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Nine Deaths of the Ninja (1985)

After parting ways with Cannon, Sho Kosugi – the Master Ninja himself – went solo (if not outright rogue) with this bizarre and outlandish exploitation film, shot in the Philippines by Emmett Alston, a veteran of drive-in/grindhouse schlock and (weirdly) the Second A.D. on Kosugi’s breakthrough film Enter The Ninja. I’m guessing that’s how they met but there’s little information available about Nine Deaths and its history because most people seem like they’d rather forget it happened. Which is a shame. It’s a much-maligned, misunderstood picture that, while not exactly classic ninja material, is riotous entertainment.

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I can see why people didn’t get it. After Ninja III – the silliest and least violent of the Kosugi/Cannon pics – I think audiences expected his first film away from them to return to old-fashioned, bad-ass ninjing The poster – a muscly Kosugi with a crossbow, smashing his way through an image of a ninja – certainly implies straight-faced ultraviolence is in store. Instead, Nine Deaths is an absurdist action pastiche with very little in the way of conventional fight choreography and a lot in the way of over-the-top silliness and goofball humour.

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I think maybe someone somewhere had the (excellent) idea to make Kosugi into a kind of ninja James Bond. It makes sense if you think about it – ninjas are top class hired assassins who love gadgets, after all – but Nine Deaths goes for out-and-out spy parody rather than trying to play it straight. Kosugi’s character is named Spike Shinobi (ha!) and he, Steve (muscle-man Brent Huff) and Jennifer (80s blonde treat Emilia Lesniak) form a government-run Special Ops team who get sent in, A-Team style, when all else fails.

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All else is very much failing over in Manila, where a group of wonderfully preposterous terrorists have kidnapped a coachload of tourists and are holding them to ransom. The terrorists are led by “Alby The cruel” (Blackie Dammett), a wheelchair-bound Nazi who has a diaper-clad pet monkey. Dammett plays this role as a cross between Hitler, Charlie Day, Tom Waits and Perez Hilton (and apparently made up most of the character traits on the spot, as well as bringing his own Nazi costumes (!) according to this illuminating interview with Ninja Dixon). Alby’s second-in-command is a lesbian with a giant afro. She’s called Colonel Honey-Hump (Regina Richardson, stealing the show from everyone, frankly) and they are working together to free their seven-foot tall bug-eating buddy, Rahji The Butcher (Sonny Erang), an incarcerated Yemeni terrorist, so they can take over the world!

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The ensuing chase across the Philippines takes in a number of incredibly fun scenes and supporting characters. Most famously, Kosugi gets into a fight with a pack of midget spies but there’s a lot of other fun on the menu too. There’s a helicopter stunt that looks irrationally dangerous. Unlike the slick setups in the Cannon movies, everything here looks a little bit like it could go fatally wrong at any second, a feeling familiar to fans of Filipino exploitation movies. If you like these kind of low-rent daredevil antics you’re in for a treat here. We get fighting hookers on a boat (led by twin sisters, Madame Woo Wee and Madame Woo Pee (whoopee, geddit?)). Oversized gatling guns. A random cave full of ninjas (no explanation given). Shane and Kane Kosugi doing their always-dope junior-fu schtick (the bit where Kane sets a would-be rapist’s pants on fire is a hoot).

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At one point, Kosugi disguises himself as an old man to duff up a few guys in a style reminiscent of Jackie Chan. Of course, Sho’s comedy skills are nowhere near at that level but what makes him funny is how naturally unfunny he is – such a mysterious, brooding guy goofing off like this is, surprisingly, hilarious. The dynamic of the comedy is unusual all round in that, despite the buddy formation of the heroes, there isn’t an obvious straight man and funny man. Everyone acts deadpan, ala the Zucker Bros spoofs, which is hysterical but does mean the film’s rife for misunderstanding.

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A quick glance at IMDB shows that people class this as a “bad” movie or they love it ironically and I think this is a shame and does it a disservice. Nine Deaths Of The Ninja is an exploitation movie but it’s clearly an intentional parody. I don’t think anyone looked at Blackie Dammett dressed as a Nazi, hugging a seven-foot Muslim and screaming about anal sex, and thought “Yep, we’re making a serious action film here”. Some modern film fans just seem to think everyone from the past was an idiot and hadn’t discovered humour, which of course is massively incorrect.

