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Born A Ninja (1988)

Although credited to a director named “Lo Gio”, Born A Ninja is the obvious child of the only two minds weird enough to birth it: Joseph Lai and Godfrey Ho. Working here under the company monicker of Adda Audio Visual Ltd (AAV), they apply a slightly different creative technique to the usual. Instead of splicing their own ninja footage into an existing film, they’ve taken footage from a unnamed Taiwanese TV series that already featured ninjas and just re-edited and dubbed it into two separate films – this one and American Commando Ninja (which I already proclaimed as “the worst ninja film ever made” in an earlier post). It’s impossible to know what the original show was about since Lai and Ho seem to have cut the selected scenes together in literally the least coherent order they could, producing two utterly unfathomable films. If any ninjologists out there know the name or the plot of the TV show, please get in touch!

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There is debate online over whether Born A Ninja is a sequel to American Commando Ninja or vice versa. Since the two protagonists, Larry and David seem to already know each other in this one and they meet for the first time in American Commando Ninja, I’m taking a guess that this is the sequel but it’s hard to say as both films seem to tell the same non-story in a different way and a random order. Most likely, they were cut together at the same time with little consideration for chronology. The plot centres around a Japanese scientist called Tanaka who made a secret formula in WW2 that led to mass destruction in China. Everybody, some 40 years later, wants to get their hands on this formula including an evil gweilo named Martin, a mysterious ninja, our weirdo hero from the first film (David), and his goofy buddy Larry.

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In Born A Ninja, the focus shifts more onto Larry. He forms a deeper relationship with the two girls – Brenda and Becky – who were once seeking vengeance on Tanaka for killing their parents, and even goes on to propose marriage to one of them. There’s a lot more about his back story too and how he learned to master the unique style of martial art practiced in these two movies and (as far as I’m aware) nowhere else ever: HOCUS POCUS. Here, Larry’s master – who refers to him as “Barry” throughout the film – teaches us that a lot of people believe “Hocus Pocus is an evil part of Taoism” although he understands how “good and evil are slightly different” (!) and only Hocus Pocus, when used for good, can save the world.

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After posing the question of whether “our old Hocus Pocus can beat Ninjutsu”, the master cues up a series of random fight scenes in which Larry and/or David fight a multitude of ninjas for reasons that may or may not relate to Tanaka’s tricky formula. They’re led by a ninja in a camo outfit (in this Ouroborean twist, whoever shot the original TV series may – ironically – have been influenced by Godfrey Ho) but there are also a ton of black ninjas and David straps on a natty white ninja outfit with a gold headband, so you get a variety of costumes if nothing else. The fights are not in the least bit polished but for the sheer volume of ninjas on screen alone, this is marginally more watchable than its sister piece.

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Much like in American Commando Ninja though, there are more questions than answers. The elusive “Golden Horns” are mentioned again as some kind of magical artefact that we never see and there’s a lot of dialogue that appears to have been run through malfunctioning translation software. If you watch a lot of Asian films with subtitles, you may be familiar with the way that the subs occasionally mangle the dialogue due to a mistranslation but here we get a similar level of “creative” English spoken rather than typed, which makes things mightily surreal (“Two chicks? You one animal!”) and almost impossible to watch. There are entire scenes where people are literally speaking gibberish to one another. Usually very slowly too, as the dubbers are slavishly trying to match these nonsense words to the actors’ mouth movements while they say completely different ones.

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That said, even without the unintentional surrealism, there is a more bizarro magical quality to Born A Ninja than American Commando Ninja as we get to see the supernatural side of Hocus Pocus style in all its glory. Larry sets his hands on fire, shoots flames at ninjas, turns himself into a straw man and, in one agonisingly prolonged sequence, gets into a fight with what appears to be a sentient plant that emits magic green dust? It’s hard to really know what’s going on there. The whole mess culminates with a psychedelic nightmare sequence for Tanaka who hallucinates a bunch of blood-soaked Noh masks (which I think are supposed to represent the people he killed in WW2 because, somewhere underneath it all, Born A Ninja seems to be trying to say something about Japanese war crimes), and then there’s one final Hocus Pocus vs Ninjutsu fight in which David steps in to save the day while Larry just runs around like a fool in his ridiculous neon shirt…

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Perhaps if alcohol were involved and you had some friends over, there could be some enjoyment taken from the WTF value of Born A Ninja (although, for legal reasons, I should probably point out that trying to double-bill this and American Commando Ninja will likely lead to irreversible mental damage) but it’s not one to sit and study in solitude. Unless you really, really feel like you need to train hard and start the Hocus Pocus style renaissance…

