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Pray For Death (1985)

Pray For Death is a kaleidoscopically violent revenge film designed to toughen back up Sho Kosugi’s image after the comparatively lightweight Ninja III and Nine Deaths Of The Ninja, and it remains one of the more controversial ninja films of the 80s. As a kid, I was always attracted to its powerful artwork – Sho Kosugi’s raging eyes, staring from the hood of an insane metal ninja suit, and the promise that he “REDEFINES REVENGE!” – but my usually quite tolerant parents were wary of renting this one for me. I guess it just always looked kinda dangerous. I mean even the title. Pray For Death. Yow! Kosugi, not a man known for restraint, clearly meant business here:

Pray For Death cover
Before I start, I have to point out that it’s still extremely difficult to source an uncut version of Pray For Death. The old UK VHS release was heavily censored and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’d been done by a blind monkey running with scissors. When it came to genre films back then, the BBFC held both content and audience in contempt and were happy to slice their merry way through all kinds of stuff in an obtrusive fashion. This didn’t just alter the tone of a film but also made perfectly good scenes look amateurish and weird. They never bothered to resync the music, so the soundtrack would jump around and you’d get confusing split-second shots of insignificant things then graceless, ill-timed edits as the significant part of the shot was removed. Although they only took a total of four minutes out of Pray For Death, this is spread widely across the runtime and it makes a substantial difference.

In the 80s, there were fan rumours of a strong uncut version of Pray For Death that featured more ultraviolence than was imaginable (exactly how much varied, depending on who was telling the story!) and a mysterious Greek VHS tape was often referenced. It sounded like a myth but I’m pleased to say that the Greek VHS version does actualy exist and, even now, is the only officially released uncut version. I had the misfortune to recently buy an Australian DVD release on a label called “Bonzai” that is just a poor quality rip of the cut UK VHS tape (I should’ve been suspicious when I noticed an image from Rage Of Honor, a completely different Kosugi film, on the cover) but some kind souls on YouTube have uploaded clips from the uncut Greek version so I could at least see how most of the censored scenes were meant to have played out. I realise this is no substitute for being able to watch the complete film as the makers intended but still… it’s more than we had in the 80s!

Pray For Death 1

Anyway, on with the Sho (arf, arf)… Pray For Death opens with the now-typical Bond-esque credits sequence of Kosugi performing some moves against a plain backdrop while we’re teased with a clip from an amazing theme song (more on this later). It’s an enjoyably kitschy sequence, tonally apart from the rest of the film, that leads into Kosugi, as the Black Ninja, duffing up an endless procession of evil ninjas dressed in baby-blue suits and then a Devil-masked boss ninja; a pair of nods to his work in Revenge Of The Ninja. As if that wasn’t meta enough, we zoom out to see Kane and Shane Kosugi watching this sequence on TV and exclaiming, “Wow! The Black Ninja looks just like dad!”.

Pray For Death 2

This kind of fake-out happens a couple of times in the first third of the movie, presumably to keep things moving while we’re introduced to the characters. Sho plays Akira Saito, a Japanese restauranteur with an American-born wife Aiko (Donna Benz) and two little kids Takeshi and Tomoya (Kane and Shane Kosugi). His family have no idea but Akira’s a secret ninja. His ninja dad runs some kind of ancient ninja temple and Akira goes there to ninja-pray, recalling in flashback how his brother once tried to ninja-steal some ninja jewels and Akira had to ninja-kill him (in an awesome fight involving flaming torches). The flashback snaps to the present day where Akira’s dad then fights him (the fight-within-a-fight effect is a little dizzying) to help him shed his guilt over his brother (!).

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Just go with it. None of this is relevant to the bulk of the film except to give us foreshadowing and a deep meaningful chat about its themes. Akira tells his dad that he must leave for America because that’s where his wife wants to raise their kids but his dad warns him, “You cannot escape your shadows my son, you will always be a ninja”. Dad does, however, give him a magical metal helmet (so badass it has a throwing star built into it) as a parting gift.

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After such lofty mystical beginnings, the film moves into far more conventional Death Wish territory once Akira and family hit Los Angeles. They wind up in a bad part, thick with the palpable atmosphere of entropy so common to 80s action films, and everyone they meet looks like a gang member or a lunatic. They visit Aiko’s parents’ graves and buy a ramshackle house from an old dude who breaks down crying while trying to sell the house because his wife is dead. You’re probably picking up that departed loved ones are a theme here and the feeling of grief actually becomes a little oppressive.

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The plot finally starts for real about half an hour in. A priceless stolen necklace (the Van Atta Necklace, named after producer Don Van Atta – ha!) has been stashed in the house and when the criminals return to collect it, it’s missing. They blame Akira and begin a campaign of terror against his family that continues even after they realise he’s got nothing to do with it (“Now he knows too much!”). These are horrible bad guys, led by a mad sadist called Limehouse Willie (veteran British actor James Booth who – inexplicably – also wrote the screenplay). He has no problem mowing down his colleagues with a machine gun, beating an old man to death and setting him on fire, threatening little Shane Kosugi with a blowtorch (“I’ll make you go up like a Roman candle, kid!”), viciously slamming car doors into children’s faces, running people over indiscriminately and, as if that wasn’t enough, Willie ultimately, rapes and murders Aiko in her own hospital bed. Ugh.

