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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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Dragon Force (1982)

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on the blog about a film I could wholeheartedly recommend to ninjologists everywhere at any level but Dragon Force (1982, aka Power Force) is exactly this. It’s one of those rare gems that actually delivers everything its lurid cover art promises and more. The fact that it’s still only available on VHS and hasn’t been remastered to DVD or Blu Ray yet is shocking (yet also presents an opportunity to anyone reading this who’s looking to give the world a real treat!). It’s one of those special films that could be only be made in the early 80s, a time where even lashings of sex and violence could seem oddly innocent and charming. In a (perhaps prescient?) move to induce nostalgia for those who grew up in the 80s, the UK VHS cover art positions its centre image on a backdrop of schoolbook-style graph paper. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if the script had been written on graph paper too, by a group of actual 80s schoolchildren. I mean, it is pretty much the exact film I would’ve written as a kid if I’d had the chance…

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The first lines in the movie are “You got the bread?” and, in response, “You got the ice?” (it’s a drug deal, not a picnic) and then Bruce Baron – a man advanced ninjologists will recognise from the likes of Ninja Champion – shoots down a bunch of criminals in a action sequence that may surprise anyone expecting a Z-movie. Dragon Force, while still an exploitation film, is pretty slick by the genre’s standards. Its director, Michael Mak, would later go on to helm some lavish productions like Cat III blockbuster Sex & Zen (1991) and The Butterfly Sword (1993) with Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen, and his talent and style shows even here in his first film. It’s loaded with gorgeous panning shots, rad stunts and nice locations. No, really.

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After this guns-blazing prologue, we cut to the arrival in Hong Kong of Princess Rawleen from the fictional country of (I think) Mongrovia? She is played by Mandy Moore; not the singer, who wasn’t even born when Dragon Force was made, but an actress who seemingly never appeared in anything else. It’s a shame because while she can’t exactly act in the conventional sense, she’s very pretty and – more importantly – game for any of the mad and stupid shit that Michael Mak’s feverish imagination conjures up for her. She seems to be having a lot of fun with the role and it’s contagious.

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Anyway, Princess Rawleen heads off to a country mansion owned by her friend Elana and brother Richard (“You can call me Rich… because I am, you know!”) and we find out a little more about her. After the suspicious deaths of various members of the Mongrovian royal family, Rawleen has found herself next in line for the throne. She’s also a virgin. After declining Richard’s offer of cocaine (“Perhaps your highness would like to get even higher?”), Rawleen goes to take a bath and is…

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…abducted by ninjas! A RED ONE AND A GREEN ONE! They break into the bathroom, yank her out of the tub, throw her in a sack and escape the premises, pursued by Rawleen’s lacklustre security team who are no match for the shadow warriors. A duffing-up and some gratuitous acrobatics later, and it’s clear there’s only one thing to do if the Princess is to be saved. Cue a phonecall to Bruce Baron, whom we now find out is CIA agent Jack Sargent. After the earlier drug bust, he’s chilling James Bond style with a pair of models (“We don’t have sargents here,” one of them coos when she takes the call, “we’re only interested in privates!”) and none too eager to get back to work. However, this being a movie, he is persuaded to fly to Hong Kong for his mission.

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His contact is Ah Chu (yes, they make a sneezing joke) who works undercover at a flour factory called the GOOD FU KING FLOUR CO (“I can’t begin to imagine how that’s pronounced,” quips Jack, arguably wrecking the gag). Ah Chu explains that Jack must join up with a special unit known as Dragon Force as this is the only way he’ll be able to take on the ninjas who’ve kidnapped the Princess. To do this, he must go to Tiptoe Forest (“A very bad place! You have to walk on tiptoe all the time!”) and… Wait. Are you still with me? I’m nearly done, I promise, but this stuff is important and I want to share every moment.

