More home video subterfuge

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Ninja commandos inflicted some pretty serious damage during Japan’s feudal age, but the damage they’ve done to home video shopers’ wallets in the modern age is probably worse.

Video packaging subterfuge — throwing the word NINJA on any non-shinobi-oriented film for a sales spike — was typical in the 80s. Often, the B.S. was within the confines of the genre, like Sho Kosugi imagery is used in movies that didn’t star him:


But just as common was deception from outside the genre, particularly 70s kung-fu films bumped to priced-to-sell VHS from 16mm retired grindhouse prints under a shinobi-fied re-title:


Once in a while, you come across some genuine head-scratchers, like this 90s VHS for the Cameron Mitchell exploitation flick The Last Reunion:


This 1980 dumpster fire of a film sees a war orphan now full gown into a vengeful martial arts master hunting down the members of a former army unit. During the 80s craze, and considering the assassin wore some semblance of night camouflaging black, it definitely qualified for “retro-shinobi-fication” — getting retitled as Ninja Nightmare, Ninja Assassins and/or Revenge of the Bushido Blade in endless cheap VHS bargain bin ambushes. I’m baffled it would see the light of day on VHS of that period under it’s non-ninja title, but even more confused that the image they used here is of Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada from the demented Kadowkawa FX masterpiece we know and love as Ninja Wars!


Add to all this confusion the fact that “Ninja Assassin” and “Ninja Assassins” as well as “Ninja Nightmare” were used for other films from the likes of Godfrey Ho, and the unsuspecting shopper could be out all sorts of scratch.

The bulk of the post has been set in the past tense, but I recently stumbled upon this newly released cheapie DVD compilation:

$_12 copy

A 2015 release! Brazen as hell!

Quick census: a drunken master, a has-been action star in meta-comeback bank heist mode and a retired pro-wrestler in a boxing ring… and yeah, NO NINJA WHAT THE HELL DECADE IS IT WHO ACTUALLY BUYS THIS CRAP!?!?!?!

And… to come full circle:


Some of the above flicks might actually have ninja in them, though… at least that’s what the knocked-off Kosugi art would indicate.

Caveat Emptor…


VN REVISITED – The Illustrated Sho Kosugi

Originally published January, 2010.

In the 80’s, Sho Kosugi posed for over 73 billion photos in full night gear, laden with weapons, in magazines like Black Belt, Ninja, even Karate Illustrated and Inside Kung Fu. Yet when it comes to movie and video game ad campaigns, you often see painted and illustrated images of him instead – many leaving a lot to be desired. Sometimes it was agencies not wanting to pay royalties to photographers. Other times it was unscrupulous art departments not having any legal right to use a Kosugi image whatsoever, but wanting the box office rub. Either way, some very interesting artistic mutations occurred…

It started in 1981 of course, with Enter the Ninja. Golan-Globus scooped the big studio development of Eric Van Lustbader’s mega hit novel The Ninja with this exploitation gem (the American genre never recovered), for which Kosugi did some publicity photo posing. An air brushed version of what we’ll call THE KOSUGI KICK appeared on some of the posters (and VHS packaging), and soon after a retail poster we all had on our wall. The Kosugi Kick was henceforth knocked-off 15.3 trillion times, and you still see it today once in a while. The pose is one of THE lingering icons of the 80’s craze, perhaps the definitive image of the era.

The follow-up to Enter, and the movie that cemented “the ninja craze” as the big thing in martial arts (and martial arts cinema) for the decade, Revenge of the Ninja, had a pretty dynamite painted poster itself. What’s easy to forget about the superb Revenge is that in it, Kosugi made history – an Asian actor being the single male lead, and in only his second film in the U.S. In reality, Bruce Lee never did that, being co-top-billed with John Saxon in Enter the Dragon (although after his death, amidst the kung-fu boom, the campaigns changed to feature him much more).

Ironically the painted art has little-to-no resemblance to Kosugi, but damn what composition! Back in the day, though, we were tortured by the the ‘inauthentic’ details like the Western military knife tucked into his tunic, and the Chinese ‘kung-fu shoes’ in place of tabi. The fact that this supposed invisible assassin in concealing night gear has a red belt, chrome-finish weapons strapped all over him, and a huge family crest akin to a superhero’s chest emblem telling the world who he is didn’t bother us at all though… Such was the logic of 80’s ninja fans.

