SHINOBI-NO-MONO: The Lost Essential?

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This week I was invited to be a guest on the NERD LUNCH podcast’s annual “Ninja Day” show. The usual panel of three hosts was well schooled in American ninja movies, but had never seen SHINOBI-NO-MONO, the ‘ground zero’ film of the original cinematic boom in Japan. So my role as invited expert became more one of missionary of the obscure.

The Nerd Lunch crew was impressed with the film, having the usual reaction of folks fist discovering the deep end (or high-end) of the the genre — an appreciative “Wow, there were GOOD ninja movies?!?!” exclamation, followed by a desire to see more.

You can here it all HERE:

Glad as I always am when I can share the ‘super-ego’ of shinobi cinema with those who only know the ‘id’ of exploitation, an always irksome question was brought up — WHY don’t we all know this movie and where was it in the 80s?

Frustration at discovering the depth of 60s ninja entertainment we were denied in the 80s boom was core to the founding of this site and all my subsequent efforts, so I truly welcome this opportunity to correct, albeit long afterwards. 

So, the below article is intended as a intro to Shinobi-no-Mono for new audiences, and a companion piece to the podcast discussion on Nerd Lunch. And at the end tries to pinpoint why the Citizen Kane of ninja movies was never big deal in the States.

Enjoy!

 

SHINOBI-NO-MONO: The Lost Essential?

by Keith J. Rainville, December, 2016

 

New Decade, New Ninja

In 1962 subversive director Satsuo Yamamoto (known for his art group and publication Mavo as well as left-wing and anti-war films) and box office idol Raizo Ichikawa set out to tear the Japanese public’s idea of ninja movies a new orifice. Shinobi-no-Mono would become a hit for Daiei Studios, deconstructing the genre of colorful swashbuckling wizard-based ninja that had grown out of kabuki theater. Mirroring trends in popular literature and manga, SnM wasn’t the first black-and-white ninja movie featuring the hoods and commando techniques, but then again Dr. No wasn’t the first British spy movie of the 60s either.

shinobi-yamamoto

Out were the magical special effects and jaunty heroes, in were gritty, realistic ninja films that saw socially oppressed little guys in black cloth suits with specialized shadow skills trying to shirk the foot of the armored spear-wielding samurai climbing over them for upward mobility. The Murayama Tomoyoshi pulp novels SnM was based on wore its socialist agenda on its sleeve, and director Yamamoto specialized in tales of anti-heroes subverting authority. Feudal warfare would stand-in for the capitalist system, conquest of land doubled for corporate greed, rival ninja were the guys in the next cubicle competing for what should have been your raise, and warlords played with innocent lives like the most jaded of corporate middle management played with careers.

In addition to its socio-political tone, SnM looked like no other ninja movie had. Tomoyoshi’s books were inspired by the research of ninja history pioneer Heishichiro Okuse, and for the film adaptation modern ninjutsu practitioners Toshitsugu Takamatsu and Masaaki Hatsumi (of modern Bujinkan fame) were on set providing outré fight choreography. The new screen ninja they spawned fought different, crouched in unique stances, had unique ways of running, and in general moved and carried themselves differently than the samurai around them. Between the ninja advisors and credited prop masters “Kawaguchi Ryu” audiences were also first exposed to proprietary short swords, bamboo spy gadgets and most iconically, tighter, trimmer, more utilitarian black suits and hoods than previously seen.

The hills of Iga, previously portrayed as wooded paradises where white-bearded old wizards trained their plucky young wards in teleportation and weather manipulation, now became claustrophobic hiding places of secret garrisons that trained generations of spies, saboteurs and assassins in the dirty work richer, nobler samurai were unwilling to do. Prideful as they were in their astounding skills and reputations throughout the land, the farmer-class ninja villages of these movies were essentially ghettos, and were always the target of paranoid warlords unwilling to let the people of these provinces live by their own rules.

For the first time on screen the ninja life was portrayed as hard, unforgiving and spartan. There was no fame or glory for their anonymous work, no reward other than being the best and the secure knowledge that an otherwise impossible mission was executed by the only warriors remotely able. Withstanding torture and the resolve of cutting one’s face off if caught were skills taught alongside demolitions, exotic poisons and chemical weaponry. It was a grave, dark life with no upward mobility and the promise of an anonymous death in servitude to another.

