I can finally enjoy THE MASTER

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Back in 1984, at least for this teenage ninja-maniac, four words began a turning point for the ninja craze:

“Hi, I’m Max Keller.”

Timothy Van Patten‘s intro to each episode of The Master has since become iconic for me. His role, the “ugly American” being introduced to the ways of the shinobi, while slathering the screen with sarcasm and slapstick, had my eyes rolling even at 15 when I was starved for anything ninja. Just a few years in to the ninja boom, it was already becoming apparent we weren’t going to get that big A-list Hollywood movie (read why here). Maybe network TV would be a more viable high-profile home. Maybe not.

Enter producer/writer Michael Sloan, a prolific TV talent (Battlestar Galactica, BJ and the Bear) who may first have been exposed to ninja when writing for Quincy, M.E. (the December 1977 episode “Touch of Death” was only the third appearance of a ninja on American television). The Master was his shot as creator and the timing seemed right. While ninja may have been relatively new to TV, and provided a real opportunity to do something unique, the new show’s structure, alas, ended up being Network Formulaic Adventure TV 101 — two misfit leads, would-be hearth-throb kid and older established star from a previous era (spaghetti western legend Lee Van Cleef), obligatory comedy relief and animal sidekick, signature vehicle, “Adventure Town” structure: different town every week with a different predicament for them to interfere with and solve (evil landlord, evil sheriff, evil industrialist, evil rival aerobics instructor, evil hamster rustler etc.), different veteran character actor villain (Clu Gulagher, Doug McClure, William Smith etc.) and different hot damsel to save (Crystal Bernard, a young Demi Moore and Revenge of the Ninja‘s Ashley Ferare included) — lather, rinse, repeat.

The Master could have been set up as a ninja equivalent of Kung-Fu, but instead was a clone of any given episode of Knight Rider or The A-Team re-skinned, with some ninja elements squirted in with a turkey baster. And the juice of that turkey baster was Sho Kosugi.

Kosugi came in to The Master much the same way as his Cannon films — part star, part choreographer, part costumer, part prop master, part stunt double — an almost producer/auteur-level contributor. As the vengeful Okasa — Japanese purist sworn to kill the West’s only ninja master John Peter McAllister after leaving the shadow life to find a daughter he never knew he had — Kosugi’s movie-quality fight scenes were modularly inserted into he plot-of-the-week, never affecting the storyline at hand but certainly being the high point of the show. Even sans the blood and over-the-top kill shots we loved from the movies, these ninja fight interludes always delivered. For us, he was literally the only reason to watch, and the season’s few Okasa-less episodes were instant letdowns.

Despite being firmly entrenched in the cult of all things ninja as a teen in the 80s, even I had a hard time defending The Master back in the day. The visual of a fully-costumed McAllister running into battle with an un-costumed Max Keller defied any logic, and just looked ridiculous. Max should have at least donned some sort of black utility clothing that escalated, as his training continued, into full ninja gear.

The fight and stunt doubling of Van Cleef was obvious to the point of outright humor, almost insulting to both the actor and audience. And it was so often unnecessary — his doubles (Kosugi included) posed and moved just like they themselves would have, never taking in to account they were supposed to be mirroring an old man. Scenes with gratuitous tumbling and multiple somersaults were written in when they never should have been even considered. Martial arts movies are so rife with old master characters, whose movements are minimal and efficient, belying their age and experience and selling the notion of their total dominance of the arts. Their physicality, or lack thereof, is written for their ages. Why this philosophy was never followed is baffling and remains the show’s achilles heel.

The on-screen cheese that resulted from these bad decisions only served to reinforce everything negative any outside critic or detractor thought of the ninja craze. The Master was seen as shlock, took an unfair critical beating, and was even derided within the hardcore front-line ninja freaks. It fared no better at the corporate level. Far from the ratings boon the network suits had hoped for, The Master‘s 13 episodes were often bumped around airing schedules or pre-empted for sports events, and in many parts of the country the entire run was never even broadcast. A second season was out of the question, and while there was still a ton of ninja-sploitation on the horizon, no big studio or TV network was going to back any sort of serious ninja project again.

