VN REVISITED: Airborne combat in LEGEND OF KAMUI

Originally published June 2009

With the movie [now in wide release], I’m re-reading and re-loving Shirato Sanpei‘s second run of Kamui manga. The godfather of ninja comics debuted the character in 1964, then re-imagined the property as a more grown up and severe manga in the 80′s. Kamui Gaiden was a critical and financial hit, crossed-over into anime, and inspired [the live action film.] Eclipse Comics made history when they published a 37 issue run in the U.S. as The Legend of Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Story – the first such importation of a Japanese title to our shores.

Here are some terrific combat panels from that run. Sanpei really had a knack for movement, and loved these leaping and tumbling attacks. Despite the amount of dynamic action, you can still ‘read’ what is happening, clearly see the techniques at work and how the killing blows are delivered. Aspiring artists have plenty to learn here:

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The grocery list of things I love about this series is long indeed. Kamui is the archetypal skilled loner on the run, trying to leave behind his warrior life but needing those resented skills to survive constant pursuit. It’s a great structure, and over it Sanpei laid some emotionally challenging stories. You could never get too attached to a character, never too comfortable with a setting.

I also love characters with limited arsenals used in increasingly innovative ways. Kamui’s signature short sword and reverse grip technique dispatched 90% of his enemies. A few kunai or shuriken here or there, sometimes a grapple line, were pretty much it.

Eclipse released 37 issues total, starting in 1987. It was late in the ninja craze here, and rarely did the signature black suit appear on covers, so the title may have failed to find the audience it deserved. These gems can be found cheap on eBay, even in complete runs.

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The first translated story arc, an incredible parable of struggling fishermen and the inescapability of one’s destined trade, was later collected into two trade paperbacks by VIZ, with reduced art. I prefer the original [stand-alone issues], which often had liner notes on the historical subject matter or the artist’s craft.

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Posted in Books and Manga April 13, 2014 at 12:00 am.

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Shirato Sanpei… NOT lazy.

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Shirato Sanpei‘s manga epic Ninja Bugeicho had dozens of characters, and hundreds more victims of these characters, too. Being a ninja comic, he could have gone the easy route and just hooded-up most of these people, lessening the burdens of both character design and repeat renderings.

Instead, he cranked out a huge load of distinct characters in a remarkably diverse variety of styles. From page-to-page and panel-to-panel, realism was mixed with cartoonishly absurd elements, minimalist blocky anatomies stared down more complex and elegantly organic aesthetics. Even the hoods had wide-ranging antics of their own.

Young vs. old, good vs. evil, warriors vs. laymen, samurai vs. serfs — the alterations of his style to set them apart sometimes made characters look imported from other artists’ books. But at the same time, it was all him and all worked in one ambitious graphic narrative.

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Read up on Sanpei’s shinobi from a site that actually knows what it’s talking about, What is Manga.

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Books and Manga February 17, 2013 at 10:10 pm.

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Sanpei sketches

These brush illos were used as chapter breaks in reprint collections of Shirato Sanpei‘s Ninja Bugeicho.

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Books and Manga April 21, 2012 at 10:56 pm.

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KAMUI anime designs

From the art book companion to the 1969 animated Kamui theatrical compilation film and 26 episode TV series. Some great designs here by  Shuichi Seki, faithful to the Shirato Sanpei manga originals but with that rough, sketchy look popular in contemporary anime like Tiger Mask.

We compared the dynamic fights of the original manga, this animated version and the overly CG “live-action” film here. The conclusion… they just can’t compare.

When you have one central character in the same outfit, using the same gear, over 26 shows, you have to mix it up when it comes to the side characters and especially the villains. TONS of personality in these.

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Posted in Film and TV September 22, 2011 at 10:31 pm.

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NINJA BUGEICHO

So-called “Motion Comics” released on DVD and partially-animated graphic novels adapted for tablet devices are familiar now, but go back a few decades and experiments in using still art in moving media are less frequent, and with mixed results at best.

Probably the best example of these were the 1966 Grantray-Lawrence Marvel cartoons created from re-purposed comic book illustrations, but as cool as seeing Kirby art kinda move around on TV, watching them can be a chore after a while.

