Not Necessarily Ninja – Chapter 1

Shinobi-esque jobbers in LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY

Ninja, and ninja-like, costuming affords a tremendous advantage to action directors - you can hide the stuntmen very easily. How many times per picture can an anonymous hooded fight double get killed? A LOT!

A bonus to studio marketers comes as a bi-product – you can put something that looks like a ninja on your video packaging later. To those ends there are a lot of Asian action films that use ninjery costumes for martial commando units and evil minions.

John Woo‘s 1979 sword opera The Last Hurrah for Chivalry is sort of like Kubrik’s Spartacus; the burgeoning brilliance was there, but he had to play in someone else’s sandbox. In this case, the traditional trappings of the kung-fu establishment set by the Shaw Bros. are apparent throughout (if not for the Golden Harvest logo at the beginning, you could call this flick The Last Hurrah For SHAW-valry). But in reality this is ahead-of-its-time Wu Xia, with a director formulating the notions that would lead him to define 90s HK action cinema and 2000s epic period dramas.

Amongst the approximately 3 million sword fights in this film are a few scenes wherein this army of light-grey clad martial specialists throw themselves willy-nilly on the sword blades of the long-haired heroes.

Proof positive – do not bring two small knives to a sword fight. Although later some more of these expendables show up with swords and they fare no better…

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Posted in Film and TV January 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm.

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Martial and *marital* arts in HEROES OF THE EAST

OK, so we all love martial arts movies, but what does that term actually mean? Are what we think of as martial arts films actually about martial arts?

A lot of martial artists aren’t genre film fans themselves, gratuitous fights and bloodletting just miss the point. I knew a guy who made a pretty decent case that the only real martial arts movie he ever saw was Iron and Silk, because it wasn’t about combat, but rather an individual’s pursuit of a warriors craft. Such a craft, abstracted from the ‘war’ part of ‘warriors,’ then becomes “art.”

Then again, maybe the combat is the key to unlocking something more profound than mere violence. There are some pretty amazing martial arts films about conflicted characters following an inner journey and discovering themselves through trial by fire.

Or maybe they are just big ass fight movies with tons of chop-sockey and weird weapons, hiding behind an appropriated term?

The 1978/79 Shaw Bros. genre-bender Heroes of the East is actually all of the above. This often unsung masterpiece of Lau Kar-Leung‘s innovative direction and Gordon Liu‘s phenomenal flexibility as a performer argues the philosophy and ethics of martial mastery, sees its hero grow as a person via escalating physical trials, and for the kick-craving crowd has no less than a dozen major fights with ten different fighters involved.

And for our purposes it also has a rather unique application of ninjutsu among it’s surprsingly respectiful treatment of Japanese martial arts. As much as we love Five Element Ninja here, this romantic comedy hybrid with the traditional tournament movie structure is in a wierd way the best portrayal of ninja in a Chinese/Hong Kong film.

The flick in a nutshell for the uninitiated: Gordon Liu plays a martial artist betrothed to a Japanese woman (Yuka Mizuno). Once married, he discovers she’s quite the martial artist herself. Frustrated by her new life in a foreign land, she continually trashes their house while training. It’s like a pan-Asian martial arts take on Taming of the Shrew, as they trade blows and sword parries in a series of ‘debates’ about which nation’s arts are more efective.

She goes too far however when she breaks out that – gasp! – filthy art of ninjutsu…

After a regrettable separation and a huge miscommunication, our hero finds himself defending both his marriage and China’s martial traditions in a test of skills with no fewer than seven Japanese martial arts masters! Can he learn enough exotic kung-fu to beat Japan’s best? Can he keep his bride away from would-be home-wrecking shinobi master Yasuaki Kurata?? How the hell many fights can one movie contain???

Heroes of the East could have been TWO great movies. The whole martial-arts Bickersons thing could have carried a whole film itself. Liu and Mizuno are great together, and she’s just adorable.

But then it turns into this whole other deal where one lone Chinese stalwart pits the traditions of Shaolin, Drunken Boxing, weapons like the 3-sectional staff, etc. against kendo, judo, and Okinawan arsenals. Every fight here is good, some absolutely great. Each sees the hero solve the puzzle, and he beats each Japanese master so soundly, they can only take their defeat with honor and show respect to an otherwise despised Chinaman.