If The Master wasn’t an outright turning point, it certainly illustrated the plateau of both production quality and Hollywood interest the boom had hit. The glass ceiling had been struck. “Hi, I’m Max Keller” may not have been THE moment the ninja craze jumped the shark, but it certainly was the moment it was fitted for water skis…

The Master‘s relative infamy continued a couple of years later when Transworld Entertainment repackaged the run for VHS rental. The six tapes, retitled The Master Ninja were emblazoned with Kosugi imagery and sometimes steered away from outright recognition of the show. A lot of people brought these home from the video store thinking they were either A.) a new ninja movie they had never heard of, or B.) new episodes of that now obscure ninja show they never got to see. They were neither.

Then something strange happened over the next decade as the show, or parts of it, somehow fell into Public Domain and ended up even more shamelessly repackaged for priced-to-sell budget tapes (and eventual DVD compilations).

This lead directly to The Master‘s biggest audience and an entirely unrelated off-branch of cult fandom apart from us shinobi-nerds, as four episodes of the show (minus original credit sequences) were aired as Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes in 1992-93. The robot host’s ear-wormy “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit remains one of the general public’s most enduring memories of the show.

All these years later, we finally see a proper home release of The Master on DVD and Bluray from Kino Lorber. It’s a few-frills package — case design is Van Cleef-centric (Kosugi’s Okasa might have been a better choice) but what really counts is the show has never looked better, especially compared to some of the shoddy Public Domain releases still festering out there. The only extras are trailers from Kosugi and Van Cleef films, which is a real shame because there were extensive photo shoots done of the cast in costume prior to its debut (see several at Getty Images here).

The network ran some striking illustrated ads for the show, as well:

And a gallery of what was often superb international VHS packaging (see the Japanese releases here) would have been great too:

While these new releases of The Master and its competing network’s predecessor The Last Ninja may lack the deluxe treatments we’d love, the fact that the entire American output from the 1980s ninja craze has FINALLY been remastered (no pun intended) and preserved for our digital world is indeed excellent. I’m happy to own it in one nice complete, and fully legal, package.

So yes, I can finally enjoy The Master now. And I don’t just mean it’s finally available, I mean actually enjoy it.

The perspective of we fans now in our 40s versus us as butt-hurt dweebs in our teens makes that possible. The Kosugi moments from the show are worth it alone, and in hindsight now, we didn’t have enough of them back in the day, as the craze was cut short and Kosugi moved on to less ninja-centric projects. The chain-mail-clad Okasa stands as one of Kosugi’s most iconic get-ups, and there’s enough of his weapons-flourished karate-based fights and custom exotic arsenal throughout the series to keep things interesting. I also appreciate the wealth of character actors and classic California locations, the formulas and tropes now have nostalgic charm, and damnit you just don’t see conversion vans on the road anymore.

Pick up this set, it’ll be better than you remember…

 

OTHER RANDOM OBSERVATIONS:

• Robert Clouse, director of Enter the Dragon, The Big Brawl and more, helmed the show’s first episode “Max” — which means Clouse stands alone in history as directing Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Sho Kosugi (as well as Cynthia Rothrock, Samo Hung, Bolo Yeung and others).

 Michael Sloan would learn from the experience, and go on to create and write for the more prosperous The Equalizer and Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.

I’d love to know when in the process of this show coming together Lee Van Cleef was settled on as the star. There’s no bigger fan of “The Bad” than me, but as structured, this project made him look just, well… bad. From a Hollywood perspective, hiring “The Man with the Gunsight Eyes” made sense, but there was a big difference between those gunsight eyes squinting from beneath a black hat, with that hawk nose and predator scowl like a grim reaper of the Italian West, and those same eyes leering out of an ill-fitting American mail-order-style ninja mask. Considering the way the doubling was done, would a younger actor have been a better choice? Maybe John Saxon? There’s just too much of a gap in the logic of the casting to the practices on-set for me to think Van Cleef was Plan A. Maybe a better idea would have been to put Van Patten in the suit, like he’s the ninja nerd wanting to don the full gear, and let Van Cleef be the slow-burning cool cat he was in The Octagon.

