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Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger (1982)

First of all, I apologise that it’s been a little quiet here on Ninjas All The Way Down recently. A lot of boring reasons for my inactivity but rest assured, the Ninja Empire has not been corrupted and I am alive and well. However, this weekend I received an anonymous email via the contact form on my personal website from someone calling themselves simply “a“. It felt like the kind of message that should be attached to a robot and said “Please do some more Ninjas All The Way Down reviews.” So who am I to not give the people what they want? And, for another thing, this is clearly a message from the Great God Ninja himself. So in continuation of my perpetual ninja mission, here’s a new post!

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Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger aka The Secret Ninja (1982) is from the pre-cut-and-paste era of IFD, where Joseph Lai, Tomas Tang and Godfrey Ho would acquire mostly South Korean martial arts films, re-dub them, edit them just a little and sell them to the international market with exciting new titles. This one started life as Injamunsalsu (Duel of In-ja Hall) and was directed by Kim Si Hyeon. IFD thought that was a boring title so rechristened it Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger and replaced all trace of the original credits. It now proudly proclaims “DIRECTED BY GODFREY HO”, which is a total lie. If you’re feeling generous you could say he directed the English dubbing session… Anyway, for housekeeping, the version I watched was the UK VHS print, which has about 90 seconds missing. Some shuriken flinging and a nude whipping scene were censored because the BBFC hate fun.

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Although not a cut-and-paste movie, you do wonder if maybe spending too much time watching these Korean flicks was responsible for Ho’s later idiosyncratic approach to storytelling. I’ve watched a fair few and they’re just not very well written at all. The plot in this one is particularly tough to follow so bear with me as I try to summarise it. “Lord Evergreen” is a rich nobleman who decides he will marry off his daughter Susan (Seo Jeong-Ah) to whoever can win his martial arts tournament. It looks as if some local champion has won but then everybody’s favourite Korean Bruce Lee impersonator Dragon Lee rocks up, having traveled for days, and serves a kung fu Brucie Bonus – sealed with a fist – winning both the tournament and the girl.

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Unfortunately, it’s not that simple because Susan gets kidnapped by Tiger So (tae kwon do legend Hwang Jang Lee), an evil dude who sits at the head of the Ninja Society. In a baffling twist, it turns out Lord Evergreen isn’t Susan’s real father but instead she’s the daughter of the former head ninja. “You see!?” bellows Tiger, in an effort to persuade Susan to marry him. “We’re both of the Ninja Society! And ninjas stay together!” Clearly a big fan of nincest. But there’s still more family secrets to come…

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Susan has a long lost sister who dresses like the most unconvincing boy ever in order to join the very macho rescue mission with Dragon Lee and (Jaguar Wong himself) Jack Lam, who here plays some kind of wandering fighter dude. The scene where they find out she’s actually a girl is unintentionally hilarious. It gets funnier, the angrier they get because her disguise (essentially just a hat) is so laughably bad. Which is good because the intentional laughs here are diabolically bad. Continuing the theme of cross-dressing there’s a painful slapstick scene where Dragon is ‘seduced’ by a male transvestite with hairy legs, and another where Dragon has to fight ninjas while clinging to a towel to protect his modesty. Don’t misunderstand me here, I do enjoy Dragon Lee and think he’s one of the more entertaining Bruce clones but he CANNOT handle comedy.

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He fares better with the fights which, considering the budget, aren’t too bad. Dragon, Jack Lam and Hwang Jang all bring some real martial skills to the proceedings and fans of Ninja Terminator will enjoy seeing “Jaguar” and “Tiger” duff each other up again (in a manner of speaking, at least). There’s actually a fair bit of bokken for your buck here and ninjas around every corner. They have some weird magical powers that include setting things on fire and blowing themselves up (technically more pyromancy than Ninjutsu) and they can burrow underground, climb cliff faces in record time and breathe underwater. They’re also quite natty dressers with a variety of suits and… uh… capes.

