More good Blu news for 2016!

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Well, it took 30 some odd years but we’re finally getting close to having all the classic Sho Kosugi fare well represented on home video. Arrow’s superb sounding release of Pray for Death hasn’t even shipped yet and they’ve already announced a follow up — the end-of-craze-days actioner Rage of Honor.

Rage was the movie where you could just feel Kosugi not wanting to do costumed ninja stuff anymore, and the industry was indeed on the verge of the kickboxer takeover, but there are plenty of shinobi-fodder on hand for him to slice up with various self-designed ninja-esque gimmick weapons. The marketing boasted the film a “high-tech adventure” but qualified that with “full of new wave ninja tactics” so yeah, no one was entirely comfortable turning their backs fully on the ninja craze quite yet.

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I was a fan of the film’s villain Lewis Van Bergen from his stint on the long-forgotten Sable TV series (a superhero role he evidently inherited from a never-aired pilot that starred Gene Simmons of KISS), and would of course see anything Kosugi did, but back in the day this film felt like one of the more pronounced nails in the coffin for the ninja boom. The marketing was ninja-less, the video packaging later on was ninja-less, and moreover it almost seemed like everyone involved was embarrassed by or trying to deny the hooded pedigree of work that had gotten them to where they were. Note below the signature Kosugi kick, but in spy-wear. Ironically, the mid-2000s DVD packaging would repurpose Revenge of the Ninja publicity material to swing the pendulum back on ninja-nostalgia.

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I was such a ninja-loyalist in 1987 that this turn away from the genre by some of its crucial creators felt like a major letdown, however removed from that sting by a few decades, I’ve come to enjoy Rage of Honor for the nutty fun action blast it actually is. I love the write up for it over at Cool Ass Cinema, who call it “the most expensive ninja movie Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai, and Tomas Tang never made.”

From the Arrow Films press release:

Sho Kosugi’s ninja domination continues!

Rage of Honor (Arrow Video) Blu-ray

Following his star turns in ‘80s actioners Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, Sho Kosugi continued his domination of the US martial arts movie with 1987’s Rage of Honor – helmed once again by Pray for Death director Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad).

Federal agent Shiro Tanaka (Kosugi) used to live for his job – now, he lives only for revenge. When his partner is killed during a bungled drug bust, Shiro throws away his badge and the rule book with it: arming himself with an array of deadly weaponry – including nunchucks, blades and ninja stars – he sets out to Buenos Aires to settle the score with the bad guys.

Packing explosions, flying kicks and somersaults aplenty (as well as some truly logic-bending stunt sequences), Rage of Honor sees Kosugi at the top of his game as he battles his way from the streets of the urban jungle to the very literal jungles of South America.

SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a transfer of original elements by MGM
– Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Sho and Tell Part 2: The Domination – brand new interview with star Sho Kosugi on Rage of Honor and the later stages of his film career
– Sho Kosugi Trailer Gallery: Enter the Ninja (1981), Revenge of the Ninja (1983), Pray for Death (1985) and Rage of Honor (1987)
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin

The first pressing includes a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film and an extract from Kosugi’s upcoming book

Really interested in that new Kosugi material promised!!!

Moving on to other major Blu-news…

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Finally. Fi-nal-ly! FINALLY!!!

Perhaps the most ‘fallen-between-the-cracks’ major chapter of 80s martial cinema to largely miss the DVD era is getting a legit release worthy of its quality! The Challenge (aka The Equals, Sword of the Ninja) was a 1982 American film shot mostly in Japan, directed by John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix, Ronin), co-penned by John Sayles (Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out), scored by the great Jerry Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone, Planet of the Apes), and photographed by Hideo Gosha favorite Kôzô Okazaki (Goyokin, The Wolves, The Yakuza). A-List behind the camera, and A-List in front, too.

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It was the first American audiences saw of Toshiro Mifune since The Bushido Blade and Shogun, and would end up being the last English-language work he’d do. Scott Glenn, after surviving the rigors of Apocalypse Now and hot off making a splash in Urban Cowboy played The Ugly American fish-out-of-water, a no-good palooka that Bushido master Mifune and daughter Donna Kei Benz (Pray for Death) whip into shape for a showdown with the clan’s black sheep brother, a rich industrialist obsessed with reuniting a pair of family swords separated after WWII. Much blood-letting ensues.