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Ninja The Battalion (1987)

Directed by the pseudonymous “Victor Sears” and produced by Tomas Tang, Ninja The Battalion (1987) is one of the weakest of the late 80s Filmark cut-and-paste films. It was released in some territories as The Super Ninja 2 to cash-in on the more entertaining Super Ninja (also starring Alexander Lou) but the similarities end there. This isn’t even set in the same period! It’s just a particularly choppy mash-up of Lou ninjing around in some new footage with a 1982 Taiwanese Triad drama called The Alliance of Hung Sect (dir: Fong Chiung), set in the 1940s… How do these seemingly disparate elements combine? Well, the answer is they don’t. At all.

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[Not sure why this DVD artwork chooses to depict Lou emerging from a Fly-style telepod?]

After a barely readable credits sequence of white text on mostly white action (you can make out enough to see the usual array of anglicised Filmark fake names like “Cathy Joe” are all present), we get a great opening line. “It’s 12 noon in Central Park and the password is Battalion,” intones a random Aussie voice, while Alexander Lou (handily playing a character called Alex) walks through the greenery. Two Japanese guys dressed as Samurai attack him, there’s a punch-up, and he’s saved by a random white dude called Steven. Without using the password “Battalion” (which, in fact, no one uses at all throughout the whole film), they figure out that they’re both on a mission from Ken Yong – The Number One Secret Agent – to rescue four scientists from the clutches of the evil Japanese, so they team up and do exactly that.

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Normally in these Filmark efforts, the source film’s plot is more or less retained with the odd few ninja twists thrown in but I got the impression that a lot more was being changed here. From what I can understand, The Alliance of Hung Sect pitted rival Triad gangs against Yakuza whereas here they seem to be mostly government or corporate organisations that are trying to prevent World War II from escalating further in Asia. To make their intentions even harder to follow, they all communicate in codes that are mostly either arcane teacup formations (yes, teacup formations) or absurdly conspicuous hand gestures.

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There are more than a few freako subplots including Special Agent Joey, a Chinese guy who’s undercover with the Japanese and gone a little rogue with regards to his love of torture; a group of all-female assassins known as the Tigress Gang; Ken Yong himself (Taiwan’s answer to James Bond – he wears a bow-tie and tux and introduces himself as the Number One Secret Agent, instantly blowing his secret identity in much the same way Bond does every time he blurts “Bond, James Bond”); and, my personal favourite; the Russians. The Russians appear only in the Filmark footage and are the usual Caucasian non-actors that Filmark liked to cast in such roles. They’re on the trail of the missing scientists and, as revealed in a fierce interrogation sequence, have their own amazing secret code:

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“We say ‘welcome’
He says ‘don’t mention’
We say ‘ya ya ya’ four times
Then we say ‘is the weather good in Shanghai?’
They say ‘yes yes yes’ four times 
Then ‘is the weather going to be good in Moscow?’
Then we say ‘I tell you it’s gonna be goooood!'”

So wait, what? We say ‘ya ya ya’ four times? So, uh, ‘ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya’? Who are we? Lorde? Even more hilariously, the only time we see anyone use this secret code, they mess it up by ending the exchange with “Is it cold in Moscow?” and “YAAAAAAAAAAA” respectively. Useless.

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Did I mention that everyone was a secret ninja? At first, when Alex and Steven are attacked by ninjas, this almost makes sense since they’re fighting the Japanese but then it turns out that they – the Chinese – are ninjas too and, when the chips are down in the final reel, a black American ninja (played by the inimitable Eugene Thomas) rocks up to join the action. And, oh boy, the action here is bad. There are the obligatory Filmark ninjas on wires and mysterious throwing star apparitions but also some grass burrowing ninjas (literally a vaguely human shaped pile of fake grass being yanked along on a string). There are a lot of gunfights from the original footage and they try to edit ninjas into these so you have people shooting at imaginary people from entirely different movies. Dialogue takes the same over-ambitious approach to splicing with plenty back-of-the-head-only doubles pretending to be characters from the source film making it hard to even work out if who anyone’s even supposed to be at any given time.

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The whole thing culminates with a “Glorious Ninja Death” and, when I say that, I literally mean someone dies and, as they expire, they croak the words “Glorious… ninja… death!” Sadly, this and the Russian’s secret code are the two high points of the film, which probably gives you an idea how bad the rest is.