• The “Hostages” episode is a stand out for many as it cast David McCallum as the villain and George Lazenby as a British spy, an on-screen pairing of a Man from U.N.C.L.E. and a James Bond. However this wasn’t as history-making as it sounds, as the pair shared screen time in the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. from one year previous, also written by Michael Sloan.

• Bill Conti‘s music, particularly the theme, is an absolute legit classic of action TV craft. The opening credits are just superb, too. In this current wave of 80s fetish and retro appreciation, younger generations need to be cued in to this absolute gem of motion and graphic design from back in the day.

• The excellent Korean character actor Soon-Tek Oh plays a ninja from a rival clan in the “Out-of-Time-Step” episode, looking a bit awkward with what was clearly his first dabbling with ninja stuff. The next year he’d star opposite Chuck Norris in the memorable Missing in Action II: The Beginning. Do yourself a favor and check this movie out if you never have, or if it’s been a while. His final fight with Braddock is a lot better than here.

• Living the past 18 years in southern California I now recognize some of the classic locales used in The Master — the historic Bradbury Building (best known from the end of Blade Runner), Vasquez Rocks (where Kirk battled the Gorn on Star Trek) and in the intro credits we see the oft-filmed Japanese house and gardens owned by Shirley Temple, used also in the opening massacre of Revenge of the Ninja.

• For those to young too remember Eight is EnoughThe White Shadow or Class of 1984, the name Timothy Van Patten will sound familiar. Learning director’s chops on Michael Sloan’s The Equalizer he’d go on to helm some superb TV episodes on series such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and Black Mirror.

• One of my biggest fears in the first decade of the 2000s, when all sorts of old TV was getting remade as self-deprecating comedy drek, was a Master film with the likes of an Owen Wilson or Ben Stiller making complete fun of the ninja craze. My biggest dream today is a dead-serious reboot starring Kane Kosugi as Okasa, Scott Glenn as McAllister, and a redefined ‘Max’ being his half-Japanese daughter being trained at breakneck speed as they flee across the world escaping butterfly-emblemed assassins at every turn. Someone get on that, will ya!

• And one final observation… fuck hamsters.

 

MORE:

All the tropes of The Master

As usual, ShoKosugiTheNinja.com is the best repository of imagery.

BUY THE MASTER ON AMAZON

THE LAST NINJA is the last piece of the puzzle…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

What’s part Die Hard, part Kung-Fu, part Batman and obscure as hell for no logical reason?

It is the 1983 made-for-TV predecessor to The Master, arguably one of if not the best 80’s American ninja craze films made, but virtually un-recognized, even during the height of the boom. It is The Last Ninja, and sometime last September (I don’t know how I missed this on City on Fire) it snuck onto the market and became available for the first time ever on any home video format, with absolutely no fanfare or pre-release buzz.

Shot in early 1983, this TV movie of the week aired on ABC July 7th of that same year, and had a sporadic subsequent airing depending on where you were in the country. It introduced jet-set art dealer Ken (Kenjiro) Sakura, a caucasian abandoned as a baby at the stoop of a Japanese farmer’s house in Northern California in the 1950s. When the two eldest sons of his adoptive family were killed in the Korean War (after deftly executing a two-man commando mission of staggering bravery and skill), his sage-like father made the fateful decision to impart the family’s ancient teachings on Ken… now the ‘last’ ninja.

Ken now practices his shadow arts in the name of justice, hunting down killers and criminals untamed by the law, until he is tracked down and pressured by a shady government agent to intercede in a terrorist hostage situation taking place at the top of an impenetrable high-rise.

Interspersed between flashbacks to a lifetime of training under his adoptive father, Sakura uses mostly non-violent aspects of ninjutsu — disguise, infiltration, psychological warfare — to save the day and form an uneasy alliance with his untrustworthy government liaison.

The Last Ninja was absolutely set up as a pilot effort for an ongoing series — one that would have resembled Kung-Fu in taking the philosophical high-road with the martial arts at its core, and also been as centered on character development and life lessons as it was action.