This movie sees life imitate art quite a bit, in that Scott Glenn, once on the turf of Japanese stunt crews and martial arts choreographers, takes a real beating as an actor, just like his character does. And in a refreshing departure from the normal ‘white guy gets in over his head in a foreign culture then becomes the best example of that culture ever and turns out to be their savior’ bullshit we get so often, he is instead constantly fighting from behind the 8-ball, a thoroughly expendable pawn manipulated by two sides of a generational feud. When it does inevitably come down to him ‘saving the day’ it is more a matter of self-preservation, as a frantic sword fight against a lifelong kenjutsu master turns into an explosion of pure anarchy that a barely trained but desperate x-factor of a fighter miraculously endures more than outright wins.

Challenges

Despite everyone and everything about this movie being first rate, including some superb martial arts, The Challenge fell into a weird hole. It was all over cable after a brief theatrical run, and had a big box VHS release, but never made it to DVD (at least not 100% legit or intact) in this country. It wasn’t until airings on cable in recent years that anyone had seen it widescreen, but now , because maybe the gods have not abandoned us after all, somebody woke up and we’ve got a Blu coming and man are we stoked!!! Scott Glenn fighting ninja on Netflix’s Daredevil and now The Challenge in HD? Somebody pinch me!

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Two other 1980s Japanese martial arts-oriented films that weren’t necessarily martial arts films have also gotten new HD life. Scream Factory continues their budo-horror preoccupation that started with Ninja III: The Domination with a double feature disc of The House Where Evil Dwells and Ghost Warrior!

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From the press release:

A Double Dose Of Samurai Action!

THE HOUSE WHERE EVIL DWELLS
1982 / 1.78:1 / NEW Transfer

A century ago, a samurai brutally murdered his adulterous wife and her lover before taking his own life. Now, the Fletcher family has found what they think is their perfect Japanese home – not knowing it’s the same house where the murders occurred. But as strange events escalate and the ghosts of the dead begin to toy with the living, the Fletchers discover they’ve become unwitting players in a horrible reenactment… one which they may not survive! This chilling ghost story stars Edward Albert (Galaxy Of Terror), Susan George (Straw Dogs) and Doug McClure (Humanoids From The Deep) and is directed by Kevin Connor (Motel Hell).

GHOST WARRIOR (aka SWORDKILL)
1986 / 1:85.1

While exploring a cave, two skiers find the body of a 400-year-old samurai warrior entombed in ice. He is brought to the United States in a hush-hush operation and revived through cryosurgery. Unfortunately, he is then forced to battle for his freedom, dignity and life. This Charles Band production stars Janet Julian (King Of New York, Humongous).

Two more mainstays from my cable TV-feuled youth, and another swoon-worthy Susan George role, fresh off of Enter the Ninja.

TAKE MY MONEY ALREADY!

 

Toshiro Mifune: Ninja???

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 2

Everyone knows Toshiro Mifune, right? Shogun, warlord, admiral, ronin. But who knew he once played a ninja!?!?

Born on this day in 1920, let’s celebrate Mifune’s birthday with a look at a lesser-known chapter of his storied career – two ninja films he made with legendary director Hiroshi Inagaki.

Yagyu Bugeicho (The Yagyu Secret Scrolls, 1957) and Yagyu Begeicho: Soryu Hiken (Yagyu Secret Scrolls: Two Secret Swords, 1958) were two parts of what was possibly a planned but never finished trilogy. The story of the Yagyu clan’s struggle to keep their secrets under wraps is one of the most filmed in Japanese cinema history. A significant version, or two, has been produced every decade since the silent era, and contemporary to the two Mifune/Inagaki flicks, three other studios released different takes on the same basic tale.

In a nutshell, the Yagyu were the Shogun’s appointed sword instructors and held considerable power and influence in the government. Varying from film to film, they are either a force of good secretly keeping the peace (like Jushiro Konoe’s long running series), or an evil network of clandestine agents enforcing their own bloody agendas (as in the Lone Wolf and Cub films). Records of their martial arts techniques, roster of operatives or accounts of past and current shenanigans are kept in a number of scrolls that can either ruin their noble efforts or expose their insidious conspiracies, so everyone from the highest officials to the lowest of ninja are after them.

Here, the Yagyu are a sinister shadow empire, and when three scrolls go missing, victimized clans and desperate shinobi spring into action. Regardless of how they are portrayed, the Yagyu are always willing to throw countless family members to their deaths in defense of their secrets, so the action is on.