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Once at the Tiptoe Forest, Jack has to fight a girl with a flute (Frances Fong), a “kabuki samurai” and two dudes dressed as a festival lion as part of his initiation into Dragon Force. Only after defeating them all is he allowed to join the elite kung fu team led by none other than Bruce Li (whom kung fu fans may recognize as probably the most talented of the Bruceploitation stars). As is so often the case, when Li shows up, the movie gets properly weird. A plot develops that involves some kind of Soviet scheme to win the Space Race by brainwashing Rawleen with experimental acupuncture but, don’t panic; after about 30 minutes of setup, Dragon Force descends into almost wall-to-wall madness.

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This has everything a fan of the genre could ask for. Non-stop fighting, mysticism and magic, weird shit with snakes, neon-drenched Hong Kong nightclubs, orchestral theme music that sounds straight outta Knight Rider or Airwolf, a poor man’s Bolo Yeung (bodybuilder Sam Sorono), super-natty costumes (Dragon Force have uniforms!), a lingering nude body painting scene stolen almost shot for shot from Kuei Chih-Hung’s Hex (1980), some impressive kung fu choreography from Bruce Li and SO. MUCH. NINJING. Oh. My. God. Do these guys NINJ!?

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I don’t want to ruin everything but we get loads of different coloured ninjas enjoying all manner of madcap duffings-up. The finale will trigger multiple ninjasms in just about anyone as we get ninjas in cool formations, leaping around on wires, spinning through the air, getting their arms torn off, their guts ripped out (watch out for flying intestines if this ever gets a 3D Blu Ray!). There’s an array of gory ninjas explosions (yup, they just go POP!) and – best of all – a collapsible ninja totem pole… something I’ve not seen in any other film! Here, I made a gif for you:

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Like I say, it’s just like an over-enthusiastic 80s kid wrote the thing: James Bond goes to Hong Kong to join a really cool team of magic martial artists and fight a million ninjas so they can stop the Russians from winning the Space Race. Hell yeah!

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The final ten minutes, where the ninjas are truly unleashed, are the highlight but, honestly, Dragon Force barely has a dull moment. Like a higher budget take on Challenge of the Tiger or The Clones Of Bruce Lee, it combines tons of ripped-off popular western tropes into a good-natured gonzoid romp that could only have come from 80s Hong Kong. The cast seem to be having a ball and while it’s all very kitschy, the late great Bruce Baron shows off surprising comedy skills in the bits that are meant to be funny. As if to reaffirm what a lovely film it is, Dragon Force ends (after ten minutes of solid annihilation) with the surviving characters thanking and congratulating one another and saying extended, affectionate goodbyes as jaunty classical music plays in the background. It’s a cute way to wrap up one of the most shamelessly enjoyable ninja films this side of Miami Connection. Dragon Force comes with my highest recommendation. Please see it.

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Hands of Death (1987)

Hands of Death is the American VHS title for Ninja Operation 7 : Royal Warriors. Both titles are equally irrelevant to the film’s story, most of which is taken from a 1985 Thai/Korean co-production called Great Escape In The Jungle (dir: Kim Jong-seong), but they each sound dramatic enough to nestle alongside other titles in Godfrey Ho and Joseph Lai’s Ninja Operation series (which also includes Champion On Fire, Thunderbolt Angels, etc). The IFD boys’ own footage in this film is limited to about 10 – 15 minutes of the runtime and edited into the Jong-seong stuff, adding in the continued adventures of our hero Ninja Master Gordon (Richard Harrison, who by now looks very tired indeed) as he attempts to smash evil in all its forms…

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Given Hands of Death has such a striking and punk-rock looking sleeve that must’ve looked great on shelves (the scan above doesn’t do it justice but it’s a metallic/holographic image that shimmers gorgeously in the light), it’s possible that unsuspecting punters who’d never seen an IFD cut-and-paste ninja film before stumbled across it by accident. I can only assume they’d be utterly lost from the very start because Hands of Death opens with a troupe of bright pink ninjas sprinting through the jungle with machine guns. Why are masters of the most deadly martial art carrying heavy artillery? Why are experts in stealth dressed like candy bars? What are these pasty looking white dudes doing in the jungle anyway? Only Godfrey knows…

