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Interview with Dusty Nelson (Sakura Killers / White Phantom)

It’s a ninja scoop! I was really lucky to chat to Dusty Nelson, the creator of 80s VHS ninja classic White Phantom. We talked about the world of low budget filmmaking in the 80s, Taiwanese street gangs, unlikely influences and the real story behind Sakura Killers (a film often credited to Nelson but finally the extent of his involvement is revealed). No one has ever interviewed him before about these movies so this was an exciting interview to do. Big thanks to the awesome Dusty Nelson for taking what ended up being a fair amount of time out of his day for this!

Click here for the full interview over on Den Of Geek!

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White Phantom (1987)

While Sakura Killers is an iconic entry into the 80s ninja canon and widely remembered in the minds of VHS freaks worldwide, its sequel White Phantom is perhaps less well-known. They’re both directed by Dusty Nelson, both released in 1987 and both share characters and themes, but while Sakura Killers is a straight-up crowd-pleasing action film, White Phantom tries something different. It plays at a measured pace, is littered with philosophical musings and doesn’t really get going, in action terms, until the very end. But that doesn’t mean it’s of no interest for ninjologists. On the contrary, it’s well worth seeing, for its unique style alone (but, don’t worry, the cataclysmic ninja climax is pretty cool too)…

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I’m going to get this out the way early so we don’t dwell on it but yes. This film features an ‘exotic’ ninja dance, shortly after the opening credits. It’s not quite a ninja strip tease as the lady in question only gets down to tiny shorts and a tiger-print vest before a fight breaks and she has to stop, but it’s as close as I’ve seen to one. Page Leong – who choreographed all the dancing in this movie herself – starts off dressed in full ninja garb, pulling all kinds of ninjutsu shapes, then gradually the moves turn from Kuji-kiri to Kama-sutra; the gi comes off, then the hood, then it all goes a bit Flashdance as an insistent synth tune about getting the job done plays over the top. The whole thing is, of course, drenched in neon because this was the 1980s.

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Anyway, what else is shaking? How about two ninjas stealing five megaton nuclear weaponry from the back of a lorry? It’s curious how little security is employed to protect this – just one schlubby driver who’s easily neutralised – but maybe it was a double bluff on behalf of whoever was transporting it? Still, the ninjas get away and this sets the plot in motion. These guys are employed by the ever-shady Sakura Family who run Sakura Exports Ltd (presumably a subsidiary of the Sakura Foundation in Sakura Killers) and they want the nukes for… Reasons? We never actually see them do anything like nuking anyone as they’re too busy going round local dance clubs and book shops in Taiwan, bullying the owners for protection money, like an off-brand Yakuza (why they’re in Taiwan is anyone’s guess).

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A mysterious masked man named Sanada (voiced by Gregory Snegoff) runs things but is trying to pass them down to his son Hanzo (Jimmy Lee) who isn’t really ready. Sanada offers him advice on being a ninja – yep, the Sakuras are ninjas – but Hanzo is young, hot-headed and eager for power. He’s also having an affair with the aforementioned club dancer, whose name is Mai Lin. It’s dishonorable enough to be carrying on like that but, what the Sakuras don’t realise is Mai Lin is actually an undercover ninja herself (the dance was a dead giveaway, surely?) working for… THE COLONEL! Yes, The Colonel from Sakura Killers is back, although this time he’s played by a more lively looking Bo Svenson, not a slightly-out-of-it Chuck Connors in an ill-fitting baseball cap.

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If you’re not already familiar, The Colonel is a mysterious, gung ho American who seems to have a number of agents he trains in ninjutsu to go around the world on, mostly, assassination missions. Here, he’s assigned Mai Lin to go undercover as a stripper so she can seduce Hanzo and make her way to the nukes the Sakuras have stolen. It’s fair to say the Colonel’s methods are unorthodox – an almost certainly illegal and unethical honey trap seems a curious response to the theft of weaponry that could wipe out millions? – but hey. This is 80s Taiwan. Anything goes.