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This escalation of increasingly disturbing violence takes up the second act of the film and isn’t in the least bit fun to watch. What’s strange is how the level of sadism in the uncut scenes actually detracted from my enjoyment of the film, yet cutting it out clumsily like the BBFC did made it even worse. For example, Aiko’s rape and murder is cut entirely (we just see Willie enter her room, then an awkward jump-cut to him washing his hands later) which meant it was confusing to understand what happened to her. This somehow made her fridging feel even harsher and more flippant, like she’s just discarded with no fanfare at all; she’s not even important enough to worry about.

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So after all this focus on why Akira must take revenge, it takes 65 minutes before we finally get what we came for. He takes his dad’s magical helmet off the shelf and, in a genuinely magnificent sequence, forges a sword and prepares for action. The film’s theme song Back To The Shadows, plays throughout this and sounds like Giorgio Moroder doing a Bond theme with Pat Benatar on vocals. It’s credited to a singer named Peggy Abernathy but, try as I might, I can’t find information about her anywhere so feel free to leave some in the comments below if you know! It’s a seriously great song and one of the best montage scenes of the Montage Era, leading to the film’s big pay-off; a sustained 15 minutes of ninja ultraviolence.

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The body count in the uncut version of Pray For Death is no fewer than 48 and you feel every one of ’em. While, if I’m honest, the stunts and choreography aren’t quite as flamboyant and well-shot here as they are in Revenge Of The Ninja, you can’t ever not love seeing a master like Sho Kosugi in action. Here, he wears the iconic new armoured ninja suit and duels with a whole host of elaborate custom-made weapons. Kane Kosugi – young ninja in training – gets some fun fight time too, bashing his way through bad dudes with his blowpipe and nun-chaku and looking pretty badass for a little kid. The final fight, in an eerie store room of mannequins (a obfuscating effect similar to the hall of mirrors in Enter The Dragon), is a classic. It includes chainsaw-fu (YES!) and culminates with a suitably unpleasant end for Limehouse Willie although does flinch away – for the first time in the whole film – right at the very end, leaving the viewer slightly unsatisfied, itching for splattery closure…

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Hilariously, the very last scene shows Akira and family at Aiko’s grave and the police questioning him on what he knows about ninjas. Akira deadpans that they don’t exist and Takeshi quips “Yeah, you’ve been watching too many ninja movies!” bringing us full circle to that meta opening sequence. We finish on a beautiful skyline image (ninjas and skylines again! My favourite combination!) while Back To The Shadows plays gloriously for a third and final time.

Pray For Death 10
Overall, Pray For Death is quite a well-constructed ride and the Kosugi action, when it happens, is essential viewing for any fan. It’s a shame the more mean-spirited violence in the middle is so problematic. In the uncut version, the grimness feels draining and, in the cut one, its absence takes chunks out of the story and makes things seem clumsy. There’s a fine line of brutality in a ninja film as far as I’m concerned – too soft and it’s boring, too hard and it stops being fun – and this section of Pray For Death falls on the wrong side of it. The idea of a straight-faced brutal thriller for Kosugi was definitely needed to move away from the Flashdance ghost-fu of Ninja III but Pray For Death, while it still carries an admirable air of danger, goes both too far and not far enough. Less torture and more ninjing is needed to capitalise on its epic costumes, music and cast. As it stands, it’s an interesting and unique entry in the cycle but not quite one of its true classics.

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1

Sakura Killers (1987)

One of the least-seen yet most-loved ninja films of the VHS era, Sakura Killers blew me away as a kid but has been lost to the void over time. It took me a while to track down a copy since it’s never had an official DVD release and, when I finally got hold of the old UK VHS tape (in Oxfam of all places), I feared that its obscurity must mean it wasn’t actually very good after all. I mean otherwise… someone would’ve re-released it, right? WRONG! SAKURA KILLERS IS AWESOME!

Sakura Killers 1

The opening scene sets the tone, as a pair of ninjas break into a building. They cartwheel and frontflip and do the worm at high speeds. They climb up the wall backwards. They slash, stab and strangle the guards and steal a Betamax videotape. Unfortunately, they’re evil ninjas from the Sakura Organisation and the all-important videotape is now in the wrong hands. What does this mean? “A lot of trouble for a lot of people” apparently. It’s never entirely clear what’s on the tape (some kind of secret formula) but – this being the 80s – the Russians are very interested in the content and the Sakura only too willing to sell it.

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The Sakura Organisation are a little like the Japanese Zaibatsu in that they’re a bunch of super-corporations whose sinister political machinations are as mysterious as they are threatening. They use ninjas to do their dirty work and these are some proper dirty ninjas too. There’s a brilliant ninja training scene where the best student duffs up the others then bows to the master to assert his victory. The master, rather than offering a simple “congratulations”, kicks him in the face, tells him “I offer pain not praise” and then stabs him. If you don’t stop to question the logic of a ninja school that kills its best pupils, this is clearly serious business.

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Enter The Colonel (played by 1950s Western legend Chuck Connors), a grizzled old dude in a baseball jacket and sunglasses who lives on a ranch, shoots trespassers and seems to exist purely to protect America from foreign evils. Who does he work for? AMERICA. No, but really? AMERICA. Specifically? AMERICA. It’s all you need to know. He hires a couple of random meatheads he refers to as his “agents” to fly to Taiwan and retrieve the stolen videotape and, aside from a couple of literal “meanwhile, back at the ranch” scenes where the Colonel updates us on world events, that’s all we see of him. Although he does find time to deliver a curious monologue that compares Ninjutsu to golf…

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The bulk of the film follows an 80s buddy movie template as the Colonel’s agents Sonny (Mike Kelly) and Dennis (George Nichols) bumble their way through Taiwan on the Sakura trail. At times, it plays like a travelogue as they spend their time going to restaurants, making asinine small talk and admiring the various tea customs of Asia. They even have time to watch a boat race but eventually all this horsing around leads to their being attacked by ninjas and they realise they must up their game. Luckily, Dennis knows a girl who works at the tea shop whose father is a ninja master (phew!) and he’s quite happy to give up the ancient secrets of Ninjutsu to these two goobers if it means saving the world.

