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Chatting ninjas with Saboteur! creator Clive Townsend

Before I was old enough to watch most ninja movies, I was lucky enough to have ninja computer games. The best of these was, of course, Saboteur! (1985) and I’ve already written extensively about how ace it is. I think it’s fair to say that without this game, I may never have devoted my life to the study of ninjology and now, all these years later, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing the man behind it, Clive Townsend. There’s a lot of interviews out there that discuss the history of Saboteur! as a game so I tried to keep things a little different and focus on the important matters. Ninjas.

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So, as you know, Saboteur! was really my first “proper” ninja experience. Do you remember yours?

I think the very first ninja I saw was in a film called Ninja Wars. Even though it was a ‘magical’ Ninja film with people flying around on wires, I was intrigued by these superhuman characters. That inspired me to watch loads more films, some good and some terrible. In the 80s there were plenty of martial arts films which just had the word ninja stuck on the title for no reason, but still many gems could be found. It also introduced me to the likes of Jackie Chan and Sho Kosugi who then became a staple part of my film watching. And a few years later, when my girlfriend bought two cats, I named my all-black one Jotaro after the hero of Ninja Wars.

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I’ve read that part of what inspired the game was the fact you were studying Ninjutsu yourself. What drew you to this particular martial art (besides, obviously, that it’s the best one)?

I started off studying Judo, but even though it seemed useful, it also seemed incomplete. So I moved on to Shotokan karate but found that it relied on strength and seemed rather slow. So I then took up Kempo karate, which was faster but was still lacking something. With hindsight I realise that I’d only seen the tip of the iceberg with each of these disciplines, but at the time I was disappointed that none of them were all-encompassing. It was several years later that I had an opportunity to train in Ninjutsu – but this finally included everything – both grappling and striking techniques, traditional and modern weapons, fieldcraft, psychology, anatomy, gymnastics and many other fields. It’s more than just a martial art – it’s a philosophical way of life.

You chose to portray your Ninja character as kind of a modern urban spy, focusing on stealth and weapons training over mysticism. What was behind the choice to portray Ninja as more realistic than magical?

Probably the biggest influence was Eric Van Lustbader’s book, The Ninja. That portrayed a very realistic protagonist, who dealt with real-world issues. Even though the sequels do go a bit mystical, they are still done in a believable way. It was only a few years ago that I realised how much The Ninja had influenced Saboteur! After re-reading the books, I noticed that the end of the first one has a fight scene on the top floors of an unfinished building. I’m sure that subconsciously influenced my map design, and probably my desire for realism…

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As the 80s went on, there were a fair few ninja games around, from The Last Ninja to, uh, Ninja Scooter Simulator… Did any stick out for you as being the best?

I was very impressed with the graphical quality of the Last Ninja series, but didn’t actually play it very much… but I did get hooked on Bruce Lee on both the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. Not sure if it counts as an official Ninja game – but it does have one in it!

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Do you have a favourite ninja film?

As luck would have it, I can repeat my last answer a bit… The Last Ninja, a 1983 TV movie is my favourite, as it seemed modern (at the time) and realistic. The protagonist even takes into account the weather before climbing up the outside of a building.

I can’t believe I’ve not seen this.

Well, the first of the three Cannon films, Enter The Ninja, was also a favourite, the second one was good, and I even enjoyed the third one, although that was probably just due to Lucinda Dickey… I also loved Drive with Marc Dacascos. Not officially a Ninja film, but close.

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Alright. The big one. Who do you think is the Ultimate Ninja?

A real person? Well I’m obliged to say Masaaki Hatsumi as he’s the head of the Bujinkan. But otherwise I’d say Batman! An ordinary human with no super-powers, but mental and physical training and a focused dedication to getting the job done. Having a ton of money helps too.

That was not the answer I was expecting. But yeah. That makes total sense! So, do you have any specific memories from the 80s ninja boom? Any ninja-related stories that have stuck with you all this time?

A friend, Mick, and I watched American Ninja 3 (I think) and there’s a scene where one of the bad-guy ninjas spends ages sneaking up on the hero. When he’s in a perfect position to attack, he shouts “Yahzoooey!” then leaps out. After all that careful sneaking up! Needless to say, the hero is alerted and promptly decks him. I don’t often see Mick, but when we meet, even after several decades, we still occasionally shout “Yahzoooey!” at each other.