No one is killed, nary a drop of blood spilled, and in good Shaw tradition, Chinese martial arts prevail.

Although it takes every trick in the kung-fu book to get past the ninja!

Ninjutsu is treated as the blackest of black arts, a soiling of proper “martial world” behavior, a dark, dirty place only the sinister Japanese would be willing to go. Chinese history may have its share of espionage and assassination, but said shadowy pursuits are not part of a proper warrior’s repertoire.

But despite the usual ‘dirty Jap’ conceits of Shaw Bros. productions, the Japanese come off as a respectful bunch, and a major plot device wherein a gesture of surrender is totally misinterpreted, then reversed at the end in an act of mutual redemption is way out of the box for the studio.

There’s also quite a bit of  humor throughout. The demented performance of a diminutive Japanese sai expert is a wonder to behold, you just cannot take your eyes off this weirdo. Ninjutsu certainly isn’t spared a good ribbing either. Kurata’s ‘crab-walk-style’ is positively hysterical, taking the edge off some rather savage attempts at under-handed murder.

You won’t find a better international pairing of fight performers than Liu and the Hong Kong action vet Kurata, though. Occasional goofiness aside, their fights are some epic stuff.

If there’s one thing that’s going to hang up a shinobi cinema fan in this movie it’s the treatment of ninjutsu as just another niche martial discipline, like karate or sumo. Totally compartmentalized, it has its own outfit, weaponry, signature moves etc. It’s a much too simplified a notion, although totally compatible with the Shaw “martial world” concept.

Combining Chinese and Japanese martial arts on screen is challenging to say the least. Japan’s arts are stiff and linear, China’s more circular and flowing. From a cinematic perspective, Japanese movie fights are all about long pose downs and short explosions of action with devastating results. Chinese and Hong Kong fights are long chains of dodges and parries mortared with plenty of flourish and wasted motion, drawn out like the guys are getting paid by the punch.

For Lau Kar-Leung’s purposes here, he had to sabotage the Japanese arts for some of the duels. No Japanese swordsman would diddle with a Chinese long sword in a five minute fight more akin to something William Hobbs did in the Musketeer films. Also ignored is the absolute superiority of Japanese sword-smithing. A katana goes through a Chinese sword like butter if they meet edge-to-edge. Period.

Other scenes have more compatible disciplines and more than make up for it. The yari vs. quiang spear duel is absolutely off the f’n charts!

But even with the kung-fu-ification of the Japanese martial arts, the performers rise above the sillier bits to create consistently good battles. Most of the running time of Heroes of the East is combat, and it all means something.

Another thing I love about this film is the ninja costuming, which is straight out of 60′s Japanese television. And with the 80′s craze on the horizon, it was one of the last times such old-school pillowy gear was used on the big screen (outside of Japan at least).

Heroes of the East is probably higher regarded by kung-fu fans than ninja fans, but shinobi-cinemafiles need to 1.) make sure to see it wide screen so you can take in the superb choreography and photography, 2.) realize how much richer this portrayal of ninjutsu is compared to other one-dimensional Shaw and HK flicks, and 3.) at least give it up to the always superb Yasu Kurata and clubberin’ cutie Yuka Mizuno.

Most of us were first exposed to this film as a full-frame, dimly transferred, chopped up Shaolin Challenges Ninja or various other crude retitles. Seeing the widescreen remasted glory of Celestial’s 2005 transfer was (once again) a real eye opener.

Celestial’s Region-2 disc features a short doco on Gordon Liu (a must-see as it includes footage of him jamming with his part-time Beatles cover band!!!), two photo galleries, production notes and some Shaw trailers, while Dragon Dynasty’s domestic DVD uses the same print, with commentary and an informative doco featuring Asian film historian Bey Logan.

Domestic DVD review at Kung Fu Cinema.

This blog was obviously inspired by the title.

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Posted in Film and TV November 19, 2010 at 11:33 pm.