The fact that the American key art wasn’t Kosugi outright may have led to some of the mysterious variants overseas, like the below Franch-language market poster. Perhaps they really wanted to feature the star?

The above painting is based on the companion retail poster to the famous Kosugi Kick piece, seen below left. Why they didn’t use the original photo is anyone’s guess – couldn’t find the source, couldn’t meet on a price, didn;t even try…  Next to that is detail from the illustrated sleeve for the priced-to-sell VHS re-issue of Revenge, late 80’s-early 90’s. Even though there was a photo-based poster in the 80’s, used often in Europe, that same art didn’t make it to Spanish markets, evidenced by the painted version far right. All in all, there are remarkably few images used to promote this movie, but the versions of those few images are myriad.

Pray For Death was, for many, the last ‘good’ Kosugi entry in the craze era – a genuine piece of ninja-sploitation, surrounded by legends of ‘uncut’ gorier versions screened in dark corners of Europe and everything. While many thought Kosugi’s weapons and armor were downright silly, but it seems many (especially foreign ad men) thought it was pretty righteous:

No, Kosugi was NOT in Shaolin Fighters vs. Ninja (or Ninja Against Shaolin, or Ninja vs. Shaolin Guards, or Shaolin Fights Ninja, or any of the dozens of other versions and re-titles of the concept that were out there), but you sure wouldn’t know it from the poster above. More painted art was done for the taxing 9 Deaths of the Ninja, and again the foreign markets were on their own page with the key art. I guess when your movie looks like this…

…you’re tempted to hide it behind more craze-palatable images of hooded ninja, even if it means evoking the competition – Michael Dudikoff!

Strange to think of foreign ad artists toiling over these painted Sho Kosugi images, when in some neglected drawer at the offices of Inside Kung Fu, hundreds of amazing photos were sitting there, untapped. Exploitation films, however, have promotional resources akin to their low budgets. Campaigns turn around fast. There are language barriers between markets. Logistical and financial hurdles everywhere. So it ends up easier just to wing it and barf out some weird illo.

Chances are, the same box office take would have been made either way.

Read more:

Sho Kosugi: The Ninja fansite, with tons of galleries, including mag covers and movie posters.

S.K. Productions – Kosugi’s official website.

Really fun write up and video of 9 Deaths of the Ninja.

If you think these paintings are a bit off, check out the stuff from Ghana!

Things we love: bad and misleading VHS art

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Knock-off airbrush art of Jackie Chan from DRUNKEN MASTER and Mike Stone in ENTER THE NINJA. I’m thinking the actual caliber of martial artists actually in GHOST NINJA wasn’t quite up to that promise.
Should be titled THE **NO** NINJA WARRIOR, clearly a re-titled kung-fu flick, which by the height of the craze you had to be able to sniff out if you were going to avoid video store regret.
I doubt the weapons used in this Transworld release are either exteme OR those of the ninja. And if you’re going to illustrate an “extreme weapon” at least have the grip somewhere close to right, this dude would break his entire hand using this spiked knuckle thing.
So you’ve made the only Bujinkan-endoresed ninja movie in America, and gotten Stephen K. Hayes in there in training sequences. Here’s a good idea — dominate the cover with a KKK hood instead of a big-ass ninja head! And what the holy hell does that tagline mean?
I actually dig this Alexander Lo Rei flick, and this art is pretty great in its Star Wars-ness and Conan-itude… Hmmm, maybe this doesn’t belong here. Well done!
I adore the “NINJA KIDS” franchise, and this packaging is better than any of the NINJA DEATH or VENOM OF THE NINJA re-titles. But there’s no lizard-dino-cat-Atlantean-barbarian dude in there, nor a naked big-tittie blonde, so one might be upset when they got home with this.
Hot-and-cold-running good and bad art for NINJA EMPIRE. How does one fight a dragon with a shuiken in its mouth?
DEATH MASK OF THE NINJA is another kung-fu re-title, but I love the go-go-girl at lower left. Had to be done by the same artist who did REVENGE OF THE SHOGUN WOMEN, DEADLY SILVER NINJA, etc.