Enter two ninja brothers – Tasaburo (Mifune) and Senshiro (Koji Tsuruta) – last seen together a year previous as Miyamoto Musashi and Kojiro Sasaki on the beach of Ganryu Island in Inagaki’s famed Samurai Trilogy. Tasaburo accidentally gets involved in the scroll hunt, and sticks around for the affections of an intense princess played by Yoshiko Kuga. Senshiro is more duty bound, blindly loyal to the shadowy head of his ninja clan.

Brothers they may be, the two are in conflict most of the film, clashing over differences in motivation and their relations with women, but blood ends up thicker than paper. One of many secrets these shinobi carry is their unwillingness to harm each other regardless of orders.

Facing-off with each over the course of the two films is the ever present Jubei Yagyu, played in the squnty-eyed mode by Jotaro Togami. He’s great on screen, driven beyond family ties, deadly and intimidating.

These are Inagaki films, so one-on-one formal sword duels, often absent in the ninja genre, are mandatory – and they are superb, too.

Tempted as the director is to fall into familiar territory like the above, these are still definitely ninja movies. Bridging two different eras of distinctly styled shinobi cinema, they are more in the pre-Shinobi-no-Mono swashbuckling hero style, but with a healthy dose of the social commentary and familiar themes of trying to leave the shadow life more associated with the next decade.

Ninja here are spies of a lower caste than the samurai around them, but their exotic skills are portrayed in a positive light. Inagaki loves effects-laden escape scenes, like this innovative use of fireballs.

But in tandem with classical pre-60’s ninja wizard tricks like this web gag. There’s even a brief bit of legit ninja ‘magic’ in the second film, somewhat at odds with the established credible reality around it.

There’s some nice commando gear featured, too, but without the outright fetishization of the shadow tools the 60s craze leaned on so heavily.

Each brother has his own signature shuriken, but they both use similar long swords with noticeably elongated handles. Veeeerrrrry cool! I love this Yagyu thug’s hand cannon, too!

What I’m rather ga-ga about these movies is Inagaki’s treatment of the ninja costumes. Mission gear varies between simple black to charcoal grey to lighter hues, depending on the situation at hand. Why is this adaptive costuming so rare in shinobi cinema?

Another Inagaki ‘innovation’ – which really should be a lot more commonly seen but inexplicably isn’t – is reversible mission gear. Most of the ninja suits double as casual street wear, and there are some neat transition scenes.

The second film also features some superb pilgrim-basket-hat-on-pilgrim-basket-hat violence.

Inagaki’s Yagyu films are positively magnificent – full of heroism, intrigue and tragedy; loaded with tense fight scenes and improbable escapes. The cinematography is on a level above the usual ninja fare. I adore stage-set ‘exteriors’ and he’s got some of the most stunning fake skies I’ve ever seen.

If there are any complaints here, it’s with the womens’ roles. Not unlike the women in The Samurai Trilogy, jilted for the greater love of swords, the otherwise strong female leads are pushed aside literally and metaphorically at any hint of combat.

Yoshiko Kuga’s doomed princess is a strong character, until she becomes little more than a walking plot device. Mifune’s conflicted ninja leaves ‘the life’ and gives-in to his passions momentarily, but not without tragic results that suck him right back into the secret scroll whirlpool. His brother has women flinging themselves at him left and right, including the jaw-droppingly beautiful Mariko Okada, who steals the second film as a wild-haired street dancer as trapped by the ninja life as either of the brothers. She ends up another of Inagaki’s unfulfilled widows of the warrior’s way.

Another thing a little distracting about these films is Mifune himself. In 1957 he was already a massive screen presence, but since then we’ve come to know him (especially in the West) as imperious and dominating. Our Mifune is more a shogun, a sensei, a noble even as a raggedy ronin, than he is a commoner on his heels, as in a film like Stray Dog perhaps.

With this perspective, he can look a bit silly scurrying around in ninja wear. I don’t 100% get the sense that this man belongs crawling around in the rafters or eavesdropping from below the floorboards.

I guess it depends on one’s exposure to Mifune’s broad range of work, much of it unseen in the U.S.

Regardless, Mifune’s Yagyu flicks are a must-see, as much a curiosity for Mifune or Inagaki fans as they are shinobifiles, and the broad sweeping adventure afoot will leave anyone entertained.

I myself am curious about the existence of a third film. The second is open-ended and ripe for serialization, and Inagaki was obviously trilogy-oriented. Mifune, however, may have been too busy with the SIX other movies he was in in 1958, including a little gem called The Hidden Fortress.

So if you want to commemorate what would have been Toshiro Mifune’s 91st birthday, grab these films from Kurotokagi.