The resemblance of Ken Sakura to Kwai Chang Caine was certainly deliberate, as it was written by Kung-Fu co-creator/writer Ed Spielman. Producer Anthony Spinner, prolific contributor to landmark series such as The Invaders, The Man from UNCLE and The Mod Squad, was also responsible for the 1976 episode of Baretta “The Ninja.” Director William A. Graham, a prolific TV workhorse whose output ranged from 1958 to 2002 (including such legendary series as The Fugitive) crafted a superbly tight movie here, with flashback sequences of particular high quality.

And his cast was great…

Michael Beck, criminally under-appreciated iconic star of The Warriors and cult faves like Battletruck and Megaforce, had the eyes to pull off a role that would oft be hooded, and an athletic physique to at least hang with his stunt and fight doubles. Perfectly cast, his cool demeanor and reserved brooding severity made him perfect for both the Westerner raised on Eastern teachings and his ‘Bruce Wayne’ manufactured persona all at once. He was everything the “ugly American” Timothy Van Patten wasn’t in The Master six months later.

Mako, likely best known as the wizard in Conan the Barbarian and the voice of Aku on Samurai Jack, but who decades before made history in American television’s first ever martial arts fight scene opposite Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, blesses The Last Ninja in its first 30 seconds with a killer voice over:

Centuries ago, when feudal Japan was divided into warring armies, there developed professional spies… avengers for their lords… called NINJA. Masters of the martial arts, disguise and illusion, they were seemingly able to disappear like wisps of shadows. The time has come for me, your father, to reveal to you the arts of NINJUTSU, to use them to oppose men of evil and to have no fear. You will learn all of our secrets. Your destiny is to be THE LAST OF THE NINJA.

The prolific screen villain Richard Lynch, smack dab in between being gutted by the triple-rocket-sword in The Sword and the Sorcerer and effortlessly crushing various ‘heavy’ roles on episodes of The Fall Guy, Manimal and Automan, phoned-in a generic crazed terrorist in a role given little-to-no screen time to develop. But Lynch’s mere presence sold the part and he was the right guy to cast.

Nancy Kwan, who had breakthrough roles in the early 1960s in The World of Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song spent the rest of her career as an Asian actor in Hollywood, which inevitably meant Nam-sploitation and martial arts tie-ins. Her sister character had a ton of potential had the movie gone on to series — would she have just been Ken’s assistant, or suited up herself as a full kunoichi? We’ll never know…

Mike Stone was once again connected to a ninja project that just didn’t pan out like it should have. In a way, The Last Ninja could have almost been an apology for the Enter the Ninja he never had the chance to control a few years earlier. Stone doubled Beck for several fight scenes, and even got some screen time as one of the terrorists. That’s almost certainly him doing shadow kata ender the credit sequence.

One thing I genuinely appreciate about this flick is the costuming and gear are all custom, little-to-no off-the-rack or out-of-the-catalog fare here. I’m a registered hater of ninja suits rendered in modern camouflage, but even I kind of dig the multiple-patterned deal Beck wears in training, topped with an animal print hood!

His black mission gear is based on regularly available gi, but embellished with custom gauntlets and hood wraps of interesting contrasted textures.

One of the coolest aspects of the show was the Sakura household’s inner ninja sanctum — an octagonal meditation chamber of traditional Japanese decor, with hidden arsenals and wardrobes behind electronic doors. Not even Kosugi’s coolest fog-spewing neon-underlit weapons chest could rival Beck’s absolutely awesome shinobi ‘Bat cave’ in sheer volume and presentation style points!

As for weaponry, apart from a single shuriken thrown during a training sequence, and the fleeting glimpses we see hanging in the closets during his mission prep, there is nary a ninja-to, shoge or tandem pair of chrome-plated sais to be seen. Considering how weapons-crazed we all were back in the day, a blow-gun or some climbing claws would have been advisable. Maybe they were saving the good sharp-pointy stuff for later had the ongoing series been greenlit?

One doesn’t mind weapons-fetish or gratuitous combat taking a backseat to things like disguise and wall-scaling though, when those more reality-based espionage arts are just so damn well done.

There are four different disguise bits here that really drive the plot and are vital to both the mission and the maintaining of Sakura’s freedom from government interference. In contrast, there are also a couple of surprising bits of ancient Japanese mask work at play that put a foot in the fantastic enough to keep any ninja-nerd happy.