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Meanwhile, a whole bunch of brawling goobers are running around duffing each other up. From hired thugs like “Ears” (a guy who goes “Double Hawaiian” (shirts and shorts) and has his Sony Walkman attached at all times) to a tall, dark, handsome stranger from the west called Willi (Jay Roberts Jr). Willi is the star of the story here, a “White Ninja” trained in the ancient arts who looks like he’s walked in off Miami Vice. Quite how he got as far as Taiwan is only half-explained at best but he zeroes in on both Mai Lin, with whom he falls in love, and the Sakuras, whom – with The Colonel’s help – he vows to destroy. Will he save the day or will he fall victim to his Achilles’ heel? As Sanada warns, “The White Ninjas’ true strength is also their true weakness – compassion”

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As I say, this isn’t the fastest paced film. A lot of it unfolds in its own time and it isn’t always the most cleanly structured story. In fact, at times, it feels like a Godfrey Ho cut-and-paste movie, with the way the Sakuras seem to be in their own film and The Colonel in another. There’s a crime plot here with all the blackmail and protection schemes, and a little romantic drama too – Willi woos Mai Lin by giving her a copy of the I Ching (“This is a book about chance”) and plays a mournful harmonica whenever he’s alone – but there’s also ninjas running around chasing nuclear weapons down! The ninjas have some wonderfully mystical dialogue (e.g. “you are a bird, living in a tree of cats” or “To be a shadow, first you must have substance – first rule of being a ninja”) and then in the final third, you get what you came for. Ninjing.

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If you’re after high octane martial arts choreography, look elsewhere. The fights here are quite measured but they do still look super rad. When the White Ninja goes on the rampage and takes on a small army of other coloured ninjas, it’s a glorious thing that features authentic ninja weapons and a martial arts style that, while not quite ninjutsu, is clearly inspired by it and feels more realistic than most. The scraps are neatly shot and the final showdown is staged – again – a little like a Godfrey Ho one, all the way down to a spectacular finishing move (and a nice touch as the roaring synths on the soundtrack turn to a mournful harmonica sound). It all wraps up neatly for a plot that takes so many turns, although one does wonder exactly what happens to the nukes…

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It’s not the essential viewing that Sakura Killers is but White Phantom’s a neat little oddity that will get your nostalgia glands working overtime. Much like its sister-piece, it’s an interesting time capsule, offering a glimpse of some unglamorous Taiwanese locations and how they were in the late 80s. Jay Roberts Jr is a cool leading man (and does some very entertaining drunken style fighting that takes its cue from The Three Stooges and Jackie Chan). Basically, if you’re a fan of neon lights, radical fashions and graffiti-laden walls, all soundtracked by a Carpenter-goes-East synthesiser score, you’ll love this. The dance scenes are wicked and it’s always nice to see a film that doesn’t follow the rules. At times, when it doesn’t make sense, it just feels like a fetishtic fever dream of 1980s trash chic. And, for ninjologists like me, that goes a long way.

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Ninja’s Force (1984)

I don’t want to sound like an old man but sometimes it’s hard to explain the kind of stuff we watched as impressionable young minds in the 1980s. It’s so different to what teenagers watch nowadays, it might as well have come from another planet. However, in Ninja’s Force (1984), I reckon I’ve found a film that distills it; you could show this to kids in 2018 and say “Yep, this is what we were into”… I mean, it’s unlikely they’d enjoy it. They’d be horrified and confused. They may even take out a restraining order on you. But they’d get an idea of the kind of film that, for better or for worse, simply isn’t made any more. It’s ostensibly a film for adults, loaded with sex, violence and bad language yet it’s so child-like in its storytelling, it could have been written by a 12 year old. These movies had us spellbound because they were, at once, on our level and yet full of forbidden things we shouldn’t have been exposed to. They were low-budget beyond even what mainstream film fans would call “B-Movies”. They were “Z-Movies”. Some of the technical aspects may have been outrageously bad, but still they could afford real explosions, stunts, helicopters and exotic locations – which, let’s face it, are the important things. The weirdest thing of all was that we weren’t going out of our way to seek these films that are now so obscure. We weren’t connoisseurs. They were right there on the shelves alongside Rambo, Cobra, Enter The Dragon and all the ‘real’ films. It was the boom years of home entertainment and ANYTHING could sell on VHS. They were essentially cash-ins on a phenomena. And yet, here we are in 2018, three decades later, and I’m still writing about them. They had something. It was an interesting time to discover film.