I imagine the same is true of the equally legendary Shirato Sanpei‘s NINJA BUGEICHO, a famous manga adapted into a motion picture by experimental cinema genius Nagisa Oshima, using only panel art, camera movements and actor voice overs.

I’ve never seen this rarity, but recently this video “pitch” to Criterion surfaced on YouTube, so one has hope of a release.





Not entirely sure what Criterion would do with this. It’s a niche product even for the already niche ninja movie and vintage Japanese animation fan bases. As evidenced from this Japanese movie poster, even their marketers didn’t know quite what to do with it:

There’s a good article on this film and the frustrations of researching it, by Sean Rogers at The Walrus Blog.

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Posted in Art and Advertising and Film and TV March 20, 2011 at 9:05 pm.

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‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in manga

Depending on what school of thought you believe, the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is either pure myth propagated by popular media or martial tradition traced back centuries in Japan. Well, if EITHER of those is true, then you’d think the short, straight bladed sword with square guard would show up in manga once in a while. But it doesn’t.

Depictions of ninja swords in manga are a mixed bag over the decades, but a lot of what you see are short, curved blades of the less-decorated variety, worn as often through the belt as they are on the back.

This might be little more than artistic preference. I think illustrators like Mitsuteru Yokoyama (above) and Shirato Sanpei liked drawing the curved blade, as it adds a sense of dynamic movement not necessarily there with a swinging straight blade.

It’s also important to keep in mind manga artists work on insane deadlines, so consistency of blade style can vary from panel to panel. One can find an isolated drawing or two with what looks like a straight sword, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a deliberate statement of sword preference.

Here’s a few samples of the manga ninja sword (or lack thereof):

WAIT! Osamu Tezuka‘s I Am Sarutobi (circa 1960) has a short, shealth-less, apparently straight blade! It also has a lead character with stubs for feet and eyes the size of grapefruits, so you can’t exactly lean on the exacting design here…

Kagemaru of Iga‘s curved blade (starting in 1961) seemed to change length depending on the panel layout and dramatic effect intended. This was one of the most influential properties of the 60s Japanese craze, but Yokoyama never made that strong a statement about sword style. The 1963 film adaptation used a standard katana.

Sanpei, however, was much more of a realist, especially later in his career. However both the mid 60s and early 80s incarnations of Kamui saw the character use nothing more exotic than a dressed-down wakizashi, although it was slung in the small of the back in a signature style. These panels are from the 80s Eclipse reprints, and may be partly indicative of why this superb, heady series never fully connected with mainstream ninja fans in the America. No black suit for the hero, no regulation ‘Ninja-To,’ so less visual shorthand to attract otherwise Kosugi-crazed shinobifiles.

Takao Saito‘s hit ninja properties also featured short, curved blades for their ninja. The 1969 shinobi massacre known as Kage Gari (The Shadow Hunters) is again all short curved swords, sometimes with square guards and worn on the back, but there is variety in there as well. Again, you also see some quickly rendered blades that’ll look straight at first glance.

Zanpei Kumotori (1976-78) dispensed with the sword entirely, in favor of a long tanto cribbed in the small of his back. LOVE that minimalist statement, reminiscent of Sasuke’s commando kit in Samurai Spy.

Goseki Kojima stuck to curved blades as well in the 1970 Lone Wolf and Cub series. These panels are a perfect example of perspective and speed of delivery making a curved sword look like straight for a second. This is why I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the “evidence” of old book illustrations pointing to the existence of the straight sword.

And here’s a similar look three decades later, a Kunoichi’s blade from the same team’s Path of the Assassin (Hanzo no Mon).

Now, I don’t have the most complete library of vintage ninja manga in north America or anything, but what I do have samples most of the significant series and stages of development, and the only thing I have that actually embraces the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is this 1993 series called Mujina by Aihara Koji. In an example of the snake biting its own tail, his ninja use the western craze-era notion of the regulation ninja sword, complete with catalog stock picture for reference. Eeewww…and it’s the long bladed, small guarded variety, too. This book is trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy, and the catalog ninja sword may be part of that misguided effort.

So, it wasn’t Japanese comics that cemented the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ into the our mindset, NOR did manga artists for the past half-century embrace the alleged martial arts history that should have been apparent in their own country.