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SUPER NINJAS (aka Five Element Ninjas) poster

Via the ever superb Wrong Side of the Art:

I find this English language market distro poster for Five Element Ninjas perplexing. The art makes this look like a team-up film, like a shinobified version of Force Five or something. Furthermore, why with such a visually rich film would you opt for an illustrated poster? These were the flavor of the day, I know, but the characters always end up looking like European barbarians.

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Film and TV September 4, 2010 at 10:34 pm.

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Five Days of FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS: Day 5

So Five Element Ninjas… is this martial arts alchemy experiment the nexus of one craze on the outs and another on the rise, or is it just an embarrassing oddity shunned like a red-headed stepchild by snobs of two different genres?

The original Shaw Bros. poster was downright awful.

The English-language market poster wasn't a whole lot better, although I do love that illo. FEN was certainly named after the earlier film FIVE ELEMENT KUNG-FU. Note one of the earliest VHS releases, all kung-fu, no ninja. Baffling, especially for an 80's release.

Although FEN was an international hit, looking back, it didn’t exactly save the ailing Shaw kung-fu genre, did it? If the studio had been able to get over hyper-villifying ninja, and actually create a pro-ninja film, they might have enjoyed more success in the 80′s, especially exporting product to North America. We didn’t want to see evil ninja slaughtered by old 70′s cliches over and over again, we wanted lone ninja bucking the system and kicking-ass around office towers or driving around the country in conversion vans with hamsters. Couldn’t Runme Shaw and Mona Fong see this?!?!?

I really wish Chang Cheh had done a film where ninja and Venoms face-off, and a lone rebel refutes the ninja life for a new home in China, only to have his commando skills save the day in some ironic twist of martial fate. That flick would have been consistent with both the Japanese 60′s themes and the Hong Kong 80′s conventions, and with a ninja as HERO sure as hell would have been a hit in American video stores. Sigh…

What did really happen, though, was the inevitable wave of imitators and knock-offs went on to prove over and over that Chinese ninja stuff had just as much a place on the rental shelves and werewolf circuit theaters as any other country’s output. And man could they kick out more of it cheaper and faster than anyone else. Ninja in the Deadly Trap was produced right on top of FEN, complete with gold lamé ninja and green-clad forest shinobi fighting moonlighting Venoms.

Nevermind being more 80's, NINJA IN THE DRAGON's DEN and DUEL TO THE DEATH watch like 90's HK wire opera, while contemporary flicks like FEN and NINJA IN THE DEADLY TRAP look like they're from a previous decade.

The success these movies had, though, was based on a little shinobi-subterfuge in itself. Anything with a ninja image, or just the word in the title, sold on video in the 80′s no matter how good or bad, trendy or dated, it was. So these kung-fu films with ninja as cannon fodder were profitable by default. And although FEN was a highpoint in the Chinese ninja trade, it was a hopelessly 70′s looking movie, with a dated aesthetic, released in a forward-thinking decade. It’s hard to believe movies like Ninja in the Dragon’s Den and Duel to the Death were being produced right at the same time – they look decades apart.

28 years later, Five Element Ninjas watches better than ever. I have a lot of love for this flick, both as classic Shaw and 80′s ninja camp.

AND THERE’S NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO OWN FEN!

Simply put, if you don’t own the Tokyo Shock (or Region 3 Celestial) Five Element Ninjas DVD, you just haven’t seen the movie!

Previous releases under the Chinese Super Ninjas title were not only pan-and-scan, but significantly censored. But if you appreciate even these releases, you’ll be blown away by how much more of the mayhem there is in REAL Shaw-f’n-Scope, and how great some of the fight choreography is now that you can actually see all the combatants in the frame.

And for the haters – well, here’s where you give this historically significant oddity a second chance. At least hate the REAL version of the film, not the butchered one that’s so easily dismissed.

All of these DVD releases are low-end full-frame transfers of edited prints.

Whereas these are, quite frankly, jaw-dropping.

Take a look at some comparisons:

Now you can see the origin of the 'Venoms' comparisons - there's only FIVE deadly heroes visible in the cropped frame!

Seriously - can you say UPGRADE! Look at the grand, sweeping photography of that shitty, cheap indoor set. Gorgeous!

