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.
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!
Tags: 9 DEATHS OF THE NINJA, Enter the Ninja, Kosugi Kick, Pray for Death, REVENGE OF THE NINJA, Sho Kosugi, VHS art, vintage magazines
The book, and later film, of the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice was essentially the West’s introdcution to ninja, and a few widely scattered episodes of American television series like Kung-Fu, Baretta and Quincy notwithstanding, the next major step toward the 80s ninja craze was the mega-hit Shogun mini-series. Bond may have fought alongside ninja, but they never donned the iconic black suits and masks, so for millions Shogun was the intro to the classic ninja look. (see our breakdown of a pivotal episode here)
Both the notion of shinobi as commandos using swords against guns, and the ancient ninja being a ‘cult of assassins’ were planted, and about to sprout in every field of popular media.
Somewhere in the middle of these well-fertilized (pun intended) acres grew a burgeoning crop of serious martial artists studying actual ninjutsu — combat, spiritual and lifestyle traditions long removed from their feudal origins and practical applications, now finding new life in somewhat abstract ways in the modern world. But could they escape the often ludicrous imagery of the pop media ninja flourishing around them?
I came across some old book advertisements in a 1981 issue of Black Belt that reminded of this period.
Note this ad for the mass-market paperback edition of Shogun, which sold in the millions both before and after the landmark TV event, is not from the original publisher Delacorte, but from martial arts publishing/distribution house Ohara Publications. This ad ran in Black Belt, Inside Kung-Fu and ilk, aimed at a martial arts community that was about to get drenched in a ninja tidal wave.
The airing of Shogun was followed by the release of Enter the Ninja in theaters, making Sho Kosugi the face of the cinematic ninja movement. But the martial arts explosion that ran concurrently to the entertainment media craze had a face of its own — Stephen K. Hayes.
The same Ohara company was also running this ad for Hayes’ first book, which followed years of his magazine articles preaching the gospel of ninjutsu’s spiritual enlightenment, tactical thinking and practical self-defense. Legit, serious stuff, right?
Once in a while, though, he’d don a black hood, like a movie ninja, bridging the gap between media and martial traditions. The occasional publicity photo shoot in traditional shinobi coture was smart marketing by Hayes and team. Masaaki Hatsumi himself wasn’t above such fare with his profound publishing career in Japan, so why should the student be any different?
Hatsumi, however, could more safely embrace the popular imagery of ninja because the product on movie screens in mid-1960s Japan was dead serious historical fare (that he himself had consulted on-set in some cases). And while the 60s boom in Japan obviously had its pop entertainment aspects, the 80s boom in the West tended more to the exploitive. It became big business — from turtle toons to mail order weapons. There were dilutions in quality — the movies got cheaper and cheesier and ninja-themed magazines more bloodthirsty.
See the difference between 1981 and 1987 below (and tons more at MA-Mags.com).
Hayes donning a mask and hood put him a “NINJA”-emblazoned headband away from the same visual plane as Richard Harrison in Ninja Terminator. When a legit dojo swam in the same visual waters, training in gear that to the rest of the world was movie costuming, there was always the risk of eroded credibility and unflattering PR. If hooding-up was a necessary evil, which some of these folk balanced better than others, there was a price. It couldn’t have been easy maintaining legitimacy in the midst of such widespread exploitation.
I’ll say this, too… Nobody in the martial arts community has to deal with more public misconception and general pop culture baggage than the practitioner of ninjutsu. If you study kung-fu and it comes up in discussion with laymen, you might get a snicker or a crass Bruce Lee impersonation — “Oh, you mean all that ‘hhhwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!’ stuff?” The same happens with ninjutsu and people are assuming you’re some idiot who hides in the trees wearing black pajamas and a suriken belt buckle. They ask to see your blowgun, or to throw a smoke pellet down and disappear. You’re equated with toon turtles, Power Rangers and video game villains in the minds of a lot of these simps. It has to be a tough road, and I respect the hell out of anyone who puts up with it.
I was never a student of ninjutsu, but being a karateka for a couple of years during my early 80s Junior High days, ninja-mania was unavoidable. I never drew a line in the sand between the martial and movie worlds, finding different levels of entertainment in magazines and books dedicated to both camps. Even if it was the hoods that caught my eye, what I always dug more about the Hayes and Hatsumi articles in Black Belt and Ninja was how different the techniques looked. Punches, kicks, takedowns, ready poses — they were distinct from the long-familiar karate and kung-fu.
Maybe that contrast, the simple fact that there was finally something different on both the big screen and in the dojo circuit, was fuel enough for the ninja boom. It was the 1980s, a decade that craved distinction from any previous — punk, New Wave, Nagel prints, fingerless gloves, parachute pants…
And yes… ninja hoods.
Keith J. Rainville — March, 2014
Tags: Shogun, Stephen K. Hayes, vintage magazines
I’ve had this old beater copy of Zen Combat – Jay Gluck‘s ground-breaking 1962 treatise on Japanese martial arts – for years but never got around to cracking open its aging pages until recently. Finding a full chapter on ninja, written two decades before the craze, was a delightful surprise. It’s a very interesting read, for the information presented yes, but more for its warts-and-all attitude towards the then burgeoning Japanese ninja boom.