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So, Ninja’s Force then. It was one of many action flicks made in the Philippines by Silver Star, a production company run by the mysterious KY Lim, who pumped out a few dozen features throughout the 80s and 90s. He assembled a regular group of directors, writers and stars, who rotated their duties, with everyone having a go at everything, giving the films a sense of camaraderie if nothing else. Since they had little money (and, according to ninja veteran Richard Harrison, sometimes unfinished scripts) the results veered from atrocious to entertaining but Ninja’s Force is a strong one. A real team effort, it starred Spanish sex symbol Romano Kristoff who co-wrote with Ken Watanabe (not that one) and co-directed with Teddy Page (aka Teddy Chiu). Interestingly, it shares a lot of plot similarity with Ninja Warrior (1985), a Silver Star picture directed by Watanabe that’s nowhere near as good…

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Both open with a ninja housebreaking but in this one, the ninja means business. He kills a handful of security guards then slices up an old man, steals a TOP SECRET DOCUMENT (clearly marked as such) and chops up the guy’s disabled daughter for good measure, sending a blast of red arterial spray into the camera – which then artfully fades to the credits sequence (all to some stolen music from Blade Runner – phew!). We then see a senator lecturing the local police force about their inability to solve the crime. Public opinion is down, they can’t find any clues and the senator reckons there’s only one thing for it. “If you agree,” he tells them, “I’ll hire the most deadly, cold and deadly man alive… a ninja!”

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Surprisingly, they’re all okay with this so he sends his top two dudes to Japan to find said ninja. They get given a guide who knows the way to the Kōga-ryū and drives them out to the middle of a forest, then walks them deeper into the trees, sits down, lights a fire and tells them to wait. In the middle of the night, just when it’s starting to seem like a waste of time, they hear a rustle in the bushes and – for reasons unfathomable – one of the cops stands up and pulls out a gun, only to get struck down by ninja arrows. I mean, really. WHAT WAS HE EXPECTING? The guide gets an arrow to the heart for his troubles too (apparently standard practice for anyone who knows the way to the Kōga-ryū), leaving the second cop, Williams (Mike Monty), to get a sack pulled over his head and a knockout blow.

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He wakes up inside the Kōga-ryū, surrounded by ninjas. The ninja master asks why he’s come and, after hearing the story so far, eventually consents to lending him “the ultimate ninja”. Why? Because “a true ninja’s responsibility is to make harmony in this world”, of course. Duh. The ultimate ninja is a guy called Kenzo (Romano Kristoff, not Japanese) who flies back to the Philippines with Williams. ready to save the world. Williams has a sexy sister called Laura (Gwendolyn Hung), who has an equally sexy friend (Jeselle Morgan). They like to hang out in their giant house, giggling about ninjas and how excited they are to meet a real one. When Kenzo shows up, they try tricking him into revealing his ninja powers by setting up a dinner party where they’ve secured buckets of water over the door and booby-trapped chairs. He doesn’t, obviously, because he’s the ultimate ninja, but the whole scene is an admirably bizarre one. Definitely the only giggly ninja dinner party farce I’ve seen.

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MEANWHILE, EVIL SCIENCE IS HAPPENING:

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There’s a guy called Professor Yamamoto (Ken Watanabe) who is working for a cocktail-slurping baddie called Mr Duncan (Tony Carreon) on some dark shit that involves kidnapping women, tying them up, taking their clothes off and pumping them full of drugs until they go mad. At first I wondered if this was just because it was the 80s and that’s what passed for science back then, but no. There is a twisted logic to it. Duncan likes quoting Timothy Leary and experimenting with LSD. His plan is to give people just the right amount of LSD that he can break their mind and turn them into zombies who obey his commands, building an army that will take over the world. The TOP SECRET DOCUMENT from earlier apparently contains a formula that’s expedited their work. Things are going well:

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And that’s your plot. It takes about 40 minutes before it coheres but does pull off telling a story from start to end (not always a given in these films) and it’s an enjoyable one too. Despite some occasionally dark subject matter (including some attempted rape on the LSD zombies and a gratuitous alleyway attack on Laura that gets broken up by Kenzo, Death Wish style – why? Because it’s the 80s!), most of this is done with a sense of fun. For example, there’s a scene where Williams’s car explodes that’s a classic. He and Kenzo leap out of the moving vehicle, just seconds before it blows up (a seriously impressive stunt all done in one take) then, with the car still flaming in the background, they stand up, brush themselves down and shrug it off. “There goes my car!” laughs Williams.