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A Story of Shadows

In addition to all of the shinobi genre deconstruction, the first SnM film was loaded…LOADED… with story, both sweepingly historical and intimately dramatic. The protagonist is Ishikawa Goemon (a real-life historical folk-hero / Robin Hood-type scamp / notorious serial criminal depending on myriad portrayals), a young and optimistic ninja of remarkable skill but flawed with ambition and a weakness for the ladies. Above him in the shadow clan hierarchy is his garrison’s chief Momochi Sandayu (another name plucked from foggy history), a grumpy and feeble ruler obsessed with taking down the brutal warlord Oda Nobunaga. Sandayu, however, is not all that he seems, living a double life as the more nimble (and horny) leader Nagata of rival garrison Fubayashi. This remarkable master of disguise is one of the most enigmatic and striking screen villains you could ever ask for. Sandayu plays his ninja groups against each other, two wheels in a revenge and greed fueled machine that grinds Goemon and every woman he’s connected with to a pulp.

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Nobunaga, in the meantime, is rightfully paranoid about such a skilled people living beyond his control, and while Sandayu and Goemon play their little game of cat(s) and mouse, he’s winding up tens of thousands of cavalry, spearmen and artillery to level Iga the second he has an excuse to do so. A botched assassination attempt gives him just that, and all the best laid plans of mice and men meant nothing all along.

 

A-List All the Way

Goemon may be the lowly ninja hero fighting against an impossibly huge machinations, but he was played by anything but a lowly actor. Raizo Ichikawa is often referred to as the Japanese James Dean, being the looker who melted women’s hearts and had a magnetic screen presence, only to die too young of cancer in 1969. However his career spanned over 100 films, hardly the tiny sample of work of Dean’s that left audiences with the greatest ‘what-if’ in American cinema history.

Career-wise Raizo leapfrogged mega-franchise roles in eight SnM films and twelve Nemuri Kyoshirō (Sleepy Eyes of Death / Son of the Black Mass) adaptations the same way multi-franchise mega-stars like Harrison Ford or Sylvester Stallone alternated between Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Rocky and Rambo respectively.

nemuri-vs-goemon

And just like all of those franchises, Shinobi-no-Mono was A-list BANK. Yamamoto would return to helm an immediate sequel Zoku Shinobi-no-Mono, which was bleak as hell with a brutal downer of an ending that saw his hero come to the end history actually recorded — caught by the law and boiled alive in oil. But remember, ninja are masters of escape, and escape Goemon returned for a third adventure, followed by a series reboot as Raizo Ichikawa became “Saizo the Mist” for another four films. Meanwhile a concurrent 52 episode Shinobi-no-Mono TV series starring Ryuji Shinagawa aired by Toei in 1964-65, competing with the mega popular ninja-filled series Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia).

Every studio in Japan was cranking out ninja movies by mid decade — derivative noir-ish fare and gorgeous color adventures, kids’ manga adaptations to experimental art-house to soft porn. The movies and TV fed more and more ninja manga, which led to toys and merchandise, and interest increased in tourism to historical ninja locations with new museums popping up, martial arts manuals littered the shelves, dojo business boomed — it all fed each other and snowballed.

As the series went on, the grave, morose plots and socialist agendas took a backseat to lighter-toned action spectacles, more ‘black-suit’ time on screen than melodrama, and increasing emphasis on gadgets and arcane commando techniques. Screen ninja were being codified and the formula just kept selling.

An eighth theatrical SnM film would see Raizo return as yet another hooded hero in 1966, but this reboot was never followed up. Raizo Ichikawa would die of cancer in 1969.

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New Decade, OLD Ninja

Daiei Studios, trying to extend the 60s craze into the 1970s, sort of rebooted the series yet again with a film called Shinobi no Shu (aka Mission: Iron Castle) — sometimes billed as the ninth film, sometimes not considered part of the series at all. Ill-timed with the dawning of the new decade, and ill-advised in invoking the franchise name soon after the nation’s heart was ripped out by the death of its beloved screen icon, the film failed to swell the mega audience its predecessors did, and fell into obscurity even among fervent collector circles for the longest time. But removed from that context, Mission: Iron Castle is arguably one of if not the best isolated examples of grim and gritty black-and-white ninja shinobi cinema. Prolific screen legend Hiroki Matsukata leads an elite band of ninja to rescue a kidnapped noblewoman from an ingeniously ninja-proofed castle loaded with traps. It’s wall-to-wall action, bolstered by familiar themes of wanting to escape the shadow life but knowing you never can, followed by a noir-as-hell ending. Just great.