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I can’t say Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger is a good film. The plot is too convoluted and episodic to ever come together. The production values are underwhelming and the comedy excruciating. But it’s worth an advanced ninjologist’s time just for the heavy ninja content and surprisingly entertaining finale. Hwang Jang Lee fans may feel a sense of deja vu though… Yep, the final fight’s ripped off massively from Ninja In The Dragon’s Den, right down to a surprise breast flash being the bad guy’s undoing. It’s strange because the laser-shooting breasts are easily the weirdest/dumbest thing about that otherwise excellent movie and yet it’s the thing these guys chose to rip off (although they can’t afford lasers so we just get more spontaneous combustion). That kind of cock-eyed decision-making process is ultimately what prevents Secret Ninja from ever being a great film, although it does at least have one of the most needlessly brutal finishing moves ever to leave you walking away on a high. And rubbing your neck because owwwww

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The Sword of Bushido (1990)

I admit that The Sword Of Bushido isn’t strictly a ninja movie. Let’s say it’s ninja-adjacent. There’s a ninja in it but he isn’t, sadly, the main focus of the story, despite being so prominent on the 1996 UK VHS artwork (and all subsequent DVD releases). That said, every release of this film I’ve seen is deceptively packaged. The original UK VHS release featured Richard Norton in ceremonial garb, brandishing a sword against a backdrop of some cliffs and while this scene does exist – it appears while the opening credits roll – it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie… Still, despite all this, I think it’s a film that’s remembered quite fondly by martial arts VHS fans so let’s take a look back.

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Norton plays Zac Connors, a former Navy S.E.A.L. whose grandfather went missing in southeast Thailand at the end of WW2. Connors – who in between his intensive Navy training has also been learning Bushido, the Japanese Way Of The Warrior (why? because the 80s) – knows his grandfather was on his way back to the US from Japan when he crash-landed in Thailand. More intriguingly, he was carrying a very valuable ancient Samurai sword at the time, that has also been long since missing. Connors consider it his chūgi to not just locate and properly bury his grandfather’s corpse but also return the sword to Japan where it belongs. Unfortunately for him, the Japanese government are offering a two million dollar reward for the sword so he’s not the only one after it. Cue a trail of bad guys for him to duff up…

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To kick off his adventure, Zac enlists the help of one of the U.S. Navy’s senior intelligence officers (Judy Green, who is a deadringer for 80s porn sensation Victoria Paris here). She offers to help him locate his grandfather with state of the art 1980s computer technology. While she taps away at the keys and murmurs retro techspeak, he spends the whole time checking out her ass and calling her a “clerk”. Later, in his apartment, while she continues working, he seduces her with takeaway sushi (from a cheeky delivery boy who asks him “blonde or brunette?” and winks, implying this is a regular tactic). At the vital point where she’s running the software routine that will track the exact location he requires, Zac starts unbuttoning her shirt (!). She does point out “this is sexual harrassment” – which it inarguably is – but I guess no one can resist the exotic allure of sushi, so they giggle their way into a very soft sex scene and then she’s never seen again. Tossed aside like yesterday’s bread. Ouch.

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[If it helps sweeten things any, Judy Green and Richard Norton actually got married 3 years after shooting this and are still together now, nearly 30 years later. They present martial arts shows together on Kapow TV, which is just lovely. Aww.]

Anyway, once she’s given him the exact position he was after (in more ways than one), he jets off to the jungles of southeast Thailand, finds his granddad’s body and gets embroiled in some village politics when he’s set upon by his first wave of bad guys – Thai gun runners. There’s a local mercenary called Suay (Rochelle Ashana from Kickboxer) and she is trying to protect her village. Being a man of honour, Zac gets involved and, in return, Suay tries to help him locate the missing sword. What follows is an overlong, somewhat disjointed caper that involves a cocky Vietnam vet who inevitably double-crosses them, a torchlit trek through a cave full of traps and a romantic moment shared beneath a waterfall as Suay and Zac slice leeches off each other’s skin with a knife and then – overcome by the famously aphrodisiac nature of this activity – share a kiss.