Hahaha. Classic. So in the same way that “Yahzooey!” has lasting endurance, why is it that you think the appeal of ninjas never gets old?

Again like Batman, the Ninja is the epitome of a normal human being who, with training, dedication, and some handy gadgets, can appear more than human. It’s a good example of how, in any field, determination and strategy can get the best results. That’s a timeless lesson.

Do you still practice Ninjutsu?

I did some trampolining a few years ago, so I had a chance to refresh my somersaulting skills! But other than that I’m fairly inactive these days! I’ve been focusing on the remakes of Saboteur! so most of my Ninjutsu takes place in a world of pixels.

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Speaking of which… What’s the future of the Saboteur! universe?

Well the remake of Saboteur! has explained a lot more of the story, including some hints at who the Evil Criminal Mastermind is, and revealing the fate of the Ninja. The Saboteur II remake expands on the sci-fi and philosophical themes hinted at in the first one, and sets the stage for the ECM to put his ultimate plan into operation. The plot for Saboteur III sees the merging of the storylines in the first two games, and pits the hero against a wide variety of enemies, human, superhuman, and even more. It will be quite a task – but one which won’t be impossible for a master of the art of Ninjutsu…

Thanks, Clive! Happy ninjing!

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Lady Ninja : Reflections of Darkness (1996)

Futaro Yamada was the manga pen name used by author Seiya Yamada. Like many prolific Japanese writers, his body of work is labyrinthine but his most noteworthy achievement (certainly where ninjology is concerned) is his Ninpō-chō series of ninja fantasy books and comics, almost all of which have been adapted into films or TV shows of varying quality. One manga in particular, Ninja Tsukikage-shō (1962), inspired this week’s film – Lady Ninja : Reflections of Darkness (1996) – and while I’ve been unable to find an English version of Ninja Tsukikage-shō to compare it with the film, I somehow can’t imagine it was ever meant to be quite this strange. The film left me with my head spinning. As ever, I’ll try to examine as objectively as possible but it’s likely this one requires more research. Not only is it rooted in deep Futaro Yamada lore but it’s the sixth in director Masaru Tsushima’s series of Yamada adaptations (known as Female Ninja : Magic Chronicles) and I do wonder if I’m missing something by not having seen the others? Answers on a postcard from Japan please, since I’m not sure parts 1 – 5 even have subtitled/dubbed versions available? Luckily Manga Video in the UK put this one out in a dubbed version in the 90s and that’s the version I watched…

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Reflections of Darkness starts out fairly normal if you excuse the “interesting” narration in the English dub (we’ll come back to this later). It’s set in the early Edo period and the Tokugawa Shogun Yoshimune has the Empire under austere conditions. He’s a major buzzkill and the arch-rival of Muneharu – a party-loving type who wants to be Shogun. Think Edo period Andrew WK. When Muneharu discovers that the outwardly puritanical Shogun has a secret vice and has enjoyed steamy BDSM sessions with at least three different mistresses, he decides to expose this to the public. The Shogun gets wind of these intentions and sends his advisor Kotoro to kill the three women so they can’t talk (because he’s such a nice guy). This sets into motion a typical plot in which two factions fight on a regular basis in an effort to either save or kill the mistresses.

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Kotoro looks like he has an advantage because, quite early on, he ventures into a mysterious valley to enlist the four Ninja Sisters – Omoi, Oren, Orui and Ohan. They are a group of mystical mercenaries who dress in brightly coloured Power Rangers-y ninja suits and practice Iga-ryū style ninjutsu. What they don’t know hosd df is that party king Muneharu has enlisted some ninjas of his own, well-versed in the Koga-ryū style – the only style that can hold its own against Iga…

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So far, so sensible, right? I mean, these are both actual classical schools of Ninjutsu appropriate to the period. The production design, costumes and sets all look reasonably authentic and the plot follows a traditional Japanese revenger narrative where everyone just fights until they all die… However, I feel like someone somewhere might’ve exaggerated when it came to portraying the various ninja techniques. Someone who really, desperately, urgently needed to take a cold shower.

