Originally published January, 2010.
In the 80′s, Sho Kosugi posed for over 73 billion photos in full night gear, laden with weapons, in magazines like Black Belt, Ninja, even Karate Illustrated and Inside Kung Fu. Yet when it comes to movie and video game ad campaigns, you often see painted and illustrated images of him instead – many leaving a lot to be desired. Sometimes it was agencies not wanting to pay royalties to photographers. Other times it was unscrupulous art departments not having any legal right to use a Kosugi image whatsoever, but wanting the box office rub. Either way, some very interesting artistic mutations occurred…
It started in 1981 of course, with Enter the Ninja. Golan-Globus scooped the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s mega hit novel The Ninja with this exploitation gem (the American genre never recovered), for which Kosugi did some publicity photo posing. An air brushed version of what we’ll call THE KOSUGI KICK appeared on some of the posters (and VHS packaging), and soon after a retail poster we all had on our wall. The Kosugi Kick was henceforth knocked-off 15.3 trillion times, and you still see it today once in a while. The pose is one of THE lingering icons of the 80′s craze, perhaps the definitive image of the era.
The follow-up to Enter, and the movie that cemented “the ninja craze” as the big thing in martial arts (and martial arts cinema) for the decade, Revenge of the Ninja, had a pretty dynamite painted poster itself. What’s easy to forget about the superb Revenge is that in it, Kosugi made history – an Asian actor being the single male lead, and in only his second film in the U.S. In reality, Bruce Lee never did that, being co-top-billed with John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (although after his death, amidst the kung-fu boom, the campaigns changed to feature him much more).
Ironically the painted art has little-to-no resemblance to Kosugi, but damn what composition! Back in the day, though, we were tortured by the the ‘inauthentic’ details like the Western military knife tucked into his tunic, and the Chinese ‘kung-fu shoes’ in place of tabi. The fact that this supposed invisible assassin in concealing night gear has a red belt, chrome-finish weapons strapped all over him, and a huge family crest akin to a superhero’s chest emblem telling the world who he is didn’t bother us at all though… Such was the logic of 80′s ninja fans.
The fact that the American key art wasn’t Kosugi outright may have led to some of the mysterious variants overseas, like the below Franch-language market poster. Perhaps they really wanted to feature the star?
The above painting is based on the companion retail poster to the famous Kosugi Kick piece, seen below left. Why they didn’t use the original photo is anyone’s guess – couldn’t find the source, couldn’t meet on a price, didn;t even try… Next to that is detail from the illustrated sleeve for the priced-to-sell VHS re-issue of Revenge, late 80′s-early 90′s. Even though there was a photo-based poster in the 80′s, used often in Europe, that same art didn’t make it to Spanish markets, evidenced by the painted version far right. All in all, there are remarkably few images used to promote this movie, but the versions of those few images are myriad.
Pray For Death was, for many, the last ‘good’ Kosugi entry in the craze era – a genuine piece of ninja-sploitation, surrounded by legends of ‘uncut’ gorier versions screened in dark corners of Europe and everything. While many thought Kosugi’s weapons and armor were downright silly, but it seems many (especially foreign ad men) thought it was pretty righteous:
No, Kosugi was NOT in Shaolin Fighters vs. Ninja (or Ninja Against Shaolin, or Ninja vs. Shaolin Guards, or Shaolin Fights Ninja, or any of the dozens of other versions and re-titles of the concept that were out there), but you sure wouldn’t know it from the poster above. More painted art was done for the taxing 9 Deaths of the Ninja, and again the foreign markets were on their own page with the key art. I guess when your movie looks like this…
…you’re tempted to hide it behind more craze-palatable images of hooded ninja, even if it means evoking the competition – Michael Dudikoff!
Strange to think of foreign ad artists toiling over these painted Sho Kosugi images, when in some neglected drawer at the offices of Inside Kung Fu, hundreds of amazing photos were sitting there, untapped. Exploitation films, however, have promotional resources akin to their low budgets. Campaigns turn around fast. There are language barriers between markets. Logistical and financial hurdles everywhere. So it ends up easier just to wing it and barf out some weird illo.