But it was 1970, and everyone wanted color movies, and Raizo was dead…

Daiei would go bankrupt within a year, and the original Japanese ninja boom was essentially over.

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So why?

Shinobi-no-Mono‘s reach went further than Japan, and much further than the 60s. British writer Roald Dahl cribbed several scenes from SnM for his script for the Bond film You Only Live Twice — the western world’s first cinematic exposure to the idiom. SnM‘s costumes, sets and ninja techniques (both martial and cinematic) were dusted off for 1980’s Shogun mini-series. Then a man named Sho Kosugi, who as a kid watching Shinobi-no-Mono was taught every lesson he’d need to know, came to America and became the icon of an entirely new ninja craze.

But during that mega boom in the U.S. and the rest of the world, the seminal Shinobi-no-Mono itself was largely unseen, and for all purposes “lost” to a potential international audience, as were the rest of its gritty black-and-white ilk. These movies sat in a distribution no-man’s land in the early 1980s. In a decade of garish neon color and post-Star Wars special effects excess, no English-language home video label was looking for something as complex, heady and monochromatic as SnM. But at the same time, an art house distributor like Janus Films, who’d scoop up any back catalog of Kurosawa, Inagaki, Ozu, Teshigahara and any other Japanese cinema elite wasn’t going to touch anything to do with “ninja,” as Cannon had placed the genre firmly in the exploitation/grindhouse camp, and cartoon turtles were on the horizon.

So instead of getting the best the original genre had to offer in English, we got a small, weird assortment of imported titles that looking back now makes no sense. There was no subtitled Shinobi-no-Mono, no dubbed Castle of Owls or Warrior of the Wind, no airings of The Samurai on late night cable. Instead, an illogical assortment of special effects epics (like Kadowkawa’s Iga Ninpocho — ironically a return to pre-60s ninja wizardry) were dubbed and given new titles like Ninja Wars, Legend of the Eight Ninja and Renegade Ninjas. Largely bereft of the black suits and signature arsenals we’d been trained to expect by Kosugi and Dudikoff, these outré Japanese films didn’t exactly whip up demand for the older stuff either.

The English-speaking world’s best exposure to SnM wouldn’t come until the early 2000s when bootlegged Japanese home video releases subtitled by fans in homemade DVD sets were gobbled up by people like, well, ME. Sadly, this piracy took the wind out of the sails for the superb efforts of Animeigo years later, whose officially licensed and superbly restored DVD boxed set of the first four movies evidently didn’t sell enough to merit the rest of the release of the rest of the films.

animeigo-shinobi-boxset

 

And now what?

There are now more years separating the 1980s American ninja boom films from a modern audience than there were years separating us 80s kids from the 1960s Japanese originals. So now that it’s ALL vintage, all antique media from an arcane decade, I wonder if new viewers will find the old films more — or maybe less — alien. Both decades’ product are equally available streaming, subtitles have conquered the language barrier, and newer properties like Naruto have actually expanded the public’s definition of ninja to include both the old models of magic spell-casters and the black hooded commandos alike. Maybe an old black-and-white movie about Sarutobi Sasuke would be more interesting to a Naruto-literate populace than it would have been to us in the 80s who just wanted to see ninja stars thrown into people’s eye sockets? Or maybe the current fetish the younger generations have with the ‘retro 1980s’ will make that decades’ ninja-sploitation even more delicious than it was back in the day?

My hope, as always, is that BOTH the 60s and 80s flavors find new audiences and an ongoing appreciation.

There’s no better place to start than Shinobi-no-Mono.

KR

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SHINSO: SHINOBI NO MONO Thai press stills

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More of the amazing hand-tinted, one-of-a-kind press photos from Thai cinemas, this time to the franchise prequel/reboot Shinso Shinobi no mono, sadly Raizo Ichikawa‘s last time under the hood.

