Shaolin Challenges Ninja is a retitling, redubbing and minor re-edt of Lau Kar-Leung’s Heroes Of The East (1978), released for the UK VHS market in the mid-80s. The main differences are that – in line with overzealous UK censorship of the time – two fights are cut entirely (one involving Gordon Liu’s trademarked three-section nunchaku and one with forbidden shuriken) and the English dub track changes a plot detail slightly. In the HK version, only two characters speak both Chinese and Japanese and this leads to a key misunderstanding that isn’t present in the English dub (where everyone speaks the same language). Otherwise, there’s not that much notable difference between the cuts and, while I’d recommend you get the full Heroes Of The East cut (especially on the lovingly restored Dragon Dynasty DVD), I do hold some affection for Shaolin Challenges Ninja just because it’s the version I watched so much as a kid. I also want to give a shout out to the sleeve art, one of my favourite paintings of the era. I would absolutely love to know who painted all these old Warner/Shaw sleeves and esepcially if any of the original art still exists (I’ve searched far and wide so, if anyone has any info, I’d really appreciate it!):
See, I go way back with this title. It was one of the first tapes I remember renting from the local video library. Home entertainment still felt like a new idea to my family. We hadn’t had a VCR for long so were all pretty excited. Of course, we only had one TV (and there wasn’t much better to do in the house than watch TV) so my mum, my dad and I all shared it and would (without much formality) alternate in terms of picking films to hire. I could get away with watching more “adult” stuff if my parents wanted to watch it too, basically. I guess this was a learning experience for all of us as it meant we each sat through films we might not have ordinarily chosen (and it probably explains why I still have a weak spot for garish melodrama like Mistral’s Daughter and The Thorn Birds). Martial arts movies were one of my early passions and I’d always try to get away with choosing one. At first, I was only allowed 15-rated ones, not 18s, which meant more violent stuff like King Boxer remained tantalizingly elusive but Shaolin Challenges Ninja firmly stood out from the bunch. I rented it a few times over and a testament to its wide appeal is that even my mum, who wouldn’t normally like any of this stuff, loved it! It is officially my mum’s favourite ninja film!
To this day, it remains one of the great martial arts films for me in that it provides excellent understanding of the form for newbies but also has so much top-of-the-range fighting (not to mention such a fun story) that “deep” genre fans can enjoy it too. If you’ve read my love letter to the 36th Chamber Trilogy, you’ll know that I have a lot of time for Lau Kar-Leung and long-term collaborator Gordon Liu. Even their weakest films delivered a standard of class and skill beyond the norm but, at their best, they were unbeatable (Kar-Leung even gives himself a winning cameo here as a drunken old master).
Here, Liu plays Ho Tao, a Chinese martial artist who enters into an arranged marriage with a Japanese girl named Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno). At first he’s delighted because she’s so beautiful but soon finds that she’s rather more feisty than expected and a master of karate. They get into some fairly heated debates about whether or not Chinese or Japanese martial arts are the best. His “weapons look like garbage”. She “yells like a barbarian” when she fights. His eight-stroke style “looks like a young girl’s dancing”, etc. The dialogue here is a joy with both actors gleefully bouncing off each other with words before – of course – it leads to actual bouncing off each other with fists, kicks, swords and spears.
The first act is mostly just this glorious two-hander as the newlyweds smash up their home in order to prove who’s boss. Eventually Koda reveals her trump card; she is trained in ninjutsu, the mysterious art of illusion that Ho Tao finds “a disgrace” and “despicable”, adding that “in Chinese, we call it murder” (or “ambush” depending on which language you watch this in). She is outraged by this and returns to Japan in a huff, reuniting with Takeno (Kurata Yasuaki); a handsome childhood friend who is a ninja master and has a huge crush on her. “If only I had not been too busy teaching,” he laments, “we could’ve been married by now”…
Meanwhile, devasted by the loss of his lover and opponent, Ho Tao descends into drunkenness (denoted by the fact that he undoes the collar of his shirt and gets his hair a bit messy). Encouraged by his goober servant, Ho Tao writes Koda a letter, begging her to accept that Chinese kung fu is the strongest of all martial arts and, if she still thinks otherwise, to come back and fight him. Unfortunately, the letter winds up in the hands of Takeno who takes it as an affront to Japan itself. He gathers up an entourage of Japan’s finest fighters and they all go to China, challenging Ho Tao to a series of duels.
The rest of the film is devoted to these as Ho Tao takes on many fighters with different styles and weapons. This is just so much fun and the diversity of technique provides a colourful way of keeping the audience entertained throughout what’s essentially 40 minutes of solid fighting. The effort in the build-up means we care about the characters too. The choreography is, of course, magnificent with Liu showing off his almost-superhuman co-ordination and Lau Kar-Leung keeping his shots long and wide, using minimal editing tricks. We get kendo, drunken style kung fu, judo, staff fighting, spear fighting, shuriken, roped/chained weapons, short swords, long swords and the whole thing culminates in the titular duel – Shaolin crane style against ninja magic! Taneko pulls out the big guns in a very entertaining final fight (set in a field full of straw men) where he throws smoke bombs and uses “Japanese Crab Technique” – an absolute riot to behold.
What’s nice about the whole film is that all the fighting is very honourable. It showcases both Chinese and Japanese styles respectfully (a rarity for films of the era) and no one gets killed. It’s all done for honour, for love and for the advancement of martial arts. Your tastes may vary but the film appealed to so many of my personal favourite martial arts tropes; the clashing ideologies, the tournament plot, a little bit of romance and – of course – I just get a kick out of when people get really super-serious about proving how Chinese kung fu is the best. I mean, obviously, it is, but I just love seeing dudes shout about it.
For ninjologists, there may not be that much actual ninjutsu in this but it’s worth your time on account of being such a fantastically made movie. Not only is Gordon Liu at the top of his game but Yuka Mizuno really shines here – it’s a shame she didn’t make more films because her performance as Koda is just fantastic. She walks a deft line between playful and deadly and her ability to balance comedy and violence is vital to the dynamic at the heart of Shaolin Challenges Ninja. At times, it plays like a kung fu Shakespeare comedy and the charming, great-looking cast make this element of the film really fly. This is definitely one of the best Shaw productions of the 70s for me and that’s high praise indeed.