JIRAIYA THE BRAVE: Ninja and toad magic in the roaring 20s

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This 1921 silent movie might just be the first time the legend of Jiraiya was put on film. It could also well-be the first time giant toad and snake magic with special effects transformations appeared on screen, four decades before heroic ninja and tokusatsu monster action were all the rage.

If the tale of toad-powered Jiraiya and snake-powered Orochimaru seems familiar its because it’s been adapted and re-imagined over and over, from the technicolor era to Naruto today.

There’s even a sidekick employing SLUG MAGIC! Not sure how menacing a big ass slug actually is, (that’s him in the middle, below) but there you are…

Silent films in any country are beyond rare, with most lost to the ravages of time, but throw in the war and it’s a miracle any of these flicks still exist. The ritualized combat choreography and simple but ground-breaking effects work here have real charm. Glad this not only survived, but is on YouTube!

Want to credit Ninja Attack co-author Matt Alt for turning me onto this video. Read his article on toads in Japanese popular media here. A new edition of his book is due in July.

On sale at FUJI ARTS

Don’t own an antique Japanese print of a ninja (or ninja-like) wizard doing TOAD MAGIC? Well, end the shame and embarrassment of it right now over at Japanese art acutioneers Fuji Arts!

I’d love to a be a heavy hitter and score some of these expensive relics, but financial fate has had other plans for me alas, so I was just poking through just the Clearance section of their online offerings. Lo-and-behold I found all sorts of warrior action and monster reptile mayhem! The clearance selection has ‘buy-it-now’ prices, too, with a lot of stuff under $100.

Look at that TOAD MOUNTAIN from this print of the Jiraiya lore!!! I’m ready to move in there and make it VN Headquarters.

A little MAGIC SERPENT to start things off

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Surely the apex of shinobi-kaiju cinema, Magic Serpent (for the Sandy Frank/AIP-exposed) or Kairyu Dai-Kessen, is a no brainer to start of Monsters and Masks 2010!

This is a staged publicity shot, you rarely if ever get that clear a shot of the two dueling ninja transformed into giant pagoda-crushing critters. That is one loooong-legged toad…

Serpent is available in two different forms; the English-dubbed full-frame “Magic Serpent” cut is on a Gamera double feature disc, and a widescreen Japanese language print with grey market subs is circulating as “Dragon Showdown” or “Battle of the Dragons.” I recommend both, as I grew up with the former’s goofy translations and Godzilla sound-effects, but love the original’s kids chorus theme song and widescreen glory.

Hiroki Matsukata and Ryutaro Otomo posed with their amphibious alter-egos.
French market title MONSTERS OF THE APOCALYPSE ignores the ninja-ness of this masterpiece for some reason. YOUNG FLYING HERO is an un-official Thai sequel/knockoff.
This French market re-title of the above, cashing-in on the 80's ninja VHS rental boom, is THE FUCKING BOMB!!! Look at that misleading cover art. C'est magnifique!

Further reading:

We did a big write up on this last year: Part 1 / Part 2

The un-official Thai sequel sounds like a real blast, too. TarsTarkas.net

Press stills from NINJUTSU GOZEN-JIAI

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The 1957 Toei FX romp Ninjutsu Gozen-Jiai (aka Torawakamaru, the Koga Ninja) is the perfect example of the pre-60’s craze kid’s ninja film: mischievous wizard hero, evil sorcerer, spirit-creatures fighting in the clouds, etc and so forth. Before the real ninjutsu practitioners taught the makers of Shinobi-no-mono the real-deal, these magic duels were what the genre was all about.