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Once they’re up to speed – via a training montage so joyful I could’ve cried – they somehow acquire two of the absolute coolest ninja outfits imaginable and get ready to kick glorious ass. I mean, you can’t help admire Sonny and Dennis for their fashion know-how if nothing else. Their master told them they must cover their faces with masks. I assumed this would just mean the usual ninja hoods but no… these guys get themselves Oni Noh masks! Devil ninjas! I think I actually shrieked out loud at the reveal of their costumes. They throw a smoke bomb and turn suddenly from regular guys into these:

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Yow!

There are obviously some qualities to Sakura Killers that are naff and amateurish but there’s so much heart, it’s hard to hold these against it. The two leads are dreadful actors – they deliver their lines like they’ve got a mouthful of marbles – but they look the part, have a lot of charisma and fight like they’re on fire. They’re also unique as ninja heroes because they really are believable as a pair of regular American chuckleheads and this is a big part of the film’s appeal. It’s a classic escapist fantasy – if these schmucks can be ninjas, anyone can – it’s actually achievable!

Even some of the bizarrely mundane elements work in favour of the overall enjoyment, like the obsession with filming carpets or spending time with characters as they laze about drinking Sprite and getting their hair blow-dried. I don’t want to give it credit for ineptitude but there’s almost a No-Wave Cinema feel to it at times. You get a feel for the workaday grit of 80s Taiwan that’s like actually being there… but with added ninja floor shows every five minutes.

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And boy, there is a LOT of ninja action in this one. The fighting is about as inauthentic as you get in terms of martial arts knowledge but it looks phenomenal, focusing on gratuitous gymnastics, light-speed acrobatics and insane ninja magic. We get one of my personal favourites – the burrowing ninja! – as well as a ninja who can disappear and replace himself with ten straw ninjas to obfuscate the enemy. The final fight is one of my personal favourites ever, featuring the two American agents, the deca-locating bad guy and one awesome lady ninja in a pink suit, all going for it at once.

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With all this happening you can forgive stuff like slight plotting and atrocious dialogue. I did wonder, given the high level of repetition in the latter (ie: Dennis telling Sonny the food in a restaurant is “pretty good” three times in one conversation, or the famous “we’d like to ask you some questions… we think you can help us with the answers!”) whether it was improvised and apparently it was. Mike Kelly popped up on IMDB a couple of years ago to tell critics that it wasn’t worth trying to poke holes in the script “cause we didn’t have one!” He also adds that he had the best time of his life, which is evident in the sense of fun that permeates every frame of Sakura Killers.

For sheer value-for-money, there aren’t many films that offer as much ninja mayhem nor devote themselves so slavishly to making it look as nutty. There’s also an incredible synthesiser score by “William Scott” (a pseudonym?) that blends traditional Japanese melodies with 80s instrumentation (what I wouldn’t give for this soundtrack to be released in full!) and the film’s lean runtime means nothing wears out its welcome. Although, to be fair, I could have probably watched five hours of Sonny and Dennis’s antics in Taiwan and still not been bored, I loved it so much.

Sometimes you can judge a ninja film by how it answers the question posed in almost all of them: “What’s a ninja?” In Sakura Killers, this answer is as no-nonsense as the film itself: “They kill people.” That’s really all you need to know.

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Revisiting The Last Ninja 2 – NES Version (1989)

The Last Ninja, although released quite late in the 80s ninja cycle, struck at just the right time. As the genre started to run out of steam on video, the addition of an interactive element gave ninja fans the next-level thrill they sought. Never mind watching ninjas. Now you could become one, in a computer game unlike any other. The appeal was undeniable and The Last Ninja went on to smash sales records and spawn several conversions and sequels. For whatever reason (probably a lack of pocket money), I never had a copy of The Last Ninja myself as a kid, only The Last Ninja 2. Pretty sure this decision was based on the irresistible cover art, blending as it did my two favourite images then and now – a giant ninja face and a skyline. Classic.

Last Ninja Cover

The original game was set on a fictional island but the sequel moved the action to New York, which was the coolest place on earth if you were a child of the video age. Although the graphics look primitive by today’s standards, the 3D effect (created by a clever isometric viewpoint, since old computers couldn’t handle actual 3D graphics) and attention to detail made The Last Ninja 2 cutting edge stuff at the time. For me, it was the closest I could get to actually being in New York, ninjing around, without even leaving my bedroom.

Unfortunately, there was a downside. The Last Ninja 2 was insanely difficult. I spent hours and hours on it, enthralled by the graphics and premise, but never actually made it past Central Park (the first level). It was hard to control the ninja because I wasn’t used to isometric exploration and the game demanded so many arcane combinations of button pushes, you’d think you were actually learning all eighteen ninja Jūhakkei .

As an adult ninjologist, however, I figured “how hard could it be?” Maybe I was just a particularly slow child. Thankfully GameOldies.com has wonderful emulation of the NES version available to play for free online so I went back to Central Park to see if I’d actually got any smarter after all this time… (NB: The NES version was just called The Last Ninja even though it was actually The Last Ninja 2 because, let’s face it, confusing retitling is totally canon – just ask Godfrey Ho).