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To give you an example, one fight between a Koga Ninja and a female Iga Ninja here begins with them each playing magic flutes to cast spells. When the flute-off comes to a dead heat, the Iga ninja throws her flute and uses a ninja spell to turn it into a snake. The Koga ninja retaliates by trapping her in magic manacles and then unleashing “Koga Ninja Magic – The Third Leg!” at her. This means his penis pops out of his robes and keeps extending and extending until it’s an eight foot long rubber tentacle that penetrates the Iga ninja. She (literally) won’t take it lying down though. She shouts “Iga Ninja Balloon counters the Third Leg!” then begins puffing out air, at which point the rubber tentacle and its attached testicles inflate to an enormous size and explode all over the Koga Ninja who, of course, has to admit defeat because, well, his entire groin area has exploded all over him.

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Yeah.

That happened.

And this isn’t anywhere near all we get. Almost every fight follows this template. Some are quite entertaining – like when the “Koga Ninja Thin Ice” freezes an Iga Ninja and shatters her into pieces only to suffer the “Iga Neck Counterstrike” which means her frozen, detached head flies up off the ground and bites his throat out. Other scenes are just jaw-on-the-floor WTF nutso. The maddest sequence involves Theresa Lynn (an occasional American B-movie actress) as American Ninja Maria who rocks up to seduce the Shogun. First she screams “AMERICAN NINJA MAGIC – BEAUJOLAIS NOVEAU!” and squirts gallons of red wine from her nipples all over the Shogun, making him overwhelmed by lust. When he starts sexing her up, she uses “American Ninja Moonlight Images” to project the deed into the sky for all his subjects to see. Of course then Magic Lightning shoots it down, American Electrical Discharge beats Lightning, etc. Phew. This whole film is like the most messed-up, sex-mad game of Rock-Paper-Scissors you’ve ever played.

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There is some actual fighting somewhere and a few more normally dressed ninjas appear for a brief yet cool scene in a room full of fire but, by and large, this has far more in common with the dire erotic ninja films of the mid-2000s (see my reviews of Lady Ninja Kaede and its sequel) than it does a legit ninja movie. Still, the “Ninja Celestial Balls” are fired from exactly where you think they would be and one of the final fights is fought with the female ninja in the nude so if you’re into that kind of thing, you’ll have a swell old time with this.

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The tone is hard to get a hold of. I can’t tell how serious it’s meant to be. There are obviously some absurd sequences but there’s also a lot of very sombre dialogue about the lowlands and the mountains and all manner of poetic moralising. While it’s hard to care about the characters on account of everyone being kind of evil and corrupt, I feel like someone somewhere was taking this seriously, especially given the relatively high production values. The English dub on the Manga Video tape, however destroys any facade of sensibility and goes full camp. In the most insane twist of all, the narrator – who frequently chimes in with lecherous observations on the lady ninjas like “She’s the sexy one!” – is none other than Michael Lumsden, famous for playing Lloyd the Vet on long-running Radio 4 soap opera The Archers!

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So yeah. A weird one. Perhaps when I have a few more points towards my ninjology degree I’ll brave the other entries in the Female Ninja : Magic Chronicles, although I have to admit that I find the whole sexy ninja genre a lot duller than it sounds. And yet it keeps running and running in Japan. The punchline of all this is that in 2011, there was a remake of Lady Ninja : Reflections of Darkness! Yes, someone liked it enough to do it all over again. I told you when I first started this blog… it really is ninjas all the way down…

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City Ninja (1986) aka Tough Ninja : The Shadow Warrior

First of all, the usual housekeeping. The film I watched (on the American Neon Video release) and am writing about today is City Ninja (1986), not to be confused with City Ninja, the alternate title for Ninja Holocaust (1985). This one was released originally as Tough Ninja : The Shadow Warrior and about two-thirds of its footage are taken from a 1982 Patrick Kong crime melodrama called Unreal Dream. City Ninja’s director is credited as “Larry Hutton” but it’s almost certain this is a pseudonym for Philip Ko, who starred in the original Unreal Dream film and is known for assembling several of these cut-and-paste ninja efforts for Tomas Tang’s Filmark (unsurprisingly, the production company behind this). Oddly, considering two of the actors from the original (Ko and Addy Sung) return as part of the new ninja footage edited into it (looking a good three or four years older than they do in the Unreal Dream scenes), this still manages to be one of the least coherent or convincing splice jobs I’ve seen. But it is pretty far-out…

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The plot of the original Unreal Dream involves a trio of Mainlanders who escape to Hong Kong to try and find their fortune, only to get embroiled in drugs, robbery and prostitution. For this redubbed, re-edited version, our trio (now called Judy, Lily and Johnny) are escaping not from an oppressive regime but from ninja school. Yep, that’s right. Ninja school. The opening sequence shows a ninja in camo gear barking out instructions to his pupils. He imparts wisdom such as “THIS IS THE NINJA UNIFORM. NEVER SHOW YOUR NAKED FACE!” and “IT’S A QUESTION OF TALENT! IF YOU DO IT WRONG, YOU FAIL! AND A NINJA CAN’T FAIL!” but this is clearly all too much for our heroes so they run off into the night, along with an ill-fated recruit called Godfrey (a dig at Tomas Tang’s former colleague Godfrey Ho?).

