By the summer of 1983, The Ninja Boom had gathered strength, off the back of Cannon’s hits, Enter The Ninja and Revenge Of The Ninja. On the horizon, a tsunami of VHS ninja treats could be seen that would saturate the action market for the rest of the decade. One of the Boom’s most popular tropes was the occidental master, a westerner who took up the art and managed to be better than everyone else at it. From Lustbader’s patient zero novel The Ninja through Enter The Ninja, through the American Ninja series and even Godfrey Ho’s cut and paste ninja films, nothing would sell these movies faster than a white guy in the lead role. One of the principal inspirations for this is arguably Kung Fu, the 70s TV show set in the old West, in which David Carradine becomes a great Shaolin warrior. It’s maybe not a surprise then that Ed Spielman, one of Kung Fu’s co-creators, would pen a similar spin on Ninjutsu in 1983. Made for ABC, this little-seen TV movie has gained a cult following over the years and finally made it to DVD in 2017 courtesy of Visual Entertainment. So strap on your gauntlets and get your shurikens spinning. It’s time to lift the hood on The Last Ninja!
The film opens with a groovy credits sequence of a dude doing shadow kata in front of a sunset, then a couple of ninjas hiding in a lion’s den, with a foreboding voiceover from Mako introducing the concept of ninjas and ending with a dramatic declaration that “your destiny is to be the last ninja!” Talk about an opening. It’s my destiny to keep watching.
From there it cuts to a break-in at a tower block as 80s rent-a-baddie Richard Lynch leads a team of machine gun toting droogs in gas masks up to a penthouse where the world’s top scientists are meeting. Lynch runs a terrorist group looking to get their hands on some kind of Science that could potentially destroy the world (you know this Science, it comes on microfilm or “top technical blueprints” in Godfrey Ho movies). They hold everyone hostage, plant a bomb and demand that the Science be handed over.
Meanwhile, a mysterious government agent called Cosmo pays a visit to an antiques dealer called Ken Sakura (Michael Beck). I mean, you don’t need to get further than the fact the guy’s name is KEN SAKURA to guess that he’s a ninja but Cosmo has done more than that. He’s put together a dossier of Ken’s whereabouts over the last few years and tied it to various crimefighting activities that occured in these places. Ken denies it vehemently (“There’s no such thing as ninjas! I’m just an antiques dealer!”) but Cosmo insists on it and pleads for Ken’s help in tackling the terrorists in the tower block. He leaves a pertinent dossier of information on Ken’s desk for him to mull over…
Ken is unsure whether to help, realising he may have to sacrifice his secret identity if he accepts the job, but also knowing that if the Science falls into Richard Lynch’s hands, millions could die. In the end, I’d like to think it’s the idea of pre-dating Die Hard’s plot by a good six years that really seals the deal for him but, either way, it’s off to the ninja cave to get ready for some anti-terrorist, all-American ninjing!
The ninja cave, incidentally, is magnificent. Probably the best decor I’ve seen in any of these films. Imagine if Patrick Bateman had an octagonal set of wardrobes full of ninja suits, masks, scrolls, weapons, that open magically with the wave of a hand and you’re in the right area. There’s even an occasional table at which to do ninja mysticism – something Ken does when he writes down his intentions on a scroll and sets it on fire.
The rest of the movie alternates between Ken saving the day at Terror Towers and flashbacks explaining how he became The Last Ninja in the first place. He was delivered as a baby to a Japanese family in America who, without much persuading, decide to take him in (“He’s cute for a Caucasian baby,” remarks Daddy Mako. “Their young are usually very ugly!”). Baby-Ken catches a break when his two adult Japanese brothers are killed during a heroic mission in Korea and Daddy Mako has no one else to teach Ninjutsu to. Although skeptical of teaching it a white kid, he gives baby Ken a special ninja test by dropping him in a barrel of water to see if he’ll sink or swim. Baby Ken swims to the surface (making me wonder if the cover to Nirvana’s Nevermind is actually a ninja training scene?) and Mako rejoices, knowing he has a successor.
[As an aside, one thing that irritated me, was that Ken’s sister Noriko (who, as an adult, is played by Nancy Kwan) isn’t even considered for ninja training. She later works as Ken’s ninjing assistant, helping him out with a couple of setups and, uh, booking his plane tickets for him, but it’s kind of shocking she was left out of the training. I get the impression Mako’s dad character is a bit of a dick tho. On his deathbed he tells Ken that, of all his children, he – the adopted caucasian one – is the one he’s loved the most (meanwhile Noriko isn’t even there in the hospital!). I mean, that’s kind of a dick move right?]
Anyway, the training sequences are not exactly Drunken Master but they are ‘different’. Child-Ken gets sent out into the mountains to frolic with cute animals and learn how to eat raw fish while becoming “no one”, Arya Stark style. In one of the admittedly more original takes on ninja training – he’s given a kitten. A NINJA KITTEN. Yes, really. Mako explains how cats have mastered the art of stealth naturally and insists that Ken learns from his new furry friend. This involves plenty of cute kitten footage (Catjutsu?) which is fun but maybe not exactly the high octane martial arts that some viewers have come for.
And that’s where The Last Ninja doesn’t quite deliver. It takes an admirably spiritual approach to the art and, through Ken’s training, explains a lot of the stealthy and “magical” elements of being a ninja (“None of this is supernatural but men will not understand it so they will fear it”). When he comes to kick terrorist ass in the final reel, Ken uses non-lethal techniques and a lot of illusion (he even gets bleeding hands after scaling the side of a building, which you don’t usually see). What this sacrifices, however, is the kind of ultraviolent ninjasms that – say – Sho Kosugi delivered in Revenge Of The Ninja.
It’s believed that The Last Ninja was meant to be a pilot for a full series (entirely believable given the way the characters are set up) and that the Kosugi-aided Master Ninja on rival station NBC pipped it to the post (even though The Master Ninja wouldn’t air until a few months later). Last Ninja, I feel, would’ve made a better show than Master Ninja since the non-lethal take on martial arts lends itself well to the restrictions of television at the time. Master Ninja was just like a pulpy ninja movie without the violence, whereas this at least replaces it with other cool stuff.
The cast is brilliant here too. Mako is probably the quintessential wise old Japanese dude actor and does his thing admirably. Michael Beck is forever underrated. I loved him as Swan in the Warriors and I love him here too, playing a completely different character. He gets suave antiques dealer Ken bang-on but also has the right kind of build to be a believable ninja (unlike, say, Lee Van Cleef in The Master Ninja). Nancy Kwan is squandered in this, which is a shame because Noriko feels like a good character and she is – again – a chronically underrated actor who suffered way too much typecasting. I’d love to know what would’ve happened if they’d been allowed to develop this further. It could’ve been a classic But alas. We’ll never know. Nor will we ever learn the identity of the mysterious woman who kept catching Ken’s attention and sure knows how sip a drink…
Still, for now, we have this highly entertaining movie. While you won’t get shuriken to the face or arterial fountains, you will get a lot of cool leftfield ninjing you’ve not seen before including a nice surprise trick near the end, a natty ninja suit (Ken wears a floral pattern with a leopard-print hood – talk about psychedelic!) and a fine cast. The production values are the upper end of TV movie and that’s a lot better than your average straight to video ninjoid fix, so y’know. This is required study material for ninjologists at any level.