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A portentous voiceover explains that the Japanese hid loads of treasure in a cave during WW2 and this becomes the McGuffin that all our characters are chasing. The cave is located in “Evil Willy’s territory” (also known as “Devil’s Cave”, in case you had any doubts about Willy actually being alright) and Willy is a Thai gentleman who’s in league with the pink ninjas thanks to the power of editing. Everyone’s favourite gruff Cornishman, Mike Abbott, plays Baron, the pink ninja leader but he’s been dubbed by a very young-sounding American guy which, coupled with his tousled blonde hair and radical duds, lends him the persona of the weirdest surf dude on the beach. Between them, Willy, Baron and their self-proclaimed gang of “rapscallion scum” (!) plan to raid the treasure cave (Willy coming “from the north” and Baron coming “from the east”), while also trying to keep their sex slave trade afloat.

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This is a challenge as the sex slaves – a gaggle of about twenty cute Thai extras in tiny clothes – keep trying to run away and, despite Willy’s claim that NO ONE can escape from his lair, a few of them manage to, well, actually escape. This is where it gets surreal because they pair up with a feral girl in leopardskin who calls herself Sweet Jane (“She dresses like Tarzan but she fights like King Kong!” one character observes later) and lives in a cave with her pet monkey and her mother, a sweary misanthropic sorceress who sits around waving a skull on a stick and bemoaning the state of humanity.

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If all of these characters weren’t enough, three randoms called Jack, Chester and Jenny are leading a good guy expedition to the cave for reasons so complicated I zoned out around the time Jack said – of his missing sister – “I asked her to do some fox hunting for me but she got lost and went into Willy’s territory!” You get the idea. They have Reasons with a capital R and, in case you’re as interested in the pedantic geography as the writers are (“Geography is my middle name!” coos Jenny at one point), their team will be approaching the cave “from the west” and “from the south”. To cap it all off, Ninja Master Gordon and his two brightly coloured ninja helpers, Mickey and Ronnie, are on some kind of secret ninja mission of their own that involves “observance” and yet somehow they get mixed up in the treasure hunt kerfuffle too.

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Do I even need to mention there’s a cannibal king living deep in the jungle who’s gone full Marlon-Brando-in-Apocalypse-Now? Because, obviously there is.

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So what do we get for our investment in this hopelessly complicated setup? Not a great deal of ninjing if I’m honest. This being one of the latter-day IFD films means that they’ve moved on to their post-Rambo period and (much like the similarly titled Platoon Warriors) they’re focusing more on gunplay and ninja bombs than martial combat. The original Great Escape In The Jungle footage has a lot of scrapping in it but it’s all very rough and ready ‘street style’ boxing and there’s little grace or finesse to most of it. It’s brutal at times but gets a bit tedious after the first couple of punch-ups. Still, there’s some super-awkward badly dubbed sex scenes and one amazingly gratuitous moment in which a bunch of girls bathe nude under a waterfall if that helps get you through it all. Oh, and a very cool tiger appears a few times but never in the same shot as any actual humans.

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Patient ninjologists will be rewarded with a begrudging ninjasm at the end when Abbot and Harrison wave their fingers in a special magic way, turn full ninja and fight each other in the way we all know and love. It’s not the craziest final fight by any stretch but it’s really welcome after ninety minutes.

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I think maybe the jungle setting – while admittedly a little different from the usual IFD fare – lets the film down somewhat. I’ve always felt the best kind of ninja was the modern urban ninja and putting these pink-suited wackoes in a Thai jungle just didn’t quite work for me. I wanted to see the Hong Kong skyline so badly by the end I was half way to booking a holiday. What would’ve been great is if the cannibals, the sorceress and the Tarzan girl had all been part of the IFD team rather than the original source film and we could’ve seen them go up against the ninjas with some crazy acrobatics. Instead, Hands of Death just teases with mad ideas and then kills them dead with the flick of a wrist and an exploding fatal paint bomb. Interesting but – apart from the wicked-cool sleeve – ultimately inessential IFD.