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People are quick to dismiss these films as much of a muchness but that’s unfair. The best of the cut-and-paste films keep things simple, zippy and a little bit crazy and can be hugely entertaining, inventive pictures. The worst, like this one, are just a total mess. It’s easy to see sometimes what they were going for and I can appreciate that – given how many they were pumping out per year – they were experimenting to keep themselves occupied, but here the ambitions to take a deeply pedestrian Triad drama and turn it into a WW2 epic with scientists, ninjas, Russians and all the rest of it were wildly unrealistic. The same year “Victor Sears” made Ninja’s Extreme Weapons which, conversely, is one of the more fun examples of the format. I’d recommend watching that one instead unless you believe you can only complete your ninjology studies by watching every… single… movie… with… ninja… in… the… title… But that would just be the behaviour of a madman, right?

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Phoenix the Ninja (1981)

Phoenix The Ninja (1981) is a Joseph Lai retitling of a Taiwanese film originally called (somewhat less excitingly) Miraculous Flower. Ninjologists will be sad to learn that, not only was this released before Lai starting splicing bonkers caucasian ninja footage into his movies, but there’s also very little of the ultraviolent ninjoid mayhem we know, study and love. However, it’s still interesting; partially for its iconic sleeve art (a staple of video stores worldwide) and also because it’s a decent little obscurity that, were it not for Lai, those of us outside of Asia may never have seen.

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Miraculous Flower was the brainchild of Pearl Cheung, an actress/director/writer who’d already made three films of a similar style – Butterfly Pearl, Wolf-Devil Woman and Wolf-Devil Woman 2 : Matching Escort. While I think you’d be stretching disbelief to claim her an unsung auteur, it’s an impressive body of work for a woman creating in an almost exclusively male-dominated epoch and there’s a real consistency to what she did. She clearly had a love of wuxia fantasy novels and her films are loaded with mad ideas, classical allusions and poetic grandeur, even if the conceptual enthusiasm far outweighs the technical realities. This could just be budgetary restraints (all of these movies were made very cheaply) but we’ll never know, since Cheung stopped directing after Matching Escort, and Miraculous Flower appears to be the last film she even wrote (director’s credit here goes to Fong Ho). In fact, two years later, after appearing alongside Jackie Chan in the nutty Fantasy Mission Force, she vanished from the public eye altogether and I can’t find anything about what happened to her.

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In this film, she plays a peasant girl called Mai and the film opens, almost Django-style, with her dragging a corpse across a snowy landscape while a dramatic score blares out. She arrives penniless at an inn, begging for a room to house herself and her mother (the corpse, it seems, she won’t admit is dead – “she’s just very sick!”). How did she get to this low point? Well, it turns out her mother, from her sickbed earlier, sent Mai on a quest to find the White Haired Fairy, who lives in the Phoenix Temple, high in the Jade Mountains (because, of course she does). Somewhere up there is a box containing “a great, great secret” and it’s Mai’s destiny to open it with a special iron pin…

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Back to the present, Mai gets lucky at the inn, running into an only slightly rude older lady who offers to share a room and some home truths (“You’re dumb! You’re very, very dumb! Your mama’s been dead for quite a while!”). The next morning, Mai finally buries her mother and her quest begins in earnest, as she wanders the countryside bumping into all kinds of further strange characters in a manner typical of the genre. There’s a nobleman who dresses all in white (and who is, blatantly, the mysterious masked “White Swordsman” that gets talked of); a kindly old man who adopts Mai as his daughter; a creepy monk who sits under a waterfall waiting for a prophecized fight he may or may never get; oh, and a couple of ninjas!

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Like I say, there really isn’t much ninjing in this film. We get the White Swordsman, who could almost pass for one, and he fights a purple ninja (we don’t really learn much about this guy’s background as he dies before he chance to tell us) and there’s also a completely random black ninja who attacks Mai on a bridge. Still, no one says the N word aloud and I think you’d struggle to argue that they’re anywhere near the focus of the movie. Mai herself, who is presumably the titular Phoenix, is not a ninja and does not ninj throughout.

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Most of the fighting here is of a balletic nature with clashing swords, Peking Opera style, rather than fists and guts. There’s a ton of wire-work and, while wire-work as an art is impressive in itself, this stuff isn’t particularly well executed. It relies on close-up shots and fast edits to hide the fact that, in longer, wider shots the wires are very visible indeed. It’s a shame because there are some great locations for the fights (a waterfall and a snowy mountain being two of the highlights) but the rough choreography doesn’t really lend them justice.