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It’s tasteless and it’s absurdist but Nine Deaths is never stupid. Some of dialogue is very dry and extremely funny (the scene where Kosugi goes into Madame Woo Wee’s brothel and asks for “No crap” in his Japanese accent is certainly crude but her response (“How dare you? My girls are sanitised, sterilised and lobotomised!”) is the work of a keenly sarcastic screenwriter). There are tons of fun in-jokes too, like tennis star Vijay Amritaj playing Kosugi’s boss and, without drawing too much attention to it, using a telephone made from two tennis balls. But the humour is always just fun – and you can tell the cast and crew are having a laugh with it too – it’s never ironic or arch or smug or knowing. Just goofy.

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Nine Deaths Of The Ninja makes for a disappointing ninja film, yes. There’s about five minutes of actual ninja action in the entire thing. But this doesn’t make it a bad film by any stretch and anyone who says it is one needs a sense of humour transplant. To see Master Ninja Sho Kosugi in a very different role is entertaining for any ninjologist and, as a raunchy adult comedy (which is how it was inarguably intended), this works on just about every level. It also scores bonus points for a gorgeously 80s theme song (Take Me High by Filipino pop star Ivy Violan) and a joyful credits sequence of Kosugi choreographed with “Hotlegs” dancers and dry ice. Click here and let the music and dancing play you out…

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Ninja In The Dragon’s Den (1982)

“Martial arts is not for showing off,” cautions Uncle Foo to his young protegé Sun Jing. Thankfully, Sun Jing (and Ninja In The Dragon’s Den director Corey Yuen) didn’t listen to a word of this BS advice. This is one of the showiest, most flamboyant martial arts films ever made and is all the more phenomenal for it. I’ve delayed writing about this one because I’m certain I can’t do it without just lapsing into mindless hyperbole but here we go…

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From the opening credits, you know Dragon’s Den means business. Not only do we get some first-class ninjing as a group of black-clad shinobi leap out of holes in the beach, climb up walls, frontflip over shrubbery, run up stairs and then bury themselves in holes again but we get a ninja song. Yes, an actual song about ninjas with awesomely 80s lyrics – “ready to fight, ready to kill, ready to die, shaka Ninja!” For maximum enjoyment of this blog post, I highly recommend clicking here and letting the ninja song ease you in to the mayhem.

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The plot of Ninja In The Dragon’s Den is actually superior to a lot of ninja films so I’ll try to explain it without spoiling too much. We spend most of our time with Sun Jing (Conan Lee), a young martial artist who loves to use his impressive skills in public places to humiliate other martial artists and impress girls. Within the first few minutes of the film, he’s abseiled off a pagoda and gone to a local festival where he can challenge one of the stilt-walkers – the trouble-making “Bull Devil” – to a kung-fu fight ON STILTS. Yes, we get truly epic stilt-fu before we’ve even met half the main characters. I don’t usually like posting links to clips from these films but you have to see this scene because words just aren’t adequate. Keep in mind that this only the first major fight in the film… there’s so, so much more to come.

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Unfortunately, Sun Jing’s beloved Uncle Foo has drawn unwanted attention from a rogue ninja warrior (Hiroyuki “Henry” Sanada). Despite being pursued by the rest of the ninja empire, this lone wolf won’t quit until he’s completed his mission of vengeance against poor old Foo. However, our black-clad villain hasn’t banked on Sun Jing’s abilities and the two become locked in a mortal combat that spans much of the film. There are some great plot twists and turns. Nothing too elaborate but enough to keep things entertaining between fight after fight of increasingly mental action.

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What’s great about the battles here is that they play on the idea of ninjas being master illusionists so we get not just jaw-dropping stunts but some delightful sleight-of-hand magic tricks too. In addition to the stilt-fu we get ladder-fu, water wheel-fu, about a dozen men fighting while on fire, one guy diving into a lake of burning oil (!!), some fighting while dangling from ropes off a giant pagoda and the most amazing “Temple full of traps” I’ve ever seen.

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Ninja In The Dragon’s Den is just about perfect as ninja movies go. It’s got a balance of genuinely funny comedy and sentimental melodrama, unrivaled fight scenes and a brilliant cast. Producer Ng See-Yuen, in the early days of Seasonal Films (who also brought the world Snake In Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, launching the career of Jackie Chan) was adept at finding gifted unknowns to helm his movies and his discovery here, Conan Lee, is a winner.