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The Blazing Ninja (1980)


When I was a kid, The Blazing Ninja had something of a reputation for being a bad tape to rent, albeit one that had to be seen to be believed. No one who’d seen it knew quite what to make of it. The UK VHS cover art was an incredible illustration (credited to one “G. Francis” – anyone have any more info about this guy?) of a bright red ninja, two busty barbarians and an exploding temple so hopes were, obviously, high for the content. Unfortunately, it’s hard to think of a film that delivers so little of what’s promised. There are no barbarians, no explosions and no visible ninjas (although the dialogue valiantly tries to convince you otherwise). However, what’s left is one of the weirdest, most psychotronically incoherent films of the video era. It’s also of interest to deep ninjologists as it’s an early example of Godfrey Ho’s cut and paste filmmaking technique and may make you appreciate the relative sophistication of his later work…

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First, a little housekeeping. I can’t figure out where a lot of this footage comes from. The bulk of it appears to be a Korean spy drama (possibly unfinished/unreleased?) but almost all the fights are taken from a mix of other films. I recognised a couple (including one of Bruce Lai fighting Bolo Yeung) from Enter Three Dragons (aka Dragon On Fire) but the rest could be from almost anything. The director’s credit for the whole thing goes to Godfrey Ho who – as far as I can tell – didn’t shoot a frame of this but whom I imagine wrote the new “story” that’s dubbed over the top of it. The opening credits roll over Dragon On Fire footage of Bruce Lai fighting while dressed in the Game of Death jumpsuit. Just because. This is the kind of logic we’re dealing with here so bear with me as I try to explain it…

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The film is set in the late 1930s, during the Japanese Occupation of China, and focuses on a group of Chinese Resistance fighters. One of the first scenes in the movie sees some Japanese guys laughing in squeaky voices about how they’ve beaten everyone in China, only to be surprised by a Resistance fighter barging in and barking – in an Australian accent – “I’ve come to join you for breakfast! Are you scared, you ninja bastards?!” He proceeds to beat them up and banishes them from China, telling them if he sees them again, he’ll kill them.

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Unfortunately, the Resistance are in for a tough time because Yoshida is coming to China. We are told he is “the most famous spy” (doesn’t being famous actually make you a terrible spy though?) and “a respected ninja”. His street cred is built up quite a lot before we see him, so viewers will be invariably disappointed when he rocks up as a skinny Korean guy in a leisure suit with a bad combover (played by someone credited, hilariously, as “Sony Tanaka” to really convince you he’s Japanese). Yoshida’s bodyguard is also in town and must be killed, which is what leads to the aforementioned Bruce/Bolo fight being spliced in to the plot, despite being visibly set in a different period altogether. Later, we have a character talk about his murdered grandfather, which allows for another “flashback” fight (footage from an unknown film clearly set in the some distant Dynasty). This is how smoothly it flows…

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The period thing is an amusing quirk of the film actually. While the various fights may span several hundred years, even the 1930s-set footage all looks like the 1970s on account of no effort being made whatsoever with the costumes, cars, or hairstyles. The incessant disco/funk soundtrack further adds to the 70s vibe and includes Isaac Hayes’ Theme From Shaft, among other stolen goods.

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Somewhere in all this mess, a plot arc develops about Yoshida and a Chinese friend of his – Tong Man (although everyone pronounces it “Tongueman” which just sounds like the grossest superhero ever). Tong Man’s sister is pro-Resistance so Tong Man sells her husband out to Yoshida, and there’s lots of crying and drama, leading to a surprisingly bleak ending where no one wins. I don’t usually post spoilers (so skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re sensitive) but the ending here is worth noting. Tong Man reveals himself to actually have been in league with the Resistance the whole time, trying to gain Yoshida’s trust so he could betray him. Then he fights Yoshida on the beach. Sadly, one of Yoshida’s henchmen shoots Tong Man and, as he dies in his wife’s arms, Yoshida screams at his henchman, a final line that’s almost poetry. “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve shot my dearest enemy!” There’s a lot of terrible things about this film but I feel, in another, better production, that could’ve gone down as one of cinema’s great end quotes. If I ever formed a hardcore band, I’d probably call it My Dearest Enemy. In fact, having just written that, I googled and found that there are already several hardcore bands called My Dearest Enemy. I’d like to think at least one was named in honour of this film.