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So what about the ninja, huh? You came here for ninjing and so did I. Well, he rocks up when Zac and Suay take the precious sword back to Japan and find the Yakuza want to steal it for their own nefarious purposes (it’s all go in Zac’s world). They send a ninja to attack them in their hotel room and it’s a standout scene. He bounds in, does some acrobatics, flings a ton of shuriken around and then gets pushed out of the window, clutching a lamp and clinging on to the extension cord for dear life. “Lights out, buddy,” chuckles Zac and pulls the plug, sending the ninja tumbling to the ground. It’s okay though. He’s a ninja. He always lands on his feet. Tragically, as he stops to shake his fist at the window and curse in Japanese… HE GETS HIT BY A BUS! Suay – who missed all this – asks what happened to him. “He caught the bus,” replies Zac, deadpan as anything.

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It’s this kind of bizarre comedy that makes Sword of Bushido a distinctly 80s movie. Zac’s character is reasonably honourable (if you excuse his workplace friskiness) and acts in tune with the Bushido Code. His story is largely played straight and yet we still get hilarious scenes where he chases a car full of Yakuza on a child’s Go-Kart (“sorry kid, I need your wheels”) and winds up in a ditch covered in fish while a Thai youth football team laugh at him (!). On one hand, yes, this film tells a coherent story but, on the other, it’s like about four films smushed into one. It obviously takes its cue from the Indiana Jones adventures but, I dunno. What’s the filmic equivalent of being dropped on your head as an infant? Whatever it is, it happened here.

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Still, Sword of Bushido is not without its qualities. Richard Norton has such an easy charisma and makes Zac Connors feel like a much more affable and enjoyable character than he would’ve been in lesser hands. There’s not enough fighting to really show off Norton’s incredible martial talents but he does get to deliver enough chuckle-worthy one-liners to earn his paycheck. The cinematography here (by Ross Berryman, who the same year would shoot the gorgeous-looking Dead Calm) is far above average for the genre, loaded with nifty tracking shots that keep things stylish when the plot lags. The action, when it does happen, is reasonable. There’s some decent pyro, a cool swordfight and some gory shoot-outs and that ninja scene is brief but makes everything worth it.

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Ultimately, it’s hard to hate a movie that tries so hard. Like I say, it’s damaged goods, but Norton’s charm holds it together like adorable Aussie duct tape. Why does he keep his Aussie accent when everyone in the film constantly refers to him as “The American” or “Yankee”? I don’t know. It’s questions like this you have to accept won’t be answered by The Sword of Bushido, but if you’re a forgiving ninjologist who’s happy for a gentle nostalgia hit and not much bokken for your buck, you’ll probably get a kick out of all this silliness either way.

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Ninja : American Warrior (1987)

For the unintiated – and first-time visitors to this blog – Filmark were one of several Hong Kong production companies who, in the 1980s, bought the rights to existing Asian films then re-edited and re-dubbed them with new storylines. They also spliced in their own footage of mostly Caucasian actors playing ninjas and slapped titles on the films that they felt would appeal to western markets. It worked. Filmark alone sold dozens of films like this all around the world. Sometimes the results of their experiments were abysmal – as messy as you’d expect – but other times they struck gold and made psychotronic martial arts magic. Ninja : American Warrior (1987) came quite late in the cycle but is easily one of their most ambitious entries and a fierce introduction to the madness inside themselves that they’d channel just to make a quick buck…

HOUSEKEEPING PARAGRAPH (feel free to skip if you want to get straight to the action!) : Cheng Kei-Ying (under the name Tommy Cheng) directs the new Filmark footage here and, unusually, it takes up at least a third of the runtime. It’s not just a handful of ninja fights, it’s almost a whole isolated film in itself and he uses some gleefully audacious edits to help it blend “seamlessly” into the source film, Chester Wong’s Queen Bee’s Revenge (1981). This was originally a sequel to Wong’s excellent blood-soaked vengeance saga Queen Bee (also 1981), which Filmark already used as a source film in the unrelated Ninja And The Warriors Of Fire (1987), but where that film more or less followed the same plot as Queen Bee with added ninjas, Ninja : American Warrior does not follow Queen Bee’s Revenge’s plot… at all.