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It’s hard to believe he had no martial arts experience prior to signing on with See-Yuen because, through training and expert choreography, Lee comes across as a master here. Effortlessly skilled and charismatic, his cocky kung-fu is the perfect foil to Henry Sanada’s deadly serious, melancholic ninjutsu. The supporting cast is fantastic too, including Hwang Jang Lee (Tiger from Ninja Terminator!) and Kaname Tsushima as Sanada’s wife. Sadly, Tsushima never made any other films which is a shame because her playful sense of mystery and mischief here is one of the film’s highlights.

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Director Corey Yuen seems to have no boundaries to what he’s prepared to throw at the audience, all the more impressive considering it was his first film as well (which must surely rank it as one of the best directorial debuts in any genre). It just burns with the new life of a sub-genre in its infancy and shooting rapidly towards its peak. Considering the Shaw Brothers put out Chang Cheh’s comparatively sluggish Five Element Ninjas the same year, this feels all the more like the plucky underdog roaring off the starting line and into first place. It’s a powerhouse of a movie and a must-see for anyone even remotely interested in ninja cinema. A lot of people ask me “What’s the best place to start if I’ve never seen a ninja film?” and this, my eager ninjettes, is it.

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Five Element Ninjas (1982)

As I’ve mentioned before, one crucial theory of Ninjology is that the given answer to the perennial question of “What’s a ninja?” is often a way to gauge the quality and style of a film. Here, when a student asks his master “What is this ninja?” he’s told “Um, I’m not familiar” and perhaps that reveals a little too much about Five Element Ninjas… Five Element Ninjas 1 It’s a Shaw Brothers production directed by studio mainstay Chang Cheh and starring most of the famous Venom Mob so you can expect a certain level of quality and budget at least. However, it’s from 1982 by which stage the Shaws’ dominance was already on the wane. Exciting, younger production companies with new styles were taking the baton and somersaulting away with it. Sadly, for me, a lot of the early 80s Shaw movies feel dated and a little tired by comparison to both their peers and their own 70s output (much of which remains timeless) as they tried to chase trends they didn’t quite understand and superimpose their indomitable style onto them. Here, they have a crack at ninjas and while it’s certainly a valiant attempt, Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Superninjas) is not among the genre’s finest. Five Element Ninjas 5 The plot is convoluted and pretty terrible. It takes such a long time to even establish who its protagonist is (this isn’t entirely clear until some 40 minutes in) that it’s really hard to invest any emotion in him. I tried to put together a scene-by-scene synopsis but, as a writer, it gave me an actual headache how scattershot and unstructured it was. Basically, there’s a school of valiant Chinese martial artists and a bunch of shady Japanese ninjas vying for dominance over “The Martial World”. They start out by playing fair and holding tournaments but it all goes dark when the mysterious “Five Element Ninjas” kill almost all the school’s best warriors. Five Element Ninjas 3 To make it worse, a female ninja spy (nicknamed “Nuisance”, which arguably sums up Chang Cheh’s attitude to having to write women into his stories at all) infiltrates the school using her feminine wiles (she plays the flute and wears sexy fishnets) and sends information back to her fellow ninjas, which leads to a storming of the school. A massacre ensues and leaves just one survivor – Chin Hau – to defend the honour of his dead brothers and master. Of course, only a ninja can kill another ninja so Chin Hau travels into the woods, gets training from some kind of Ninja-Yoda type and joins a troupe of poncy long-haired ninjutsu practioneers who look like they’ve stepped off the worst Manowar LP cover ever. Five Element Ninjas 4 This is all dragged across an overlong runtime of 1 hour 44 minutes. The pacing is wildly off rhythm. You get nearly half an hour of constant dueling right at the start and then an endless section where nothing happens beyond “Nuisance” trying to seduce a bunch of dudes. When Chin Hau gets his ninja training, this too goes on forever, with a monotonous voiceover telling us dry historical information about ninjutsu until we can take no more. A disclaimer at the start of the film says all the action is based on real techniques and information from ancient Japanese texts but I don’t know how much of this is true. I mean, how many people wore gold lamé jumpsuits in the olden days anyway? Five Element Ninjas 2 Which brings me on to the only truly awesome part of the movie. The Five Element Ninjas themselves. We have GOLD ninjas, who have spinning hats with razor-sharp edges and reflective surfaces that blind their opponents. We have green WOOD ninjas who hide en masse inside fake trees and then spring out and scratch their enemies to bits with metal claws. We have WATER ninjas who wear blue suits and do all kinds of splashy Wuxia acrobatics. We have FIRE ninjas who wear red and carry flares that emit flames and pink smoke. We have EARTH ninjas who can burrow underground and are kind of a burnt sienna colour. I mean, this is all epically cool. The first time we see them in action is phenomenal. Unfortunately, it blows the elemental load too soon. We get all five elements going through their techniques in the first 30 minutes of the film and then they don’t appear again at all until the final 20 minutes when we see them do exactly the same stuff as before, only this time while getting their asses to handed to them by Chinese Manowar. As a result, only the first time really holds any true spectacle. Five Element Ninjas 7 The other problem with ninjas this cool is that you desperately want them to win. I mean, they’ve put in the effort, got the best techniques and the raddest costumes. They deserve victory, damnit! By contrast the heroes in this film are awful. They’re smug, they dress badly, they have terrible hair and they laugh to each other in a really douchey way every time they kill a ninja which, frankly, is uncalled for and not very sportsmanlike. This is a major problem as it means the emotional beats never connect. It’s all just fighting for no reason with victories that are more annoying than glorious. Five Element Ninjas 6 Sure, the violence is very bloody (guys get torn limb from limb, one dude fights ninjas with his guts actually hanging out down his leg the whole time, swords go in tons of places where they shouldn’t) and the action is nicely choreographed for the most part but Five Element Ninjas really doesn’t hold its own against most early 80s ninja films made either in Hong Kong or America. By combining the classic Shaw-style martial arts tropes with this new wave of ninjing, it comes across a bit like an old 70s rock dinosaur trying to release a punk record. The aesthetic is there and they’re trying their best but the rawness, the excitement and the heart’s all missing. They just don’t have a grasp of what made ninjas fresh and exciting.