Last Ninja 9 - Fokken Bandstand
It started and a rush of nostalgia hit me hard. There I was, dressed in natty ninja duds, on the familiar Central Park bandstand, just a tuba and a music stand for company. I’m not sure how I ended up there and I don’t think it’s ever explained. We’re told in the instructions that Armakuni (the last ninja on Earth) has come to New York on the trail of the evil shogun he tried to kill in the first game but why he’s stranded on the bandstand is a mystery.
Last Ninja 2 - First Dude

After walking around and hitting all the buttons to see if I could pick up the tuba, I realised I couldn’t and went inside where a man in a brown leather waistcoat started hitting me. I kicked and punched him until he went down but then he got back up so I kicked and punched him again until he was dead (learning that all the bad guys in this game have two “lives”). It took about ten minutes of frustrated howling but eventually I figured out that the flashing button on the wall needed to be pushed in order to open up a trapdoor that would let me off the bandstand.

Last Ninja 3 2 - Second Other Dude

Once into the park itself, more dudes in leather came at me and it was exhausting having to kick and punch them all by frantically slamming the C and V keys. I wandered around as many screens like this as I could before getting frustrated that the bad guys got increasingly lethal weapons like nunchaku, throwing stars and big sticks while I had nothing. I could see weapons lying on the ground (careless!) but couldn’t work out how to pick them up or, for that matter, move for more than 10 seconds without someone trying to hit me.

Last Ninja 3 - Another Dude

Realising that the kick button was the same as the pick-up button helped and I grabbed a whole bunch of useless crap like a map, a key and some throwing stars I couldn’t work out how to use. Then things got weird when I turned a corner and a terrifying skeleton-clown started throwing bottles at me. Bottles that killed me instantly. Luckily, Armakuni has five lives (four fewer than Sho Kosugi!) so I regenerated and had another go. The clown got me again, then I got lost and ended up outside a public toilet where a black-clad leather daddy beat me to a pulp three times over. The game ended. I was officially as dumb now as I was as a kid.

Last Ninja 4 - Clown

Luckily, I have the internet now so I just googled “Last Ninja 2 Walkthrough” and found a cracking one at GameFAQs.com that explained what I had to do. Learning how to use items helped so I used the key to open a secret gate and then learned how to climb a wall, which was pretty badass.

Last Ninja 5 - Climbing

At the top of the wall, I got to pick up a big stick. Now I was in business and could take brutal revenge on the toilet leather daddy; useful since the next task I had to perform was to stroll into the doorway of the ladies toilets and retrieve one half of a powerful (but invisible) set of nunchaku that are key to the plot. WHAT? I mean… How are you supposed to figure that out yourself? The fact that I could even hover in the doorway of the ladies was a shock but the idea that you’re supposed to keep randomly pressing pick-up until you get a weapon you can’t even see or know about? Crazy.

Last Ninja 6 - shuriken kill

Armed with one half of this magical item I reckoned my ninja power must be increasing but no. I found a body of water and the walkthrough told me I had to jump onto a moving boat in order to cross it. No chance. I lost all five lives by somersaulting into the water and drowning. Apparently ninjas – ultra-disciplined highly trained killing machines who can only be destroyed by one of their own kind – can’t swim. Not even in exceptionally shallow waters. Anyway, it was probably for the best because the next part of the Walkthrough said “watch out for the killer bees. They hurt really bad if they land clean on you”!

Last Ninja 7 - Water Death
By this stage, the isometric movements and the continual button-bashing of the fights were starting to drive me mad and I was swearing so much that my girlfriend came over to ask what I was doing. When I explained The Last Ninja to her she asked to have a go. Excellent, I said, not offering any help.

After a few minutes of patiently exploring the bandstand, trying every conceivable combination of buttons in order to figure a way out, she started getting frustrated. It was interesting to watch her journey through her game. “I tried kicking that shit!” she shouted, in reference to the tuba. Then the guilt kicked in after the first real kill: “I feel bad, I killed that dude… why do they have to cry on the floor like that?” Then the shedding of guilt at the second kill: “Shall I beat this guy up for no reason too? Ow! He punched me! HAVE SOME OF THAT!” A little fear (“He’s got a fucking stick, I don’t want to fight that guy!”), a little hope (“What’s that spider? I’m having that spider!” as she picked up a throwing star) and the eventual rush of freedom (“I’m going to go into the ladies toilet… no one’s stopping me!”). Somehow she managed, by randomly pushing buttons, to find the magic nunchaku in the toilet but, unaware that it was supposed to be there, was horrified, thinking she’d picked up a poo (the graphic below showing what you’re “Holding” is rather ambiguous on this front, in fairness)…

Last Ninja 8 - Poo

After about ten more aimless minutes, she eventually screamed “Why am I even killing these dudes? What is my ninja mission here?!” before rounding a corner, running into the clown (“What is THAT?!?!”) and getting bottled to death, thus proving that either The Last Ninja 2 genuinely is impossible or we’re just both just awful gamers. I’m prepared to accept the latter.

It’s weird looking at it with modern eyes because it is difficult, fiddly, frustrating and curiously unimpressive in that the ninja doesn’t even really have any moves beyond one punch, one kick and one jump. Even Mario could kick his ass. Yet it did bring so many memories back, how amazing it felt at the time, how somehow even this was enough to feel like a bonafide New York ninja in action.

There’s still a strange appeal. I’m pretty sure I’ll be going back to it again because the promise of five more completely new levels – including the city streets and the Shogun’s mansion! – is weirdly still exciting to me. It’s a tough game but it somehow still captures the aesthetic and spirit of the 80s ninja boom like nothing that’s come before or after it. I just need to figure out how to jump on that damn boat and avoid the killer bees then maybe one day I can achieve the ultimate accolade of being… a Tip Top Ninja!