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That said, there impressive moments. I don’t know if Taiwan is just full of dangerous rope bridges or if it’s the same one they use in loads of these films but the scene on the bridge is pretty terrifying. I would probably break down crying if I even had to walk across one of these so it always amazes me to see Taiwanese actors and stuntpeople perform all kinds of madcap antics on them. Did Pearl Cheung have all the appropriate safety precautions in place when she shot the scene below? Or was this just a risk she was willing to take for her art?

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But yeah. The film has flaws. It’s not brilliantly made and the plot gets too convoluted when a mysterious revenge element is brought in (although I was surprised by at least one of the twists). In addition, it relies on a number of tropes that are particular to wuxia and – if unfamiliar and not prepared to accept that these things happen BECAUSE OF DESTINY – a western viewer could find it hopelessly contrived. It may well also be that the international version doesn’t showcase the film at its best. Joseph Lai, in his wisdom, cut two minutes out (not sure why – a spoiler-filled shot-by-shot comparison can be found at moviecensorship.com) and the English dubbed translation is perhaps not that sympathetic. While I imagine it’s accurate to the original script, some of the phrasing sounds awkward, silly and over-dramatic when said aloud.

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What makes it endearing and watchable though is the sheer scope of the ideas. The sets and locations, while not made on Shaw Brothers budgets, have a certain beauty to them and occasionally lend real drama to the proceedings. The climax takes place in a cave full of fire and this is undeniably impressive stuff. Sure, you can see the wires as Cheung flings herself around but it’s still cool because, well, everything’s on fire. Like, everything. Is. On Fire. In scenes like this, you can see that in her mind Pearl Cheung was visualising something truly spectacular. Who knows if one day, had someone put up the money, she could’ve made the spectacle in her mind? As it stands, she leaves a legacy of curios but ones that – while not as ninja-friendly as the usual fare for this blog – are worthwhile viewing for any deep martial arts collector.

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Death Code Ninja (1987)

Death Code Ninja (1987) is one of many cut-and-paste ninja films assembled by Tomas Tang’s team at Filmark in the mid-80s, but don’t use that as a reason to pass it by, as it really is one of their best. Kei Ying Cheung (as Tommy Cheng) helms the ninja footage and makes sure it’s entertaining and generously proportioned to the source footage, which appears to be taken from The Imprisoned, a 1982 Taiwanese thriller by Chester Wong. Here’s a guy who could always be relied on for stylishly gritty productions and who frequently cast the intense and underrated Lu I-Chan (Queen Bee) in lead roles she otherwise didn’t get enough of. With a little audacious editing and a spirited dub, these elements combine to make Death Code Ninja one Hell of an experience…

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Mike Abbott (with his usual Cornish accent dubbed over by an American) appears as Louis Smith, an evil ninja who – somehow – has possession of something called the Star Wars Map. The film begins with Smith selling the Star Wars Map to an undercover CIA agent called Brent who (for Reasons) takes a photo of it before spiriting it away in a tiny white car. On the drive home, Brent’s entourage gets ambushed by evil ninjas who, in one of Filmark’s weirdest action sequences, kill them, pile into the car like clowns and drive away, taking the map back. In a shocking twist, Henry (one of Brent’s agents) cheats death, waves his fingers and magically turns into a white-suited ninja himself. A spectacular fight occurs and Henry – through tactics that need seeing to be believed – gets away with the photos. I wouldn’t normally link to a YouTube video but, really, this scene is worth savouring in full. Bear in mind, we’re less than 10 minutes into the movie when this madness occurs!

Things tie into the source film when Smith enlists the help of Patrick and Joan, “The Killer Couple”, to finish off a couple more of his enemies. They blow up some randoms for him and then, as they walk from the flaming wreckage, Joan makes Patrick swear that this will be their last ever job. She’s pregnant and they’re getting married, which is reason to settle down in the countryside and quit the assassination business. They say their goodbyes and move away but Smith is adamant that “nobody quits!” so sends some goons after them. The goons show up in a random village with no real idea where Patrick could be but get wildly lucky when, just as they’re asking “How are we supposed to find him?” and staring at his picture, Patrick merrily strolls by. A bicycle fight ensues.

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The second strand of the plot here focuses on Inspector Chen, a Kowloon cop who – for Reasons – has a giant photo of the Queen of England on his office wall. There’s a heroically dubbed sequence where Chen and his colleagues manage to synopsise both movies’ plots in the time the original footage took to synopsise one, and we learn that Chen – despite being warned off by the CIA – is going to investigate the ninja murders from earlier and make sure the Star Wars map gets back into the right hands (whoever’s they may be!).This leads to Chen arresting Patrick on a weapons possession charge and putting him in prison for six years.