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Ninja Kids : Kiss Of Death (1982)

I wonder how many parents ignored the 18 rating on the cover of this and just thought “Ninja KIDS? How bad could it be?” I wonder then how many children had their minds blown to smithereens by the sex/gore ninjoid insanity of Ninja Kids : Kiss Of Death… To clarify, there are no kids in this movie. It is not a movie for kids. Got that? Good. Let’s move on then.

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Of all the names synonymous with ninjas, Alexander Lou is the one who gets the least respect, despite starring in at least 13 different movies with ninja in the title, one of which was 9 hours long (Ninja : The Final Duel)! He may not have had the dark mystery of Sho Kosugi or the relentless prolificity of Godfrey Ho but Lou definitely deserves his place in the Ninja Hall of Fame and I’m looking forward to covering more of his work on the blog. I’m starting with Ninja Kids : Kiss Of Death. It’s a fine introduction to the kind of Lou-nacy you can expect and, doubtlessly, that garish UK VHS art of the monster and the naked woman with the enormous backside (neither of which feature in the film) made an impression on many corruptible minds.

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Showing once more Lou’s propensity for long films, Ninja Kids is a 90 minute edit of a far longer piece called Ninja Death (aka Ninja Tiger) that runs across three films and is nearly five hours in total. The effect of chopping out over three hours of plot is a dizzying one. I timed it and not a single two minute section of Kids passes without there being a fight. If it’s wall-to-wall ninja mayhem you’re after, you’ll struggle to find a more heightened slice of it anywhere. Even the credits sequence – a collage of the most outlandish looking characters performing acrobatics against a bright red background – is off-the-chain nutty.

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Lou plays Shaku (or “Tiger” in the full length version), a pimp whom we meet in a bizarrely goofball opening exchange with a funny customer. The guy warns Shaku “the girls won’t like it the way I want it” and, after much discussion, we soon find out that “the way he wants it” is for free, so Shaku beats him up! The odd time waster aside though, things are going pretty well for the brothel until a Japanese girl sets up a place across the road and threatens to steal all Shaku’s business. She’s not what she seems, however. Rather than a madame, she’s actually a ninja on a mission to protect the long lost son of a murdered princess who has no idea of his true identity (or his calling as the “Young Master”)… Could it be Shaku? If it is, it’s a good thing his martial arts skills are the key to his destiny because his bedside manner is quite terrible (“Let me tell you, I could make you jump around a bit! I’m an expert at filling holes!”).

