Revenge of the Ninjanuary: Batman Ninja

In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.

“What—ninja Batmen!?” Yes, Harley, that’s right. Batman has been part ninja since at least the 1970s and ‘80s, when creators like Denny O’Neill, Neal Adams, and (of course) Frank Miller made explicit the connection between his use of shadows, disguises, and gadgets and the semi-legendary warrior-assassins of Japan. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins brought it to the big screen, for what is the “League of Shadows” but a fictionalized (more than usual) ninja clan? But 2018’s Batman Ninja, directed by Jumpei Mizusaki, goes even further, thrusting the Caped Crusader (along with a good selection of his allies and enemies from Gotham City) into Warring States-era Japan courtesy of a time-space machine built by the super-intelligent Gorilla Grodd.

Entering the time-warp a few seconds later than the elite of Gotham’s underworld, Batman finds that two years have already passed in Japan before his arrival, enough time for the criminals to ascend to power as daimyos (warlords) and begin altering the timeline. Penguin, Poison Ivy, Death Stroke and Two-Face each rule their own state, jostling for territory and power, but the most powerful of all is Lord Joker, ruling from “Arkham Castle” with his ever-present consort Harley Quinn. With the elements of Grodd’s “quake engine” divided up between the bad guys, they’ve industrialized and raised armies. Grodd himself waits, holed up in the mountains with his monkey troops, playing the supervillains off each other until the time is right for his own plan to unfold. The field is tilted against Batman before he’s even oriented, but luckily for him he also has friends who arrived before him: present and former protegés Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, and Robin, as well as loyal butler Alfred and sometime-ally Catwoman. Another ally is Eian, leader of a ninja clan whose symbol is a bat—those bat-themed ninja who took Harley Quinn by surprise—and who has been awaiting a prophesied leader. Ultimately Batman must defeat all of the villains so he can get them in one place and return them to twenty-first century Gotham City.

Batman’s malleability as a character is one of the key reasons for his longevity: it’s been pointed out that the cheerful straight-arrow played by Adam West; the disillusioned grognard in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; and the father figure to multiple Robins, the Outsiders, and even international Bat-franchises of recent years differ in which parts of the core mythos they emphasize, and yet are instantly recognizable as the same guy. Some artists—Darwyn Cooke and Grant Morrison come to mind—are able to synthesize the various portrayals into a cohesive whole, where others choose to focus on one element, using what they need for the particular story they have to tell.

In recent years, a hyper-competent, never-wrong, always-two-steps-ahead Batman has taken hold, at least as the popular view of the character. Batman Ninja begins with this idea, but takes pain to show how dependent Batman has become on his high-tech gadgets: suddenly appearing in the middle of a town in feudal Japan and attacked by Lord Joker’s samurai, Batman sets off a gas grenade and then aims his grappling gun, first in one direction and then another, realizing that there are no tall buildings for him to latch onto. Escaping on foot, he uses the built-in communications tech in his suit to orient himself, to no avail: there are no satellites to feed him GPS or news intel. Later, he recovers the Batmobile (which also came back in time with him), but it is destroyed by Arkham Castle’s defense system, with the car, the flying Batwing, the Batcycle, and even powered Bat-armor proving insufficient. With his toys broken, he doesn’t know who he is and complains that he has “nothing.” Is this really the Batman who usually seems so invincible?

Naturally, this stripping away of externals is only the first step in rebuilding himself, the low point before his ascendant triumph. It’s a classic case of backing the hero into a corner so that they can show what they’re really made of: when Batman realizes what he does have—his body and training, his keen mind, his will to fight, and his allies—then he can adapt to his situation. Marking this turning point with a dramatic monologue, he refers to the ninja’s pragmatism and versatility and declares, “We will master the ways of the ninja, our weapons will be everything that exists, and I will turn [the Bat clan’s] legend into reality.” Deception, disguise, and misdirection are major themes throughout the story, and the climax shows him fully embracing them and turning them to his service, clouding the Joker’s mind to make him see what Batman wants him to see, just like the classic ninja.

Made entirely by a Japanese crew (aside from the executive producers at DC and the Western voice talent for the English-language dub), Batman Ninja is a surprising and frequently exhilarating fusion of American superhero comics and Japanese anime, with young creators bringing their own influences and style to characters that are popular all over the globe but are usually presented from the Western perspective. (Jiro Kuwata’s so-called “Batmanga,” a series of original comics published in Japan in the 1960s and only widely-known in the West in recent years, is another example, but those stories were set in the modern era and spun off from the popular TV series, so cultural differences were more subtly expressed, rather than being the point.) Anime tropes are embraced, with the line between parody and homage lovingly smudged: that Robin suddenly has a monkey sidekick who can understand English (or is it Japanese? the language barrier is no more a problem than the barriers of time or space) surprises Batman upon his arrival, but everyone else has had time to get used to it. Likewise, steampunk “mobile fortresses” that transform into giant robots just come with the territory.

The creators are clearly having a blast finding points of connection between the two sources of inspiration, from the aforementioned similarities between Batman’s methods and those of the ninja to Gorilla Grodd’s control of the monkeys with a special flute. Specialized Eastern weapons like razor-edged fans and man-sized kites make appearances, showing that Batman isn’t the only one who likes clever gadgets. Bane makes an appearance as a super-powered sumo wrestler, an inspired choice, but one that doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go with him, so other than his one scene he doesn’t figure in the action. Character designer Takashi Okazaki has done a fantastic job translating the modern characters’ looks into costumes reflecting traditional and historical Japanese garb, as well as bringing in the ruffled collars and tights of eighteenth-century European visitors. Batman disguised as a missionary with a bat symbol carved into his tonsure is a fun example, as is Red Hood posing as a Buddhist monk with a tengai (head-covering basket). Both Western comics’ and anime’s love of fan service is fully embraced as well: “Time for some girl-on-girl action,” Catwoman says to Harley Quinn at one point, causing me to double-check the rating: PG-13, “some suggestive material,” and—oh, they’re just fighting, okay.

As far-out as some of Batman’s live-action films have gotten, it’s animated films like this that approach the free-wheeling, imaginative mixing and matching that comic books regularly indulge in. Interestingly, Batman Ninja doesn’t have time to make much of Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne or his motives for becoming a vigilante, other than the Joker’s continual taunt that being a hero must be a drag. I could imagine a version of this story in which Wayne must assume the persona of an honorable landowner or samurai, hiding his secret life as a ninja, but this isn’t a full Elseworlds treatment, and in any case it’s nice to know that there’s still ground left uncovered in this premise. It’s admirably thorough in ringing changes on its ideas, though, fully justifying the awestruck Eian’s words upon seeing clouds of bats form a kaiju-sized Batman to fight Lord Joker’s Voltron-like castle on the “Field of Hell”: “Behold the mighty Bat-god before us!”

Revenge of the Ninjanuary: Ninja Scroll

In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.

“You should check out Ninja Scroll, it’s awesome.” I don’t recall what led up to that recommendation, whether I had talked about my recent dabbling in Japanese culture or whether it came out of the blue, but it stuck with me. A little over twenty years ago, I had a sudden burst of fascination with all things Japanese, triggered by reading Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader, edited by Nancy G. Hume. I recall being hit by the sense of a whole new world opening up for me, one that I had known of in a superficial way but which enriched my sense of history and provided a way forward to develop and deepen the aesthetic of my own work. At the same time, Japanese manga and anime were becoming hugely popular, and friends only a couple of years younger than me seemed to connect to it deeply and intuitively, while friends my own age couldn’t get past the big eyes, shrill voices, and memories of cheap imported cartoons like Speed Racer. In my late twenties, I was already aware of a generation gap.