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In what must be a nod to The Last Ninja (1983), Kenzo adopts an array of flamboyant disguises, including an elderly fisherman and a Princess Diana style “lady”, all of which is a reminder that despite stilted acting from some of the cast here, Kristoff is actually quite a talent. He has a decent look for an action hero, uncanny comic timing and natural charisma that makes him a good lead.

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In terms of the ninjing (which is what we’re here for), there is substantial payoff if you have patience. Laura gets kidnapped and taken to Mr Duncan’s ruinous Spanish monastery on an island (another example of shrewd location scouting), so it’s up to Kenzo to save both her and humanity. He straps on his ninja suit – with a perplexingly conspicuous silver headband – and ninjes it up big style, hacking and slashing his way through the guards, lopping off arms and doing some rough martial arts work. The fight scenes here are not gracefully choreographed but they have charm. They feel a bit like the fight scenes you might shoot with your mates when you’re 12, on your dad’s camcorder. Lots of striking stances then flinging each other around and shouting. The whole thing wraps up with a catchy one-liner (“Who are you?” / “I am your executioner!”), a bloody decapitation and a ninja chase through a dungeon that looks like it’s been lit by Mario Bava.

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Or does it? There’s a surprise coda, just when it looks like the day has been saved. Kenzo announces he must face his destiny – “the ninja creed of death!” – which gives us a bonus fight on the beach, during which the two ninjas involved take off their masks and stick on natty headbands instead. Why headbands? Because it was the 80s, of course! Headbands were the coolest thing in the world.

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So yeah, Ninja’s Force might not be a ‘good’ film in technical terms (although, frankly, I’d like to see you do better). Some scenes are undeniably, hilariously bad (“Apologies are the sunshine after the hurricane… beautiful but useless!”) and yet it’s entertaining from start to finish. It has energy, enthusiasm and a checklist of stuff you want if you’re a ninjologist of a certain age. This is, after all, a genre rooted in what’s commonly known as “trash” cinema so if you’re not getting any joy out of a Spanish ninja with expressive eyebrows, LSD zombies, shameless nudity and a body count well into the double figures, then I’m not sure you’ve come to the right blog.

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The Last Ninja (1983)

By the summer of 1983, The Ninja Boom had gathered strength, off the back of Cannon’s hits, Enter The Ninja and Revenge Of The Ninja. On the horizon, a tsunami of VHS ninja treats could be seen that would saturate the action market for the rest of the decade. One of the Boom’s most popular tropes was the occidental master, a westerner who took up the art and managed to be better than everyone else at it. From Lustbader’s patient zero novel The Ninja through Enter The Ninja, through the American Ninja series and even Godfrey Ho’s cut and paste ninja films, nothing would sell these movies faster than a white guy in the lead role. One of the principal inspirations for this is arguably Kung Fu, the 70s TV show set in the old West, in which David Carradine becomes a great Shaolin warrior. It’s maybe not a surprise then that Ed Spielman, one of Kung Fu’s co-creators, would pen a similar spin on Ninjutsu in 1983. Made for ABC, this little-seen TV movie has gained a cult following over the years and finally made it to DVD in 2017 courtesy of Visual Entertainment. So strap on your gauntlets and get your shurikens spinning. It’s time to lift the hood on The Last Ninja!

The film opens with a groovy credits sequence of a dude doing shadow kata in front of a sunset, then a couple of ninjas hiding in a lion’s den, with a foreboding voiceover from Mako introducing the concept of ninjas and ending with a dramatic declaration that “your destiny is to be the last ninja!” Talk about an opening. It’s my destiny to keep watching.

From there it cuts to a break-in at a tower block as 80s rent-a-baddie Richard Lynch leads a team of machine gun toting droogs in gas masks up to a penthouse where the world’s top scientists are meeting. Lynch runs a terrorist group looking to get their hands on some kind of Science that could potentially destroy the world (you know this Science, it comes on microfilm or “top technical blueprints” in Godfrey Ho movies). They hold everyone hostage, plant a bomb and demand that the Science be handed over.