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The plot just about makes sense but probably seems crazier than it needs to on account of the heavy editing. The relationships between the characters are complex in the way of a soap opera rather than a 90 minute film and with someone popping up every few scenes to shout “I’m your brother/mother/sister/uncle!” it becomes quite comical. In addition, plenty of characters you think are dead get better so you have a number of “I’m not dead! AND I’m your brother/mother/sister/uncle!” reveals too. In the full version, you’ve got more time to digest each of these but in Ninja Kids it’s just non-stop twist upon twist, which makes some of the more melodramatic dialogue seem gloriously absurd. My favourite line is about how one character makes “The cardinal mistake of all ninjas: to fall in love!”

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This mix of high-camp soap and ultraviolence is hugely entertaining and what’s really impressive is the sheer amount of ninjing we get (and that’s what we’re all here for). Lou is a great martial artist (he was the Taiwanese Tae Kwon Do champion before he went into acting) and the choreography is as brutal as it is bonkers. The bad guys score points too for wearing such natty suits. The main evil ninja wears a gold lamé suit (my favourite kind of ninja – you can’t be stealthy ANYWHERE in shiny gold but it looks great!) and has a habit of smashing up Buddhas to show just how evil he is. There’s also a demon ninja henchman who wears a devil mask and can fly. The demon ninja goes bezerk at the sound of a magic flute too, which makes for some pretty delirious sequences.

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There are somewhere in the region of 30 – 40 cannon fodder ninjas too. I long lost count of how many people get killed in this, in a blur of eye-gouging, mace-to-the-face splatter and arterial spray that jettisons from every orifice (regardless of their proximity to actual arteries). These disposable heroes are acrobatic as Hell and can do magical tricks like tri-location but even that can’t save them. Perhaps the highlight of it all however is the group of elderly crippled kung-fu masters who called themselves The Handicap Array! Yes. We get hunchback-fu in this movie and it is amazing.

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The final fight, in which Lou shows off the “Illusion Style” technique he’s been learning throughout the film, is mindblowing. I’m not going to spoil it but I guarantee you won’t have seen a “finishing move” quite like this one before… Throw in a bunch of low-rent gratuitous nudity and a feverish soundtrack of crashing symbols, ethereal qinqins and flutes and the overall effect of the film is “How can this even be real? What am I watching?”

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Don’t get me wrong. Ninja Kids is pure exploitation – the one-line synopsis is basically “Kung-Fu Pimp vs Flying Demon Ninja” – but it’s the highest grade of trash. By literally cutting out the slow bits, it reduces the ninja movie to just scene after scene of improbably excessive sex and violence that somehow never gets boring. With each fight, I found my jaw dropping further and further onto the floor at just how far they were willing to take it. Ninja Kids is bezerker style ninjing at its best. Three Ninjas this ain’t.

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Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader (1980)

Ever wanted to see a ninja sodomize a young boy while being rimmed by a prostitute? No? No. Me neither! Unfortunately, this is one of several such things that Eric Van Lustbader wants to show his readers in his De Sadean martial arts mega-seller The Ninja. How this unusual book was such a success at the time may seem strange to readers now but the recent success of 50 Shades of Grey proves there’s always a market for dodgy, overwritten sex and, much as it pains me to say it (and it pained me even more to actually read it), the book has some historical importance to the 80s ninja boom.

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The plot is risible but provided a template used time and time again throughout the decade. We have an occidental ninja master named Nicholas Linnear. He was raised in Japan but has moved to New York where he struggles to enjoy a successful career in advertising. While wrestling with his mid-life crisis, his friends and acquaintances get bumped off by a mysterious black-clad assassin and there are no prizes for guessing what he is. Despite the motivations of this evil ninja being tied in to a convoluted web of political and economic maneuvers, that’s pretty much the extent of actual plot. If you’re familiar with the adage that “only a ninja can defeat another ninja”, you’ll be able to predict where it’s leading from about 10 pages into its weighty 525.

This length is a big problem for this book. Epic tomes were popular in the early 80s but Lustbader essentially stretches a compact pulp tale into something altogether less palatable by overwriting everything and dragging where he should be sprinting. A character can’t even look up at the sky without a paragraph’s worth of description that lets us know exactly what it looked like at that given moment (I’d estimate maybe a tenth of the book is about the sky). Very occasionally this language is enjoyable but, for the most part, it’s total cringe. Sometimes, he gets so carried away, it’s easy to imagine Lustbader typing one handed:

“Hidden, the sun slid downwards to the earth as if too heavy to sustain its own weight. The sky was like grey ribbons fluttering across an excited girl’s breast, parting at the soft advance of her love. There was a brief flash of gold, stonework in flickering torchlight, then it was gone.”