Even then, with much less material available in the West than there is now, it seemed overwhelming: where to even start? Like a lot of those younger viewers, I recall Cartoon Network’s Toonami block being a big deal: I know I watched Cowboy Bebop around that time, and I started picking up translated manga volumes, nearly at random: not everything I read stuck with me, but I encountered Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura (aka Lum) for the first time, as well as reading American treatments of Japanese subjects like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. I usually preface discussions of manga and anime with the disclaimer that I’m not an expert, but by now I’ve seen enough to know where my preferences lie and to have a sense of how much I don’t know.*

As it happened, I didn’t get an opportunity to watch Ninja Scroll until last year, and, well, that was probably too late to be truly blown away by it. It does, in retrospect, make sense as a recommendation from that particular friend: he wasn’t a “weeb,” but he was still someone who dove deep into his chosen areas of fandom, a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast with a big RPG collection and a classics major whose gateway had been the numerous myths and legends of the Greek and Roman worlds. I remember that he took his blood and thunder straight: he didn’t care much for the winking, tongue-in-cheek tone that undercuts the seriousness of so much modern genre fare. I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I bet the Marvel Cinematic Universe drives him nuts.

Ninja Scroll is, if nothing else, serious: one might go so far as to call it grim, even gritty. Like the samurai manga that so influenced Frank Miller in the 1980s, the medieval fantasy world of Ninja Scroll is a dangerous one, with little room for sentiment. The 1993 animated film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, centers on Jubei Kibagami, a wandering mercenary ninja in Tokugawa-era Japan. Although Jubei minds his own business and (breaking with the usual practice) charges his employers only what they can afford, he becomes involved with a major conflict when he rescues Kagero, a kunoichi (lady ninja) of the Koga school, from a monstrous, rock-skinned attacker. The rest of the Koga ninja were wiped out after falling into a trap, and Kagero, after escaping, must report the attack to her clan patron and then, if possible, avenge her fallen comrades.

Jubei would be happy to move on from that one chivalrous act, but by interfering he has become a target of the rock man, Tessai, who is one of the Eight Demons of Kimon, a band of ninja whose mastery of supernatural forces has rendered them grotesque and inhuman. The manipulation of an impish old monk (and Tokugawa spy), Dakuan, seals Jubei’s involvement: the Demons are working for a shadowy “Dark Shogun” whose goal is the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate (and to guarantee Jubei’s cooperation, Dakuan poisons him and offers the promise of an antidote as bait). Much of Ninja Scroll’s running time is made up of episodes in which individual Demons attack Jubei, Dakuan, or Kagero to prove themselves. Their attacks are coordinated by Yurimaru, a dandy who uses strings to eavesdrop, communicate, and control people from a distance, as well as killing directly by garotte or electrocution. Yurimaru is merely the first of the Demons among equals, reporting to Lord Genma, the real instigator of the plot and, it turns out, a figure from Jubei’s past. As in many martial arts movies and video games, it plays out like a series of boss fights before Jubei can reach the Final Confrontation.

Perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I enjoyed rewatching Ninja Scroll more than I did the first time I saw it. There is a great sense of atmosphere, whether in a dark forest or a fogbound marsh: a late scene in which Jubei fights to free a mind-controlled Kagero is strikingly rendered in shades of red against the setting sun. The beauty of nature—a spider’s web, lightning flashes, or glittering stars reflected on the surface of the ocean—is often contrasted with equally loving depictions of spilled blood, raining from the trees or trickling down the eaves of a roof, or spit out in gouts by the brutalized and near-dead.  As over-the-top as some of it is, however, the hard-hitting violence is part of the genre’s appeal, and there is a definite “cool factor” to the various Demons and their powers: a snake woman whose tattoos come to life; a ninja who emerges from shadows and sinks back into them, attacking with a prehensile claw; a man in control of a swarm of wasps whose hive is his own body; and more. These enemies are as specialized and cleverly themed as comic book supervillains, and they’d be right at home in fighting games like Mortal Kombat (and I’m sure there was an overlap in fans of the two properties).

But the cynicism and nihilism of the characters and their world are also of their time, and were probably what I found off-putting the first time around. At worst, the bleakness and depravity of the setting comes off as trite, edgy for edginess’s sake. I’ve written before about the exploitative character of many kunoichi films, and Ninja Scroll continues that pattern, with the lady ninja being groped, assaulted and violated in ways that go from graphic to explicit. (I’m willing to accept that foreign standards are different when it comes to depictions of sexuality, but assuming that this wasn’t transgressive or shocking in its home country is equally patronizing: this is the kind of stuff that gave “otaku” a negative connotation in Japan.)

“When you fight monsters, you must become one yourself or you can’t win,” Dakuan warns Jubei. In the scene, Dakuan is referring to the hard, unsentimental choices the ninja must make, but it resonates with what we already know of Kagero, externally beautiful but deadly to embrace. Because of the lady ninja’s duties as a food taster for her patron, the poisons she’s been exposed to have built up in her body; yes, she’s immune to poison, a useful trait, but she is also toxic to any man she sleeps with, forced to live alone or slay her lovers. She is, in Dakuan’s words, “a perfect woman for this hellish world.” It’s hard to say if this is as meant as a commentary on womankind in general—the few (non-Demon) women who appear in the story seem to be present to show how limited Kagero’s choices for her life really are—but the conclusion to Jubei and Kagero’s will-they-won’t-they follows a well-worn pattern: she dies after saving his life, tragic and beautiful, and he moves on, carrying her memory, a more pure spiritual union than any mere physical coupling could accomplish. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering when Ninja Scroll was made, following the AIDS epidemic and the sex = death ethos of so much 1980s horror, or perhaps it’s simply a case of pet themes and obsessions emerging in an artist’s work (Kawajiri’s 1987 debut, the bizarre Wicked City, was even more explicit in connecting intercourse with body horror).

The poison of forbidden flesh is also implicit in the Demons’ voracious appetites: for power, for status, for money, all of which have undercurrents of libertine self-gratification. The Demons’ cruelty is sensual: “I hope you have an excruciatingly painful death,” Yurimaru tells Jubei when he has him in his power, as if about to savor a delicious meal. Yurimaru isn’t physically a monster like the other Demons, but his explicit homosexuality marks him as one. Even the other Demons mock him to his face for it: at least Lord Genma is bisexual. For his part, Genma is a parody of the macho he-man, hugely muscular with a massive, projecting chin. Kawajiri saves his most brutal fight scene for the confrontation between Jubei and Genma aboard a burning ship: the history between them, with Genma having betrayed Jubei and Jubei killing Genma (he got better), is an intimacy that Kagero can’t hope to compete with.

Ultimately I didn’t have to go all the way to Japan for an explanation of the dynamic between Jubei and Kagero: in The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer uses the divide between Clark Kent and Superman, and their respective relationships to Lois Lane, to illuminate a common dynamic, one that applies equally to Japan’s wandering swordsmen and ninjas like Jubei Kibagami: “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did—but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they got hit so hard.”

* Yeah, yeah, anime is a medium, not a genre, and there are movies and series that cover every subject imaginable, from the most mundane to the completely fantastical. But around the turn of the century, when I was just getting into it, the imports available in the US tended to be the latter, and getting into anime meant becoming familiar with a number of distinct narrative conventions, tropes, character types, and, yes, genres.

Ninja III: The Domination

In 2019 I observed “Ninjanuary” by writing a series of articles and reviews on ninjas in pop culture. As part of that series I wrote about Enter the Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, two of the Cannon films produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus that kickstarted the ninja craze in America in the 1980s. I mentioned that there was a third Golan-Globus ninja movie, but I didn’t have a copy for reference so I put off reviewing it; since it stars a female ninja (sort of), I also referred to it when writing about the “lady ninja” subgenre. Now, with a copy of Scream Factory’s Blu-ray edition in hand, I am able to complete the Cannon ninja trilogy with a belated Ninjanuary look at Ninja III: The Domination.