Tip Top Ninjas

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Ninja Wars (1982)

Ninja Wars (1982) is one of those bizarro movies of the VHS era that you may remember renting but have probably since dismissed as just a bad dream you had about goo-spitting devil monks and ninja romance in Feudal Japan… Surely a film like that couldn’t be real? The truth is, Ninja Wars would probably be less strange and easier to follow if it had all been a dream. This is one impressively surreal ninja film and trying to unravel its meaning is probably a mental exercise you could do in order to achieve a suitable state of zen for actual ninja magic. Oh, it also won three Japanese Academy Awards (!).

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Ninja Wars opens with a voiceover asking “Why do men fight?” before introducing a fight-happy badman called Danjo. He’s a high society type who’s obsessed with Lady Ukyo (Noriko Watanabe), the Shogun’s daughter. Ukyo’s married so Danjo’s outta luck until Kashin The Sorceror appears on his doorstep one night in the middle of a thunderstorm… According to Kashin, who has a somewhat heightened sense of drama, “Whoever wins the heart of Lady Ukyo shall rule over Heaven and Earth!” Danjo pledges to achieve this at all costs and Kashin provides him with five evil magicians who can help him brew a guaranteed-win love potion in a special “spider teapot”.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Jotaro (Henry Sanada) and his girlfriend Kagabiri (Noriko Watanabe). “Wait, what? Noriko Watanbe? But doesn’t she play Ukyo?” you may think and you’d be right. It takes a confusing few minutes to figure it out but Kagabiri is Ukyo’s long-lost twin sister who was abandoned by the Shogun when she was a baby (no explanation as to why – I guess he just likes chucking babies away?) and has been living and training with ninjas ever since. She has some pretty impressive ninja powers including the production of something called “the moon sickle” which seems to be a super-sharp blade that she can craft between her fingers using light. She’s also happily in love with Jotaro so no prizes for guessing that there’s trouble ahead…

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In the middle of a romantic frolic for our happy couple, Danjo’s five evil magicians rock up, serve some trash talk, fly around the trees and spit gallons of bright yellow devil goo all over Jotaro, burning his whole face off. They also kidnap Kagabiri and take her back to Danjo’s palace of evil.

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We learn that the recipe for Kashin’s love potion involves the collection of tears from Ukyo’s virgin sister as she’s raped by the magicians (I don’t write this stuff, don’t blame me)… EXCEPT Kagabiri escapes her fate by CUTTING HER OWN HEAD OFF. The magicians, not to be deprived of a good raping, decapitate one of Danjo’s courtesans, swap Kagabiri’s head onto her body, put the courtesan’s head onto Kagabiri’s body, bring them both back to life and rape the newly re-headed Kagabiri, collecting her tears (along with 10 mysterious herbs) in the spider teapot. Also, Jotaro’s not dead after all (“a ninja is good at playing dead” his master explains!).

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Yeah, this is where the film becomes entirely incomprehensible. For a while, three characters are walking around with Noriko Watanabe’s head on and it’s impossible to follow who’s whom and why anyone is doing any of this crazy shit. Obviously, Jotaro seeks revenge when he finds out about the head-swapping and – at long last – some actual ninjas get involved. Besides a dead one hanging from a tree at the start, we don’t actually see any ninjas until 40 minutes into this unholy mess and, when we do, they might as well not be there. There’s a ninja with huge 80s rock star hair who may be important but you’ll have long stopped caring by the time his shock identity is revealed.

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The weirdest part of Ninja Wars is that, far from being a DTV cheapie, it’s lavishly produced. It boasts a spectacular swordfight scene in a burning temple that gets razed to the ground as the violence escalates. The lighting, art direction and cinematography in this sequence are all first rate and it’s not surprising that all three won Academy Awards (as baffling as the film’s content may be). The soundtrack is great too, loaded with haunting flute pieces that lend an ethereal air of portent.

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If you can endure the incoherence and the inherent misogyny of the plot, your patience will be rewarded with a few scenes of mystical mayhem. There are Lone Wolf style decapitations with gallons of arterial spray, the goo-spitting devil monks do a lot of flying on wires and most of the action has a psychedelic feel to it that’s genuinely unsettling. There were a couple of times, while watching it, that I felt my sanity starting to wobble. If you’re anything like me, these nightmarish scenes are the ones you’ll remember years later when you think Ninja Wars is a good film and you’ve forgotten how slow and nonsensical it is for the most part.

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The mind-melting finalé takes place in Hell and is about as close as any ninja film has got to evoking the work of Ken Russell. I haven’t got a clue what it all means – something about love and war? – but there’s no denying its visual impact. Beautiful and hallucinatory as this climax may be, however, I finished Ninja Wars with the distinct feeling of being short-changed. There’s really only a few minutes of footage where we see recognisably dressed ninjas and the fighting – aside from the temple swordfight – is mostly just dudes on wires flinging themselves around trees. There’s mysticism and magic galore but no real martial arts brutality on display. I’m pretty sure that if you asked director Kôsei Saitô what he was trying to achieve with this, he’d probably say he was making a romantic drama. Which is fine, but if you’re seeking a movie with serious ninjing in it, these Wars won’t leave you feeling victorious.

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Revenge Of The Ninja (1983)

Of the “big three” ninja films – the Cannon canon – Revenge Of The Ninja (1983) is the one that shines brightest. Applying a Three Bears logic, Enter The Ninja, while visionary, is creaky and old-fashioned (too cold); Ninja III serves nutty 80s pop culture in neon bucketloads but loses sight of the martial arts core (too hot); Revenge Of The Ninja, however, is the perfect bowl of ninja porridge.