It opens with an unknown woman in aerobics gear walking through a field and being set upon by a red ninja and a gold lamé ninja. The red ninja wears gardening gloves, which he rubs together to create ACTUAL FLAMING FISTS. Yes, this film opens with a ninja, fighting with his hands on fire. Impressively, without setting any of her highly flammable shell suit on fire, Aerobics Woman duffs them both up and announces to the camera that she now only has “the Black Cougar Ninja” left to kill. Then she puts on a rubber mask…

…and we cut to Lu I-Chan (the very glamorous star of Queen Bee’s Revenge) skulking around a building, kicking the ass of various goons who attack her. A man in almost kabuki-style make-up appears from the shadows and murders her, before announcing himself as the Black Cougar Ninja. As a group of shady Triads arrive, he tells them he has completed his mission to kill the woman known as Amazonia. BUT. There’s a twist. In the first of the aforementioned audacious edits, he then bends down and we cut to a rubber mask being pulled off of Lu I-Chan to reveal it’s actually Aerobics Woman from the opening scene! In a Rubber Lu I-Chan mask! The Black Cougar Ninja was tricked. Amazonia isn’t dead after all.

So. For the plot of Ninja : American Warrior, Lu I-Chan is Amazonia, a ninja-trained police officer who’s part of a team trying to stop a female Triad boss known only as The Shrew (“She’s a mean cow,” one cop warns… “I ain’t scared of no cows,” replies another in a key expository dialogue scene). In her arc, she’s taking revenge for the death of mild-mannered and much-loved garden centre manager Charlie Chow (“I love taking revenge!” she shouts iconically, “It makes me feel strong!”) and this involves a lot of bloody shoot-outs and swordfights.

She’s pursued relentlessly by the Black Cougar Ninja, who’s on The Shrew’s payroll, and at one point she fights him while topless, having had to use her top as a decoy (that old trick!). This is all fine but MEANWHILE, there’s another plot happening concurrently. In this one, Joff Houston plays a ninja-trained CIA operative and former Vietnam vet who’s on the trail of the same Triads as Amazonia (they actually “meet” in one scene but eagle eyes will spot it’s all done with camera tricks and editing). In his arc, the primary Triad target is “Justin Taylor” (Jonathan Isgar), a bleach-blonde drug dealer who once served in ‘Nam, side by side with our ninja hero, but went rogue upon his return…

Following it? Not really? Who cares! It’s action all the way! Two films’ worth!

On account of shooting so much of his own footage, Cheng cuts almost all of the story out of Queen Bee’s Revenge and just leaves in the fighting and the sleazy torture sequences. A lot of the new Filmark footage is action too, be it the usual insane ninja fights – heavy on shuriken use, always a pleasure – or the Vietnam flashback scenes. In these we get Houston and Isgar running around with machine guns, intercut with lively stock footage of actual ‘Nam choppers and exploding treelines. Yes, if you’re looking for the edits you can see them but honestly – if I’d watched this as a kid on VHS, I’d’ve probably not noticed and just thought it was the raddest movie ever.

There’s so much gratuitous violence in this, I didn’t even attempt a body count. Nerdy Gweilos take throwing stars to the face; fake “Viet Cong” are stabbed up and shot in droves; and it all builds to probably the most emotive Filmark ever got – a truly fantastic monologue from Isgar as he rants, Rambo-style, about how ‘Nam vets were abandoned by the US government, while getting drunker and drunker…

It starts off reasonably coherent but culminates in him going full Stallone-face and shouting “I’M A WINNER, I’M A SUPER-WINNER!” and if that isn’t something you want on a t-shirt immediately, you’re reading the wrong blog.

This being Filmark, the movie ends with a ninja fight in the woods, with magic floating hoops and exploding shop dummies, and it left me a little breathless with just how enthusiastically this crams in everything an 80s action audience could want. You get a ton of bokken for your buck and the exchange rate is very much in the ninjologist’s favour.

None of this is major-league competent when taken as individual components but combining them all like this makes Ninja : American Warrior essential viewing for anyone interested in the cut-and-paste film phenomena. With the secret formula of Namsploitation, grindhouse crime drama and magical ninjing, Cheng Kei-Ying’s created one of the most memorably strange and adventurous films of its kind. Study hard, ninjologists.

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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.