FILM though… as we’ll see next post… is a lot more partisan an art form.

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Posted in Books and Manga and History and Martial Arts March 5, 2011 at 6:02 am.

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KAMUI GAIDEN, comic roots vs. adaptation-itis after a decade of digital ninja (part 3)

Well, folks. I TRIED. I really did try to write a fair, even, and generally supportive piece on KAMUI GAIDEN. But seriously… how can it possibly live up to the source? This is even more compounded by some terrible effects, proving that digital ninja have NOT come that far since Owl’s Castle in ’99, and neither has the decision-making process of what to film practical, what to fake via CG, and what to not even attempt knowing the results will likely suck.

There are merits to the this film, and I’m VERY happy it’s available on DVD in English and subbed, so if you don’t want to hear the rants of a crumudgeonly geek stuck in decades past, yelling at these new ninja movies to keep off his lawn, then skip on down to the end where despite my venom I ultimately find several reasons to reccomend this film.

Enjoy!

KR

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Kamui… is it filmable?

Why yes, with green-screen filmmaking and CG effects, those soaring tree-top grappling moves and ninja pirate vs. airborne shark fights can finally be brought to “life,” no problem. The answer… YES.

Ask once more. With feeeeeling.

KAMUI... IS IT FILMABLE?

The profound and prolific manga, as much an artistic milestone as it was a commercial success. A protagonist reinvented over the decades, evolving each time as socio-political climates changed. Years and years of character building and message-laden narratives.

Do you amalgamate the 60′s character with the 80′s version? Summarize wholesale chunks of editorial? Pick one out of a dozen brilliant storylines? Ignore the manga and adapt the more 2-dimensional (pun intended) vintage anime?

The answer this time is not so easy. No amount of computer power can negotiate those waters…

Nevertheless, we now have a big-budget live-action Kamui movie. So how’d they do?

THE SKINNY: Kamui Gaiden (aka Kamui: The Lone Ninja) is Japanese Academy Award-winner Yoichi Sai‘s adaptation of the “Island of Sugaru” story arc from the 80′s relaunch of the Shirato Sanpei manga. In it, the young fugitive ninja (Ken’ichi Matsuyama, perhaps best known as ‘L’ in the Death Note movies) weary of continuous conflict with vengeful pursuers (you cannot leave the shinobi life!) finds anonymity and shelter in a remote fishing village. On the verge of rediscovering his own humanity, fate, and the inevitable shadow set, close in again with dire results for both Kamui and the innocents around him.

Rounding out the cast in this emotionally complex tale is Kampachi – a fisherman whose penchant for making lures out of the hooves of nobleman’s slain horses gets him into all sorts of trouble, his wife Sugaru – coincidentally another ninja on the run unable to trust our hero, and their daughter Sayaka – a potential love interest representing the allure of a normal life.

Seeing to it that never happens is a one-eyed ninja leader charged with exterminating the fugitives, a crew of creepy shark hunters and their pirate-ish captain who is more than he seems – twice! Oh, and the eeeeeevil lord whose horse ‘donated’ a leg for fishing lures comes into play once or twice more, too.

It’s A LOT of ground for one movie to cover, plus they crowbar in origin flashbacks and start the movie with some ‘character defining’ fight scenes. In typical adaptation style, they hone in on signature scenes and character beats.

Kamui’s unique brand of unarmed ninja combat is essentially pro-wrestling moves delivered with lethal severity from high-up in tree tops.  The “Izuna Drop” is like a German suplex with a hang-time long enough for dramatic conversation between the combatants. The 1969 anime series did a great job in conveying these super-powered grappling spots. The 2009/10 film? Well…

OK. Yeah. FAILURE of both composition AND compositing. Guess these familiar tree-top combat scenes (homaged in Ninja Scroll and myriad other media) aren’t so filmable after all.

Maybe everyone was just too stuck on fealty to the source to admit what just could not be shot convincingly. Manga and anime can defy physics because their artistic abstractness immediately grants a suspension of disbelief. Trying to render the same outre combat with a mix of practical footage and photo-realisitc digital animation is always going to be jarring to a viewer’s sense of natural movement.

Kamui also had a signature sword move – “Kasumigiri” – mesmerizing a charging opponent into striking the illusion of a second self. This is, in fact, superbly portrayed in the film, a real win for both the director’s photographic work and the digital crew’s post-production compositing.