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Part of this stems from the decision to reboot the franchise and make Sho Kosugi (as a totally new character) the star this time. The entire movie was written around him to the point where his six year old son Kane Kosugi co-stars and even his character name – Cho Osaki – is a mangled version of his own name. It’s the Sho Show! The cultural significance of this is interesting too. Revenge Of The Ninja was the first time an Asian actor had ever been the lead in an American film. Even Bruce Lee had to share top billing with John Saxon in Enter The Dragon, a fact that seems almost absurd in hindsight (where are all those teenage bedrooms adorned with John Saxon posters now?).

The opening scenes in Revenge Of The Ninja set the pace for the whole film. We see poor old Cho Osaki’s family slaughtered by evil ninjas in a shocking cascade of violence. These scenes were heavily censored for the VHS release but are restored in gory glory for the DVD. Most extreme is probably the little kid who gets a throwing star to the face but all of it’s proper brutal and lets you know, right off the bokken, what you’re in for. When Cho returns mid-massacre, he obviously kicks the ass of every ninja in sight, escalating the violence even further. It’s a full ten minutes before it stops and Cho takes stock, realising that everyone he loves is dead apart from his infant son (hidden in the bushes) and his elderly mother.

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His American friend Braden (Arthur Roberts) suggests that Cho should call an end to the bloodshed, renounce the way of the ninja and move to America where it’s safer. He can’t argue so we flash forward six years to where Cho and family are full-fledged yankees and he’s opening an art gallery to show off his collection of Japanese dolls (yes, the badass ninja hero has a doll collection – I told you this movie was awesome!). All sounds idyllic but unfortunately it’s a trap. The dolls have been tampered with. They’re full of heroin! A rogue ninja is shipping drugs out of Japan and Cho gets caught in the gangland crossfire.

So the plot’s simple. It’s just ever-increasing pressure on Cho to return to Ninjitsu, unsheathe his sword and get the bad guys. They steal his dolls, they kill his mother, they kidnap his son, the pressure cooker explodes and unparalleled ninja violence is released.

Revenge Of The Ninja is a very visual movie. It delivers wall-to-wall colourful, visceral thrills and barely stops for long enough to let you think about the whys and wherefores. The ninja bang-for-your-buck is at such an all-time high, it’s not worth asking questions.

To give you some examples… You get an evil ninja who’s so evil he not only wears black but also puts on a silver demon mask under his hood so you know he mean the devil’s business:

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You get a deadly old lady battling a ninja with swords. You get a fight between Kosugi and runway model Ashley Ferrare, during which she doesn’t even wear pants (“You forgot your pants,” deadpans Sho before they fight – “Do you really think I forgot?” she replies, igniting the hearts of teenage boys everywhere). You get Kosugi beating up thugs who look like The Village People gone to seed in a scene that showcases his rarely-seen comedic martial arts skills.

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In the scene where Cho’s dolls are stolen, he pursues the bad guys in an extended Man Vs Van scene that will have you wincing at the Kamikaze nature of the stunts. The action choreography as tight as it is original. What’s particularly impressive is that throughout this entire gruelling scene, Cho wears a beige cardigan. This guy makes beige cardigans look badass and if that isn’t ninja magic, I don’t know what is.

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The heart and soul of the movie is Kosugi. He often says he’s not a good actor and while there’s an element of truth to this when he delivers more subtle dialogue, I’d argue that few can do PAIN as well as he can. His range goes from “pain” to “extreme pain” to “inconceivable pain” and since most of this movie involves him getting increasingly upset then doing some gutbusting Ninjutsu, he’s the perfect actor for the job. The chemistry between him and his six-year-old son Kane is beautiful too. You can tell that both are delighted that the other one’s there and Kane’s martial arts skills, even at six, are epic. How many other movies can you name where a little kid viciously beats up grown adults? There’s a joy to these scenes that utterly trashes the first rule of action cinema (never put a kid in your movie).

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The final showdown also introduces perhaps my favourite trope of all – the ninja rooftop fight. Revenge Of The Ninja’s iconic poster design established a rule that city skylines were an integral part of ninja artwork and this finalé showed why. In it, we see two stone cold badasses fighting each other above the gorgeous vista of Salt Lake City, a breathtaking sequence of skybound Ninjutsu that culminates in a splattery sayonara worthy of Shogun Assassin. If you watch this slice of sheer magnificence and you’re still not moved then these movies just aren’t for you.

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With more blood, crazier stunts and an unprecedented sense of style, Revenge Of The Ninja raised the bar for everything and remains, even now, one of the truly great ninja films. Although Enter The Ninja came first, this is the one that set up the rules of modern ninja cinema and little has matched its energy, charisma and brutality since.

Essential ninjing.

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Enter The Ninja (1981)

While Enter The Ninja (1981) is by no means the first appearance of the ninja in western cinema, it’s arguably the most impactful one and commonly referred to as “The Grandaddy Ninja” (which, I’m sure, isn’t just a reference to Franco Nero’s advancing age at the time of filming).
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Some of its success is down to the timing. Ninja, the Eric van Lustbader novel, had recently been published to enormous success and there was public appetite for the mystical power of ninjutsu, especially – it seemed – when wielded by a white guy. With Fox snapping up the rights to Lustbader’s lyrical potboiler (which, ironically, got shelved and still hasn’t been made to this day), Cannon decided to shoot their own cheaper, scrappier version from a script called Dance Of Death by stuntman/martial artist Mike Stone.