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It’s impossible to see what’s going on in the getaway sequence as it’s so abominably lit, but we hear a lot of dogs barking and I think Godfrey gets mauled to death by one of them. Amusingly, the synopsis on the back of the VHS sleeve says they escape using “the magical powers of invisibility” which is the most imaginative/diplomatic way I’ve seen of saying “the magical powers of shooting at night with no lighting budget”…

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From here, shit gets weird. The next scene is an unrelated-to-anything fight between a Bruce Lee impersonator wearing a t-shirt that says EUROBOY and a bunch of random guys. It’s likely that this footage is taken from a Joseph Kong Bruceploitation film (as his name is on the City Ninja credits as screenwriter!) but I can’t place which one (answers on a Ninja Challenge Card, please). More footage of ‘Bruce’ fighting pops up later with the only justification being one character yelping “Hey! Remember that guy? Let’s beat him up!”

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It’s impossible to know what else is happening but let’s see… There’s some kind of jewel heist and car chase involving Wai-Man Chan (who does some neat stunts); a bunch of shifty looking gangsters in big 80s sunglasses; an interminable comedy kidnap/ransom sequence involving Lily, her aunt and a dog named Gaddafi; a sweaty, bug-eyed man who goes round robbing people at penis-point in public urinals; some sex trade that centres around a very groovy neon disco where Lily gets a job as a hostess; and the occasional interruption by ninjas. Apparently the guy who runs the ninja school is an American who learned ninjutsu in Japan and is now involved in most crime across Hong Kong (“Robbery is just a sideline for a ninja warrior!” he says at one point, lest anyone question the realism), and this is how the new ninja footage is tied to the rest.

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I don’t think any of the original Unreal Dream story has been retained, even if there’s at least an hour’s worth of footage from it here. Everything’s been dubbed with improbable, possibly improvised, new dialogue that gives the film a persistent surreal atmosphere. At one point, an argument in the park between a group of teenage girls dressed for aerobics turns into a deadly feud with dialogue thrown around like “We are the five lady ninjas!” and “Well, lemme tell ya, I’ve been around and I HATE ninjas!”

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It’s all very very silly. The nonsense reaches its peak in a scene where a pair of ninjas use owl-like bird calls to lure Addy Sung into a fight.

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So what about the ninjing then? Do we get much bokken for our buck? Well, apart from the fact that most of the action sequences from Unreal Dream take place in pitch darkness, the choreography (presumably by Ko) looks pretty good. Lily Chan (who plays Lily) is a superb athlete and does some crazy stuff in the final fight, which culminates in her literally eating her opponent alive (not kidding, she takes gory chunks out of him with her teeth!).

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We do also get a few cool ninja fights with lots of laserbeam sound FX, pink smoke bombs, swords, shuriken, disappearing tricks, sped-up ninja tree-climbing and a great long duffing-up between Camo Ninja and a hastily-drafted-in White Ninja. The choreography here is decent but it’s perhaps let down (or made more enjoyably silly?) by the fact that the non-Asian actors who deliver the dialogue are VERY obviously replaced with Asian actors once the stuntwork starts and no effort is made to hide this. Ah, just chalk it up to ninja magic…

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City Ninja / Tough Ninja : Shadow Warrior may not be a good choice for beginner ninjologists as its total lack of a plot to follow and ropey production values make it tough to sit through unless you’re already deep into this. Advanced ninjologists won’t have their minds blown either but there’s definitely enough Filmark-fuelled ninjoid nonsense to trigger a mild ninjasm or two for them. And I mean, really… All ninjing aside, it’s worth it just to see Lily Chan LITERALLY EAT A MAN ALIVE during a fight. I’m amazed no one’s turned this into a YouTube clip yet with Maneater playing over the top…

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