Unfortunately, this excellent scene, complete with a sad, jazzy piece of music that harkens back to Samurai Spy, is immediately followed by outright laughable computer animated deer running through the woods, and a cliff leaping scene sub-par even by Saturday morning Power Ranger standards.

Then, we get to the water…

Yep, just about every scene involving H2O is green-screened, so of a radically different color palate, soooo fake, you are taken completely out of any mood previously set by the film. Makes one question the decision to adapt the Sugaru Island arc at all. Notice the wooden boat that’s not even getting wet. Wet wood changes color people!

And don’t even start me on the sharks!

Alright – pause here. It is impossible for me to completely bag on a movie that has a guy doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu MMA moves on a shark. We’re swinging on a pendulum into psychotronic awesomeness here, and the awful CG sharks make it all the better being so bad.

And that’d be great… in anything other than a Kamui adaptation.

This is supposed to be grim, dead serious, heart-wrenching stuff. It’s borderline arthouse material if done right. I want the emotional starkness of a sea-side samurai flick like Hideo Gosha’s Goyokin here. Not something that makes Jaws 3-D look good by comparison.

And while I’m ranting like a spoiled kid, wanting other directors from other eras to have had a hand in the fantasy film that lives in my twisted head, let’s talk the village itself.

GREAT location – absolutely perfect. But what never gets fully driven home is the feeling of… well, home. Sanctuary.

There’s no ode to the everyman’s every day, or jaunty Kurosawa-like montage of jaunty fishermen doing their jaunty trade to a jaunty orchestral jig. There just isn’t enough contrast between the supposedly awful life he had before and the window to civilian paradise now luring him (like a fish) into letting his guard down.

They try. They surely do. You’re told things in narration, actors go through the motions. But whenever you even start to connect with a human being, they are suddenly replaced by a CG cartoon leaping around awkwardly. Or you cut to a fake ship in a fake sea surrounded by fake sharks, and somehow you’re supposed to care about the real guy composited onto the deck.

And here’s where I’m right back to the quandary I discussed in part one of this series – there’s no point in a negative review of this film. The problem lies in modern filmmaking at large. Adaptation-itis sets in, it needs to be a big hit so there’s a big studio budget involved, but even the biggest budget can’t pull off the demands of the source material, so you’re left with green-screened blue seas and digital dorsal fins.

The smarter play here would have been to write-out the shark hunters entirely, morph the villain into another villager (and there’s even a likely candidate in a sub-plot with a rival fisherman) and concentrate instead on earthbound conflicts both emotional and martial.

Earthbound… yeah.

Less complications. Less reliance on digital filmmaking.

Would have freed the director up to really work more with his lead. Don’t get me wrong, Matsuyama worked his ass off in training for this role, enduring multiple injuries in a plagued production. He got the sword grip perfect, and his low crouch run is an excellent innovation. Stunt directors/choreographers Kenji Tanigaki and Ouchi Takahito, who have done wonders with the likes of Donnie Yen, failed to capture the same results with this non-career-martial artist, though. The god-awful wirework makes the kid look bad.

Meanwhile, the non-action scenes, where he needs to hit strong, concise emotional beats, are just lost.

There are major pacing problems throughout, time spent in the wrong spots, scenes that should have been longer and more affecting glossed over in a relentless pace to service the property requisites. That’s one of the biggest problems here, and with a lot of other adaptations. I call out Zack Snyder’s Watchmen as another prime example.

COVERAGE.

There is such a concern to get to the next famous scene, fulfill the next geek expectation, you end up with a bloated, long-runing film that despite its crowdedness ends up rather empty.

Watching and re-watching this thing (four times now), I keep getting stuck on this one little innocuous scene that illustrates almost everything wrong with Kamui Gaiden:

The runaway ninja takes a moment to contemplate a beautiful shell given to him by Sayaka in a gesture of devotion. Those familiar with the manga know the significance. Would be a nice bit, but it doesn’t last long enough, we don’t really see the actor’s face under the often bad wig, the fake sea and sky are obvious, it’s supposed to be a sunlit scene yet he isn’t being hit by a warm light himself, etc. and so forth. (Come to think of it, there’s hardly a time when you get a good, up close facial expression throughout the film. And dammit, you need those!)