These individually colored photos are on a different paper stock than previous ones I’ve scored, a smoother tooth that because the dyes sat more on top of the finish rather than getting absorbed into the fibers, yielded a much more saturated color. The colorist on this particular batch was pretty heavy-handed as well. The results are a bit awkward, even sloppy, but when the colors do work they pop like a candy dish.

The below pose will be familiar to anyone who has the movie poster:

Although a different ‘take’ from the same shoot (note the different eyes), what you can see here is the difference between dyes applied right to the surface of a photograph vs. a 4-color process then halftoned and printed in bulk.

Unlike the more demure Japanese advertising, these rather over-compensated Thai colors get downright silly sometimes…

OK, so you, my loving audience, by now must be asking “Keith, we just want ninjerz and stars and claws and boobs and shit, why are you always boring us with this antique printing methodology and vintage P.R. crap!?!?!”

Well, you’re just going to have to suffer, because these hand-tinting techniques are not only of personal aesthetic joy to me, they’re actually a big part of my family history, so take a seat and grab a notebook cuz this will be on the test.

My grandfather Levi Rainville was a renowned photographer in central Massachusetts going back to the mid 1920s. Post-war, when he had started the original Rainville Studios he  actually employed professional colorists for formal portraits, the likes of which are still hanging in the town halls, libraries and schools of several Blackstone Valley mill towns.

My dad Arthur, who inherited the family biz, remembers the techniques from when he was a kid hanging around the darkroom. ( I did the same thing in the 70s, and probably got into too much chemistry, resulting in my totally normal and balanced demeanor today!)

The colorists (all women, for some reason the trade was considered for females, at least in the States) would start with a sepia-toned photograph which by default gave a warm beige skin tone as a base. Transparent oil paints (the time-trusted Marshalls Photo Oils are still made today) were applied in thin layers, built up thicker and more opaque where necessary. Sometimes pure white paint would mask out the sepia for eyes and teeth.

The half-photo, half-painting result gives these images a truly timeless quality. Shinso Shinobi no Mono is a movie from the mid 1960s but these images could almost be hand-tinted antiques from the 1860s.

I’d love to see more copies of these exact photos, curious about the quality of coloring. Each copy had to be colored individually by hand, so each is unique onto itself. Were these particular copies a Monday morning labor or a Friday afternoon rush job by an impatient clockwatcher? Should they have been more subtle in their hues, or are there even more garishly over-saturated versions out there?

And… oh, I’m sorry, did you want me to return to topic or something???

Fine! If you haven’t seen it, Shinso is one of the best entries in the Shinobi no mono series, and as it stands alone from the rest of the seven flicks is a great jumping-on point for noobs. A young ninja sees his father murdered by three samurai, grows into a consummate warrior and goes on the revenge hunt, inflicting the same wounds that killed his father back on them one-by-one. Being late in the series, this film benefits from the lessons learned by the earlier entries – there’s lots of action, ninja training, hooded combat, arcane weaponry, beautiful women in peril and “Japan’s James Dean” Raizo Ichikawa being the amazing star he was. Great stuff…

But man oh man, look at those hand-tinted colors!!!!

_______________________________________

Want to know more?

Here’s a tutorial on the techniques. Man, what a pain in the ass! No wonder they invented Kodachrome…

Some of the earliest photos of Japan were hand-colored.

Wallace Nutting was a famed source of hand-tinted photography in New England.  My grandad sold these when he was young and my folks collect them to this day. 

 

‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in American vs. Japanese films

One thing you hear over and over from the anti-‘Ninja-To’-sword-haters-club is the blade is “pure Hollywood.” Before this recent spat of research and over-scrutinizing swords in old movies, I used to argue against that notion; the Japanese studios got ninja ‘wrong’ decades before we did, right? And the blade was sold mail order well before our ninja boom, so Hollywood sure didn’t invent the sword. It wasn’t even used in The Octagon (1980) or Enter the Ninja (1981).

BUT, what can be said is “pure Hollywood” is the narrow strictness of the visual shorthand for ninja. From 1982’s Revenge of the Ninja onward, the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ was absolutely chiseled into the vocabulary of ninja in American film and TV. The sword was so well branded here, Kosugi or Dudikoff using a curved blade would have been seen as a blasphemous prop master’s error.