I will fault the film’s last act with some pacing problems. Too much time is spent on the human fly routine. It seems like a better plan would have been to get in on the ground floor, nail some unwary guards and commandeer an elevator, which would have allowed for more time to psychologically turn the terrorists minds to jelly in the final showdown. That final set piece is great in concept but stumbles a bit in execution and feels rushed. Such is television…

Why The Last Ninja fell immediately into obscurity is pure speculation. The Master premiered six months later on rival network NBC, taking a low road exploitation vector similar to what Cannon Films had perfected in theaters. That other show also had THE name in ninja-sploitation — Sho Kosugi — and the celebrity rub of the legendary Lee Van Cleef. Maybe between the cross-network competition, and the tell-tale signs of the ninja boom petering out before its time, Paramount/ABC saw little worth investing in? Perhaps Last Ninja‘s multi-faceted and disciplined portrayal of ninjutsu may have been too cerebral for the bloodthirsty audience the grindhouse and home video markets had trained?

But beyond the mystery of its lack of further development, the fact that it never saw a home video release is absolutely baffling. Recall how many alleged ninja movies one’s local video store had in the VHS era that turned out to be completely ninja-less kung-fu movies given a shameless re-title. Then remember how much rental money you wasted enticed by the lurid and explosive package art of IFD/Filmark cut-together drek, which categorically over-promised and under-delivered on genuine ninja action. Meanwhile, an outright American studio-produced excellent quality English-language full-on ninja movie with marketable stars was sitting un-tapped in a Paramount vault.

The Last Ninja, next to the failed development of Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja, is one of the great nexus points — the great ‘what-ifs?’ — of the 80s ninja craze. Had it been picked up, it would have stood as a fine example for others to follow of what could be done with higher-minded, more educated and ambitious treatments of ninja. But you also have to believe it would have delivered on the pure action front, too. One can only imagine towards the end of the establishing first season a rival ninja to Kenjiro being introduced, maybe Mike Stone getting a beefy on-screen role finally or even a Tadashi Yamashita perhaps? A successful weekly Last Ninja series could have given the craze the few more years it deserved.

Alas, what we got instead was decades of The Last Ninja being a shadowy legend — a vague memory to many, argued about amongst the faithful as ever having existed in the first place or being a mere fantasy, or at best mis-identified in various articles as a failed pilot eventually retrofitted into The Master. In the early 2000s, bootleg copies started circulating, and eventually a heavily compressed digital copy surfaced in bit-torrent circles and later on YouTube.

A legit disc release, alas not the boutique Blu-ray deluxe edition it deserves, is now the last piece of the 80s ninja boom to make it to our collective home video libraries. The standard def, full-frame TV aspect ratio DVD from CBS/VEI is as no-frills as a release gets, but the picture quality is a marked improvement from the digital rip we’ve all been sharing around for the last decade, so I highly recommend picking it up — it’s well worth the $14 currently on Amazon.

The packaging leaves something to be desired — the design is fine enough, evoking the American Ninja flicks, but nowhere do they tout the first time ever on home video status of this release or its historic rarity. There’s a hungry audience to be reached here, and this demure release needs to be more self-aggrandizing of its own importance.

But hey, we’ll take it!

 

UPDATE: More than one VN reader has reached out to us via social media on seemingly missing scenes, and it does indeed look like 10 minutes of training flashbacks and climbing scenes around minute 50 of this disc are AWOL. Also all rips of the film on YouTube have been removed by a CBS copyright claim in the past two weeks. Seems like someone finally cares after all these years… 

 

Kosugi and Van Cleef in Japan

One of the great head-scratchers of the 80s American ninja boom was the NBC TV series The Master, created by Michael Sloan but driven by the one-man craze-catalyst that was Sho Kosugi. On one hand its very existence spoke to the magnitude of ninja’s popularity in 1984, but its utter failure coming at the same time as Kosugi’s departure from Cannon Films can be interpreted as the premature beginning of the end for the boom period.