Meanwhile, a mysterious government agent called Cosmo pays a visit to an antiques dealer called Ken Sakura (Michael Beck). I mean, you don’t need to get further than the fact the guy’s name is KEN SAKURA to guess that he’s a ninja but Cosmo has done more than that. He’s put together a dossier of Ken’s whereabouts over the last few years and tied it to various crimefighting activities that occured in these places. Ken denies it vehemently (“There’s no such thing as ninjas! I’m just an antiques dealer!”) but Cosmo insists on it and pleads for Ken’s help in tackling the terrorists in the tower block. He leaves a pertinent dossier of information on Ken’s desk for him to mull over…

Ken is unsure whether to help, realising he may have to sacrifice his secret identity if he accepts the job, but also knowing that if the Science falls into Richard Lynch’s hands, millions could die. In the end, I’d like to think it’s the idea of pre-dating Die Hard’s plot by a good six years that really seals the deal for him but, either way, it’s off to the ninja cave to get ready for some anti-terrorist, all-American ninjing!

The ninja cave, incidentally, is magnificent. Probably the best decor I’ve seen in any of these films. Imagine if Patrick Bateman had an octagonal set of wardrobes full of ninja suits, masks, scrolls, weapons, that open magically with the wave of a hand and you’re in the right area. There’s even an occasional table at which to do ninja mysticism – something Ken does when he writes down his intentions on a scroll and sets it on fire.

The rest of the movie alternates between Ken saving the day at Terror Towers and flashbacks explaining how he became The Last Ninja in the first place. He was delivered as a baby to a Japanese family in America who, without much persuading, decide to take him in (“He’s cute for a Caucasian baby,” remarks Daddy Mako. “Their young are usually very ugly!”). Baby-Ken catches a break when his two adult Japanese brothers are killed during a heroic mission in Korea and Daddy Mako has no one else to teach Ninjutsu to. Although skeptical of teaching it a white kid, he gives baby Ken a special ninja test by dropping him in a barrel of water to see if he’ll sink or swim. Baby Ken swims to the surface (making me wonder if the cover to Nirvana’s Nevermind is actually a ninja training scene?) and Mako rejoices, knowing he has a successor.

[As an aside, one thing that irritated me, was that Ken’s sister Noriko (who, as an adult, is played by Nancy Kwan) isn’t even considered for ninja training. She later works as Ken’s ninjing assistant, helping him out with a couple of setups and, uh, booking his plane tickets for him, but it’s kind of shocking she was left out of the training. I get the impression Mako’s dad character is a bit of a dick tho. On his deathbed he tells Ken that, of all his children, he – the adopted caucasian one – is the one he’s loved the most (meanwhile Noriko isn’t even there in the hospital!). I mean, that’s kind of a dick move right?]

Anyway, the training sequences are not exactly Drunken Master but they are ‘different’. Child-Ken gets sent out into the mountains to frolic with cute animals and learn how to eat raw fish while becoming “no one”, Arya Stark style. In one of the admittedly more original takes on ninja training – he’s given a kitten. A NINJA KITTEN. Yes, really. Mako explains how cats have mastered the art of stealth naturally and insists that Ken learns from his new furry friend. This involves plenty of cute kitten footage (Catjutsu?) which is fun but maybe not exactly the high octane martial arts that some viewers have come for.

And that’s where The Last Ninja doesn’t quite deliver. It takes an admirably spiritual approach to the art and, through Ken’s training, explains a lot of the stealthy and “magical” elements of being a ninja (“None of this is supernatural but men will not understand it so they will fear it”). When he comes to kick terrorist ass in the final reel, Ken uses non-lethal techniques and a lot of illusion (he even gets bleeding hands after scaling the side of a building, which you don’t usually see). What this sacrifices, however, is the kind of ultraviolent ninjasms that – say – Sho Kosugi delivered in Revenge Of The Ninja.