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We flash forward to Patrick’s release, where he finds Joan and their son Little Jimmy, now six, living a peaceful existence free of violence (although not free from diabetes which, to add poignancy, Little Jimmy suffers from). “Let’s just live quietly,” suggests Joan but Patrick replies gravely, “I can’t forget my grudges” and so pokes the hornet’s nest that is Mr Smith and his ninja empire. It doesn’t end well.

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The rest of the film is convoluted to say the least. To cut a long story short, Patrick and diabetic little Jimmy get quickly murdered, Joan swears bloody vengeance and Smith, meanwhile, gets into a fight with the KGB over the Star Wars Map. The KGB are a particularly riotous bunch of mostly Chinese men with hysterical Russian accents and comedy headbands but they have a great line in trash talk. “Don’t push me!” barks Smith at them. “Otherwise I’ll use Ninjutsu to deal with you!” The KGB man laughs and replies, “Ninjustu, okay? I’ve heard of that crap! Asians running around with swords killing each other!” then hangs up the phone.

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Of course, he regrets this since, moments later, Mike Abbott appears at their training ground, wearing a giant canary yellow ninja suit. He duffs up the entire KGB presence in Hong Kong in one scene and proclaims, “Well! That’s what you get for messing with me!” Ninja is, indeed, supreme.

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Throughout all of this, we get random scenes of John Wilford as Henry The Great White Shark doing “ninja training” in the hills (presumably he’s been doing this for six years?) although this mostly involves putting his hands in bowls of hot rocks and making this face:

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Okay, so the plot might not entirely hold together but it’s so enjoyable, you’ll find yourself just going along for the ride. The ninja footage is great value, culminating in a bonkers final fight with exploding barrels and crossbows as Mike Abbott takes on – unexpectedly – Stuart Smith who, in a never-explained twist, replaces John Wilford at the last minute as Henry The Great White Shark.

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On a more serious note, Chester Wong’s source film is slick and violent, with great fight choreography, as Joan wreaks her one-by-one revenge in imaginative ways that leads to a genuinely impressive Enter The Dragon style climax in a room of mirrors. It’s a very low-budget way of recreating this iconic effect but works well and Lu I-Chan gives yet another superb performance, her smoldering look and keen fight skills shining as always. I’d love to know what happened to her as, like so many great Taiwanese grindhouse stars, she seems to have fallen off the face of popular culture in the early 90s.

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By “normal” film standards, I’m not sure it’s possible to judge Death Code Ninja but within the realm of Filmark/IFD splice movies, this really is a stand-out for its consistency, its hilarious mayhem and relatively decent production values. It’d make a great gift for someone who’s not previously watched any of these and a worthy addition to any ninjologist’s treasured collection of nin-gems.

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Incidentally, if you watch the UK 18 certified VHS, the BBFC have cut out a couple of minutes of Mike Abbott stalking around and then fighting Stuart Smith with an extreme ninja weapon (kind of a sickle blade on a chain with a throwing star on the other end of the chain?). As is standard for the era, they often removed anything they felt could encourage viewers to imitate their ninja idols. So yes. Please don’t try this at home:

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Lady Ninja Kaede 2 (2009)

I took nearly a year’s break between Lady Ninja Kaede films in an effort to heal the braincells I broke while watching the first one (which you can read all about here) but, as promised, I have now braved the sequel, all in the name of ninjology… This one is directed by Takayuki Kagawa, rather than Hiroyuki Kawasaki, although both directors are equally elusive and obscure. There’s a distinct lack of information available about them or their scant filmographies but, y’know, after watching these films, I feel as if I know what they like. I have peered into their souls and seen their deepest, darkest desires. And it’s weird in there. Properly, properly weird…

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The Kaede movies are part of a mini-movement that came out of Japan in the 2000s; low-budget “erotic ninja” films. They’re too tame to really qualify as pornography but, since the plots are driven by sex and the production values so low, they probably bear a closer relation to porn films than to anything else. They’re incredibly dull, slow and semi-coherent and I’m not sure exactly what the appeal would be to anyone beyond just how very strange they are at times. Part 2 picks up where Part 1 ended, although it replaces Mai Nadasaka with Luna Akatsuki in the titular (very titular) role. Kaede is still working with her old buddies Yumeama and Jii and a squad of “ninja sex punishers” who want to rid the local district of anyone with impure thoughts, because they believe sex is evil. They’re supposed to be the good guys, by the way, just in case you weren’t sure. Ninja sex punishment is a good thing, okay?