Ninja III begins with a Japanese assassin (David Chung) attacking a golfer–we later learn the victim was an important scientist–and his entourage early in the morning. First wiping out the victim’s bodyguards and then the victim himself, the ninja is unable to make his escape before more police arrive on motorcycles, in squad cars, and even in a helicopter. He takes them all on, and like the cold opening of Enter the Ninja, this nearly fifteen-minute sequence shows off all of the ninja’s skills and tricks, from mastery of stealth, martial arts, and the deadly blade to more fantastical feats: after crushing a golf ball in his bare hand to warn off one of the bodyguards, the ninja fires a dart directly into the barrel of a gun being pointed at him, causing it to explode in his attacker’s hand! The ninja climbs trees and attacks from the air; he kills the pilot of a helicopter and jumps into a lake before the craft crashes; then he lies in wait under the surface of the water, breathing through a bamboo tube until he is discovered by one of the cops, whom he promptly kills by turning the tube into a blowgun! Eventually, the ninja is surrounded, and even then he kills a bunch more cops before enough men with guns circle around him to riddle him with bullets. Seemingly beaten, he has one more trick: he throws down a smoke grenade and disappears! Only after the police have split up to continue their search does the ninja emerge from the ground where he had quickly buried himself.

Finally free of the police but mortally wounded, the ninja wanders through the desert outside the golf course until he comes across the only living soul he sees: Christie Ryder (Lucinda Dickey), a telephone line worker. He accosts her and, seeming to hypnotize her with the sound of his voice and penetrating gaze, gives her his blood-stained sword before dying. Cut to the police station, where Christie has reported finding the body, but seems to have no memory of the encounter. It’s not until later, when she breaks up an attempted gang-rape using high-kicking martial arts moves, that she suspects something has changed. She starts experiencing blackouts, not knowing that during her missing hours she is an entirely different person, recovering the dead ninja’s equipment and hunting down the surviving police officers who killed him, taking them out one by one. One of those men is her new boyfriend, officer Billy Secord (Jordan Bennett)–will she kill him, too, or will her love overpower the spirit that has taken possession of her?

Ninja III was directed by Sam Firstenberg, who also helmed Revenge of the Ninja, which had been a sizeable hit (helped by Cannon’s distribution deal with MGM). In looking for a novel twist on the format to follow up Revenge (and keeping with the unconnected narratives of the previous installments), Firstenberg and the producers hit upon the idea of a female ninja, inspired by the recent smash hit Flashdance. (Cannon was famous for exploiting popular trends: Breakin’, about the then-current fad for hip-hop break dancing, was filmed after Ninja III, but it was made and released so quickly that it actually came out before it in 1984, “introducing” star Lucinda Dickey to the public and making Ninja III her follow-up.)

Instead of drawing on the kunoichi or “lady ninja” subgenre, mostly unknown in America, they constructed a story (scripted by James R. Silke) in which an ordinary woman, a beautiful blue-collar telephone linewoman and part-time aerobics instructor–someone you would meet on the street every day, in other words–was possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja, introducing supernatural imagery in the vein of The Exorcist and Poltergeist (including lasers and fog pouring out of open doors, a glowing sword floating in mid-air, and a full-fledged exorcism scene). Most of the crazy things that happen in this film are rooted in the cinematic need for spectacle and novelty rather than a particular take on Japanese martial arts or the mythology of the ninja, but it is worth noting that in Eric Van Lustbader’s popular novel The Ninja, which I wrote about last year, a woman is hypnotized and turned into a killer by the evil ninja, and in The Domination the same forbidden technique, the “nine-hands-cutting,” is even referenced by the exorcist who recognizes the presence of the ninja’s spirit.

While Christie and Billy try to get to the bottom of her blackouts (including the visit to the aforementioned exorcist, played by the ubiquitous James Hong), another ninja is on her trail: Yamada, played by Sho Kosugi (star of the previous installments in the trilogy), arrives from Japan, summoned by the monks from a local temple. Yamada has a history with the “black ninja,” having lost his eye to him in an encounter shown in flashback. Yamada wears as an eyepatch a tsuba, the removable guard from a Japanese sword; it’s a cool look. Interestingly, in the Blu-ray commentary, Firstenberg describes Yamada as the bad guy, but I didn’t see him that way. The black ninja is his quarry, not Christie; the question remains whether he will be able to defeat the black ninja without killing his unwilling host, but that doesn’t make him a villain.

Or maybe I’m supposed to have been rooting for the black ninja all along? Obviously, there’s a vicarious thrill in watching Christie stalk and kill the cops (every time she recognizes one of her targets, there’s a flashback to the black ninja dancing in slow motion as he is cut down by bullets, with the recognition that this or that cop was there, pulling the trigger). And she uses her new powers for good at least once, when she beats up the would-be rapists. For all I know, the scientist killed at the beginning of the movie was conducting germ warfare experiments on orphans and he deserved it. But the rest of the film is framed as a possession story, with Christie terrified by her blackouts and the weird visions she experiences in her apartment.  Yamada is a frightening, intense presence, but he’s also her best hope of getting her life back. (If anything, the film suggests that it’s the black ninja who’s lucky to be Lucinda Dickey for a while, especially a scene in which she drowns one of the cops, along with his two girlfriends, after sexing him up in a hot tub: there’s that Cannon magic!)

But never mind. It’s clear that real-world logic doesn’t apply, so it’s best not to get hung up on details. There’s no point in observing that it seems to be business-as-usual at the police station the same day that dozens of officers were killed in a single incident. Similarly, the rape attempt I’ve alluded to occurs in broad daylight (and in full view of a crowd, including a police officer) right outside the doors of the gym, apparently the assailants’ regular workout place. In fact, after Christie saves the day, Billy Secord arrests her, and this is apparently the moment that changes her mind from rejecting his advances to inviting him home for a hot scene involving V-8 juice (par for the course for this bonkers movie, both Firstenberg and Bennett claim that they came up with this bit of business)! (But again, maybe it was the black ninja who wanted to jump Billy’s bones.) Cannon films in general followed the “rule of cool” when it came to story logic, so if you’re left unsatisfied with one scene, another one is coming up that might please you more.

Actually, the ending is probably the weakest part of the film, although the climactic fight between Yamada and Christie-as-the-black-ninja is quite intense. Perhaps it’s that as the action narrows down, it becomes more predictable, without the odd details that make the rest of the movie so much fun. Or maybe it’s that the infectious synth-pop songs that form the soundtrack of the first part of the film (it could almost be a musical in the first act) give way to more generic action music. In any case, there is more than enough going on in this movie to consider it one of the most ridiculous action movies of the decade (and that’s saying something). It’s held together by committed performances from Dickey (a former Solid Gold dancer in her first acting role) and Bennett; in interviews, both leads describe the making of Ninja III as a challenging but positive experience (considering some of the horror stories related in the Cannon documentary Electric Boogaloo, they got off easy). Stunt coordinator Steve Lambert and his crew were young men with a lot to prove, delivering one action set piece after another; amazingly, there were no serious injuries according to Lambert. And of course, Sho Kosugi had previously worked with Firstenberg and the two of them had worked out how to make the best use of Kosugi’s talents on screen.

It’s all fantasy, of course, more than most movies of this kind, but the kind of fantasy that doesn’t get too bogged down in its own mythology, and it’s serious about delivering action and thrills even if the story isn’t very serious at all. As an amusing postscript, in the second-season episode of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, “Shogun,” the time-traveling superheroes end up in medieval Japan. Mick Rory, the roughneck character played by Dominic Purcell, knows one thing about Japan–ninjas–and everything he knows about ninjas he learned from the movies, including Ninja III: The Domination. It’s a funny gag, but it’s even funnier if you’ve seen the movie.