It’s believed that The Last Ninja was meant to be a pilot for a full series (entirely believable given the way the characters are set up) and that the Kosugi-aided Master Ninja on rival station NBC pipped it to the post (even though The Master Ninja wouldn’t air until a few months later). Last Ninja, I feel, would’ve made a better show than Master Ninja since the non-lethal take on martial arts lends itself well to the restrictions of television at the time. Master Ninja was just like a pulpy ninja movie without the violence, whereas this at least replaces it with other cool stuff.

The cast is brilliant here too. Mako is probably the quintessential wise old Japanese dude actor and does his thing admirably. Michael Beck is forever underrated. I loved him as Swan in the Warriors and I love him here too, playing a completely different character. He gets suave antiques dealer Ken bang-on but also has the right kind of build to be a believable ninja (unlike, say, Lee Van Cleef in The Master Ninja). Nancy Kwan is squandered in this, which is a shame because Noriko feels like a good character and she is – again – a chronically underrated actor who suffered way too much typecasting. I’d love to know what would’ve happened if they’d been allowed to develop this further. It could’ve been a classic But alas. We’ll never know. Nor will we ever learn the identity of the mysterious woman who kept catching Ken’s attention and sure knows how sip a drink…

Still, for now, we have this highly entertaining movie. While you won’t get shuriken to the face or arterial fountains, you will get a lot of cool leftfield ninjing you’ve not seen before including a nice surprise trick near the end, a natty ninja suit (Ken wears a floral pattern with a leopard-print hood – talk about psychedelic!) and a fine cast. The production values are the upper end of TV movie and that’s a lot better than your average straight to video ninjoid fix, so y’know. This is required study material for ninjologists at any level.

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Ninja Knights (1988)

This minor cut-and-paste film was originally released in Hong Kong as part of IFD’s Official Exterminator series, with the catchy name of Official Exterminator 5 : Enter The Victory. It was renamed Night Of The Ninja in the US and (creatively) Ninja Knights here in the UK. Unfortunately, despite the natty cover (which looks great side by side with Rage of Ninja, also releasedby Apollo Entertainment), there’s really not much ninjing in this one. It comes from the late phase of IFD’s 80s run where they were moving away from ninja films and hedging their bets in other genres. By toning it down and having such a meaningless title as Enter The Victory, this could’ve been sold as a straight “adventure” picture. However, they dropped a couple of ninja scenes in it too, just in case a buyer wanted a ninja film. Such was the way they operated at the time; the glory days of film sales! To make matters worse, because UK censors removed footage of “offensive” ninja weapons like shuriken, about 90% of the ninja scenes here were cut from the UK release. So if, like me, you were sucker enough to buy the Apollo tape, you wouldn’t get much bokken for your buck. Great cover tho.

Sadly, it’s hard to pin down either the origin of the material or anyone involved beyond the usual IFD crew (most of the credits are fake names). “Bob Chan” takes the director’s credit onscreen, but Godfrey Ho is named on the box art and it has Ho’s style all over it, so I’d be happy to accept he made the caucasian footage here. I’ve no idea what the source film that it’s spliced into is though. It’s almost certainly a Taiwanese ‘black’ film from 1980 – 1982 but, despite looking for some time, I can’t find a potential suspect so if you have any ideas, please leave a note in the comments!

In its recut form, Ninja Knights opens with a dramatic heist sequence and the theft of a precious diamond known as the Star Of India. This belongs to Hector Bates, a businessman who’s angry about the heist but immediately makes a big insurance claim. The investigator, Mr Chan, says he’ll start investigating the claim at once and Bates says “great, let’s open the champagne!” and they toast to… uh… starting an insurance investigation. Is this normal? Who knows? The reason for it is apparently to show that Bates is quite “relaxed” about the theft which, it turns out, is because THE REAL Star of India is still in his possession. He arranged the theft of a fake one as a big insurance scam.

Yeah, this is a very similar plot to Ho’s far superior Ninja Thunderbolt. Mr Chan is smarter than Bates thinks. however. He knows it’s a scam and tells his employee Nick (Paul John Stanners) that “Hector Bates is no Mr Rogers!” so Nick needs to keep an eye on him while Chan tracks down the real gemstone. Nick is your typical insurance investigator by way of James Bond (!). He spends his free time doing some kind of Tai Chi/gymnastics thing in the park and neglecting his unnamed and permanently topless British girlfriend in the name of professionalism. There’s a (fairly graphic) sex scene in progress just as Mr Chan calls Nick up to ask for his help and his girlfriend gets left on the bed in favour of the exciting world of insurance investigation. Not for the first time either. “You always do this to me… EVERY TIME!” she moans. “I hate you… you son of a bitch… UP YOURS!”