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When the film flashed up its jaw-dropping full title – “Kaede 2 – The Darkness of Cyber Dick” – I thought “cyber dick? how can they have a cyber dick? the film is set in the Edo period!” but was swiftly proven wrong. The opening scene involves Kaede using a secret move called “Ninja Technique Gigantic Penis Evil Governor (Pervert)” to summon a mammoth holographic phallus in front of a (presumably perverted) governor who’s being punished for his desires. She chops the thing in half with her sword and the governor shrivels up in a shrieking storm of CGI.

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If you think that’s freaky, it only gets freakier as we’re introduced to a rogue Buddhist who’s started up a sex cult called Tougen and has used dark forces to summon a Lovecraftian dildo. Kaede is sent to destroy him but she, instead, get cursed by the dildo to suffer “The Hell Of Carnal Desire”. This means she is compelled to use the dildo on herself constantly until the spell is broken (you don’t actually see any of this since the film is strangely coy but you get the idea of what she’s meant to be doing quite clearly!). There’s only one thing for it. Jii enlists a gay samurai (who won’t be tempted by her charms) to go with Kaede on a mission to break the curse.

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Turns out that the dildo was made from the penises of three men who sacrificed their own (and had them replaced by a weird glowing vortex) and if Kaede tracks them down and sleeps with each of them in turn, using the supernatural dildo as a substitute penis, then the spell is lifted and all is well again. But there are a whole bunch of peculiar twists and obstacles along the way that must be overcome.

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There’s not a lot of actual ninjing in the film, sadly. The samurai gets a few fights in but the choreography’s quite basic and not exactly awe-inspiring. Kaede, despite the promise of the title, doesn’t really get to fight at all. The villains look they’ve stepped off the cover of a really bad black metal album, and it’s quite confusing by the end as to who’s working with whom or why.

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Ultimately, there’s a huge twist, some sentimental J-Pop songs and then it all goes existential for the mysteriously downbeat final scenes. I wonder if Kagawa was trying to say something meaningful – there’s a lot of dialogue in the film about how sex leads to misery and anger and the void – but, if he was, it’s lost in the ridiculous ninja sex magic and confusing plot.

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If this sounds like the kind of wacked-out psychotronic treat you think you’ll love, I can’t stress enough how much better it sounds on paper than when you’re wading through its 71 minutes of its shot-on-video shonkiness. But I will give it credit for the fact that I’ve never seen anything with a story like this one before.

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American Ninja The Magnificent (1987)

It was American Independence Day last week and, since I already covered all the American Ninja movies this time last year, what else could I do but cover American Ninja The Magnificent (1987)? This absolutely, completely 100% unofficial IFD cut-and-paste film was released first as Ninja Of The Magnificence and retitled for the international market and cash in on the success of the Cannon series. Much of its footage comes from a 1986 Korean film called Arahan (dir: Kim Jung-yong), a word that in the Pali language of Theravada Buddhism means “One Who is Worthy” (not to be confused with the 1986 Jet Li film also called Arahan). Weirdly, since the source material is so simplistic, fast-paced and thematically in tune with the newly shot ninja footage, the end result is easily one of the best, most accessible and coherent IFD pictures.

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The film opens with evil pink-suited ninja Ross (Danny Raisebeck) murdering his Master while gloating about how he’s built “an entire ninja empire” behind his back (who knew it was so easy, eh?). As he dies, the Master warns Ross that “evil is not invincible” and that, unless he changes his ways and dismantles his corrupt ninja empire, he will be doomed. Ross doesn’t care and instead, as the story progresses, launches a plot to join forces with a corrupt mining mogul known as The Old Fox…

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This is what links it up with the source film Arahan, quite a strange little feature in itself. On the surface, it’s a traditionally eastern story of rural revenge set in some nebulous period (early 20th century?). Elton Chong (a South Korean martial arts regular who was to Jackie Chan what Dragon Lee was to Bruce Lee) plays Lee, a man whose life has been ruined by the Old Fox and his leopard-print-clad henchmen. His family have all been murdered (something to do with maximizing revenue from the mines) and Lee gets kidnapped/tortured in a stronghold full of ninjas dressed in candy pink and bright white (these guys couldn’t hide anywhere except maybe a bag of marshmallows). Luckily, he manages to fight his way out, hook up with a semi-feral girl he finds in the woods (improbably named “Claire”), somehow acquire a random child companion, train to be a Shaolin warrior and take bloody revenge…

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There are several reasons why Arahan works so perfectly as an IFD source film. For one, there are already ninjas in it. They’re your standard black and white suited ninjas (and one with a white suit and a red hood) but through clever editing, we get the IFD pastel ones mixed in too; hordes of them running through the trees seemingly alongside the Korean ones. What this means is a perhaps unprecedented level of ninjing for one of these films. It’s constant for much of the movie and that’s a rare joy for ninjologists. Even when they’re not active, ninjas are in the background of most shots.