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This overheated tone is consistent throughout the book and the almost-constant stream of sex is some of the most bafflingly bad I’ve ever read. Characters seem to exist in a state of perpetual horniness and even something as innocent as laughing can make breasts shake in a “sensual” way and lead to yet another torrid coupling. Again, it’s worth bearing in mind the trends of the time for saucy fiction but The Ninja’s sex feels inappropriate, gross, lecherous and weird. Jackie Collins, this ain’t.

Lustbader never seems to have a handle on what kind of a book he’s writing. Is it pulp action? Soap opera erotica? Socio-economic historical lecture? Bad sixth form poetry? He touches on all these but the crossover effect (while it obviously made the book appeal enough for millions of readers to buy it) is messy.

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Maybe it could’ve worked better were it not for the characters being so one-note and cartoonishly severe about everything. There’s not a moment of light relief in the whole book. When Nicholas first meets Justine – the “love interest” – they have intensely over-emotional sex within minutes and then get into a blazing row. He slaps her, she submits to his violence because she has issues with her father and then they have sex again and talk existentialism. These are the protagonists and they spend the whole story grimly abusing each other before, ultimately, falling into each other’s arms against a sunset and declaring their undying love. Which brings me to the fact that Lustbader has major problems writing women. Every single one of them here is portrayed as a broken nymphomaniac; insane, vulnerable, volatile but always described (over many paragraphs, some of which use the dread word “creamy”) as beautiful. It’s a lazy, cruddy stereotype but also tedious in that this is apparently all a woman can be in Lustbader’s world. I don’t think there’s one female character in the whole book who isn’t raped at least once as well.

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If the abject misogyny wasn’t enough for you, there’s some terrible racial stereotyping too. While I’ll admit that Lustbader has gone to impressive lengths to research Japanese culture (indeed, half the book is dry regurgitation of his research), there is an uncomfortable “noble savages” feel to some of it. I’d be happy to overlook some of this due to the nature of the genre (the occidental master – for example – is too common and complex a trope to write it off completely) but Lustbader’s portrayal of black characters is so horrific, it puts the whole thing in a worse light. We get two of these: a vice cop called Vegas who pops up to holler “shiii-iit!” and jive talk about prostitutes, and a black marine who appears in a flashback scene where he enters a theatre and stands in such a way that his crotch is visible through his jeans. Nicholas Linnear’s Japanese girlfriend spends half a page looking at “the large bulge of his crotch” while Linnear himself narrates : “How big was he? How big could a man be? Was that a criterion for sex appeal, the way Americans felt about big breasts? Did it drive women wild?”

Embarrassed yet? I am… and I’ve not even scratched the surface.

So why did I even sit and read this and why am I writing about it here? I guess it’s because the East-Meets-West plot of ninja chaos dropped into a modern American setting is the most repeated and recognisable story of the entire ninja boom. The film rights to this novel were originally sold to Fox but, for whatever reason (maybe someone actually stopped and read the book?), it never got made. While it was tied up in pre-production bickering, Cannon snuck under the radar with their own (far simpler and superior) version of the story, Enter The Ninja, and the rest was history.

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So much of what we love in 80s ninja movies does have its roots in Lustbader’s book, no matter how terrible it is. He describes the mysticism of ninjutsu in a way that’s well-studied and allows for newbies to feel instantly educated. The blending of these airy magical aspects with brutal urban violence is what’s at the heart of the boom and there’s no denying that my most beloved of these images – the shadow warrior against the city skyline – is first conjured here in Lustbader’s prose. Even the connection between Linnear and his ninja adversary – a conspiracy dating back to the Tokugawa Shogunate – is exploited in dozens of movie plots and I can’t find anything pre-dating Lustbader’s novel where the story is told in quite this way. There are precursors, sure – nothing exists in a vacuum – but this takes their fledgling ideas and solidifies them into new Western ninja tropes (which were rapidly exploited both in cinema and in paperback – as anyone who’s read Wade Barker’s far more entertaining Ninja Master series of pulps can attest to).