Ridiculous dialogue aside, this is a reasonably clever setup for a cut-and-paste movie as it keeps Nick and Bates out the way of the Taiwanese story while still tying both plots together. Or so you’d think. Sadly, the Taiwanese story falls almost immediately off a cliff and has almost nothing to do with the stolen goods.

Instead, we get a guy called Steve Chin, a former gangster who had his hand cut off and quit the business. He’s struggling to find straight work as a doorman and yearns for an innocent and simple life like his innocent and simple niece has. She sells flowers and likes packed lunches with tofu and chicken legs in them. Unfortunately, her mother gets hit by a car, so Steve must go back to crime to raise the money for a life-saving blood transfusion. This is familiar plot setup if you’ve watched many Taiwanese black films – the endless moral quandary between needing money to help loved ones but not resorting to evil in order to get it. And it pans out pretty much as you’d expect. So where do the ninjas come in?

At 30 minutes in, Nick has his first ninja encounter above the rooftops of Hong Kong (apparently the ninjas belong to Hector Bates, who has a squad of them on speed dial – he is, after all, no Mr Rogers). A couple of black-suited nasties come at Nick and he makes light work of them. A little later we get a fleeting purple-suited ninja, and a few characters seem to know their way around flying weaponry, but that’s really very little actual onscreen ninjing. I didn’t measure it but I’d guess we’re talking about the 3 minute mark, which is terrible behavior for a 90 minute film with Ninja in the title. There isn’t even the customary ninja showdown on Devil’s Rock at the end which, frankly, means the finale of this is a colossal letdown.

If you’re here as a ninjologist, you’ll get almost no pleasure from this one. The ninjas don’t do any magic (not even a single disappearing trick or supernatural costume change!) and feel superfluous. From a technical standpoint, it’s all middle-ground IFD. The stories don’t mesh as well as they could, the martial arts are quite workaday, the new footage has weird lighting that gives everyone a greenish hue like the Night Of The Living Dead colorisation and it’s all extremely restrained. Considering some of the nutty stuff Filmark were putting out at the same time, it’s weak and I’d have to say this is one for completists only. An average picture all round.

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Night Master (1987)

It’s perhaps not widely known but, back in the 80s, long before her well-deserved awards and adulation, Nicole Kidman starred in a ninja movie called Night Master.

What? No, really. It was originally called Watch The Shadows Dance and was made for Australian TV as part of a series of TV movies called Tomorrow’s News. It’s hard to find much info about Tomorrow’s News as a curated concept (any Aussies reading who remember the series, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments below!) but the subject matter of its films suggest it was an attempt to get in touch with youth culture. There’s one about post-apocalyptic pool players (Hard Knuckle), one about demonic holograms and hackers (Computer Ghosts), one about a time-traveling video store clerk (Future Past), one about bloodsuckers in the bush (Outback Vampires) and, inevitably since we were at the height of the Ninja Boom, one about ninjas. Although most were retitled and exported on the VHS market at the time, the only one that’s endured to any extent is Night Master and this is largely down to the novelty value of Kidman being in it. But is it of any value to the study of ninjology?

Aside from being perhaps the only non-comedic Australian ninja film in existence, there’s not a great deal to recommend, although it is an interesting curio. Still, it starts out well with ominous synthesizers and a rad tracking shot through the city streets at night (which is how any good ninja movie should start, in my opinion). We then zoom into a warehouse where two ninjas are chasing each other around. One of them eventually gets up onto a tricky platform and rings a bell at which point, they take off their masks and reveal themselves to be Nicole Kidman and Tom Jennings (Slake from Mad Max 3).