The Japanese were, as with manga, much less narrow in their use of screen props, however their use of a sword for a shinobi character carried additional editorial significance. Whereas American films were typically ninja vs. mobsters, drug lords, night shift security guards and sometimes other ninja, Japanese movies typically featured ninja vs. samurai.

Samurai use long, ornate blades that make statements of their social rank and wealth. A ninja’s cruder, less decorated blade is an indication of lower social rank. It says his sword is not his soul, but a tool to get a job done. At the same time, the shorter blade when used against full-length katana in the hands of an armored warrior says volumes about the ninja’s skill and courage.

So let’s take a look at some different swords in the hands of shinobi. We’ll start with the most historically credible ninja films ever made – the Shinobi-no-mono series.

But hey! Is that a straight blade???

I’ve had a few people refer me to this photo in opposition to statements I’ve made about the lack of short, straight blades in Japanese ninja films. And yeah, that is Raizo Ichikawa holding an apparently straight blade made by a studio prop master under the guidance of tech advisors like Takamatsu Toshitsugu and Masaaki Hatsumi.

But look again:

Hmmm. Why was the poster image altered to reflect a more traditional sword? Or was the publicity photo above retouched? And was it altered by Daiei back in the 60s or by Animeigo for their recent DVD packaging?

[UPDATE: Or as VN reader Kent Wood points out, is the above image just a scan from a book that is bending at the spine, thus distorting the page? I think he’s right! I think I’m missing the forest for the trees…]

Point I’m making here is even with the Bujinkan tech advisors on board, the blades are inconsistent between the Shinobi-no-Mono films, and they sometimes change from shot to shot. So don’t go putting too much importance behind any single still.

Above, two publicity shots with two different props. Rather than an editorial statement, this is more likely just the difference between what is called a “hero prop” – in this case a character’s signature sword, which they only might have produced a few copies of – and a more disposable prop used as a ‘stunt double’ if you will, for quick-cut fight scenes where the piece is more likely to be damaged.

Raizo’s “hero props” changed from film to film as well – note the different tsuba below. Sheath length also varied, but the blade was always short (signature Hatsumi!).

And not all Daiei ninja used such swords. Battle scenes involving multiple extras and stuntmen as Iga clansmen revert to plain katana and wakizashi. Budget saving measure, or where they embracing the notion that blades would differ from man to man, mission to mission?

Now, I’ll pose a question to everyone who’s seen these films.

I think there’s actually an ever so slight CURVE to this blade. What do you all think?

Hard to tell. I’d kill to see this prop, if it still exists. If there is a curve, it is so minor, changing perspective straightens it right out.

And here’s another question – why the hell hasn’t someone replicated this awesome baby and sold me ten of them? WHY?!?!?

Meanwhile on the small screen, Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia) was absolutely bursting with ninja during its 60s-long run. Prop swords varied from season to season, with a limited TV budgets always the deciding factor in style.

Note Tonbei the Mist‘s wakizashi with oversized round tsuba, in comparison to the standard swords of the hero Shintaro. The good Iga ninja always used these, while the evil ninja clan-of-the-season would have various plain swords. There was, however, a recurring sword used for the several seasons’ boss villains – an absolutely monstrous ‘horse cutter’ (I think?) with a handle as long as its blade. I love this freaky thing!

The 60s weren’t all gritty, B&W, espionage-based, hard ninjutsu, though. There were as many swashbuckling adventurers and colorful plucky heroes as tormented shadow dwellers. Plenty of heroes who were of otherwise samurai status as well, so they used their same trusty blades when on night missions.

Ninja with samurai swords or samurai in ninja garb? Counter-clockwise from top NINJA HICHO FUKURO NO SHIRO (Castle of Owls), AKAI KEGEBOSHI (The Red Shadow), KAZE NO BUSHI (Warrior of the Wind)

However, the 70’s was a decade where ninja on the big screen were less likely to be the hero, and more likely to be fodder butchered by a surly sword-swinging ronin. The financial and scheduling realities of movie and TV production usually trumped any desired fealty to martial tradition or obscure history, so these disposable ninja carried off-the-rack, bulk produced props that didn’t require exclusive tooling or smithing. There were a lot of wakizashi blades with katana handles, and shorter curved swords with square guards, like this:

That’s one of dozens of ninja mowed down in the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and the above style sword was standard issue in 70s and 80s films.