LESS than half the action of this scene is visible in pan-and scan. See the real deal below:

And in widescreen, you can really see how scared shitless all the performers are of these questionable fire effects.

Pretty amazing what you miss in inferior transfers. Besides the glory of the wideness, correct colors (important in a gimmick movie like this!), and a razor sharp print, there’s also a LOT more gore, and some additional flesh, including this often cut, completely inexplicable scene where one of the clearly male fire ninja reveals himself to be a chick to distract an opponent. Another WTF moment in the one of the most WTF-worthy films in martial arts cinema history.

The imported Celestial DVDs, which have been around for years, feature the wide, remastered print, original language tracks with English subs, and a boatload of trailers from other Shaw Bros. reissues. They’re not all-region though. Not a big deal, for as of March we finally have a North American friendly version from Tokyo Shock, which has in addition to the original language and subs, the familiar cheesy dub we all know and love from back in the day. There’s also an exclusive interview with Lo Meng of the Venoms.

Go on… buy it here, now!

OK, great as gold lamé ninja may be, next week its time to get back to some 60′s Japanese stuff…

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Posted in Film and TV April 23, 2010 at 9:24 am.

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Five Days of FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS: Day 4

BACK IN BLACK!

Gold, brown, blue, red and beige schemes aside, FEN also has a damn nifty commando raid where a platoon of black-clad ninja adeptly bypass the kung-fu compound’s ample defenses and lay waste to the remaining students. It is probably the best tactical ninja action in any Hong Kong / Chinese movie.

It all starts with a seemingly innocent damsel in distress, who is actually...

...a spy laden with a covert arsenal, like this bow and arrows used to shoot messages out of the compound. The school has been 'ninja-proofed' and its her job to clue-in her brethren to the new defenses.

Her oral skills come in handy on more than one occasion.

This snake in the grass sheds her angelic disguise in favor of more traditional kunoichi-cutie coture. Although a conflicted soul, Senshi's purpose in the film is to embody an even more despicable level of Japanese underhandedness and amorality. And if you know your Shaw Bros., you know the survivability rate of evil women.

A good example of a genuine tool (a thief's door drill, used to bore into and unhook locking bars) from historical reference, but the prop guys had no sense of scale for the thing.

This manriki is also too big and way too long to be practical.

With booby traps neutralized and perimeter guards eliminated, the bloodbath begins.

The shinobi surprise attack is all about underhanded gang tactics on outnumbered foes, punctuated with a sadistically inventive method of killing off the kung-fu grandmaster.

However those who live by the hidden sword...

...are doomed to die by it.

The garishly colored elemental ninja may be the gimmick of FEN, but the overall commentary on the Japanese and what is heavy-handedly portrayed as their insidious martial art is actually better embodied in these black-clad shinobi segments. It really is as simple as black and white in the end, save for the copious red gore of course, as more and more kung-fu heroes throw their lives away defending the honorable notions of the Chinese martial world.

Tomorrow wraps up Five Days of FEN with a look at the Tokyo Shock DVD release vs. previously available versions, and some final thoughts on why this movie worked, but ultimately didn’t work, for the studio.

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Posted in Film and TV April 22, 2010 at 9:23 am.

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Five Days of FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS: Day 2

Okay, so our noble defenders of traditional kung-fu (and kung-fu box office) have accepted the challenge of the invading Japanese genre- uh, army, and away we go – down the yellow brick path of vengeance to…

THE GOLD NINJA!

Icons of FEN, the gold ninja are rather polarizing to genre fans. The shiny lamé is high-cheese for sure, and you either love or hate this film the second they appear.

The martial arts in FEN may be unhinged absurdity, but it is CLEVER absurdity throughout. These metallic sun hats double as disorienting shields and dart-spewing wheels of death!

FEN consists of four major battle campaigns. We start with a straight-up duel between rival schools, with the evil group assisted by a shinobi grandmaster ‘ringer,’ who sets the plot in motion. The heroic dojo then breaks up into squads to face the five elemental crews one-by-one, and are absolutely SLAUGHTERED! Next, the ninja destroy what’s left of the school in an all out commando raid. Finally, four survivors hulk-up and figure out exotic new techniques. They retrace the steps of their fallen brothers, solving the puzzle of the elemental fighting gimmicks in equally brutal and shocking fashion as the initial meeting.