Moreover, the posture above, the pastel, raggedy layered costume, it just isn’t Kamui. Kamui is a coiled spring, cut like Bruce Lee, always on edge, always alert, unable to relax because he’s waiting for a knife to sail at him from behind any second. There is no slouch. There are no baggy clothes impeding him should combat occur. Sanpei drew him stiff, never relaxed, never at rest. By contrast, movie Kamui is always kinda frumpy or wistful. It looks like a good breeze could knock him over. His sandals are too big for his feet, giving him a clumsy appearance. Bad choices…

With all the attention paid to animating the impossible and digitized drama, it’s almost like they forgot to do what was totally in their real-life control – get the character right. The emotional poise is absent. The movie Kamui isn’t tortured enough, isn’t paranoid enough, can be taken by surprise. We’re told what his emotions are, not shown by either actor or director.

I’m not sure an actor lives who could play this role right, though. He’d have to be a real martial artist or at least a dancer with the same body control. He’d have to have the thousand-yard stare of a Ken Takakura alternating with the chilling blankness of a Tatsuya Nakadai. And he’d need to be of an age that you’d be alarmed such hardened adult traits are chiseled onto such a young man.

So again I ask…

Is Kamui filmable?

And in reality, the answer is the same as the aforementioned Watchmen.

If they did it, I guess it is… but why?

Kamui is possible in the same way non-alchoholic beer is possible. And the point of non-alchoholic beer is what?

Exactly.

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OK, so now that I got the poison out of my system, I do ultimately recommend seeing KAMUI GAIDEN. Here’s why:

• Shinobi-cinema needs its pot stirred, and this is new ninja blood.

• Audiences at large need to see a non-black-suit ninja film and expand their horizons of the idiom.

• Funimation put together a GREAT double DVD release, with two docos totaling 45-minutes of behind the scenes and making-of extras. Man does the lead actor take a beating…

Kamui as a property needs a shot in the arm and some new reprint editions, so SUPPORT!

• IF the digital DOESN’T break the deal for you, this can be a pretty damn good movie. Even an uninspired adaptation of such strong source material is bound to hold something intriguing to a new audience. There are some good fights, the supporting cast is strong, the weapons are great and I like the score.

• Despite my abusive diatribes, modern ninja movies are not a total loss. Red Shadow had great costumes. The Azumi films are pretty good sword-girl fodder. I like the core story and structure of Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, and, yeah, I’ll say this… KAMUI GAIDEN is arguably the best of this decade’s digital ninja.

KR

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Posted in Books and Manga and Film and TV January 5, 2011 at 11:49 pm.

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Christmas with Kamui and a Decade of Digital Ninja (Part 1)

Just before the holiday, I got a screener of Funimation‘s 2-DVD release of Kamui Gaiden, allegedly the most expensive ninja movie ever made, and one that has received about as wide an array of responses as I’ve ever seen. Epic. Masterpiece. Fun action film. Laughable silliness. Boring failure. CG so bad it’s good. Faithful to the classic manga. Failure to capture any spirit of the classic manga. There was a classic manga??? Really all over the place.

I first saw this film on bootleg DVD a few months back with subtitles that left a lot to be desired, then watched the official release twice over Christmas. It’s left me in a quandary. Because reactions from film festivals and now home video release vary so much, I hesitate to give an outright review here. There is a frequency humming in this film that really resonates with some, while others can barely make it through the 2-hour plus running time. So I think you all should give this movie a good watch for yourselves and see where you lie.

Not that I don’t have my opinions! Boy do I ever…

But I’m going to save my critiques of Kamui Gaiden for a larger commentary (a series of posts over the next few days) on the decade that has now passed, a decade of digital ninja.

Oddly enough, I’ll start that commentary with a look at some yellowing old pulp.

This trade ad ran in various comic book industry newsrags in the Summer of 1987. The American craze was waning and I had just graduated high school, so I wasn’t necessarily looking for a ninja comic in my life. The closest comic store was a half-hour drive and I had no car, so keeping up with a title was a challenge. I would fortunately rediscover the Viz/Eclipse co-venture, a real piece of manga history, in the mid 90′s as a ‘quarter box commando’ rummaging swap meets in Michigan.