The Master failed to convert new audiences, and was, quite-honestly, often cringe-worthy to even the staunchest ninja geek. Much of the country never even saw the full run of 13 episodes. I was growing up in New England at the time, and with the Celtics on their way to a championship that year, Larry Bird was pre-empting Max Keller at every opportunity.

Two years later, Trans-World Entertainment would release the series as two-episode clam-shell and hard-shell VHS to the rental market, mildly disguised as “movies” under the title The Master Ninja. Within the next two years the rest of the globe was devouring dubbed or subtitled editions in German, Spanish and a host of other languages.

I’m the most intrigued by these kanji-subtitled Japanese versions:

What must the audience raised on the likes of Shinobi-no-Mono and contemporarily enjoying Kage No Gundan have of thought of this strange American product, what with its traditionally-garbed ninja using archaic weaponry in modern America? Were the stock-in-trade TV villains like greedy land barons, suburban crime lords and small-town evil industrialists harping on the likes of farmers and single moms something that even resonated with the Japanese? Did the action scenes, tailored to American audiences fetishizing signature weapons straight out of mail order catalogs and expecting high-arcing spin-kicks instead of the low-crouched Bujinkan-inspired choreography of the home product impress the Japanese at all?

The home video versions of The Master hit the market at about the same time as the IFD/Filmark stuff from Hong Kong started flooding video stores with titles like Ninja Terminator and Full Metal Ninja. The craze was burning out prematurely, but for NBC and Trans-World they were finally making back their investment with international video sales.

As for the North American market, the riffed-upon versions served up on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the early 1990s were actually seen by more of an audience than any other iteration. The funky “Master Ninja Theme Song” bit sung by the robots remains one of the more beloved moments of that increasingly legendary show.

I wonder if the MST3K home video releases were imported into Japan…

Things you can buy ME for Christmas – Part 1

Most sites give you all sorts of gift giving ideas this time of year, but I’m turning the tables and putting it all on YOU!

Here’s something I’d really enjoy as a gift from one of you folks, original TV Guide advertising art of Lee Van Cleef in The Master!

Masterninja-TVGuide_1

This 18×22″ original was rendered back in mid 1980’s by artist Larry Salk. Crisp, high-contrast illustrations like these would often reproduce better than half-toned photos on the cheaper-than-cheap pulp upon which TV Guide and newspaper TV listing inserts were printed.

Masterninja-TVGuide_2

Yep, this would look awesome hanging on my wall, so hit this eBay link and make with the $500 somebody.

For the next month we’ll be looking at plenty more cool stuff I’d love to own and you as loyal and grateful readers can all pitch in and play Santa… right? RIGHT?!?!? Anyone…

Hello…

Before “The Master”…

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 5

…there was The Last Ninja. Michael Beck, perhaps known best as Swan from The Warriors, was hot on the heels of action masterpieces Warlords of the 21st Century and Megaforce when he made the ahead-of-its-time TV pilot about a lone honkey ninja adventuring about the USA.

Last Ninja pic

Now, I haven’t seen this movie, as it’s not in print and not even that common with the yo-ho-ho set, but this press sheet has me thinking I didn’t miss much back in the day.

I think Beck looks great in full night mission gear, but I cringe at the cammo suit.

Note the conspicuous lack of WEAPONS here, sort of a major component of our love of ninja… His Dr. Doolittle act with zoo animals is hardly a replacement for an enemy’s eyeball dangling from the end of a kasurigama, or a the light of a bright full moon eclipsed by an ominous cloud of blowfish poison-soaked shuriken, is it?

Here’s the promo copy on the back of the press pic:

Last Ninja note

The descriptive on the back of this publicity 8×10 is remarkably light on flourish that would actually engage an audience. I myself would have certainly mentioned “exotic ninja assassins, as seen in Shogun” maybe, and the phrase “at which point our hero draws his sword and becomes a gore-soaked windmill of death” would have appeared at least twice in the TV Guide listing.

Six months later, the decidedly goofier series The Master would drive yet another nail in the coffin of the American ninja craze.

If only The Last Ninja property had taken off, we might have had some kick-ass crossover action. Beck beheads Timothy Van Hamster and steals his boss van, Mako fights Sho Kosugi and Lee Van Cleef at once… Oh what could have been.