Despite these tawdry beginnings, something special grew. Their grandiosely retitled Enter The Ninja dropkickstarted a genre that would dominate 1980s action cinema. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember one thing most vividly: the credits sequence, an unforgettable Shaw-Bros-Meets-James-Bond spectacle that plays like a wordless religious mantra and is jaw-dropping even now. I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like to see it in cinemas back then. It was the first time audiences got to see Sho Kosugi onscreen, posed against a plain black background, dressed in the deadly black ninja suit, performing an array of incomprehensible weapons tricks. The credits – in a stark white oriental font – flash next to him as he stares out from under the hood with eyes of trademark rage. Exotic percussion thunders across the soundtrack. It’s immense and dangerous and beautiful. To make it even better, there’s a twist at the end! Just when you’re dizzy and awestruck, thinking “this is the most badass dude I have ever seen in my life” another ninja dressed in white appears out of nowhere and jump-kicks the black ninja off into the darkness. It’s a bravura volte-face that takes the breath away. Even if the film ended there, I’m sure audiences would’ve come out satisfied.

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If you’ve not seen it, I can’t stress enough that you should take two minutes to watch it right here.

A post-credits sequence in which our hero Cole (Franco Nero) graduates ninja school sustains the momentum and introduces what would become one of the defining tropes of the genre. Multi-coloured ninja suits. For reasons unknown (and I can’t find anything explaining the decision, much as I’ve looked, so please leave a comment if you know!), Nero wears a white ninja suit (is it because he is white?) whereas all the other ninjas he fights against wear red suits… Oh, except Sho Kosugi who, as another student, wears black. I can only assume – as I did as a child – that it’s because he’s more badass than the others. Either way, all three of these suit choices are impractical considering they’re fighting in a forest in broad daylight. But it doesn’t matter. Whether these ninjas are elegantly working their way through the Kuji-kiri (nine levels of power) or larking through the forest like a mobile slumber party, the important thing is that they look cool… and, boy, do they ever. The coloured ninja suit craze would reach its illogical extreme later in the decade with Godfrey Ho introducing proto-Power-Ranger pink and yellow threads but here it’s just the right ratio of awesome:impractical to work.

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Unfortunately, the pace drops once Cole leaves the dojo. He flies to the Philippines to go visit his old war buddy Frank (Alex Courtney) and Frank’s having some trouble. This is where the film’s roots start showing. Despite its innovative aesthetic, Enter The Ninja has one foot firmly in the past. It’s basically a Western (and the precense of Django himself as the hero doesn’t help dispel this feeling). Frank is being bullied by local landgrabbers (including a hook-handed meanie named, uh, The Hook) who want to buy his plantation for a bargain price and this has driven him to despair. He no longer has a purpose in life, is drunk all the time and can’t even get it up for his wife Mary-Ann (Susan George), as he tells Cole in a cringey male bonding scene.

Cole, being a ninja, decides to help out so kicks and punches his way up the heavies ladder until he reaches ultimate bad guy Venarius, who’s an absolute riot. Christopher George plays the role like a Batman villain with a wasp up him; camp, manic, full of shrieking ultra-aggression. The scenes of Venarius talking with his cockney assistant Parker (Constantine Gregory) are hilarious and inventive, keeping things moving even while the feeble plot lags and lags. He’s a natty decorator too. Venarius’s “living mobile” of synchronised swimmers is easily one the most desirable Villain’s Lair accessories of the early 80s.

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Eventually, with his goon squad picked clean, Venarius learns the first rule of Ninja Club (“only a ninja can stop another ninja”), calls in Sho Kosugi and, at long last, mayhem ensues. With Kosugi unleashed in the final reel, Enter The Ninja comes into its own; a flood of gory ultraviolence, intricate custom-made weaponry, superhuman choreography and natty costumes. Apparently, it was only during the filming that the producers realised what a winner they were onto with Sho (originally hired as a stunt double) and they increased his role accordingly. One can only imagine what a damp squib the film – Hell, the entire 1980s – would’ve been otherwise.

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The climactic fight, in which the drama is as high as the kicks, makes it worth the wait but overall Enter The Ninja’s a flawed effort; a brave dip of the slipper into the pool but a long way to go to the deep end. While it deserves respect for its trailblazing originality and vision, its ties to the past make it feel like there are some creaky-ass bones beneath the shiny new skin. The final shot (Franco Nero winking cheekily at the camera only minutes after wreaking some dark bloody vengeance) is a clanging reminder that they still hadn’t figured out the tone but, of course, none of this mattered to me – or thousands of others – as a kid. This was the one that launched a thousand fantasies of being Sho Kosugi (I know he’s the bad guy but, really, did any kid watching this want to be Franco Nero?), the one that made me long for a pair of nunchaku and some hooded black pyjamas. It may not be the first or best ninja film, nor even my personal best or first ninja film, but without Enter The Ninja, it’s almost certain that this blog wouldn’t exist. So here’s to it… and you’ve got another 2 minutes free to watch that title sequence again, right? I know I have and always will do.

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Ninja III : The Domination (1984)

I thought I’d start this blog with a look at a fan favourite, Ninja III : The Domination (1984).

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After the success of Enter The Ninja (1980) and Revenge Of The Ninja (1983), producer Menahem Golan was riding high on the ninja wave. He’d hit on a winning formula of east-meets-west ninjology and knew exactly how to deliver the kind of brutal thrills the audience wanted. Key to these films’ success was star Sho Kosugi; a Japanese martial artist whose mysterious screen presence and insane physical prowess was ninjutsu personified. While Kosugi had played second lead to Franco Nero in the original, Revenge was entirely his picture and was all the better (and even more financially successful) for it. Weirdly, despite his top billing, Kosugi barely appears in the third instalment of Golan’s trilogy.