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It’s also a very simple plot which makes splicing in the IFD footage somewhat easier. Evil ninja Ross and his arch-nemesis Farris (the ever-watchable Pierre Kirby) have a few “conversations” with characters from Arahan where they literally map out the next few scenes of the source film for us (“You will try to kill [character x] and then report back to me”) which keeps things bizarrely coherent; another rarity for these films, as they usually involve layer upon layer of impenetrable conspiracy.

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Best of all though, Arahan itself has a few tricks up its sleeve to try and appeal to a western market so doesn’t even need IFD’s help when it comes to mangling familiar tropes. The style and structure is ripped straight from First Blood with Lee fast becoming a Rambo-like character hiding and stalking his prey in the woods. There’s even a scene where he stitches up his wounds in graphic detail and a wonderfully crazed escalation of Rambo’s bow-and-arrow skills as Lee fires TWELVE ARROWS AT A TIME from ONE BOW and each of them hits the bullseye right into a mob of unlucky ninjas. The highlight in terms of randomness, however, is an inspired mine-cart chase scene pilfered directly from Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom but re-enacted on a millionth of the budget. I won’t ruin it but the climax of this chase is a highlight of this whole genre and the film’s worth seeing for that alone.

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In a way, it almost becomes a contest to see who can out-weird and out-pace the other; IFD or the source. The freaky little girl character bites into a live snake’s head at one point (real, as far as I can tell although, oddly not censored in the UK VHS release I watched). This is weird enough, but IFD make her weirder by having what appears to be a grown man dub her in a voice that sounds like Elmer Fudd with a terminal helium habit. The ninjing in Arahan is pretty mental too with a ninja body count somewhere in the upper 30s at least (I lost count) but there’s also a high quota of IFD chaos to up the ante, with an endless procession of gymnastic shinobi in bright colours lining up to be sliced, chopped and kicked to death by Pierre Kirby (who does the whole thing in canary yellow with a red headband that reads “NINJA” just in case you were unsure what he was).

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Perhaps the highlight of the film though is during one of Ross and Farris’s many confrontations where Farris drops some ACTUAL NINJA POETRY on him. Yes, in perfect iambic pentameter and with the straightest of faces, he proclaims: “You’re not here to talk / And neither am I / You killed the Master / And now you must die”. It is a thing of deep, deep joy that should be treasured. I only wish that IFD had experimented more with having ninja battles start in rhyme.

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But y’know, American Ninja The Magnificent is just a riot from start to finish. It comes with the full Ninjas All The Way Down endorsement. If you like Z-Budget martial arts films, ninjas or psychotronic cinema, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. It’s never dull and its vibrant colours, near-constant fighting and hysterical dialogue will appeal to novices and deep ninjologists alike. And if rhymes don’t appeal / then I don’t know why / you’re reading this blog / so now you must die.

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Ninja Knight Thunder Fox (1988)

The deeper you go into the murky world of the cut-and-paste ninja films made by IFD and Filmark throughout the 80s, the more you notice their nuance. Although Godfrey Ho is often miscredited for directing every cut-and-paste ninja film ever, the ones that genuinely bear his name are a cut above the ones that don’t. However, towards the end of IFD’s halcyon years, even Golden Ninja Godfrey was getting tired. The ninja boom was fading and audiences sought new thrills, be it Van Damme and his kickboxing or John Woo and the rising Hong Kong New Wave. So what’s a guy to do when all he wants is to splice footage of men in dayglo ninja suits into existing movies? Ho would eventually branch out into the “Girls With Guns” genre and even try extreme horror, while collaborator Joseph Lai would incorporate the tried-and-true splice technique into a string of kickboxer oddities, but the last few ninja movies they worked on together show a team treading water, waiting to see what the next wave will bring. Ninja Knight : Thunder Fox (1988), while dangerously low on ninjas, is one of the better offerings from this second-tier period…

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The plot revolves around “Brad and Bonnie’s Detective Agency” (as the sign proudly reads on the door). Since Brad (Marko Ritchie) is from a different film to Bonnie (Hsu Ying-Chu), we only ever see Brad in their office, speaking on the phone to Bonnie while the camera focuses on a large photo of her face that he has inexplicably framed on his desk (bit creepy). He is also surrounded by cans of Coca-Cola, in a typical IFD ploy to help viewers believe the action’s taking place in America not Hong Kong. When Brad gets a call from a soon-to-be-murdered girl named Pam, who’s posted a microfilm of evidence to him in the post (always with the microfilm…), his humble detective agency becomes the target of arch-criminal Decker (Mike Abbott).