Daredevil vs. the Ninjas

An hour ago, she was a prisoner. Bound to a man, to his city, shackled by a love she had tried to kill. Now, she is free. She is beyond her pain, her need, beyond her self. Yet, even as she swims deeply in meditation, a part of her remains alert. She feels a breeze where none should be . . . hears a curtain rustle lightly, briefly. In an instant, she is ready. For she is Elektra–mercenary, bounty hunter, assassin. Mistress of the deadly art of Ninjutsu. She is Elektra–and she is no man’s fool. –“Gantlet,” Daredevil no. 175, October 1981

In the early 1980s, one of the hottest young comic artists on the scene was Frank Miller, who beginning with issue no. 158 had taken over Marvel’s Daredevil. Blind lawyer Matt Murdock by day, radar-enhanced superhero by night, Daredevil is a prime example of the ability of a strong artistic team and bold direction to lift B-list characters to popularity and make them relevant. With Miller both writing and penciling, and inking duties given to Klaus Janson (with whom Miller would have a long professional relationship), Daredevil went from an also-ran to a must-read, a moody, complex urban gothic melodrama, the lead character closer to Batman than to Spider-Man (to whom he had usually been compared).

Most Marvel comics were centered in New York City, and for Daredevil’s rough Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood Miller provided a gritty, ground-level texture, drawing from his own experience as a newcomer to the city in the Taxi Driver era (compare these depictions of New York to the descriptions in Eric Van Lustbader’s contemporaneous novel The Ninja), full of local color and making the city backdrop an essential part of the atmosphere. Miller shifted the viewpoint between different characters, framed the action in visually striking ways, and tightened the screws on Murdock/Daredevil to make his choices more dramatic and compelling. Ultimately he would put his own stamp on all future depictions of the character. In doing so he showed the influence of Will Eisner and Neal Adams, among others, but he was also vocal in interviews about his enthusiasm for the classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, at a time when Japanese comics were barely present in the American market. His interest in Japanese culture also found its way into the pages of Daredevil, which became one of the key avenues for the influx of ninjas into American comics.

In issue no. 168, dated January 1981, Miller introduced one of his most enduring creations: Elektra Natchios, once the great love of Murdock’s life (revealed in an extensive flashback to the pair’s college years) but who, after the death of her Greek diplomat father, had become first a ninja and then a freelance bounty hunter. They cross paths while both searching for the same criminal: Daredevil to save an innocent man on trial, Elektra to collect a bounty on the criminal’s head. The delicate dance that ensues over the next year’s worth of issues, with Elektra unable to kill Daredevil and Daredevil unable to save Elektra from her choices, plays on the conflict between the heart and one’s duty and the inescapability of the past. (True to comic book practice, Elektra would die and be resurrected several times over the years.) Elektra was immediately popular; in addition to the action and Elektra’s undeniable sex appeal, the soap opera elements (never far away in Marvel comics) and the strong depiction of Elektra’s side of the story drew in female readers as well. Readers loved Elektra. (It’s also worth noting that while Miller was one of the main creators responsible for the increasingly dark tone of comics in the 1980s, these stories don’t feel gratuitously bleak or shocking like so many later “grim and gritty” comics, including many by Miller himself. Perhaps it was the influence of the still-active Comics Code, or that Miller’s mindset hadn’t turned quite so dark yet himself, but these issues still feel fresh and vibrant, with the joy of a maturing artist discovering new possibilities in his medium.)

The Elektra arc makes for an interesting study of the ways ninja lore and traditional martial arts storylines could be blended with larger-than-life superhero concepts. Indeed, in its more fantastical form the ninja movie is already a kind of superhero tale, with ninjas and martial arts masters engaging in superhuman acrobatics and demonstrating seemingly magical powers. Daredevil’s super-sensitive hearing is well-established, able to detect people hiding just by listening for their heartbeat; the ninja, able to slow his heartbeat and go for long stretches without breathing, remaining perfectly still, makes for a formidable challenge. And Miller clearly enjoys choreographing fight scenes that pit Daredevil’s acrobatic fighting style against the ninjas’, using his billy club much as the ninjas use bo, bokken, or nunchaku. It’s a good fit.

As I mentioned in discussion of Enter the Ninja, ninja movies rely on visual cues such as different-colored uniforms to distinguish combatants; in real life, the ninja’s need for stealth would rule out bright and flashy colors (and forget about Elektra’s long, flowing hair), but in fantasy the ninja gi is a “second skin,” just like a superhero’s costume, relaying something about the ninja’s character and narrative function. Ordinary rank-and-file ninjas (genin, or “agents”) mostly get plain black uniforms with little to distinguish them as individuals; important characters get different colors, or more elaborate armor, or at least an insignia. This is true in the comics as well as in the movies: Elektra, the former ninja, wears a red leotard and head scarf (when she’s not in disguise, that is). It is essentially her hero costume, putting her on the same narrative level as Daredevil, the villain Bullseye, or the other superpowered main characters. In addition to being visually distinctive, her red scarf connects to an early form of Matt Murdock’s Daredevil mask he wears in the flashback (and of course both their costumes are red); whether they like it or not, they are connected, their destinies intertwined. Finally, Elektra has a signature weapon, a pair of sai (swords with forked blades), although like all ninjas she is skilled with many different weapons.

By contrast, most of the members of the “Hand,” the ninja clan with which Elektra trained but which now hunts her as a traitor, are nondescript, standard-issue ninjas. There are several comic book touches in their depiction, however, the most startling of which is their tendency to dissolve into mist when killed, highlighting their uncanny nature. The ninjas’ habit of speaking as one, finishing each others’ sentences like Huey, Dewey, and Louie, also highlights the uniformity and groupthink the Hand requires of its members. Only one agent of the Hand gets the distinctive costume treatment: Kirigi, a ninja among ninjas and the boss whom Elektra must defeat, and whose superhuman strength and endurance is visually signaled by his large size and hooded purple gi. As with the lesser members of the Hand, the question of Kirigi’s humanity is left open, with suggestions that he is immortal, or perhaps a demon. Frank Miller would delve much deeper into the mystical dimensions of ninjutsu in later stories, but in this early stretch the Hand make for a colorful and slightly spooky set of antagonists. (The Wolverine limited series, a collaboration between Miller and Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont, would also feature the Hand as a worldly rather than mystical force: in taking the clawed mutant Wolverine to Japan and suggesting that he had connections with the samurai in his past, Miller and Claremont made an essential contribution to the character’s depiction. In that particular story the Japanese ethos of bushido is a fresh lens through which Wolverine’s animalistic nature and personal code of honor could be examined.)

Epilogue: Just as Kurt Cobain said that he knew he had made it when “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied one of his songs, so the popularity of Frank Miller’s approach can be confirmed by an unlikely spoof that has turned out to be as enduring as Elektra. In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird produced a self-published 40-page black and white comic book. They dedicated it to their heroes, Jack Kirby and Frank Miller, and riffed affectionately on Miller’s style and themes. Miller’s ninjas were part of the “hand,” so Eastman’s and Laird’s ninja villains were the “Foot clan.” Their four heroes narrated their adventures in grim, self-serious monologues, playing an outlandishly cartoony premise completely straight; one of them even wielded Elektra’s weapons of choice, a pair of sai. Eastman and Laird hoped that their modest effort might sell a few copies and entertain their friends. Little did they know that their creation would become a smash hit in the indie comics world, inspiring their own knock-offs, and would even be adapted into multiple television cartoon series and feature films. The franchise they gave birth to is still known by the same title they gave their initial 40-page book: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And, as Paul Harvey says, now you know the rest of the story. This concludes Ninjanuary and my biweekly exploration of the shadowy world of the ninja (as reflected in pop culture, at least). Thanks for reading and following along, and if you haven’t read my previous installments you can click on the “Ninjanuary” tag in the column next to this article to see all of them. I’ve got a few things planned for the spring, so check back here or follow me on Twitter for updates, but farewell for now, or should I say, Sayonara?