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Anyway, I digress. The Blazing Ninja feels like, in trying to cut together a film for the western market, Ho thought “what do Americans like?” and came up with “ninjas, Bruce Lee and funk music”. He didn’t have any footage of any of those things so made sure everyone said the word “ninja” a lot, cut in some Bruce Lai fights he had lying around and set it all to a thumping stolen funk score. The intentions seem sincere but the result is so hellaciously strange, even by Godfrey Ho standards, that it’s hard to describe. He really didn’t know what he was doing here at all. His dubbing team deserve special mention too. In addition to spouting great dialogue like “You’ve fallen into my trap! I’m not a real doctor! But you’re really dead!” they deliver an array of accents – Cockney, Australian, faintly Germanic – and make sure ALL the bad guys talk in ludicrous high-pitched voices. Some of them sound like the Headcrusher from Kids In The Hall and others like The Wicked Witch Of The West but all of them are entertaining…

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It’s almost a shame that we know as much as we do now about Godfrey Ho and his technique because The Blazing Ninja, in the wider context of his work, is just one of many bizarro movies made from scraps. It’s certainly not his best – the technique was very much refined later – and it’s too hilarious to be his worst but it is still reasonably easy for ninjologists to deconstruct how and why it was made (even if naming some of the source material remains a challenge). When I first saw this on VHS, I had no idea it wasn’t a proper film, that it was multiple movies cut together. I didn’t know about Bruce Clones and I didn’t even know the Theme From Shaft. I just thought The Blazing Ninja was the hard, genuine work of an utter madman, someone so preposterously unhinged I couldn’t believe they were allowed to go near a camera. And I loved it for that. It’s sad, in a way, that I can’t go back to that innocent feeling. I’ve seen too much now and it has lost that magic of just thinking “WHO *IS* THIS MAN?” in awe. Still, if you’ve never watched a Godfrey Ho film before and you’ve just stumbled upon this blog looking for something else (instructions on how to set ninjas on fire perhaps?) then I would urge you to start here. You will laugh. A lot.

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Ninja Champion (1986)

Usually, when I write about the IFD and Filmark ninja films of the 80s, I start with an introductory paragraph to ease any unfamiliar viewers gently into their world. With Ninja Champion, there seems little point. This is deep into the dojo. One of the weirdest, most impenetrable of a weird, impenetrable genre. If you’re new to studies of Ninjology and not already in tune with Godfrey Ho and his directorial style, this is not a good place to start. In fact, you could get some form of mental whiplash going too fast from conventional martial arts cinema straight into Ninja Champion so please proceed with caution. Perhaps try something like Ninja Terminator first? For the rest of us though… here’s Ninja Champion. Although, in honesty, I can’t promise this won’t cause at least some disturbance in even the most hardened of viewers..

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The opening credits alternate the usual aerial shots of the Hong Kong skyline and stolen synthesizer music with bizarre quick cut-ins of a woman tied to a tree, seemingly being raped by clowns (you see? I told you to proceed with caution on this one). From here, we cut to a diamond smuggling deal going down elsewhere in the city. The female smuggler has hidden the diamonds in her top and, as she takes down her top to reveal them to her employer, they shine brightly enough to obscure her breasts…

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Since this – and the gratuitous disco scene that follows – will leave viewers already reeling and confused, Bruce Baron pops up (seemingly dressed in Richard Harrison’s clothing) to explain everything. He is a ninja called Donald. He’s on the trail of some diamond smugglers and, one of them, a girl named Rose, has been raped and is seeking revenge on her rapists. Rose’s ex-husband George is working for Donald. There are some evil ninjas in town (led by the ever-watchable Pierre Tremblay) but they’re all under strict instructions to “not do anything”. This is, of course, because they’re from a completely different film to the rest of this and it would require more effort than is available to splice them properly into the story. And as if splicing two movies together wasn’t enough, we also get some bonus footage of actual Richard Harrison talking on his Garfield phone. This is ripped straight from Ninja Terminator but is redubbed so it seems like he’s talking to Bruce Baron about Rose and George. This is also billed as a “SPECIAL GUEST APPEARANCE” in the credits.

