The Sword of Bushido (1990)

I admit that The Sword Of Bushido isn’t strictly a ninja movie. Let’s say it’s ninja-adjacent. There’s a ninja in it but he isn’t, sadly, the main focus of the story, despite being so prominent on the 1996 UK VHS artwork (and all subsequent DVD releases). That said, every release of this film I’ve seen is deceptively packaged. The original UK VHS release featured Richard Norton in ceremonial garb, brandishing a sword against a backdrop of some cliffs and while this scene does exist – it appears while the opening credits roll – it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie… Still, despite all this, I think it’s a film that’s remembered quite fondly by martial arts VHS fans so let’s take a look back.

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Norton plays Zac Connors, a former Navy S.E.A.L. whose grandfather went missing in southeast Thailand at the end of WW2. Connors – who in between his intensive Navy training has also been learning Bushido, the Japanese Way Of The Warrior (why? because the 80s) – knows his grandfather was on his way back to the US from Japan when he crash-landed in Thailand. More intriguingly, he was carrying a very valuable ancient Samurai sword at the time, that has also been long since missing. Connors consider it his chūgi to not just locate and properly bury his grandfather’s corpse but also return the sword to Japan where it belongs. Unfortunately for him, the Japanese government are offering a two million dollar reward for the sword so he’s not the only one after it. Cue a trail of bad guys for him to duff up…

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To kick off his adventure, Zac enlists the help of one of the U.S. Navy’s senior intelligence officers (Judy Green, who is a deadringer for 80s porn sensation Victoria Paris here). She offers to help him locate his grandfather with state of the art 1980s computer technology. While she taps away at the keys and murmurs retro techspeak, he spends the whole time checking out her ass and calling her a “clerk”. Later, in his apartment, while she continues working, he seduces her with takeaway sushi (from a cheeky delivery boy who asks him “blonde or brunette?” and winks, implying this is a regular tactic). At the vital point where she’s running the software routine that will track the exact location he requires, Zac starts unbuttoning her shirt (!). She does point out “this is sexual harrassment” – which it inarguably is – but I guess no one can resist the exotic allure of sushi, so they giggle their way into a very soft sex scene and then she’s never seen again. Tossed aside like yesterday’s bread. Ouch.

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[If it helps sweeten things any, Judy Green and Richard Norton actually got married 3 years after shooting this and are still together now, nearly 30 years later. They present martial arts shows together on Kapow TV, which is just lovely. Aww.]

Anyway, once she’s given him the exact position he was after (in more ways than one), he jets off to the jungles of southeast Thailand, finds his granddad’s body and gets embroiled in some village politics when he’s set upon by his first wave of bad guys – Thai gun runners. There’s a local mercenary called Suay (Rochelle Ashana from Kickboxer) and she is trying to protect her village. Being a man of honour, Zac gets involved and, in return, Suay tries to help him locate the missing sword. What follows is an overlong, somewhat disjointed caper that involves a cocky Vietnam vet who inevitably double-crosses them, a torchlit trek through a cave full of traps and a romantic moment shared beneath a waterfall as Suay and Zac slice leeches off each other’s skin with a knife and then – overcome by the famously aphrodisiac nature of this activity – share a kiss.

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So what about the ninja, huh? You came here for ninjing and so did I. Well, he rocks up when Zac and Suay take the precious sword back to Japan and find the Yakuza want to steal it for their own nefarious purposes (it’s all go in Zac’s world). They send a ninja to attack them in their hotel room and it’s a standout scene. He bounds in, does some acrobatics, flings a ton of shuriken around and then gets pushed out of the window, clutching a lamp and clinging on to the extension cord for dear life. “Lights out, buddy,” chuckles Zac and pulls the plug, sending the ninja tumbling to the ground. It’s okay though. He’s a ninja. He always lands on his feet. Tragically, as he stops to shake his fist at the window and curse in Japanese… HE GETS HIT BY A BUS! Suay – who missed all this – asks what happened to him. “He caught the bus,” replies Zac, deadpan as anything.

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It’s this kind of bizarre comedy that makes Sword of Bushido a distinctly 80s movie. Zac’s character is reasonably honourable (if you excuse his workplace friskiness) and acts in tune with the Bushido Code. His story is largely played straight and yet we still get hilarious scenes where he chases a car full of Yakuza on a child’s Go-Kart (“sorry kid, I need your wheels”) and winds up in a ditch covered in fish while a Thai youth football team laugh at him (!). On one hand, yes, this film tells a coherent story but, on the other, it’s like about four films smushed into one. It obviously takes its cue from the Indiana Jones adventures but, I dunno. What’s the filmic equivalent of being dropped on your head as an infant? Whatever it is, it happened here.

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Still, Sword of Bushido is not without its qualities. Richard Norton has such an easy charisma and makes Zac Connors feel like a much more affable and enjoyable character than he would’ve been in lesser hands. There’s not enough fighting to really show off Norton’s incredible martial talents but he does get to deliver enough chuckle-worthy one-liners to earn his paycheck. The cinematography here (by Ross Berryman, who the same year would shoot the gorgeous-looking Dead Calm) is far above average for the genre, loaded with nifty tracking shots that keep things stylish when the plot lags. The action, when it does happen, is reasonable. There’s some decent pyro, a cool swordfight and some gory shoot-outs and that ninja scene is brief but makes everything worth it.

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Ultimately, it’s hard to hate a movie that tries so hard. Like I say, it’s damaged goods, but Norton’s charm holds it together like adorable Aussie duct tape. Why does he keep his Aussie accent when everyone in the film constantly refers to him as “The American” or “Yankee”? I don’t know. It’s questions like this you have to accept won’t be answered by The Sword of Bushido, but if you’re a forgiving ninjologist who’s happy for a gentle nostalgia hit and not much bokken for your buck, you’ll probably get a kick out of all this silliness either way.