Challenge of the Lady Ninja

In Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, after acknowledging that Ninja III: The Domination is “a very strange film,” director Sam Firstenberg attributes the movie’s box office failure to audiences who just weren’t ready for the idea of a female ninja. Perhaps American audiences weren’t, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s true that many action and fantasy films of the 1980s, including some that are now classics, make some pretty wild leaps of logic to smush together their various genre elements into original shapes, but few filmmakers outside of the Golan-Globus orbit would have thought at the time to rip off both Flashdance and The Exorcist by way of a martial arts movie. In The Domination, Lucinda Dickey plays a telephone line worker who moonlights as an aerobics instructor; when she is possessed by the spirit of a dying ninja, she starts to display the evil ninja’s powers and personality until it can be vanquished by the arrival of a good ninja (played by ever-reliable Sho Kosugi). I suspect the absurdity of the plot turned off more viewers than a straightforward martial arts movie starring a woman would have. (Incidentally, the only reason I haven’t covered The Domination separately is that while I’ve seen it, I don’t have a copy at hand to review so I hesitate to go into more detail from memory.)

More to the point, the kunoichi, or “lady ninja,” was already well-established in a subgenre of Japanese ninja movies (and at least one female ninja had made a big splash with American readers in the pages of Daredevil in 1981 and ’82: I hope to discuss Elektra and other ninjas in the comics before the month is over). Many, if not most, of these movies were every bit as exploitative as The Domination, not just gender-swapping the protagonist but playing up the sexiness of the heroine and putting her in provocative settings, such as infiltrating a brothel, facing the possibility of rape, catfighting with other women, or displaying distinctly feminine versions of typical ninja abilities, to name a few examples. Even the best examples of the genre are at least a little bit sleazy.

Historically, kunoichi were women trained in the arts of ninjutsu with an emphasis on disguise, infiltration, and seduction: servants, artists, musicians, and prostitutes had access to the inner circles of power that were off limits to other outsiders. Furthermore, closeness to their targets put them in a position to quietly gather information, influence decisions, or even kill. Ironically, women’s subservience and unimportance in the male-dominated samurai society made them effectively invisible. In discussing sex as one of the “five needs” (which could be turned against the ninja’s intended victim), Stephen K. Hayes in The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art writes “In another reliable ploy, the desires of an individual can be catered to by supplying sexual excitement. . . . In the midst of lusty physical gratification, an enemy’s guard is lowered and he becomes much more vulnerable to physical attack or verbal probing.” It’s not hard to see how the kunoichi could add sex appeal to an already-popular genre whether treated in a historical or fantastical manner. (This is not to say that stories of male ninjas were necessarily free of sex or exploitative elements–merely that it seems to be more of a driving element in the “lady ninja” films.)

I’ve watched a few “lady ninja” movies, but I don’t think I’ve watched enough to try to offer an overview of the genre in more than these broad strokes. For one thing, the plethora of overlapping titles is a thicket deeper than I care to venture into at the moment: they generally all have “kunoichi” or “lady ninja” in their titles, but beyond a few examples most are not part of related series; even some that are part of a series, such as Memoirs of a Lady Ninja, are actually free-standing entries beyond the thematic connection, much like Cannon’s Ninja trilogy. Finally, some of the more popular lady ninja films have been remade, just like popular Western stories. In order to avoid muddying the waters any more than I already have, I’ll describe one I’ve watched recently and let it stand as an example.

The Challenge of the Lady Ninja (aka Chinese Super Ninjas 2; the Internet Movie Database also lists it as Never Kiss a Ninja, which seems like good advice) is on the more ridiculous side of the genre. It’s a low-budget effort with the ninjas demonstrating magical powers that the special effects can’t quite pull off. The fight scenes, using wuxia-style wirework and trampoline-aided leaps, make up in imaginative staging what they lack in believability, and they do go in some weird directions. Most bizarre of all, Challenge is a period piece, taking place during the WWII-era Japanese occupation of Shanghai, that makes no effort to disguise contemporary fashions, settings, and automobiles. It’s as if it takes place in an alternate reality, which it might as well.

Like many ninja stories, Challenge begins with a test: Wu Shiau (Hui-Sang Yang) faces off against her school, and ultimately her classmate Kuroda (Kang Peng), to obtain the ninja medallion that will prove her abilities. After some challenges and demonstrations of her skills (including a seductive illusion that reduces four of her opponents to slobbering wolves making cartoon “hubba hubba” noises), she gets past Kuroda by using “moving shadow,” a technique that makes her appear to split into two or three duplicates, disappearing and reappearing at will like images in a hall of mirrors. Even once he is defeated, Kuroda challenges the master of the ninjas, upset that a Chinese (!) woman (!!) should advance to the rank of ninja while Japan is at war with China (!!!). The real root of Kuroda’s disgruntlement, however, is that the master would teach Wu Shiau moving shadow and not him: his lust for power is too great to be trusted. The student/sibling rivalry that is at the root of so many ninja conflicts is well-represented here.

After passing the test, Wu Shiau learns that her father has died back in China. Upon arriving in Shanghai to pay her respects, she learns that the man responsible was Li Tung, the man she was betrothed to as a young girl, but who has turned traitor, helping the Japanese occupiers by working against the Chinese revolutionaries and steering gold and other resources to Japan. (Li Tung is so evil that when he first appears on screen he is accompanied by John Williams’ “Imperial March.”) Wu Shiau vows to avenge her father, infiltrating his compound that night; she finds him well-guarded, and is forced to retreat when she comes face to face with Li Tung’s four bodyguards (each is a specific type and has a particular fighting style). She is aided in her escape by a mysterious skull-masked figure who later returns to provide useful information to her.

Narrowly escaping with her life, Wu Shiau decides that what she needs is a team, so with the help of her fellow revolutionaries she goes about recruiting three more women: an expert swordswoman who was forced to close her school by the Japanese; another woman willing to give her life to fight the occupiers; and a prostitute who overhears one of the men looking for enemies of Li Tung who figures it’s a good opportunity to fight back. Through a series of training montages (it’s the ’80s, after all), Wu Shiau gets her squad in shape, teaching them the ways of ninjutsu, bolstered by the particular skills they already had (they are remarkably quick studies). It’s this part of the movie that is the most “male gazey,” with numerous shots of the girls working out in skimpy attire and even practicing their seduction skills on a hapless dupe. (Corny comic relief also comes with the territory in martial arts movies, and most of it is in this section.)

Their first attack on Li Tung and his bodyguards (with the girls hidden inside plaster lions in front of a temple!) is another flop, and the lady ninjas barely escape (again!) with their lives. They’ll have to think strategically: they study each of Li Tung’s bodyguards to strike at their weaknesses and take them down individually. Noteworthy fights include Wu Shiau taking on a female tae kwan do expert in an oil-filled ring (again, the ’80s) and another against a tribesman who fights with a razor-edged boomerang and spiderweb-like net. (And yes, one of the bodyguards is killed in a brothel as one of the ninjas takes the regular girl’s place.) It’s all pretty bonkers, and not everything is as it seems, but they save Li Tung’s most dangerous henchman, a Japanese swordsman named Yamamoto with ritual tattoos on his forehead and eyebrows, for last.

Afterword: When discussing Ninja Assassin last week, I mentioned the frequency with which CGI-enhanced fight scenes were compared to video games. There’s no mistaking anything in this circa 1983 production for a computer more sophisticated than a video effects processor, but in its own way it does remind me of the games of the time. There’s the procession from one boss to the next, leading up to the final confrontation, of course; and as mentioned, the effects that send fighters leaping through the air are sometimes primitive, but the result is quaintly analog. Beyond that, the number and frequency of odd weapons flying around that Wu Shiau has to avoid while fighting (like the aforementioned boomerang; there’s also an odd moment when she later faces off against her old classmate Koroda and he sends chains hovering through the air at her) are visually reminiscent of the busy, moving obstacle-filled screens in games like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania. In some cases the sheer abstraction of the visuals takes me back to the Atari 2600 or NES: is that black square a platform or a hole? Is that moving bar of color a searchlight or a deadly laser beam? I picked up this ninja medallion at the beginning of the game–if I attach it to someone, will they explode? Is that how I win? Only one way to find out!