Chances are, the same box office take would have been made either way.
Sho Kosugi: The Ninja fansite, with tons of galleries, including mag covers and movie posters.
S.K. Productions – Kosugi’s official website.
Really fun write up and video of 9 Deaths of the Ninja.
If you think these paintings are a bit off, check out the stuff from Ghana!
Tags: 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA, Enter the Ninja, Kosugi Kick, Pray for Death, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, Sho Kosugi, VHS art, vintage magazines
Renowned customizer of Star Wars and G.I.Joe 3.75″ figures “Obi Shinobi“ created this great Sho Kosugi figure from the finale of Pray for Death.
Love the dragon helmet’s articulation!
Obi Shinobi also crafted this nifty scale diorama of a classic ninja vs. samurai encounter.
I have a hard enough time making 12″ kit-bashed figures look half-decent, and am just blown away by the folks who can do this smaller toys in such detail.
Tags: Pray for Death, Sho Kosugi
Last week a horror movie label called Scream Factory released Ninja III: The Domination on Bluray and DVD.
Just going to let that statement slow burn for a second…
Not a label with a large martial arts back catalog, not an Asian cinema-friendly label addressing the East’s influence on the West, but a horror label clinging to The Dom‘s kinship to The Exorcist and Poltergeist. Scream Factory was nearly apologetic on social media to its black t-shirt clad Fangoria/Chiller crowd for pushing the envelope of their mission at hand, but the fan base was surprisingly positive at the announcement. Horror blogs reviewed it with the requsite so-bad-its-good slant [groan], and younger audiences are for the first time finding this staggering time capsule of 80s trash culture — aerobics-sploitation, Chess King sweaters and Nagel prints galore. All is good in the world…
Scream’s release is a stunning transfer of from what I recall is a complete print. The picture is just gorgeous on Bluray (the stills here don’t do it justice), and the accompanying DVD copy is nothing to sneeze at either. I’d call it miles above any previous release, but that’s not saying much as the last time Ninja III was on home video it was a full-frame VHS.
The 80′s ninja boom was represented piss-poorly in the DVD era (which yes, I’m referring to in the past tense), but it seems no film was relegated to limbo longer than this third chapter in the Kosugi/Canon partnership. There were mostly full-frame and “open matte” releases of Revenge of the Ninja, Rage of Honor, the American Ninja flicks, dumped out with little effort and even less fanfare, but for who-knows-why The Dom never made even that cut.
The age of physical media will have now come and gone with no box sets, no deluxe extras, no mind-blowing deleted scenes or making-of docos (save for a business-oriented piece on how The Octagon came together), nor any nostalgic interviews with very alive-and-well stars like Sho Kosugi and sons. (Enter the Ninja and Pray For Death only recently became available either streaming or DVD-on-Demand sans deluxe treatment.)
Even with Ninja Assassin making some waves and the G.I. Joe films putting big-budget ninja action in theaters, no one before Scream Factory saw the audience potential for the now 30 year old material. Kudos to them.
The big extra on the new release is a commentary track with director Sam Firstenberg and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert, which at times is just superb, but at others suffers a bit (for our purposes) from being hosted by a horror guy and aimed at other horror guys. A discussion of Kosugi’s eyepatch never touches on the traditional portrayals of Jubei Yagyu nor Sho Kosugi’s connection to Sonny Chiba and the Japan Action Club. We’re ninja geeks, we want to hear that stuff, even if it’s solely prompted by the moderator.
Still, hearing both these guys gush like proud papas about their work is very endearing. They point out Lucinda Dickey‘s work ethic, the merits of practical stunts and real fights in this post-Matrix world, all sorts of goodness.
Another fantastic bonus is Firstenberg’s own photo collection, with some behind-the-scenes stuff none of us have ever seen before.
Sho Kosugi and his faithful double Steve Lambert on set.
