockfight to symbolize the duel about to transpire. Various ninja slip lizards and snakes into bedrooms to herald their appearances. Sasuke uses a couple dozen toads as his calling card. Alas, they’re just regular plain old toads. No laser horns or flame breath or growin’ humongous… Handsome fellas though.
Hey, swing on back to VN tomorrow for a HUGE batch of caps from this way-too-rare film. TONS of hooded combat and some damn clever shinobi-cinematography, too!
Sarutobi Sasuke Senjogadake no Himatsuri is not even available in Japan, however you can buy it from Kurotokagi‘s non-subbed DVD-R lists here.
This kid’s book-and-record (flexi-disc that is) Sarutobi Sasuke: Ninja Shugyou (Ninja Training?) is from 1973, and I know little more than that. The art throughout its 10 cardboard pages is no great shakes – and is actually quite stiff at times – but there is one killer ninja combat spread, and a great back cover. Are they trying to portray Raizo Ichikawa there?
Man I love this detail!
See how much fun it is to kill ninja, kids. Try this at home!
If you want to see a pile more of these painted book-and-flexi sets in all sorts of genre, visit the superb Black Sun!
Fooling around with some sixth-scale stuff last weekend, put together this Tonbei the Mist-like kitbash:
I have all sorts of 1:6 shinobi cluttering my place, but I always wanted to do an elder suppa figure, a crafty old spy. And while the grey suit is common to television series and movies like Samurai Spyand Samurai Fiction, no one had really done one in the toy field, so it was off to work I went.
Maki Fuyukichi, center, as Tonbei the Mist - TVs most popular ninja (in two countries, too). I think the Ignite sixth-scale suit I used here is better made than the cheap TV suits back in the day...
And that's Kei Tani as an homage to Tonbei and ilk in SAMURAI FICTION.
The grocery list of frankensteined parts for your hobby enthusiasts:
Body and head: Gamitoy “Callous Soldier” Dr. J
Hands: Twisting Toyz Italian WWII figures (best sculpted hands ever)
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.
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.
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.
We're dedicated to old ninja movies from Japan's silent era, to the 60's boom to the 80s American exploitation craze and beyond, with a ton of vintage toys, collectibles, comics, and sharp pointy stuff thrown in for good measure.