Ninja Assassin

As Ninja Assassin (directed by James McTeigue) begins, a swaggering yakuza boss receives a sealed letter containing nothing but black sand. An old tattoo artist recognizes this as the warning of approaching death by ninja; the yakuza and his cronies all laugh, of course, until they are graphically cut down by an assailant whose approach they can neither see nor hear. Thus we are introduced to the fantastic, violent world of the ninja. Back in his apartment, the mysterious Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) prepares for his next mission, broodingly recalling in flashback his childhood training with the Ozunu ninja clan. Sho Kosugi, star of the Cannon Ninja trilogy, has played good ninjas and bad ninjas in his long career, and here he plays one who is downright evil: as leader of the Ozunu, he oversees the kidnapping of orphans to fill the next generation of ninjas, and he controls their existence like a cult leader, bonding them into a family with himself as surrogate father. Weakness is not tolerated, and all of the Ozunu trainees bear the scars of punishment. As we learn more about Raizo and the forbidden love for a fellow student that drove him to break with the Ozunu clan, we realize that he is actually the hero of the story.

Parallel with these developments, Mika (Naomie Harris), a forensic researcher for Interpol–sorry, “Europol”–has put together clues suggesting that the yakuza boss was just the latest victim of a shadowy conspiracy, that the legendary ninja are still around and can still be hired for the price of one hundred pounds of gold (or its market equivalent), just as they were centuries ago. Since the victims of the ninja are not only crimelords but CEOs and government officials, she finds herself in deep waters when she convinces her boss (Ben Miles) to pay attention. A former KGB operative, whose work she is building on, found himself expelled from his agency and then eliminated by the ninjas when he got too close to the truth. This goes all the way to the top! Inevitably, Mika and Raizo cross paths when she herself is targeted by the ninjas because of her discovery.

Ninja Assassin has some big names behind it (it was produced by Joel Silver and the Wachowski siblings, and co-written by Babylon 5 creator and comic book writer J. Michael Straczynski), but I don’t remember hearing about it when it came out in 2009. Perhaps I was just busy, or not as focused on action movies, or maybe it got lost in the shuffle. In any case, there’s no mistaking it for a 1980s throwback like its contemporary Ninja: it’s every bit a product of the early twenty-first century. In addition to its kinetic, computer-aided “bullet time” approach to action (and as much spilled CGI blood as the entire Blade trilogy), the plot reveals the same affinity for government conspiracies and hidden history that have been with us since the 1990s, filtering the mystique of the ninja through the lens of John Grisham, Dan Brown, and the Mission: Impossible movies. I don’t think Mika’s side of the narrative is very compelling, but it is satisfying when she finally brings down the force of Europol on the Ozunu mountain stronghold for the final battle.

Ninja Assassin is quite gory, full of dismemberments and fountains of blood spewing from slashing wounds, comparable to the martial arts horror of Riki-Oh or other Hong Kong or “extreme Asia” imports. (A plot point concerns the ninja’s ability to heal himself through the power of the mind, so there are also close-ups of grisly wounds that would be fatal to mere mortals.) The visceral impact of all this bloodshed is tempered by being mostly CGI, however; the fight scenes, too, are marked by quick cutting and CGI compositing. As Raizo, Rain (who also appeared in the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer) looks the part, but based on this I really couldn’t tell you how much skill he actually has in hand-to-hand combat or with the whirling chain hook that is Raizo’s specialty. It’s easy to dismiss this as video game stuff, a frequently-heard criticism of action movies in the 2000s, but the comparison goes beyond the action itself to the hordes of faceless enemies Raizo mows down, the ease with which even armored soldiers are sliced in half, and the relative invulnerability of the important characters. During a scene when Ozunu digs his fingers into Raizo’s abdomen, I thought maybe he was going to rip his heart out like in Mortal Kombat. It doesn’t go quite that far–it’s a mystical manipulation of the enemy’s chi, causing intense pain, rather than something so graphic–but it’s still pretty gnarly.

On the other hand, while it sounds like I’m being critical, the heavy reliance on special effects brings to life the ninja’s ability to blend into shadows and move in seemingly impossible ways: an early fight scene in a dark room, illuminated only by Mika’s shaky flashlight beam, makes it appear as if the ninjas are appearing from nowhere, melting back into the shadows as the beam spotlights them. In other scenes, ninjas appear to crawl on walls like insects, their movements reduced to a blur seen out of the corner of the eye, and with the layering of whispered voices on the soundtrack, one gets the sense of how these stealthy assassins could terrorize their victims before striking. Finally, while it is true that all martial arts movies are choreographed and shot to make the action dramatic and theatrical to some degree, the subject of the ninja, with its superhuman, even supernatural, powers, lends itself to movie magic more than most. Once Raizo confronts Ozunu, we are treated to a more sophisticated version of the magical sleight-of-hand I observed in Ninja Destroyer: the two master ninjas disappear at will, reappearing behind their opponent, even casting false shadows as misdirection, before dueling to a very bloody death. Is this “the greatest ninja movie of all time,” as the DVD cover promises? Not really–one could argue it’s not even the greatest ninja movie of 2009–but it is certainly among the most gruesome.

Scott Adkins’ Ninja Duology

So far in Ninjanuary, I’ve focused on the ninja’s 1980s heyday, but as I mentioned in my introduction, the ninja as a conventional figure has never really gone away once its popularity was established. The more recent Ninja (2009) and its sequel, Shadow of a Tear (2013), both directed by Isaac Florentine and starring Scott Adkins, were recommended to me as worthy modern additions to the ninja canon, and they make for interesting examples.

Ninja begins with an introduction to the concept of the ninja for any newcomers, at the same time economically foreshadowing a major plot point. In a flashback to medieval Japan, a ninja is shown taunting a dying samurai with the only antidote to the ninja’s poison, the knowledge of which gave the ninja ultimate power over life and death. But, the narration continues, the ninja’s sword could bring life as well as death. What is the meaning of this enigma? Stay tuned!

The story proper begins at Koga dojo in modern times, where two top students prepare to spar: Casey (Adkins), an American orphan who has spent his entire adult life at the dojo, and Masazuka (Tsuyoshi Ihara), a hot-headed Japanese student who needles Casey for being a gaijin with no family. When the ostensibly friendly fight with bokken (wooden practice swords) goes against Masazuka, his rage boils over and he grabs a real blade, attacking Casey with obvious intent to kill. Casey only manages to save himself by keeping a cool head, and in fighting back he inflicts a small cut beneath Masazuka’s eye. Horrified by this breach of honor and Masazuka’s inability to control his anger, Takeda (Togo Igawa), the Sensei of the dojo, expels Masazuka from the school. “You must find your own path,” he tells him.

“Some time later,” Takeda is about to pass leadership of the dojo to Casey, his best disciple, symbolized by the passing of the Yoroi Bitsu, a wooden chest containing the Koga ninja’s secrets as well as weapons and gear. The ceremony is interrupted by the appearance of Masazuka, now a professional assassin, who resembles a swaggering rock star and is recognizable by the scar beneath his eye. “I have found my own path,” he announces, and demands to take possession of the Yoroi Bitsu. Of course, Takeda refuses, and Masazuka vows to return. Takeda sends the Yoroi Bitsu to America for safekeeping, accompanied by Casey, Takeda’s daughter Namiko (Mika Hijii), and a couple of other students without much established personality. It goes without saying that Masazuka isn’t far behind.

Yes, she took a guy’s crutches.

