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 and Stone worked their asses off out in those Philippine woods, doubling in both star and soldier roles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
These are from a set of POORLY repro’d press/publicity photos from Enter the Ninja‘s Yugoslavian theatrical release. Wonder if that amazing Kosugi credit sequence had the same craze-launching lighting bolt effect on European audiences that it did for us?
This is a press still from the climax of Enter the Ninja, which shows some great detail all but missed is the actual film.
I guess if you paused the DVD or Blu-Ray of Enter at the right instant, you could see this… oh, what. That’s right. This seminal film isn’t available by any legit commercial means. Thanks ninja-hating world!
When 1985’s Pray for Death was released, we were none the wiser that Sho Kosugi and Cannon Films had parted ways, and that this began his struggles to get a decent budget and good distribution for his shinobi-centric vehicles. To teens knee-deep in the 80s craze, it was just another ninja-sploitation classic that ranked with Kosugi’s holy trinity.
And despite the goofy helmet, it delivered on all fronts.
These 8×10 glossy press kit images reveal some great costume details and showcase some of the film’s ample action sequences. Hadn’t seen a lot of these before scoring this cache of vintage stills.
The Kosugi kids – Kane and Shane – were once again victims of gangster wrath, and once again Kane manned-up and took down adults with an array of martial tricks. In PfD however, it came off as a bit hokey, especially in contrast to the rest of the thoroughly R-rated action. I always thought these two should have been the driving force of the ‘ninja kids’ sub-boom of the late 80s, but white kids stole their thunder.
Not content with simple fight movie formulas (ala Revenge of the Ninja), Kosugi continued themes he explored in Ninja III: The Domination by featuring a temple environment and an ancient master right out of Watari and Kamui fare.
Man… this scene doesn’t come off anywhere near as dangerous in the film as it does on this still.
Pray for Death was Kosugi’s last full-on ninja-packed movie. He was looking to escape an increasingly stale genre being bled dry by his former studio, budgets decreased with overseas productions, and the ninja twerps and kickboxers were knocking on the genre door.