Zen Combat is a collection of new and re-purposed articles from late 50s/early 60s martial arts mags, which at the time were more like trade publications and newsletters for a community of professionals and ‘pro-sumers’ rather than the media-influenced glossy fare they became post Bruce Lee. Gluck was an Asian culture expert and practicing martial artist (travelling in circles with the great Mas Oyama) living part-time in Japan during a time when all things ninja were exploding in popularity. His poise is like that of an old-school Rolling Stones fan wading through a crowd of girls screaming for One Direction. The result is one of the more honest, if not overly skeptical essays on the matter you’ll find.
This article wasn’t a cover feature designed to sell magazine copies during a craze. There is no slant toward any emerging school, pressure from a publisher not to offend advertisers or effort to fan the flames of an exploding fad. For that, I think its a valuable read regardless if one agrees with Gluck’s findings.
The book is out of print, and the author no longer with us, so until Zen Combat becomes a commercial entity again, here’s scans of my vintage copy of the “The Magician: Ninjutsa” [sic] article. Have at it…
Gluck’s personal connection to shinobi history is little more than family anecdote, but the fish tales actually serve to illustrate a fundamental frustration with studying the moving target that is historical shadow arts and ancient espionage.
Gluck is a bit of a hater here, but aside from dispersions on “cockeyed karate” experts I really dig his analysis of “dirty weapons” and the practical truth behind alleged artifacts that populated the cases of the new wave of ninja museums and tourists attractions.
Interesting that despite looking down his nose at ninja-mania, Gluck isn’t a debunker. He buys into the black suit, and even makes parallels with kabuki stage blackout wear, but not a direct connection based on outright doubt as many have since.
Gluck also embraces the notions of specialized walks and runs as legit techniques of ninjutsu, seen in a lot of contemporary film and TV in “that man, he runs like a ninja” scenes. Check out Festival of Swordsmen or any of the Onmitsu Kensin (aka The Samurai) seasons for this.
I absolutely LOVE the line “People may look at him, but they will not see him,” which foreshadows similar notions Joseph Stefano wrote in “The Invisibles” episode of The Outer Limits two years later:
You do not know these men. You may have looked at them, but you did not see them. They are newspapers blowing down a gutter on a windy night.
You do not know these men. You may have looked at them, but you did not see them. They are the wind that blows newspapers down a gutter on a windy night — and sweeps the gutter clean.
Stephano’s prose served as the “control voice” narration at the beginning and end of an episode centered on secret government agents battling an even more secret alien invasion conspiracy. Their heroics will never be known to man, nor will the threat they defeated ever be realized by a public secure in its ignorance of what almost just went down.
The “control voice” lines could just as well describe the value of good ninja, whose genuine exploits are (perhaps to history’s benefit?) lost in the fog of family anecdotes, fish tales spun by fraudulent martial artists cashing in on fads and mass media whipping up a big craze. Or so Jay Gluck postulated…
I’d love to see what he would have written twenty years after the publication of Zen Combat. If Gluck was dubious of all the “last ninja” schools then, what would he have thought of what went down in the 80s?
Our fetishization of supposed “dirty weapons” certainly didn’t fade away, either.
Tags: Jay Gluck, Mas Oyama, vintage magazines, Zen Combat
Is it just me, or did the two piece hood common to North American merchandisers completely suck?
A mainstay of retailers like Asian World of Martial Arts, the common American ninja head gear was made of a heavy duty outer hood tied over a thin spandex/lycra balaclava. The under-mask was fine on it’s own, but the outer hood was a joke. It completely killed your peripheral vision and nothing really anchored it to the under piece, so the hood sometimes stayed in place when you turned your head, making the fit even worse.
Amazingly, ads like the above didn’t even hide those facts. Take a look at the illustration, you can see the lack of vision the crappy design provided. IN A DRAWING! The artist could have fixed that, portrayed them a little more functional, but no. He or she chose to stay accurate to what I’m guessing was photo reference, and clearly none of the subjects can see a thing.
I still have one of these suits (in black) from back in the day, and played with the hood a few years back for a photo shoot. It was just as shitty as I remembered. So we made this deal in all of 30 seconds with two 16″ pieces of black cotton fabric. Kinda makes the notion of buying a prefab hood silly…
Now on the other hand, these 80′s merch hoods always intrigued me:
I never saw these hoods in person, and am still really curious as to their quality. The big superhero-like logo on the forehead notwithstanding, they seems like a decent design, more or less out of Japanese 60s cinema.
If anyone had one of these or still does, comment below or drop us a line, I’d love to know more.
Tags: 80s martial arts supply ads, vintage magazines
With the 80s craze came a lot of repurposed merchandise – stuff that for the previous decade’s boom had been sold as kung-fu gear now emblazoned with ninja logos. The above looks to have been a Chinese-esque design probably inspired by something David Carradine tossed around on network TV. But any 70s leftovers were given new life in the “ninja star” obsessed 80s.