It turns out the whole thing is a game but there’s a double twist as we cut to the next day with the two of them sat in high school being reprimanded by their teacher for being tired. So yeah. The plot of this movie is about a bunch of high school kids who, under the tutelage of their sketchy karate teacher Steve (Vince Martin), play a high-intensity Capture The Flag game at night while dressed as ninjas. The warehouse is full of groovy (and highly dangerous) traps and whoever loses the game gets squirted with a neon green dye that won’t wash off the next day at school. It’s the neon dye that kinda gives the whole thing away to goody-two-shoes teacher Sonia Spane (Joanne Samuel, more Mad Max alumni!) and she wants to put a stop to it all. Why? For the pure and simple reason that ninjing around at night is interfering with their studies.

Unfortunately, this is where it starts to go wrong. Sonia is more or less the heroine and the message of the film is delivered by her in an earnest speech (so heartfelt we see it again later in flashback) where she tells Tom Jennings that “being the best, being number one, it isn’t always the answer. We all need to be gentle with each other sometimes”. Of course she’s right and, in real life, I wouldn’t disagree but we’ve all showed up for a ninja movie and this is one where the message is essentially that being a ninja is bad and instead you should concentrate on your studies and being nice. I’m glad I didn’t watch this as a kid because it would’ve just felt like being chastised by a well-meaning but super-square teacher. I came here for ninjing. For duffings up. For shredding shuriken and bokken for my buck. And all I get is this look:

I should note that everyone (teachers included) also spend a lot of time in a nightclub where Aussie pub rock legend Paul Kelly sings, appearing here with his band The Colored Girls (all white guys) to perform THREE FULL SONGS. If you’re a Kelly fan, this is a treat but if you’re not, it’s a bizarrely prolonged interlude that makes no sense outside of the contemporary culture it was part of. As bands in ninja films go, they’re no Dragon Sound, let’s face it.

The rest of the plot is needlessly complicated. There’s such a cool idea at the heart with this weird ninja game they play but it’s abandoned in favour of a Neighbours-style “issue” story in which teacher Steve gets involved with the local drug dealer and starts to lose his mind. Turns out he’s a war veteran and so the reason he pushes his students so far in karate and ninja games is because he’s suffering massive PTSD, has a serious heroin addiction and a misguided determination to win everything.

It’s weird because what this film pushes is almost the anti-thesis of martial arts movies. Usually, they’re all about training harder, becoming one with the art and learning life lessons through self-discipline. Here, all of these things are presented as bad to the point of pathological, which isn’t fun. In fact, it’s a kind of a bummer. That said, the kids’ formal training is in karate, they play around with ninjutsu at night, Steve is pushing for one of them to win a national kickboxing contest and there’s a completely gratuitous (but cool) kendo sequence. I guess it’s possible they are doing too many martial arts and should streamline their training down a little? Oh God, Sonia was right.

So yeah, Night Master is a pretty terrible movie. It’s a self-conscious teen drama and a woefully uncool attempt at using cool stuff like ninjas for hackneyed social commentary, but it’s not all bad. There’s a lot of talent here. Besides Kidman – who’s so visibly, audaciously a massive star waiting to happen, outshining the rest of the cast – I have to give a shout-out to the cinematographer Martin McGrath (who later went on to shoot Muriel’s Wedding, one of the biggest Aussie movies ever). He makes the movie look really slick on an obviously low budget so, if nothing else, this ranks as one of the most stylish of its kind. Trivia fans will love that the sleazoid drug dealer is played by Craig Pearce, Baz Luhrmann’s writing partner who’d later reuninte with Kidman when he scripted Moulin Rouge! I wonder if, at any point while they shot that, they sat and reminisced over Night Master?

I’d like to think they did and that actually the fine art of ninjutsu has stuck with Nicole all this time, perhaps even helped her on her way to Hollywood superstardom. After all, this recent picture of her does show that her phone cover is a NINJA CAT. I reckon she’s one of us. Happy ninjing, Nicole! x

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The Best and Worst of 80s Ninja Videogames

I wrote a guest post over on Den of Geek about my experiences playing through as many 80s ninja videogames as I could get my hands on and ranking them in order. From the weirder end of the spectrum (Ninja Golf, Ninja Scooter Simulator), all the way to the classics like Saboteur! and The Last Ninja, I had a lot of fun writing this and hope you’ll enjoy reading it too.

Click here to respawn at the start of the article…

PS: If you enjoyed this and want more retro ninja game fun, don’t forget to check out my extensive interview with Saboteur! creator Clive Townsend.