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.

 

JAGUMA in depth

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The hit of last year’s Monsters and Masks Month was the aging collection of press stills from the 1961 Toei programmer Strike of the Jaguma (Kaiju Jaguma no Moshu). So this year I thought we’d take an in-depth look at the film itself, which has some of the coolest masks ever seen in Japanese cinema.

Strike is a one-hour serial-like adventure, part of what would have originally been a double bill of period-set flicks aimed at kids. There are a lot of similarities in tone and structure to the Republic serials American children flocked to for Saturday matinees; everything here is white-hat heroics and over-the-top black-hat villains.

A gang of thieving kidnappers has the locals terrified. Called “The Jaguma,” they dress in outre demon masks so frightening rumors persist they are actually otherworldly creatures. No home, no matter how well fortified, is safe, and beautiful women are their targets.

The Jaguma’s muscle is a massive gorilla-like monster that I will confidently refer to as a YETI because of its white coat and interchangeability with a dozen or so other critters in snow-bound horror flicks from around the globe (man, if only Snow Beast had a suit this good).

There’s plenty of room for interpretation as to wether or not this is a actual yeti or simply a burly gangster gimmicked up in a costume. The filmmakers made little or no attempt to hide the man behind the mask, not even a simple black-out hood. So maybe he’s just the weirdest of the weird tribe of cutthroats, or a furry perv with a Son of Kong fetish?

But then, it is super-naturally strong and impervious to sword wounds.

But then again, they’re not even trying to hide that zipper! Hmmm. Maybe I’m looking for logic in all the wrong places here.

Anyway… Japanese cinema superstar Satomi Kotaro plays the film’s hero Jutaro. The black sheep of a revered samurai clan, he lives an adventurous life on his own terms. His father’s been charged with stopping the Jaguma, so in he comes to aid the cause from the shadows.

Martial skills and an apparent background in pro wrestling are going to come in handy!

In a relatively single-dimensional flick like this (it watches like Golden Age comic books read), the menace at hand is often the real star, and the Jaguma are absolutely spectacular villains.

Shinobi-like skills of ambush and infiltration abound, as does historical ninjutsu‘s “Onibi-no-Jutsu” (The Art of the Demon’s Fire) – described by Masaaki Hatsumi in Ninjutsu: History and Tradition as the use of pyrotechnics coupled with devil masks as a psychological attack.

SIDE RANT: See, this is why people are obsessed with the notion of ninjutsu and the alleged place of ninja in history. Cuz it’s so fucking cool! Do Tae Kwon Do or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu have codified techniques for blasting roman candles at superstitious guards while wearing a devil mask? Fuck no…

I don’t think the classical shadow arts had any formal technique of the tactical deployment of a yeti, though.

Jutaro battles the monster thug two or three times, the final battle coming down to hand-to-hand combat. Luckily, the beast’s arsenal of sumo-esque moves and Mugatu-like flailing are no match for some good Aikido, and…

…the GORILLA PRESS SLAM!!!

After hurtling the yeti-man-thingy into a tree trunk (evidently fatal), it’s on to the final showdown with the Duke-A-Numba-One Jaguma himself, and his bull whip anchored by a wheel shuriken. Look out!

Again, simple kid’s stuff here. Good defeats evil, the scheme by a corrupt official is foiled and a crooked merchant is revealed to be blah blah blah… The plot is entirely forgettable. The Jaguma and the yeti? Positively unforgettable!

You can score this flick for $15 from Kurotokagi. Like with a lot of the stuff I’ve featured this month, monster fans may get a bigger kick out of it than strict Jidai-geki buffs. As both, I think it’s a damn hoot!

We’ll leave you with another look at some details from the vintage press stills from last year’s post (check out the whole set here):

I've noticed in scrutinizing this shot the tunics the Jaguma wear are intended to portray European fashions. The gang has a tie-in with a shady importer of goods from Portugal.

While never identified as a 'ninja,' Jutaro has been away in the mountains for three years practicing his skills. He's certainly dressed consistently with that pre-SHINOBI-NO-MONO magical ninja hero look.