These stills, contemporary with the film's release, are from a press kit for Asian secondary markets.
The film's dashing hero Torawakamaru (Sentaro Fushimi) has whatever magical powers he needs to in any given situation - teleportation, mind-over-matter, flight, and the requisite giant toad transmutation.
Here he is again, with the cute-as-a-button Ueki Chie as the princess-in-peril. Great costumes here.
Oddly enough, this film has the exact same historically-based conflict as the SHINOBI-NO-MONO films did years later: Tokugawa vs. Toyotomi, with Sandayu Momochi and Ichikawa Goemon (Nakajiro Tomita, in black above) working in the shadows.
Torawakamaru and Goemon's final duel goes from courtyard to rooftop and beyond. After a while, gotta think Japanese architects were reinforcing rooftops to accommodate constant combat...
A little closer in on these amazing costumes. Too bad both the film and the stills are B&W, the colors must have been intense.
In magic-based ninja flicks, ALL final duels end up in the clouds, or the shadow realm, or the zone of cloudy shadows, whatever. Shortly after this exchange, the combatants transformed into giant toad and fire breathing serpent, per union rules. No stills of such in the press kit alas.
Don't look to me for a rational explanation of this crudely composited still, I'm as baffled as you are. The kid is Goroichi (Ueki Motoharu), son on the evil Goemon. He, however, is the plucky boyscout/sidekick type, and the film is strangely brutal when it comes to the kid's emotions at watching his father's demise.

A movie (such as it is, with a serial-like running length of just over 1-hour) like this isn’t for those looking for the black suits and the blood-letting. It’s very one-dimensional, prone to silliness and comedy relief, and the FX scenes are a bit too few and far between. But, it is a prime example of what the genre was at the time. If you dig Magic Serpent, see it’s predecessor for sure.

Read Paghat’s review over at the Weird Wild Realm, along with pics of the toad and serpent.

Ninja Dojo write-up and link where to buy.

REALLY vintage ninja, courtesy of Uncle Sam?


Found these antique woodcut images on, of all places, the Library of Congress image archive website! See, the government is good for something… I like to think of these as Socialized Shinobi. Details of the above follow:




According to the archive, the name of this 1820’s Utagawa Toyokuni print translates to “The actors Matsumoto Kōshirō, Iwai Hanshirō, and Nakamura Shikan.” It’s either theatrical marketing or a piece of souvenir merch from an era when effects-laden stage plays featuring wizards and swordsmen were huge. A lot of images like this, having all the black costuming and spectacle of the modern genre, are sold as “ninja” related by antiques dealers.


Here’s a similar piece, circa 1830’s – “The actors Nakamura Karoku and Ichikawa Yaozo” also by Utagawa Toyokuni. That giant toad is awesome beyond words!!! If you want to see an example of this stage magic, perhaps the very play this image is from, check out the nifty demon-hunter flick Ashura.



Not so much a ninja situation here, but damn those battling skeletons are amazing! “Ōya tarō mitsukuni” by Taiso Yoshitoshi (1865) has me jonesing to watch Ray Harryhausen‘s work in Jason and the Argonauts.


This 1853 print “Suma,” again by Utagawa Toyokuni, is from a series of Genji illustrations. Obviously, ANY character in a black disguise and hood, be they assassin, kidnapper, burglar or even stage hand, is going to be retro-shinobified nowadays and given full ninja status wether they deserve it or not. Not sure it matters to the soon-to-be decapitated koto player if the killer in question is a secret-scroll-carrying official Union of Shinobi Local 51 ninja or not.

The Library of Congress online resource is full of great imagery, however the site looks like it was built in 1995, and the search functions are far from intuitive. I found most of the above under keywords “Japan + Warrior” as terms like ninja and shinobi brought up zero-point-zero results.

Happy hunting!


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The main-event of Kairyu Daikessen is an extended kaiju beatdown between dragon and toad, with a castle destroyed in the process.



This longshot actually begins a DIALOG scene between the monsters! They cut old-school rasslin' promos on each other, then proceed to have fun storming the castle.


In Japan, dragons don't breathe fire, toads do.
But the dragon is a big hoser himself, so it's a pretty even fight.
It's toad warrior vs. reindeer rex is the original MMA (Mixed Monster Attack).



This giant spider (species: Arachnus Deus Ex Machinatus) flies in at the last moment to save the day.