Here’s a better look at what Japanese filmmakers considered the ‘Ninja-To’ pretty much at the same time as we were buying the straight versions made famous by Hayes and Kosugi:

Shogun’s Ninja (Ninja Bugeicho: Momochi Sandayu – 1981) features two competing forces of ninja, both using the same medium length curved blades with plain handles and square guards.

*As a side note, is there a film with a wider pendulum swing of great costuming (above) and laughable bullshit (below)? These hunter cammo suits give me douche chills.*

The same year, Enter the Ninja began Sho Kosugi‘s assault on America. Mike Stone‘s weaponry was custom, not mail order, and the swords were closer to the Japanese studio model.

But in 1983, the smoking chest was opened, and there it was!

From Revenge of the Ninja on, Kosugi was in charge of choreography and props, and never strayed from the short, straight blade with long handle and square guard – used by ALL ninja – heroes, villains, rival clans, students, masters… everyone.

He even made his own in Pray for Death (1985), a scene that drove Tim and I nuts because the sword he supposedly forged real quick during his power-up montage ends up a fully decorated blade with ornate hammon line, right out of the prop bin.

*And that dumb-ass helmet ranks with the cammo gear above!*

When the Cannon Films ninja mantle was passed to Michael Dudikoff, so too was the now requisite ‘Ninja-To,’ seen throughout the five American Ninja films that closed out the 80s craze.

And at the same time in Japan? Masaaki Hatsumi was a big part of the kids’ show World Ninja War Jiraiya (Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya – 1988), which featured a variety of outre ninja-based characters with just as wide a variety of swords.

Curved swords…

Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.

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.

Sorry eBay’ers…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

If you were one of the folks his past weekend trying to win either of these original press kit photos from the ninth entry in the Shinobi-no-Mono series, Mission Iron Castle, my apologies for being the source of your disappointment. I swung a heavy wallet at these cuties: Michiyo Yasuda and Yoko Namikawa sporting the finest in night gear coture.

Particularly fond of these as they are the source imagery for the superb collage poster, a two-sheet version of which hangs on the wall at VN HQ.

And if you haven’t seen this masterpiece of grim, noirish shinobi espionage, do so, it is truly one of the best ninja movies ever made.

Shinobi-no-Mono posters

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Looked at some Taiwanese / HK stuff last time, and people get testy when I stray to the Chinese side of shinobi cinema, so I’ll boomerang things right back with some tried and true Raizo Ichikawa.

Speaking of Raizo, I’ve been drooling over the Sleepy Eyes of Death box set from Animeigo, which I’m late in picking up. I haven’t seen these films since the inky VHS bootleg days, and man do they look and sound tremendous here. Plenty of slaughtered ninja around, too…

Color campaigns for B&W classics

When discussing 60’s B&W ninja flicks, the Shinobi-no-Mono series is THE genre-defining series. The movie posters, however, relied on strong reds, greens and blues to catch the consumers’ eye, and are some of the only color reference for the props and costumes involved. Here’s a few examples of nice color art for a grim and gritty B&W property.

As always, we HIGHLY recommend owning this seminal series, four of which are available in superb US editions in an affordable box set from Animeigo.

Colorized SHINOBI-NO-MONO menkos

posted in: 4 - Collectibles | 0

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Thought a good follow-up to my anti-Ninja Assassin / pro-Shinobi-no-Mono rant last week would be a look at some rather strange S-n-M related merch – colorized menko cards.

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Released contemporary with the 60’s series, these ‘cigarette cards’ used stills from the B&W films, with colors rather awkwardly overlaid. I think the idea was to make the otherwise grave imagery as colorful and kid-appealing as possible, because the color choices are pretty illogical otherwise.

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I think for the month of December we’ll concentrate on MERCH, this being the most gloriously commercialized of all holiday seasons. So look to the Collectibles and Toys and Statues categories to bring out the ninja kid in all of us…

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