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 | 2

…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.