The notion of shuriken pendants wasn’t exclusive to this company, either. In the dodgy swap meet, dirt mall, subway blanket, Chinatown video store realm you’d see full-size, razor sharp throwing stars with tiny holes hastily drilled into them somewhere to technically make them jewelry, not illegally sold weapons.
Now just what made a net a “Ninja Capture Net?” I don’t know, and I never this particular item, but I’m pretty certain it was some type of conventional fishing deal shinobi-fied for mail order. They made some pretty strong claims here about the net’s effectiveness. Not sure I’d trust something I mail-ordered for less than $15 against a “sword-weilding enemy.”
I also like their observation for item #704A – A black stick is invisible at night!
Nothing however, beats my all-time favorite piece of repurposed merchandise, the Ninja Boomerang.
Tags: 80s martial arts supply ads, vintage magazines
It was the 1980s, and there wasn’t a cheesy enough piece of Japanese graphics or ninja-related bad illustration we wouldn’t wear on a black t-shirt.
And let’s just take a look at the logic of this:
It’s a tough read at first because of some piss-poor ad layout choices, but these were indeed “Glow-in-the-Dark” ninja t-shirts. Yeah…
Hey, maybe while you were wearing the “glow of the invisable [sic] ninja” you could scream the death cry of the silent killer or something.
And look again – INVISIBLE spelled correctly and incorrectly right next to each other. Classic!
Tags: 80s martial arts supply ads, vintage magazines
Circa January, 1982, H. McMunn of New York sold two things: 17×22″ art prints and vicious caltrops. I’ve never sen these prints, or even good repros or scans of them, but I’m really curious about that one on top in what looks to be some sort of treasure room guarded by a giant anaconda.
As for ‘tetsu-bishi’ – Japanese caltrops – it’s one of those weapons that can only be unsafe. There’s no training version of these sole-takers, and even the poorest-made sharpened ‘jacks’ will tear your feet up if stepped on. They are one of the simplest and most effective escape tools ever devised, and I KNOW! One night back in the craze-80s, Tim threw toy jacks all over my bedroom rug, and I found out the hard way how much even a blunt toy KILLS when you step on it barefoot. Yeah, that’s my bestest pal ever people…
Tags: vintage magazines
Man, how 80s would that satin jacket have been? And I wonder what “scribe-spike-etc.” were.
This is a pretty dumb ad – lots of vague category and price ranges on unspecified items, but with an order form attached. In the days before the internet, return forms were crucial and this ad was probably not a big success. Love this illo at the center though:
Tags: 80s martial arts supply ads, vintage magazines
Despite the profusion of mail order ads and supply shops, the 1980s was actually a somewhat oppressed decade when it came to martial arts collectibles. And when you look at an ad like this, it’s kind of easy to see why.
Heaven help the poor soul who actually wanted to train back then. Goods like these lumped any collector or practitioner into a public perception pool pissed in by crazed vigilantes, unhinged survivalists and blade-obsessed Travis Bickle wannabees.
I mean, who actually wanted to wear something like this, never mind conceal a dagger inside of it? Remember the Bruce Lee/ninja-fixated psycho David Patrick Kelly played in Dreamscape? HE WOULD! He was the role model for ordering these.
With questionable material like this out there drawing attention to itself, it made getting a decent sword or pair of durable nunchuks a real adventure, especially in certain states.
But I wonder if many of these even made it out of the warehouse into anyone’s mail box.
80′s mail order martial arts suppliers lived under the threat of legal shut down at any time. Some kid would poke an eye out, or some mugger would be caught with something mis-identified as a ‘deadly ninja sword,’ and lawmakers looking for cheap press would raise all sorts of alarms, promising to rid the streets of assassin tchotchkes.
For the most part, it was a lot of hot air. However the occasional swap-meet sting or raid on a Chinatown curio shop would result in products disappearing from ads, or states being added to the “cannot ship-to” list in the fine print of the catalogs.
What’s really weird is a lot of the goods back then were aluminum alloys, unsharpened chrome-plated tin and other decoration-grade materials. A decade later, it seems much of the paranoia disappeared (or some loophole in importation laws was found), and every flea market was suddenly infested with razor sharp real steel swords from China.
The new grades of cheap sword you find in plague-like quantity on eBay now are a heinous combination of sharp blades and cheap handles, and more dangerous than anything ever sold by mail order back in the 80s.
Well, more than anything save the sculpted ninja buckle stabber…
Tags: 80s martial arts supply ads, vintage magazines
In the days before scanners, throwing “clip art” into a print advertisement took some work. You had to find a cool image to start with, then “threshold” it via a stat camera and toxic chemical-laden rapid processor. And what you were left with was a ‘black-or-white’ result you hoped was close enough to the original’s coolness. And hey, it worked here:
Now it CAN be told! That’s the climactic leap from the superb Warring Clans (Sengoku Yaro). See this movie if you haven’t.
As for the ad…
This same copy suggesting major revelations of ninjutsu is nearly identical to karate and kung-fu ads from the decade previous. Yet another example of companies taking their stale martial arts offerings and ‘retro-shinobi-fying’ them in the 80s.
Tags: 80s martial arts supply ads, vintage magazines, Warring Clans