THIRD NINJA is first rate

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More pretty B&W shinobi action today, courtesy of Toshikazu Kouno‘s 1964 Toei actioner Daisan no Ninja (The Third Ninja).

Brief synopsis (anything longer would be spoiler-heavy): Two competing ninja, one an obedient servant, the other an upstart looking for a job, are given the task of hunting down Takeda Shingen’s deadliest assassin Chidoken. The winner becomes #1 Resident Suppa, the loser gets the axe. Along the way, the tenuous duo encounter a third ninja with a grudge against their target, and the game is on. Commando-style invasions of booby-trapped houses and ninja-on-ninja weapons fights ensue, with a couple of surprise reveals making for a truly dramatic (and blood soaked) end.

TN is definitely in that 'credible' vein of films, taking the history and techniques seriously - seen right away in this precarious crossing between a nightingale floor and a blade-rigged ceiling.
Subtle differences in black dyes make for a simple and effective way to keep track of which ninja is which.
Sato Kei and Satomi Kotaro have the same target, but with only one head to claim and death to the loser in this competiton, there's little cooperation in the pursuit.
That's Koji Nanbara as the third wheel. I love how each of the shinobi tie their hoods differently. Kudos to the costumer here...
Misako Watanabe stars as Kotaro's fate-crossed love interest, another exploration of the familiar 'ninja aren't allowed emotions' deal.
The middle of the film has some great sequences in tall reeds, among several fantastic in-studio 'exteriors.'

And there's some ambitious wire work too. Nifty when it works, but often distracting when it doesn't. Might be the film's one weakness.
A brief glimpse at Kotaro's arsenal. Those saw-blade shuriken are pretty ridiculous...
But this combination spear-head / climbing device is devastating in the hands of Chidoken. Kotaro is pinned to a tree as...
...his target swings down on him like a bird of prey. Great action scene!
Alas there's no way I can show more caps of the climax without major spoilers, but rest assured it all looks this good. Awesome photography throughout TN.
The denoument consists of this stunning shot, and...
...this over-the-top final image of Satomi Kotaro's sword struck through the kanji for "Nin." THIRD NINJA is also an exploration of the 'can I escape this life in the shadows' concept.

I really dig The Third Ninja. It doesn’t miss a trick of the genre: cat burglar skills, shuriken fights, close-quarter short-sword duels, disguises, traps, it’s ALL here. Grim, gritty, gory – it’s a tough tale and there are some truly wretched characters on both sides of the morally ambiguous goings-on.

Again, GREAT photography at times here. This is certainly on the short list of movies that prove B&W to be the superior artistic vehicle for shinobi cinema. The Hajime Kaburagi score is great too, lots of haunting harmonica work to support the noir-ish visuals and somber themes.

Read Paghat’s superb review at the Weird Wild Realm!

Buy it at Kurotokagi.

Ninja vs. Yeti in STRIKE OF THE JAGUMA!!!

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The 1961 Satomi Kotaro adventure vehichle Kaiju Jaguma no Moshu (aka “Strike of the Jaguma”) is an absolute miracle of bizarre villains and over-the-top costuming. This has become cliche around here, but if the picture above isn’t enough to get you bouncing around the web in a buying frenzy, then you’re on the wrong site.

A gang of thugs is terrorizing local villages, but they aren’t just any hoodlums – their ranks wear ninja gear and masks, their leader is a whip-wielding fiend in an ornate demon get-up, and his number-one heavy is a white gorilla. Possibly a yeti. Or at least a guy in a yeti costume who’s REALLY dedicated to his gimmick and never takes it off. You be the judge…

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These Thai press kit stills, contemporary to the film’s release, show the superb range of costuming, even for the un-masked hero. The hour-long film (probably run as a double bill) is a fine example of a frugal “programmer” that while often silly delivers on action and character design in droves. Flicks like this made a lot of kids wide-eyed and happy.

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There are a couple of real ‘No f’n way!’ moments in this one – none more jaw-droppingly awesome than Kotaro’s dispatching of the white-gorilla-man-yeti-thing with, naturally, a gorilla-press slam that would make any pro wrestler proud.

For more, read Paghat’s review here, a French review here, and see a few screen caps here.