Ninja and its sequel share many of the stylistic tics of other twenty-first century action movies, most notably CGI blood spatter and the “speed ramping” made popular by Zack Snyder’s 300. Masazuka’s ninja style is also distinctly contemporary, even paramilitary, combining age-old ninjutsu strategies with modern body armor, high-tech grenades, and night vision goggles. With his appearance (and his fondness for sleek, chrome furnishings), he would be at home in a contemporary superhero movie, where Kevlar has replaced spandex as the uniform of choice. In other ways, however, Ninja is in many ways a throwback to the action movies of the ’80s, with inventive, well-shot fights and a premise that is instantly familiar, and it manages to do so in under 90 minutes. (The presence of Boaz Davidson, an action filmmaker involved with many of the Golan-Globus productions of the ’80s, as writer-producer may have something to do with this.)

Then there’s “the Ring,” the cult-like order hiding behind the corporate façade of Temple Industries, which also feels very much like something from an ’80s movie (Masazuka had been shown earlier in the movie assassinating a Russian oligarch whose business stood in Temple’s way). Of course Masazuka manages to track Casey and Namiko down in New York with the help of his corporate contacts. Soon the pair find themselves on the run from gun-toting mercenaries and brawling thugs. Highlights include an intense fight on a subway train (in which Namiko shows herself just as capable as Casey), but eventually the pair are caught by the police, blamed for the killing of their American hosts. Handling the case is Detective Traxler (Todd Jensen), another figure familiar from ’80s cinema, the hardened cop who dismisses Casey’s story as a “fairy tale” until Masazuka single-handedly invades the police station where Casey and Namiko are being held. After a few complications, Casey recovers the Yoroi Bitsu (which had been safely hidden) and dons the mantle of Koga ninja himself for (say it with me) the final confrontation.

Ninja‘s 2013 sequel, Shadow of a Tear, boasts a new writer, David White, and a shift in tone that reminds me of long-running comic book heroes becoming “darker” and “grittier” in response to changing audience expectations. It begins with Casey, now head of the Koga dojo and married to Namiko; they are expecting their first child. Everything is going great; Casey presents Namiko with a necklace bearing the kanji symbol for “happiness” (do you see where this is going?).

Casey has enemies, at first a pair of seemingly random street thugs who attempt to mug him, but it doesn’t stop there. Yes, Namiko ends up getting “fridged” by an unknown assailant (Boooooo!), the kind of hoary, heavy-handed narrative device that I had hoped we were beyond by this decade. Namiko (still played by Mika Hijii) is seen frequently in flashback, a reminder of what Casey has lost, but it feels manipulative, as if we’ve forgotten the hero’s motives, and it made me more annoyed with the filmmakers than with the killers, which I don’t think is what they had in mind. Casey, whose whole thing in the first movie was that he didn’t get angry (fudoshin, the “immovable mind”), is transformed into a creature of rage, unable to control himself as he seeks out the muggers whom he assumes are the killers. (There is a minor plot point that turns up frequently in martial arts movies, and which has some basis in reality: Casey tracks down the muggers by recognizing an unusual move one of them made in their fight, a “triple kick,” and finding out which dojo specializes in that move.)

An old friend, Kakabura (Kane Kosugi, whom we last saw as a child in Revenge of the Ninja, and now a grown-up martial artist and actor in his own right), invites Casey to his dojo in Thailand to work through his grief and get himself under control. While there, Casey gets into a few more dustups, beating up local toughs, but it isn’t until one of Kakabura’s students is killed, his body showing the same marks Namiko’s killers left, that he suspects he is being targeted. Kakabura reluctantly reveals the true story behind the Koga ninjas, involving a squad of Japanese “ghost soldiers” sent to invade Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II, and the three survivors: Casey’s old sensei Takeda was one of them; Kakabura’s father, who stayed in Thailand, another; and the third, who continued into the Burmese jungle and became a drug lord: Goro. It is Goro who is trying to eliminate his rivals, and with the help of an old map, Casey sets out to destroy him. (Before Casey gets to him, we see the ruthlessness with which Goro (Shun Sugata) treats his own men, interrogating an underling about a two-year-old shipment that was light: “That was a long time ago!” the man pleads, to which Goro responds, “I have a long memory,” before strangling him.)

The Burmese setting is colorful, both in the city and in the jungle, and there is more excellent action, some of it in the Jason Bourne vein, with quick editing and with Casey outnumbered and fighting his way out of police stations and back alleys, leaving a trail of bodies behind him. This is Casey to the extreme, pulling no punches, the ninja as Rambo. The squalid third-world atmosphere, drug business, improvised weapons, and numerous double-crosses are a world away from the first movie, which is almost cartoony in comparison (both are rated R for violence, but the second is much more visceral). I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it, because it is compulsively watchable, but viewing the two films back to back makes for a jarring comparison. Purely as an action movie, Shadow of a Tear is pretty great, actually, but I might have enjoyed it more as a standalone, like the unconnected Cannon Ninja films, rather than as a sequel.

Ninja Busters

Ninja Busters is the story of two buddies, Bernie (kata champion Eric Lee) and Chic (martial arts instructor Sid Campbell, who wrote the screenplay), who start out as a pair of chumps in the Dumb and Dumber vein. A running gag early in the film has Bernie pretending to be Bruce Lee’s student and Chic pretending to be Bruce Lee’s teacher, but despite their bravado they get their asses handed to them several times. Eventually, they decide to enroll in a martial arts class–not to toughen up, but to meet girls. (This goes about as well as could be expected until they get serious about their training.) One of their fellow classmates, Sonny (Frank Navarro), had previously beaten them up, but the school’s sensei (Gerald Okamura) insists that the rivals earn their black belts before having a rematch.

So far, no ninjas. Other than a short scene at the beginning, the first forty-five minutes or so are down to earth, a gentle slapstick spoof of the martial artist’s journey. The ninjas enter the picture as the hired army of a local crimelord, Santos (Juan Morales); Bernie and Chic had worked at one of Santos’ warehouses and learned about the boss’ reputation as a smuggler (the goods are in special crates marked with a dragon). It’s not until Bernie and Chic spot their old boss making a drug deal and decide to follow him that they wind up targeted by Santos’ ninjas, who invade the martial arts school and follow our heroes to a nightclub and finally Santos’ warehouse for the final confrontation.

Ninja Busters is a comedy, and much of the humor is corny or silly, but it moves briskly and is continually entertaining; moreover, the spine of the story is one of rivals becoming friends and losers finding that they can become winners through hard work. It’s a formula for feel-good cinema. The cast, stacked with real martial artists, also makes up in realistic action what it sometimes lacks in polished line delivery. The ninjas are actually a little underwhelming: their stealth is exaggerated for dramatic effect (when Santos asks if he can see the ninjas, their dragon lady boss replies, “Why not? They’re looking at you”), but in action they’re easily handled by our heroes from the dojo. These are ninjas as faceless, mostly interchangeable enemies.

One reason Ninja Busters is so much fun to watch is its vibrantly multicultural setting: filmed in San Francisco and Oakland, it features a cast more ethnically diverse than many films made today (some of those characters are stereotypes, but, eh, it’s a comedy). In some ways it’s a comic take on the racial division that separates people (like the Black Panther-like “Liberation Army”), but at least within the dojo differences in color are set aside in favor of the immortal truths of karate. The big climax, which brings together the ninjas, the karate school, Santos’ gang, and even Sonny’s old biker gang crew, is a fun riff on gang war standards like The Warriors. Ninja Busters’ reliance on local settings and music give it a jolt of urban energy, from break dancers in the street to the band in a Latin night club. The original score by Frank Navarro, who played Sonny, is full of pulsing electro-funk bangers and John Carpenter-like synth riffs; the tracks accompanying the various montages are so good I wouldn’t mind owning the soundtrack just to listen to by itself.