And in the fashion of all good movies, it ends with an explosion.

Kairyu Daikessen is actually more available now than it ever was back in the day. Beautiful widescreen subtitled editions are floating the trader seas under titles like “Dragon Showdown.” The only legit US release is burried on a double feature disc with a Gamera flick, and it’s the pan and scan AIP dub. The American version has it’s charm though, as all the monster “voices” were replaced by ones more familiar to US audiences (Godzilla, Rodan, Ebirah included).


Here’s some additional ephemera from the rare but beloved film:

Japanese publicity departments were superb at crafting these staged press photos that would summarize the movie in a scene that never actually happens. Best use of this practice ever is in the press stuff for WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. Google it.
mag serp toys
I'd possibly be willing to trade a kidney (not necessarily mine) for this set of 7" vinyl dolls from, I believe, Marusan or Marmitt.

Creatures in SATOMI HAKKENDEN (part 1)

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It’s one of Japan’s greatest literary works, has been turned into kabuki, manga, films, serials and TV series, and is essentially the origin of Japan’s preoccupation with the ‘assemble the team’ motif in cinema. It is Satomi Hakkenden, and it’s movie versions are often chock full of creatures and critters and creepy crawlies of epic proportions.

Here’s several caps of the monstrous incarnations of the evil sorceress from the 1959 Toei 3-part serial-esque adaptation:

Aobiku (Rieko Matsukaze) is a second-generation evil sorceress out for revenge on the noble Satomi clan.
She can turn dead leaves into these mytical ninja foot soldiers, but...
...would rather send the family's signature creature, the giant serpent, on her evil errands.
A few shots of the serpents are gorgeously animated.


Lord Satomi’s pet Yatsufasa is the greatest dog EVER! He fetches the decapitated heads of fallen warlords from the battle field on command. When Aobiku’s mother Shirobiku sends a serpent after the family, the dog hulks up big time and fights it off. Killed in the scrap, Yatsufasa then explodes into a mystical cloud that sends off eight “beads of virtue” across the land. Years later, eight samurai will find those beads and come together to yadda yadda, you know the rest…

Aobiku also likes to do her own dirty work, transforming into this flying bat creature for nocturnal kidnapping raids on the Satomi.


This is my favorite of her other forms, a reptile man!


LOVE this head design, and it looks as good as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy flicks, sans the digital assists.
This version of "Satomi" has a definitive giant toad magic sequence that would be copied for years after.



The same showdown between fire-breathing serpent and mist-belching magic toad happened in the seminal ninja wizard film NINJUTSU GOZEN JIRAI, but in B&W was nowhere near as cool.


At the epic's climax, warrior wizard Inuyama Dosetsu (Satomi Kotaro) defeats Aobiku with magic and blade alike, but only after busting out this fine example of a Grecco-Roman ankle lock!

The three one-hour 1959 films are pretty great (subbed versions under titles like Eight Brave Brothers are out in the ‘trading community’), but it is another, higher profile Satomi Hakkenden film from the 80’s that we outside of Japan know most – Kodokawa’s Legend of the Eight Samurai. More on that version’s horific creatures tomorrow.

Demons in ASHURA

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The domestic release of the 2005 Japanese fantasy horror flick Ashura didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare in the states, but it deserves a watch for sure. I found it reminiscent of Kadokawa’s 80’s neo-chambara epics like Legend of the 8 Samurai and Ninja Wars.

If for nothing else, see it for the great sets, decent digital FX and GREAT character designs, like these:

Best creepy demon girl ever.
Naughty wizardess and invader from the darkside Bizan is like an old-school Disney villainess.
She's flanked at all times by these demon samurai, whose race is hunted relentlessly by...
...these "Demon Wardens" - who are in SUPERB costumes!
This, however, is my favorite scene in the film - a kabuki play wherein a ninja wizard summons the inevitable giant toad.
Someone, somewhere, kept this giant toad from the shoot, and I want to be that person... badly.