It’s also just great to finally see this film in such a pristine, even enhanced state. The MGM cable channel print of Ninja III wasn’t nearly as detail-revealling as this new transfer, especially viewed on Blu. I noticed for the first time Lucinda Dickey is wearing a really bad wig in all the mountain location scenes, which were evidently shot after she started filming Breakin’ with a shorter, more Pat Benatar-inspired haircut. And yes, she did Ninja III first, a revelation from the commentary.
So you see completists, you need to erase that shitty compressed bit-torrented rip you probably have of this film (that’s what happens when a cult fave languishes out-of-print too long, studio geniuses) and pick up this new Blu. Don’t think of it as double dipping, it’s like a whole new experience now.
I just wish it had come 5-8 years ago and with interviews of Kosugi and Dickey, packaged with all of Canon’s other ninja movies in black box that lights up from within, spews smoke and plays dramatic theme music while you power-up.
I also want six-pack abs, a 10-inch wang and gas to be under $4.00 a gallon. So, yeah…
ORDER NINJA III on Amazon right now!
Seriously. Eight to ten thousand of you read this site every month, you’re all ninja freaks and you’ve all been a pissed off as I am that the 80s craze films never got the deluxe send-up. Now that one has, we need to mobilize, buy the hell out of it and show the other labels what they’ve been missing out on.
Or even just Scream Factory to consider corresponding releases of Enter and Revenge, or Pray for Death with the fabled extra gore?
Hmmm? Think about it guys…
Tags: Canon Fillms, Ninja III: The Domination, Sam Firstenberg, Sho Kosugi, Steve Lambert
Not a problem. Last post was specific to the Kosugi doubling images, but here’s the remainder of the French lobby pics from Enter the Ninja.
Don’t know about you cats, but I was totally in love with Susan ‘Dirty Mary’ George.What a career for her!
Not that Franco ‘Django’ Nero‘s prolific career has been anything to sneeze at. But let’s face it, he was no Mike Stone when it came to the action scenes here…
Israeli actor Zachi Noy was absolutely great as The Hook, too.
Tags: Enter the Ninja, Franco Nero, Sho Kosugi, Susan George, Zachi Noy
These French-language market lobby photos for the 1981 release of Enter the Ninja are a bit different than the American marketing and press photos, mainly in that they reveal close-ups of Sho Kosugi doubling for one of the red ninja from the initial training battle sequence.
Kosugi next to what is likely Mike Stone in in the red ninja suits that would inspire Marvel Comics’ The Hand and myriad 80s action figures.
This is a great look at the interesting construction of the hoods.
Kosugi and Stone worked their asses off out in those Philippine woods, doubling in both star and soldier roles.
Tags: Enter the Ninja, Sho Kosugi
European (and other French-language market) lobby cards for Sho Kosugi‘s 9 Deaths of the Ninja, known abroad as American Ninja (where American Ninja was known as American Warrior).
The 1984-85 span was a trying one for the ninja craze. Sho Kosugi and Cannon Films parted ways and The Master took a critical drubbing on TV (the full run of episodes didn’t even air in a lot of areas).
Then 9 Deaths hit theaters with Kosugi in a role that came dangerously close to sidekick, and clad in cammo spandex no less. The real torture was the one full-on ninja fight in the film was a nice piece of stripped-down swordplay, no weird costumes, no shiny gadget weapons. It let you know exactly what you were missing.
Luckily, Pray for Death was on the horizon.
For more, check out the excellent collection of 9 Deaths imagery over at the always recommended Sho Kosugi: The Ninja.
Tags: 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA, Sho Kosugi
Cannon’s 1981 press kit for Enter the Ninja featured newspaper-ready B&W ad mats and a 30-page document heralding, and I quote:
…the first Western film to deal solely with the mysterious and elusive art of Ninjutsu. It will set the trend in Martial Arts films for the 80′s, making them the decade of the Ninja…
Well, they weren’t wrong!