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Most of the footage here – Rose, George, et al – was originally a 1985 Korean rape-revenge film with the catchy name of Poisonous Rose Stripping The Night. This was directed by Shi-hyeon Kim – who also made Uninvited Guest of the Star Ferry – the film IFD recut into Ninja Terminator – so there’s quite a pedigree there. Sadly, despite both of them starring Jack Lam (who here plays George – not quite as iconic a character name as Jaguar Wong!), there’s a massive dip in quality. Poisonous Rose is quite a scrappy feature, rough around the edges and probably in quite poor taste but – even before you add the ninjas – Godfrey Ho and his team have re-edited and redubbed it in a way that renders it completely surreal and a far more baffling movie than it ever could’ve been by itself.

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To give you an idea, the first rapist that Rose takes revenge on, she starts by seducing him. After they roll around on the bed and he sucks her breasts, he starts choking and accuses her of poisoning the wine. “Not the wine! My nipples, you jerk!” she replies. Yes. This film contains poisonous nipples. She then drowns him in the bath, strangles him with a plug chain and castrates him, after all of which he expires (and fair enough, really). The police accept this as an accidental death.

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Rose, incidentally, is adept at disguises so none of the rapists recognise her until she whips off the disguise and announces her identity. These amazing disguises include glasses…

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…and glasses.

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Hmm.

Still, it does the trick. She keeps on seducing them and killing them. One outrageously tasteless scene involves one of the rapists realising who she is, handcuffing her and asking if she has any last requests before he kills her. She asks if she can put some make-up on before dying because “You know what it’s like. I’m a woman. I want to look my best”. He replies, “Okay, but don’t do it too well or I might want to rape you again before I kill you! Ha ha ha!” Thankfully, it’s a trap, Rose uses the distraction to get away and the rapist winds up with his hand crushed in the car door, and a slew of broken bones as Rose runs him over with his own vehicle.

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There are some mental subplots too, like George’s current wife who is struggling with getting sex out of George because he’s still in love with Rose (“I won’t make love to you!” he barks, “Go take a cold shower! If you’re in a hurry, why don’t you pay someone to screw you?”). However, as the story develops, George falls in love with diamond smuggler Jenny. D’oh. We also get a mentally stunted bald guy who tortures and is tortured; a ton of people get shot at a dockyard; Rose’s revenge gets lost in the mix and ALL OF THE ABOVE is revealed to be a carefully constructed trap that the evil ninja has set up. For REASONS. We don’t really get to work out what’s in it for him but he does a lot of maniacal laughing so clearly gets a kick out of it.

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But is there much actual ninjing? Not really. There are four fight scenes cut in at random intervals where Bruce Baron picks fights with the evil red ninjas who – having been explicitly told to stay out of the action – are just hanging around practicing their ninja tricks. One guy has some cool hoops.

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Another spins plates on swords and shuriken balanced on his nose. They’re basically a ninja circus (which – in its owned warped way – might explain why Rose’s rapists were dressed as clowns?). Anyway, they all get their asses kicked.

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We finish off with the obligatory fight between the two strongest ninjas although this time it takes place at a children’s playground. It’s strange. Usually we get a building top or a hill or a forest somewhere, which feels like the kind of low-key location where ninjas would fight but, nope, here it’s a kiddie park. In broad daylight. Which is just plain weird. Even weirder is that it all ends with what appears to be the evil ninja getting a sword rammed up his ass while splayed out on the monkey bars. This is a very, very strange film. I can’t, with any conscience left in me, say it’s actually good but if you like the psychotronic side of these movies and can accept an almost total lack of coherence, Ninja Champion is worth a look. Just stay off the monkey bars…

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