In a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Kosugi claimed the reason for this was that he and Golan fell out over the film. Kosugi was unhappy with the concept: “I tell you the truth. This was Menahem Golan. I said it doesn’t work but he was believing in ninja mystery, plus breakdancing and also trying to make psychic concept.” Um. Got that? Well, I hate it to say it but this is actually a pretty accurate summation of everything that’s both good and bad about Ninja III, a movie that – if nothing else – will go down in martial arts history as one of its weirdest efforts.

It begins with a pretty spectacular budget-spunker of an opening. An evil ninja on a typically vague ninja mission kills a scientist on a golf course, gets chased by police, kills a bunch of them too, crashes their helicopter with his bare hands and finally gets gunned down for his trouble. Before he dies, he throws a smoke bomb and disappears, re-emerging in the nearby undergrowth where telephone engineer and aerobics instructor Chris (Lucinda Dickey) finds him and tries to help. Unfortunately, he’s a magical ninja and, as his body dies, his spirit possesses her!

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Chris, under the evil ninja’s command, wreaks vengeance on the cops who shot him while her goober boyfriend (Jordan Bennett) tries to save her immortal soul. Of course, the first rule of Ninja Club is that only a ninja can kill another ninja so it’s not long before Sho Kosugi flies in from Japan – on some spurious blood vengeance against the evil ninja that’s never really explained – ready to do the job.

The rest of the film is a mash-up of ideas as seemingly incongruous as Chris’s dual professions, taking more influence from Poltergeist and The Exorcist than it does from straight martial arts flicks. The results are variable but always unique. There’s a famous scene where the ninja is trying to gain control of Chris’s mind using more wind machines, smoke machines and neon lights than your average goth band. She struggles against it and eventually tries to assert her own personality by doing what she loves best… dancing (Let’s not forget that Lucinda Dickey and director Sam Firstenberg had recently collaborated on Breakin’ 2 : Electric Boogaloo)! Her apartment is so painfully 80s it has a prototype arcade machine and a Patrick Nagel painting in it so you can probably guess what her dancing’s like…
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This isn’t all though. There’s a baffling exorcism sequence with James Hong as an old Shinto priest trying to expel the demon as Chris’s eyes turn red, her face goes grey and she spews some kind of mystical dust in his face, while candles explode and the room shakes. Even the love scene in Ninja III is bonkers, as Chris straddles her man, then cracks open a can of V8 tomato juice and dribbles it down her neck, getting him to lick it off. I was delighted to find, in the director’s commentary on the Shout Factory Blu-Ray, Sam Firstenberg finally explains this. Well, sort of… He shouts excitedly “Look at this! This was my idea! This was my idea!” goes quiet for a few seconds as she pours the juice then says, “I do not know why. I just said ‘why not pour the juice on you and let him lick it?'”
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The trouble with Ninja III is, while there’s plenty of this oddness to marvel/laugh at, it’s really not much of a ninja film. In fairness, when I was little kid and in my first phase of ninja adoration, this was probably my favourite VHS tape and looking back now as an adult, I can understand why. It’s certainly the most infantile of the big ninja films and nothing that’s truly grown-up ever touches it. The characters are stereotypical, the violence is either comical or fantasy-based, there’s no nudity and the plot follows a kind of earnestly bampot logic that can really only be accepted by a child mind.

It’s interesting to speculate whether the video age was partially to blame for this, with younger audiences beginning to drive tastes more than ever. I know I never could’ve got into the cinema to see something like Enter The Ninja but, like most other kids of my era, could easily badger their parents into renting the tape for me. Or maybe adult tastes in general were just becoming more juvenile? Either way, the 80s were arguably the birthplace of the “four quadrant” movie and the Cannon ninja trilogy I think is an interesting representation of this emerging trend. There’s certainly a wide gap between what audiences were being asked to accept in Enter The Ninja (a white guy who could do martial arts) versus Ninja III’s flying zombie ninjas who can turn themselves into human drills and dig through rock…
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As Sho Kosugi suggests with his quote from earlier, the attempt to cram in multiple fads that were popular at the time to please everyone ultimately pleased no one. Ninja III flopped – opening with a box office less than half its predecessor – and, to make it worse, Cannon blamed the flop on the fact that audiences couldn’t accept a woman as a ninja. Of all the things that were wrong with Ninja III, this really wasn’t one of them! While Kosugi is tragically underused here (he doesn’t even don the trademarked ninja hood for the final fight!) that doesn’t mean Lucinda Dickey can’t carry an action film. She looks the part to a tee and invests completely in the role, giving a spirited performance in light of some ridiculous material. Sadly, she’s let down by the messiness of an idea that has “disaster” written all over it from the start.

Ninja III is a testament to how – as is so often the case – doing something simply and well is better than complicating things and ballsing it up. As Godfrey Ho proved throughout his 100+ ninja film career, sometimes all audiences want to see are people in ninja suits duffing each other up on loop forever, and while Ninja III may provide some fun via bouncy aerobics, laser-light VFX, erotic tomato juice and supernatural hijinks (not to mention a killer synthesiser soundtrack), there’s a distinct lack of actual ninjing. Even the fights here are disappointing, with Kosugi sleepwalking his way through the choreography and, beyond the overblown but admittedly impressive helicopter antics at the start, not a single stunt that makes you go “Yow!”

NEEDS MORE NINJING.