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Turns out that Decker, and his droogies-from-another-movie Tiger and Ringo, are using “Judy Chen’s Modeling School” (which Pam attended) as a front for recruiting girls, getting them hooked on drugs and turning them into prostitutes. The modeling school footage is pretty awesome although we really only see one scene of the girls studying. It’s an absurdly energetic aerobics class that (for reasons unique to IFD’s beautiful twisted logic) has had its original music dubbed over with an inappropriate 80s goth track (pretty sure it’s Clan of Xymox but it’s hard to hear over all the whooping?). Still, it must be hard to teach anyway when class keeps getting interrupted by angry henchmen bursting in, eager for a fight…

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The story gets convoluted from thereon, with Bonnie “infiltrating” the modeling school to try and uncover what’s going on (apparently her sister joined the school too and was murdered some time ago, just to add further incentive/confusion) and the girls learn to fight back against Decker and his oppressive regime of pimping and heroin. Most of this footage is taken from a 1987 Taiwanese film called Fierce Lady (aka Lover and Killer), directed by Lai Man-Sing, the guy behind 1985’s Thunder Cat Woman, which IFD fans will recognise as the source film for Golden Ninja Warrior (1986). If you’ve seen that, you’ll know that Man-Sing is a guy who knows what he LIKES. And luckily it’s beautiful women riding motorbikes and duffing up evil rapey men. As with Golden Ninja Warrior, there’s a good deal of explicit nudity in Ninja Knight Thunder Fox (“You must be the thunder fox!” to paraphrase Ali G) and this, along with the undeniable coolness of Man-Sing’s vision, keeps things moving even when the story feels a little mangled.

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Hsu Ying-Chu is a great lead, it must be said, evoking a sort of Kara Hui aesthetic that blends beauty with badassery. You only need to look at the source film’s original poster to see how well she strikes a pose and looking rad is a big part of making a movie like this fly. The fighting is pretty cool too – scrappy and as rough around the edges as you’d expect from the Taiwanese grindhouse but enlivened by a) the fact that most of it is done by a group of angry fashion models and b) some dynamic hand-held camerawork that adds a real energy to the proceedings.

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Unfortunately, Ho’s own footage is part of what lets this down. On the positive side, we have the legendary Mike Abbott doing what he does best, which is staring into the camera and calling everyone a “bas-tud” in his marvelous Cornish accent. However, all this can’t compensate for the low quotient of actual ninjing.

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There’s one scene where Brad, having not previously mentioned the “N” word at all, suddenly does a finger trick and – in a puff of smoke – turns into a red ninja to fight some random bright yellow ninja who shows up and starts shooting at him (Brad, of course, does a series of double-triple backflips to avoid the bullets).

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Since I’m attuned to the way Godfrey Ho’s narrative mind works, this was not a surprise but I can only imagine the confusion a “normal” viewer who rented this back in the 80s must’ve felt. It’s some of the clunkiest integration of ninjas I’ve seen. It’s surreal and weird and yet it almost feels like a weary “will this do?” obligation; a token gesture to anyone drawn in by the title, or a nostalgic “remember when we used to do this all the time?”.

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For the final fight, Decker and Brad strap on multi-coloured headbands and meet on a hill overlooking the gorgeous Hong Kong skyline. Decker snarls “Prepare to die, bas-tud!” – twice! – and then rather than the typical ninja fight, they have a gun fight (c’mon guys… guns don’t kill people, ninjas kill people). Not sure if this was a nod to the emergent bullet ballets and the massive success of A Better Tomorrow (1986), but it doesn’t work. It feels like, as ninja fans, we’ve been robbed of the ending we deserved. So yeah, while the high quality source film makes Ninja Knight Thunder Fox a cut far above the majority of latter-day IFD output, the ninjing:non-ninjing ratio is dreadful and Ho’s footage lacks the spark of his earlier work. Proceed with caution. If you can, just get hold of Fierce Lady instead and bask in the glory of Hsu Ying-Chu.

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