Another detail I found intriguing was this:
In the late Fall of 1980, the concept for “ENTER THE NINJA” was brought to producer/director Manahem Golan. Having never produced a Martial Arts film, Mr. Golan was a bit difficult to convince at first. He assumed that everything had been done before in Martial Arts films, but after he was told about the unique art of Ninjutsu, he immediately began preparations on “ENTER THE NINJA.”
Mike Stone is widely credited throughout the document, and other contemporary press, with originating this film, so that must have been one successful lunch meeting. Considering Eric Van Lustbader’s novel The Ninja had been tearing up bookshelves since April of the same year, and The Octagon had been released about six weeks earlier than the said “late Fall” green light, Golan’s timing could not have been better. The decision to take ninja from villains and henchmen to centerpiece heroes was a damn good one.
I’ve scanned the entire press kit, read it at this link. The pre-release hype and bios of Kosugi and Stone are well worth the read.
Tags: Cannon Films, Enter the Ninja, Mike Stone, Sho Kosugi
There’s almost 30 years spanning the two home video releases of the movie you see above. THREE DECADES!
Just as we’re facing the death of DVD and brick-and-mortar video retail in general, we finally have Enter the Ninja commercially available. I have to think there’s been some sort of rights issue with this movie since the late 80s.
It never made the leap from big-box rental VHS to ‘priced-to-sell’ VHS, then never made the leap to DVD in the 90s. It didn’t make the leap from big-box rental VHS to ‘priced-to-sell’ VHS until 1991, and never made the leap to DVD during that format’s boom. A wide-screen print started airing sparsely on cable a few years back, and now that print is available streaming, and for us non-hard drive or cloud-trusting luddites, MGM’s DVD-On-Demand.
DVD-On-Demand??? The ghetto where cult flicks with tiny niche audiences and moldy-oldy genres no one cares about go to languish like retired golden age celebrities in nursing homes? Really?
ETN never had a digital remastering. Never had a deluxe DVD with making-of extras and behind-the-scenes galleries, no commentary by stars and industry experts. No re-issue on Blu-Ray looking even better than it had previously.
Someone explain to me why! And while you’re at it, why did Revenge of the Ninja only get a shitty full-frame disc and why is Ninja III: The Domination still completely out of print? Why wasn’t there a shuriken-shaped box set of this highly marketable trilogy back when DVD collectibles were smoking hot?
But… trying to stay positive, and in the spirit of BETTER-F’N-LATE-THAN-F’N-NEVER, here’s a look at what you can finally buy on one-off DVD from MGM (and for those of you who actually know what century it is, watch instantly on Amazon or Netflix):
As pioneering as ETN was to the Western ninja genre, as a movie in a wider sense it rests on a whole lot of rusty old cliches; the white guy becomes the best at some exotic Asian fighting art, he walks the world alone using his ancient skills to battle modern crime, evil industrialists put damsels in distress, hook-handed hunchbacked henchmen get dispatched with quippy one-liners, etc. and so forth. But ETN did all those things with generously added NINJA VIOLENCE, so we didn’t care!
The current MGM release is a straight transfer of a rather clean and crisp print. They didn’t go in and remaster it frame-by-frame or anything, but it generally looks fine, and I for one dig film grain and pock-marks once in a while to remind me of how much of an old fart I am.
Proper aspect ratio is a bit of a mystery here. The physical disc claims 16×9 1.85LBX, and it looks like a proper widescreen print. However, the more full-frame streaming version on Netflix (via the Starz cable network) definitely has more picture on top and bottom despite the sides being lopped off. One, or both, are cropping here, but both are vast improvements over the pan-and-scan VHS era.
Proper aspect ratio was a bit of a mystery here, but thanks to some astute VN readers and a projectionist buddy, I’m a bit clearer on it. ETN was shot “open matte,” which in a reverse of the usual widescreen-vs-TV print comparison, actually yields more picture the squarer it is shown. Theatrical prints actually sliced the top and bottom of the frame, which was restored for TV prints. This isn’t exactly the preferred technique of the David Leans and Sergio Leones of the film auteur realm, but for exploitation movies intended to have serious legs on home video formats it lent all sorts of presentation flexibility.