Toei VHS inserts

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Some Kurozukin and other hooded hero goodness from the VHS days:

I miss video stores in general, but I especially miss Little Tokyo stores from the height of the VHS clamshell era. Such great design at work with these case inserts, which packed in a ton of imagery and mood but somehow never felt too cluttered.

The self proclaimed “Internet Ninja Movie Database From Hell”

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And who’s to argue with that claim, once you see the rather staggering array of foreign video packaging for ninja movies assembled on this French-language newsgroup. Wow…

BAD NINJAS: Is that Blue Thunder in the background? And is that trenching tool really going to help in the fight against the local post-apocalyptic warlord? And what of BORN A NINJA, wherein more wasteland warriors pick on poor ninja, with a she-version of Manimal looking on even!

Wow, is MASTER SAMURAI actually BLOOD OF HEROES? And what is that garden implement thingy???

Well-collected mon freres!!!

Argentine Clamshell Heaven!

Raro VHS is a great new blog dedicated to VHS package art from Argentina. LOTS of ninja stuff, with art permutations I’ve never seen.

"Bruce Leen" - who was that, the pork-free diet Bruce Lee substitute?
THE CHALLENGE... aka "Sword of the Ninja." How I adore this unsung, rarely respected gem of a film. I love FULL METAL NINJA, too, but for a whole different set of reasons. And NO, Lo Leh is not in that film...
"Jean CLUDE???" And what movie were Jim Kelly and Cameron Mitchell in together?
Their version of REVENGE OF THE NINJA. Big pro wrestling following in Argentina, might explain TORU TANAKA getting the major coverage on the back.

Remco VHS art – 1986

The much-missed masters of cheap toy lines Remco released a He-Man-sized line of martial arts action figures from 1984-86 called Secret of the Ninja. Three sets were done in ’86 that included VHS tapes to ‘play along to’ – and man are these tapes some historical oddities!

Yeah… Kaiketsu Lion Maru… the pilot episode… on domestic VHS… DUBBED IN ENGLISH! What the hell? Did the soon-to-be-defunct toy company bring in a cast of voice-over actors to do this up? Was there a dubbed pilot floating around public domain after a long-forgotten failed pitch to film or TV markets? Is this the only surviving remnant of a whole season of the tokusatsu classic  re-purposed for the American market that never saw the light of day?

Now the dubbed version of Kamui I can understand a bit more – the series ran for years in Latin American markets, was dubbed for Italian TV, and more. An English version was probably done in hopes of similar syndication, but the nature of the knife-wielding youngster killing ninja in the trees may have been a bit much for American corporate sensibilities.

Regardless of the origins of the programs on these tapes, the box art was certainly new and a product of Remco. They’re signed “S. Paracio” or “Sparacio.”

Someday I’ll get around to photographing my modest collection of these figures. It’s a weird line with all-over-the-place designs, and head sculpts that look a lot like 70’s high-school math teachers.

Joseph Lai shlock-o-rama

We started the week with the high-end of the 80’s craze, let’s wrap it up on the low end…

There are some great scans of not-so-great posters from REALLY not great in the least movies over at Wrong Side of the Art. These are actually newer “extremed”-up pieces for recent DVD releases of the mid-late 80’s Joseph Lai / IFD catalog.

These movies infested rental stores in legion, like vermin, and were the nails in the coffin of the craze, plummeting the quality of ninja movies to new lows. How many of us rented these based on alluring clamshell packaging, only to be heartbroken once home and having to suffer through another shameless cut-together “movie” with Richard Harrison tooling it up in a yellow satin ninja headband… Deeeeeeep hurting.

What’re those on the left, Schwinn-jas? At least these newer sleeves actually picture the movie content, in the 80’s clamshell and big box era, flicks like these were encased in some pretty nice painted imagery which hid both the ludicrous costuming and the cheapness of the product. Today, those are actually the strengths of these releases, as there is all sorts of nostalgia and ironic appreciation for how god-awful films like Full Metal Ninja, Ninja Terminator, Ninja Thunderbolt, Ninja Commandments, and Ninja in the Killing Fields are.

YouTube is rife with trailer comps posted for humor, and DJs laying beats down under collages of absurd scenes from these movies. Perhaps more people are watching them now than did back in the day?

Read reviews of select IFDs here, with some nice clamshell art scans.