Its a simple but super effective structure for a non-stop actioner like FEN.

Gold elementals are evidently susceptible to a huge battle-axe upside the ass.

THE WOOD NINJA!

Right in the middle of the candy-dish of colorful ninja comes the only credible costuming of the elemental gimmicks. The wood ninja camouflage is actually superb, but their disguise methods are downright comedic.

Foam rubber tree suits, right out of Wizard of Oz, make for some gaffs, however the gore really increases here with the use of various claws.

The wood ninja may make the most sense in a lot of ways, but this is the crazy-8 bonkers world of Five Element Ninjas, so that common sense approach is eventually punished by the most brutal of all the ninja downfalls. The heroes assemble elaborate chain-and-sickles that double as capture hooks, and – with a smile -  literally dismember the woodland shinobi!

Tomorrow, Five Days of FEN continues with the most grisly killings yet.

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Posted in Film and TV April 20, 2010 at 9:22 am.

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Five Days of FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS: Day 1

1982Hey, you… Kung-Fu Genre. Yeah you, the dominant force in martial arts exploitation in the 70′s. Y’know that flesh wound you got last year from that Golan-Globus ninja flick? Yeah, the one next the scar you got in that octagonal training compound before that? Well, guess what… Those weren’t just scratches. You’ve had blowfish poison running through your veins all this time, and now you are about to DIE!

If there’s a single movie that marks the passing of the torch from the Kung-Fu 70′s to the Ninja 80′s, it is Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Super Ninjas). Made by the Shaw Brothers as an answer to the upstart ninja boom. It centered on ‘Venoms’-like wu-shu warriors defending their martial traditions against the vile invader that was ninjutsu, ironically at the very time the studio was battling for  grindhouse screens to the new black-hooded wave.

So was this blood-soaked meeting of two genres an attempt for Shaw to adapt to a new decade and cash-in, or was it metaphoric wishful thinking from an over-the-hill former champ? We’ll explore those notions over the next week, as we celebrate the anniversary of its original release with FIVE DAYS OF FIVE ELEMENT NINJA!

Ah, the Shaw Bros. "office door" logo... so cool in the 70's, so dated by the 80's. I appreciate this so much more now than I did in my Canon Films-obsessed youth.

Blood from a poison ring spells out the title. I love the typo in the English graphic.

Yeah, but did any of those scrolls say anything about shiny gold lamé?

Said Five Elementseses...Gold, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Wind hadn't paid its union dues, so it was left out of the film.

The mirrory gold squad is the real icon of FEN. These suits would be copied and recycled by several subsequent films.

While the ninja thing was new territory for Shaw, legendary director CHANG CHEH rested on his tried and true model for his heroes. "Venoms" was a popular marketing term after the success of THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, and I was always surprised FEN wasn't angled more as another in the unofficial 'series.'

FEN may brag about its historical authenticity, but some of the weaponry and gadgets they came up with are downright wacky. Often, the weapons are right out of a secret scroll illustration, but executed at a ludicrously large scale.

Chen Pei Hsi plays 'Senshi' - a kunoichi character that actually plays up to the realistic infiltrator agent motif better than a in lot of Japanese films. FEN is all about the Japanese playing dirty pool, and she's the dirtiest player in the game.

And for your bondage nuts, there's plenty of rope action in FEN!

Over the next four days we’ll look at the various elemental shinobi gimmicks and other bat-shit crazy mayhem that makes FEN one of the best movies of EITHER the ninja or kung-fu genres.

Learn more from the good write up at Hong Kong Cinemagic (with cast mug shots) and multiple reviews at City on Fire, as well as Heroes of the East.

And here’s the 2007 Asian-market DVD release trailer from Celestial, which plays up the Venoms angle hard and takes itself way too seriously:

Tomorrow, Five Days of FEN continues with the first elements…

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Posted in Film and TV April 19, 2010 at 9:19 am.

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