If The Ninja had half the pages, was less offensive and written by someone who didn’t seem to get an erection thumbing through the thesaurus, it could’ve been a classic pulp novel. Sadly, it’s a chore to read and problematic on way too many levels. But it did get there first. Perhaps it was zeitgeist. Maybe Mike Stone was already working on Enter The Ninja before he read this, maybe Wade Barker was already frantically scribbling away about ninjas and maybe someone somewhere would’ve told this story soon anyway but history being what it is, this book is pretty much Patient Zero for American ninjas. It just goes to show from small seedlings grow great cherry blossoms…

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Ninja Assassin (2009)

I avoided Ninja Assassin when it came out because I took an irrational dislike to the artwork. It looked like some kind of Matrix bullshit and the fact that it was produced by the Wachowskis and directed by the guy who helmed their V For Vendetta adaptation convinced me it would be terrible. How dare they touch my beloved ninjas? Still, in the interests of fairness and for the fact that so few 21st century ninja films exist, I figured I should give it a watch on the blog…

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Ninja Assassin stars K-Pop superstar Rain as Raizo, a ninja trained in the mountains by a clan called the Ozunu. They have been around for over a thousand years and have a tradition that they accept 100lbs of gold (or the contemporary equivalent in cash) for difficult high-profile assassinations. To train such top-tier killers, Lord Ozunu (the legendary Sho Kosugi) collects orphan children and puts them through years of rigorous, often highly sadistic, exercises so they know nothing other than how to murder. If they survive this training (and many don’t), they come of age as ninja warriors. Although his master requires Raizo to abandon all compassion, since it’s viewed as a weakness, he falls in love with a fellow trainee, Kiriko (Anna Sawai). She’s too sensitive for the Ozunu dojo and tries to run away but is brought back and put to death under clan law. When Raizo completes his training, he flees and swears vengeance on Lord Ozunu…

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There’s enough of a bare bones ninja plot there to create a decent story but the screenplay feels a little rushed. Apparently the original script by Matthew Sand didn’t please the Wachowskis so they drafted in J. Michael Straczynski to rewrite it in 53 hours (!) and it kinda shows. There are a ton of loose ends and the emotional beats are never given quite enough time to hit as hard they need to. Straczynski’s TV and comic book experience is a double-edged sword; it helps give the film a lightning pace and a wide variety of settings and characters but it does leave things feeling unfinished, almost as if he’ll sort it out in a future issue/episode. Admittedly I’ve happily forgiven the likes of Godfrey Ho far, far greater plot holes than anything here but I do feel like he was doing his best with what he had, whereas here it feels like a missed opportunity where they could’ve done more. This has to be the first ninja movie ever made on a budget this high ($40,000,000) and it’s a shame that the story is the weakest link in what’s otherwise – to my shock – a fairly strong chain.

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The action sequences here are fantastic. There’s some CGI post-production work that I could do without but the stunts are all real, the choreography is tight as Hell and the splatter – even though it’s often digitally enhanced – is off the scale. I’ve never seen a gorier ninja film. It plays more like The Story Of Ricky than any of the canonical 80s classics and the action is relentless (the director cites anime as a key influence and, while I can see this, it’s not too annoying or oppressive). There’s a fight scene that takes place on a rooftop – against a classic urban skyline – that blew my mind to pieces. It was just perfect. They’ve obviously done their research into what makes a ninja film work. Ninjas and skylines. Flawless combination every time.

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Just the sight of Sho Kosugi onscreen for the first significant time in decades is a joy too. When I hit the inevitable final fight between him and Rain, I think I actually held my breath as they started circling one another. The anticipatory thrill of seeing Kosugi in action again was so great, it’s worth watching the movie just for that moment. It’s also a quality acting performance from him, playing against type as a deeply dark, evil sadist. He’s properly unsettling for most of the film, becoming creepier as his face and body get gradually more fucked up.

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The imagination shown in the violence is what keeps Ninja Assassin riotous throughout. Endlessly disposable ninjas get sliced up every conceivable way (there’s a whopping body count of 137 according to moviebodycounts.proboards.com). Spurting limbs are flung at the camera. Throwing stars have never been thrown so brutally: you could make a business selling unlucky ninja pincushions, there are so many of them here. There’s one absolutely mind-melting death scene where Rain chops off all ten of a dude’s fingers, chains his hands together, stabs him through the hands and then uses the chain to pull the knife backwards so he slits his own throat. The whole movie is a delirious celebration of ultraviolence and dazzles despite its flaws.