I’ve watched the film in both aspects, but I’ll proceed reviewing the physical ‘widescreen’ disc, as I prefer it’s clarity and stability over the varying qualities of streaming. The manufactured-to-order DVD includes the original trailer as a sole extra. It performed fine for me in computer, DVD and Blu-ray decks. It looks great up-sampled in a Blu-ray player on a 1080p flatscreen, with great improvement in color (reds in particular).
Another big improvement is the brightness of formerly dark and inky scenes, where you lost all details. Hasegawa’s raid on the ranch compound now reads a lot cleaner and clearer. And although some colors are actually nicer on the Netflix print, streaming pictures don’t maintain quite the same subtlety of blacks.
I watch this new print with nostalgia, sure, but more with historical perspective, which is greatly enhanced by the new clarity. For instance, it’s easier than ever to see how much Franco Nero looks like a douche in a white ninja suit. Ironically mustached hipsters must love this flick…
I was kinda bummed out to realize the hoods were just cheap spandex. I always thought Kosugi’s in particular was made of sturdier stuff.
Seeing the film bigger, brighter and sharper than ever before also makes it easy to spot when Mike Stone and Sho Kosugi are doubling. A distraction for first-timers just trying to enjoy the flick, but for those of us who’ve seen ETN a few dozen times, it’s a nifty new aspect, and would make one hell of a drinking game.
I’m obsessed with props, and one of the things I love about ETN is it doesn’t feature the same old off-the-rack weaponry seen in most subsequent American ninja flicks. All of this stuff is unique, no Asian World of Martial Arts canned goods here.
However, every time the new print shows off a nicely made custom prop (like this rather rugged looking shuko, which in latter movies would be a mail order nylon version)…
…it soon exposes another that was hastily made and never intended to be scrutinized so.
But then all that goes away when you experience the glory… and I do mean GLORY… of Christopher George‘s magnificent death scene.
So in general, if you are a lifelong fan of the 80s Cannon fare, you’ll love this new edition of Enter the Ninja. It’s just as awesome, and cheesy, and cringe-worthy, and then awesome again, as you remember – but now brighter and clearer than ever.
If you’re not of the right age, however, there’s nothing in this or any other version of ETN that’s going to convert you. You didn’t have our childhood, or our grindhouse or drive-in experiences, or our repeated trips to the video store and contented VHS viewings, never knowing how much better 60s Japanese stuff was… because we didn’t have it.
I for one am grateful to have perspective enough to love both, and I’m delighted to finally own a good copy of this long-neglected genre jumpstarter.
Many thanks to KC and the other you-know-who-you-are shadow dwellers for the new insights.
Tags: Cannon Films, Enter the Ninja, Sho Kosugi
Slammed as I’ve been, I just now got around to watching the MGM DVD-On-Demand of Enter the Ninja. Full review and some other ETN bonuses going up later this week, but in the meantime let’s just take a moment to appreciate how great the credit sequence of this craze-igniting film was.
(click for full size)
It’s not like these supposedly debuting “ninja” were anything new to American audiences in October of 1981. We’d seen them in a Bond film and a Peckinpaw flick, as exotic threats on a few TV series, assassins in Shogun, Norris-fodder in The Octagon, etc. But when a movie brazenly adopts the “Enter the…” naming convention you’re expecting a martial arts vanguard, a genre definer. And with this credit sequence, Mike Stone, Sho Kosugi and Cannon Films gave us that.
Featuring a night mission-clad Kosugi swinging white-painted weapons on a subtly lit blacked-out set, ETN delivered instant weapons fetish!