Late as it was in the 80′s boom, or maybe American comics were always independent of the fad, 1987 was a very good year for shinobi manga in America, with First ComicsLone Wolf and Cub reprints closely following The Legend of Kamui (aka Kamui the Ninja and Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Tale). The former would run longer, with celebrity covers plus Shogun Assasin and Lightning Swords of Death all over cable and VHS rental shelves. Kamui wasn’t full of black-suited assassins and it’s politics and social commentary was thoroughly Japanese, so it didn’t connect with as huge throngs of fans as it should have. Neither title would see the 90s for one reason or another. A real shame…

Shirato Sanpei‘s “life’s work” first appeared in 1964, the marketable anchor of the cutting edge, often outré alt-manga anthology GARO. Already established as the master of ninja manga since the late 50′s, and as responsible for the Japanese craze as any other media figure, his Kamui Den (The Story or Legend of Kamui) was a monster hit that ran for eight years and spawned a 26-episode anime in 1969. It introduced a young, supremely skilled lone ninja on the run, relentlessly hunted by the clan (and life) he was trying to escape. Sanpei would reinvent the property in 1982 with the much grimmer Kamui Gaiden (The Other or New Story of Kamui), same ninja on the run, much heavier social and political commentary. The two series were thoroughly of their decades, both in art style and editorial message.

It is Kamui Gaiden that came to the U.S. in comic form in the 80′s (more recently reprinted in TPB form by Viz), and the acclaimed “Island of Sugaru” storyline that started the second incarnation is the basis for the new movie. Its 13-issue arc wove a simple narrative (Kamui flees pursuers and connects with a fisherman’s family on a small island, only to have fate close in on him with tragic results) that was rich in layered messages and complex emotions, never mind some really weird left turns.

Did the filmmakers succeed in stuffing it all into one film? Do epic comic book adaptations ever really work? And can a digital shark look even remotely real?

Find out next time…

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Posted in Books and Manga and Film and TV December 30, 2010 at 3:12 am.

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Whut-up with this WOLF BOY?

I probably need a real Shirato Sanpei fan here.

These scans are from a 1967 manga I scored in a lot, one of which was described only as  ”Wolf Boy.” I was hoping for some Wolf Boy Ken tie in, but no! Rather than a Jungle Book / Tarzan-like deal, I was pleasantly surprised by this Kamui-esque adventure of an orphan raised by wolves who then learns shadow skills.

Win-Win!

Here’s the cover:

So what do I have here? Various Wikis and under-researched manga sites list a “Wolf Boy” series in Sanpei’s resume, but I’m stonewalled after that. I know how much some of you looove doing my research for me, so get to it!

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Posted in Books and Manga September 27, 2010 at 11:20 pm.

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WATARI press stills (Part 2)

Pre-pubescent axe-weilding hero Watari goes through standard shinobi like shit through a goose, but things get a lot dicier when he encounters a  bizarre rogues gallery of super-powered villains.

The uber-nemesis of the film is played by RYUTARO OTOMO, but Watari will have to wade through a legion of weirdos to get to him...

Lifted right off the manga pages, these goons are caked in make-up, primary-colored skin paint and off-the-wall costumes. They have powers to match, too. I won't spoil anything for those of you yet to see WATARI, but one of these ninja is actually a robot!

The pervy toad boy and the thick kunoichi are my faves. Can't find any info on who that is, but she's got that joshi puroresu look...

Demon freaks and robo-ninja aside, there are even weirder bits in the film, like this trippy attack by animated butterflies.

This staged still got bit and re-bit for foreign posters, even for other films. Check out the Pakistani poster for Kadokawa's LEGEND OF THE EIGHT SAMURAI below.

Further Reading:

I wrote a short plug for this film on the old Ninja80 blog (aka Not-So-Vintage Ninja)

Kung Fu Cinema wasn’t especially impressed with the martial arts of this film. And another review by Golden Pigsy.

There’s an all-too-small gallery of manga covers here.

And most importantly, BUY THE FILM at Kurotokagi! It’s worth it for the amazing theme song alone.

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Posted in Film and TV September 10, 2010 at 7:46 am.

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