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The only other significant American-made ninja films of the decade are the two Scott Adkins ones (Ninja and Ninja : Shadow of a Tear) and despite the higher budget and heightened insanity here, both of those are superior to Ninja Assassin. The reasons for this are that they hit the exact balance needed between emotional realness and insane action. Bearing a much closer resemblance to the classic Cannon films, the Adkins Ninjas hold a sense of genuine heroic rage – there’s a cathartic element to how he does the Right Thing. Here, you never really care whether Rain gets revenge or not, let alone what happens to anyone else. Everyone’s kind of awful and it’s really just a high-octane horrorshow. Still, switch off your mind and there’s plenty of merit in this visual assault, as I say. I enjoyed myself a lot watching Ninja Assassin but it’s all guts, no heart. Five-star fight scenes in a two-star movie.

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Blade of Dishonor by Thomas Pluck (2013)

Although the ninja boom turned ninja bust in the late 80s, there have been little sparks that keep the spirit alive. Too many people just use ninjas as an ironic punchline to a gag these days but now and then something comes along that just nails it; that captures the essence of the great ninja stories and packs a modern punch of serious fun. Thomas Pluck’s novel Blade of Dishonor is one of these things.Blade 1

Blade of Dishonor’s hero, whom I hope will return for more stories, is ‘Rage Cage’ Reeves, a marine who comes home from Iraq to Minnesota and finds things have changed. Recession’s hit hard, the auto plant has closed and everyone’s itching for a fight. With nowhere to go, Reeves moves in to his grandfather Butch’s pawn shop (that specialises in militaria) but things look bleak. Jobs are thin on the ground, money’s tight and the hardass hare-lipped town Sheriff has an old grudge against him that just won’t quit.

Reeves thinks his prayers are answered when a mysterious Japanese businessman offers to buy the shop and everything in it for a generous sum but Grandpa Butch knows what Mr Takehito really wants; an antique sword that hangs above the counter. The “Honjo Masamune”. We soon learn that both Takehito and Butch have made blood promises to guard the blade with their lives and when Butch is brutally slain, the responsibility passes to Reeves, thus setting in motion a breakneck intercontinental chase. Oh yeah, one more thing. Takehito’s a ninja and he has an army of highly-trained shadow warriors on his side so it’s not exactly a fair fight… One man against a ninja empire!

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Pluck is a writer who understands the mechanics of pulp fiction and this is so fundamental when you’re writing a story about ninjas and cage-fighters on the trail of a magic sword. He treats the subject matter with respect and creates not just a thrilling action narrative but one that’s full of believable, endearing characters. Reeves and Butch are the heart of the thing but even more entertaining are Tara and Mikio, their uneasy allies in this. Tara is a local waitress who falls for Reeves and turns out to be a genuine badass, a redheaded rock’n’roller who drives her gold Oldsmobile Toronado at ninja-killing speeds. Mikio is a shady Yakuza whose unclear allegiances and filthy mouth provide suspense and big laughs respectively. All four of them are refreshing, original characters whose dialogue is gleefully tough, like much of Pluck’s prose.

The action scenes here are page-turning scorchers; hard-line ninja mayhem with Pluck knowing how to balance his fight choreography with imaginative similes. He writes the language of violence with a grin on his face in paragraphs like this one, describing the different types of strikes to the testicles:

“Grazing blows that caught up with you three seconds later. Solid shots that felt like your nuts were pinballs bouncing off your internal organs. And the worst kind, which set a disco ball of lights spinning in your head while your spirit left your body, as if embarrassed to be seen with you.”

That said, even though there are plenty of cool fight scenes in this that are fun to read, you feel the ramifications of every punch, slash or gunshot like it’s real. In particular, the sections about war are compassionate and harrowing, Pluck drawing distinctions between the joy of a good fight and the grim realities of mass destruction.

There’s a lot to love about the book because it’s clearly written with so much of it. The research into Japanese history – from the ninjas and samurai of the Tokugawa Shogunate to the present day – is impressive and Pluck shares his knowledge in a way that’s passionate and enjoyable rather than feeling like laborious exposition (something Eric Van Lustbader could learn from!). Pluck also has a knack for creating a sense of place, from the industrial bleakness of small-town Minnesota, to the spiritual isolation of remote Pacific islands to the neon bustle of present-day Tokyo. These provide exciting backdrops to a plot that, while simple, is an adrenaline-fuelled modern ninja classic with bags of hardboiled heart.

If, like me, you miss the good old days of ninjas past, you’ve got to get yourself a copy of this. Blade of Dishonor is up there with the Scott Adkins films as being some of the best 21st century ninjing you’ll come across.