Shinobi historical pedigree or otherwise, what we saw was the black suit and a ton of exotic martial arts gear. Not espionage equipment, not disguises or trickery, no military intelligence, no mysticism or any other heady concept. Just ninja suits and tons of weapons. They distilled ninjutsu down into its most easily exploited and marketable aspects, then once those visuals were delivered, transposed the notions of the historical art onto the tried-and-true ‘modern-day warrior wanders the world doing right using ancient skills’ model already familiar to Western audiences, and boom – craze formula SET.
This montage of exotic dances of death set to lurid percussion was broken only by the movie’s introductory fight sequence. If you weren’t hooked on the credits, ten bloody minutes of ninja-on-ninja violence followed, and if you weren’t a shinobi-cinemafile by then, it wasn’t going to happen.
Good, bad or indifferent, the formula for 80s American ninja films was pretty much set in stone right here.
More on this film all week.
Tags: Cannon Films, Enter the Ninja, Mike Stone, Sho Kosugi
Posted in Film and TV January 29, 2012 at 10:59 pm. 1 comment
Been thinking about this.
Spaghetti Westerns – films made by Italian directors, shot in Spain, released by studios in Rome and imported into the US. In the 60s they turned the tried and true American Western on its ass. Gone were the clean shaven John Waynes and Randolph Scotts, replaced by gritty and sardonic anti-heroes like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. Absent were grandiose tales of heroes shaping the American frontier, ousted by amoral bloodbaths in which villains killed each other over scraps of gold in grimy Mexican border towns.
New audiences devoured films like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but old-school American Oater-fans were aghast at this foreign corruption of their cinema traditions. Reviewers at the time often spewed hatred on Italian imports, dismissing even the works of Leone and Sollima as low grade exploitation. Regardless, a huge craze saw hundreds of EuroWesterns cranked out in the mid-60′s to the early 70s, changing the landscape of the genre as a whole.
Here then is my question: Did ninja movie fans in Japan raised on the likes of Shinobi-no-Mono have the same contempt for 80′s American ninja movies? Were the Cannon films with Kosugi and Dudikoff like Spaghetti Westerns to the Japanese who previously enjoyed genre exclusivity?
There are a lot of similarities here:
1.) Both mutated genres wrote out fundamentals of the source traditions due to being filmed in a foreign land. Native Americans were rare in Italian Westerns, replaced by Spanish actors playing Mexicans. Nary a proper cattle drive in sight, either, as cowboys were replaced with bounty hunters to accomodate smaller casts and budgets.
American ninja films were based on sole shinobi superheroes operating in modern times and in American cities. Canon wasn’t about to fund a period film set in 1600s Japan. No castles to invade, no daimyo, no armored samurai to outwit, no tales of downtrodden villagers lost in an oppressive class system.
2.) Both mutations were high on contemporary style. Cannon’s thoroughly 80s keyboard synth was as new and radical to ninja as Ennio Morricone’s experimental scores were to Westerns. And ninja suddenly started using hair products. Bright colored, graphic logo-emblazoned, satin outfits and fingerless leather gloves weren’t far behind…
3.) Both invented distinct signature gimmicks not seen in the source tranditions. Spagettis had these long, drawn out stare-downs before gun fights, with extreme close-ups of grungy-faced brutes that would never be cast in Hollywood. American ninja movies introduced the “one-weapon-one-kill” logic to the genre to exploit our fetish for the exotic tools of the supposed assassin trade.
4.) Both sub-genres ended up being influential back upon their traditional sources. Eastwood brought back Leone’s sensibilities and the American Western was never the same. Back in Japan, even period-set ninja TV and movies showed shameless 80s-ness. You see the American influence on Kage no Gundan and the big budget Kadokawa effects epics of the 80s, and the digital ‘ninja-in-the-woods’ films being made in Japan now owe as much to the 80s as they do the 60s.
5.) Both featured Lee Van Cleef!
So were the Kosugi flicks received like a prodigal son of the Japan Action Club going abroad and making good? Were they a curiosity at best? Or were they downright laughed at for how clueless they were as to ‘real ninja’ action?
I’d love to hear from some older Japanese readers…
Tags: Cannon, Sho Kosugi