It’s probably unavoidable that Ninja Busters will be compared to Miami Connection, another heartfelt action-comedy about friends united to kick ninja butt, and there are similarities, but Ninja Busters is mostly PG in spirit, without the spurting blood squibs and “stupid cocaine” of Miami Connection (there are references to Santos smuggling “dope,” but that’s about it, and while a few people die, it isn’t too graphic). It’s also clearly the work of professionals, even if made short on time and money. Director Paul Kyriazi, who also made Death Machines (to which it has some resemblance), notes in his commentary on the Garagehouse Blu-ray that most of Ninja Busters was filmed in one take; many of the cast are not polished actors, so some slips make it into the movie, but from a technical standpoint it’s the equivalent of a professional executing a tricky maneuver without a net. Viewers will be surprised that such a finished film (with a few flaws, sure, but hardly more than many low-budget films display) was allowed to simply disappear without a trace, but I suppose it happens more often than we would like to think.

Filmed over three years between 1981 and ’84 but never released (after completion, the film’s distributor went belly up and disappeared with all known prints–shades of Shirkers), Ninja Busters became available when Harry Guerro of Garagehouse Pictures rediscovered a complete print and had it restored a few years ago. It’s another case of what might have been: with its mixture of humor and action and its likeably goofy characters, I can imagine a movie like this having a big cult following today if it had been released back in the ’80s.

Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja

There had been a man. Miyamoto Musashi. Perhaps Japan’s greatest warrior. Among other things, he founded the Niten or Two Heavens school–or ryu–of kenjutsu. It taught the art of wielding two swords at once. Another aspect of musashi, known as Kensei, the Sword Saint, was that he used bokken–wooden swords–in actual combat–claiming that he did so because they were invincible.The Ninja, p. 114

As American audiences were first introduced to the ninja (at least those who weren’t already delving into the martial arts cinema of Japan and Hong Kong), a common narrative ploy was to hook the audience’s identification with an American or European initiated into the ways of the shadow warriors, learning about them along with the reader or viewer. Stephen K. Hayes’ non-fiction book The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art, published in 1981, starts from a similar premise, laying out the basic philosophies and some of the techniques of ninjutsu while describing Hayes’ own search for a teacher who might admit him into the inner circle. Starting as an American black belt, he is humbled by the recognition of how little he knows, but his journey toward mastery is shared with the reader; it’s a heady formula and one that would be repeated throughout the 1980s.

Nicholas Linnear, the protagonist of Eric Van Lustbader’s 1980 novel The Ninja, plays a similar role as both an audience identification character and an insider who can access secret teachings and relay their meaning to American readers. We first encounter Nicholas as he leaves a high-powered advertising career, although looking back from the vantage point of the book’s end, it’s hard to imagine him putting up with such a job. Born and raised in Japan, Nicholas feels adrift in America, its ways still alien to him, but after his years there he feels that it has changed him, buried his true self beneath layers of foreign ways of thinking and feeling. In Japan, as we learn in copious flashbacks, parallel to the present-day story, he was treated as a different kind of outsider. The son of a British colonel attached to the postwar occupation (who was also Jewish, so he too felt alien in his own culture) and a widow of mysterious Asian extraction (possibly Chinese or Japanese, but possessed of an incredible family legacy), Nicholas excelled in everything he did, including the study of bujutsu, and yet still felt there were mysteries he had not penetrated, among them the political intrigue represented by his uncle Satsugai and the sexual mysteries of Satsugai’s ward, Yukio. So far, so good.

More than anything else, he needed a challenge, with women as well as with all the interests in his life. For he felt quite deeply that nothing in life was worth possessing without a struggle–even love; especially love. This too he had learned in Japan, where women were like flowers one had to unfold like origami, with infinite care and deliberateness, finding that, when fully opened, they were filled with exquisite tenderness and devious violence.  –p. 36

Having retreated to a life of meditation in a Long Island beach house, Nicholas’ soul-searching is interrupted by a chance meeting with a neighbor, Justine, an artist whom he had briefly met in his advertising career. Instantly, there is a bond between them that explodes into graphic, lovingly-described sex. There is a lot of sex in this book, all of it graphic, enough that the paperback cover characterizes Van Lustbader as a “master of the erotic and terrifying thriller.” I’m not sure there’s actually more sex in The Ninja as a percentage of its pages than in the average Stephen King book, but I don’t recall him being characterized as a “master of erotic horror.” In any case, it is certainly true that sexual attraction and obsession is a driving force for many of the characters, and it fits with the general characterization of the East as alluring, unknowable, and ultimately maddening.

Of course, neither Nicholas nor Justine can be truly happy until they conquer their inner demons: Nicholas in the form of his memories of Yukio, whose fate is gradually unfolded in flashback, and Justine in her need to escape from her domineering tycoon father and her own desires to be dominated by the men in her life. At the same time, a strange killing in their beachside community–the killing that actually caused Nicholas and Justine to cross paths–hints at macabre business. The first death could be mistaken for a heart attack, but for the tiniest sliver of a shuriken found in the victim’s chest during the autopsy, coated with a rare poison that takes the local examining doctor back to his own memories of the Pacific front during World War II. Brought into the case as an expert on such things, Nicholas knows instantly that there is a ninja in the area. Sure enough, more killings follow.

The Ninja has more in common with the works of Stephen King than its thickness and the presence of some NSFW subject matter. Like many of the popular horror novels discussed by Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks From Hell, The Ninja borrows a concept from a foreign culture, emphasizing its most lurid and threatening aspects, and sets it loose in modern America to kill some yuppies. The ninja behind the killings is treated like the monster in a horror movie for much of the book, until his identity is gradually revealed, at first striking from the shadows, so that its first victims don’t even realize what has killed them. When the ninja is seen and described, he is wordless and implacable, an unstoppable killing machine in the vein of Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees. Plenty of characters are on hand, as well, to establish the ninja’s deadly threat, first walk-ons who only get a page or two of background before being killed, but the ninja works his way through those who are more established in the narrative and whose deaths make a real impact on the reader. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that it ultimately comes down to a contest between the ninja and Nicholas, the only man in the area–possibly in America–who really understands what he’s up against.

“You know, Linnear, for those two stiffs being your friends you certainly aren’t broken up about it.”

Nicholas sat perfectly still. A pulse beat strongly in the side of his neck; a cool wind seemed to blow through his brain. There were haunting echoes, as if he were hearing words of his ancestors carried to him through the corridors of time. Beneath the table, his fingers were as stiff as knives, his thigh muscles like steel. He required no blade, no concealed weapon. There was only himself, as deadly a killing machine as ever was created in any country at any time.

Croaker was staring into his eyes. “It’s all right,” he said softly. He gestured with the tines of his fork, laced with running yolk. “Your food’s getting cold.” He went to work on his own and never knew just how close he had come to being killed. –p. 191

The Ninja takes place in that phase of the early 1980s when it was still the 1970s in a lot of places: in additional to the frequent casual sex, the fact that Justine is described as spending a lot of time at the disco sets the period. Another temporal marker is that New York City is a hellhole, full of noise and crime, as we are reminded every time Nicholas or Justine grudgingly ride in from Long Island (Van Lustbader was a lifelong native of Greenwich Village, so his descriptions of the city in all its terrible grandeur ring true). In addition to Nicholas, the shifting viewpoint frequently turns to Lieutenant Croaker, the kind of policeman who ruffles feathers but dammit, he gets the job done (he’s the cop who didn’t know how close he was to being killed in the excerpt above). One of the ninja’s killings even takes place in a grimy Times Square porno theater.

Very much a New York character is Rafael Tomkin, Justine’s father, a wheeler-dealer type with a sprawling family estate on Long Island but who is almost always at his under-construction high-rise headquarters or in his private limo. A thin-skinned control freak, he keeps tabs on his estranged daughters (Justine’s older sister Gelda also figures in the narrative) and hires Nicholas to supplement his bodyguards when he realizes how skilled he is. It’s natural in this poisoned time to see every such caricature of the egotistical blowhard businessman as a portrait of Donald Trump, and it’s possible that Van Lustbader had Fred Trump in mind (Donald would have still been one of those youngsters filling up the discos with Justine at the time The Ninja was written), but I’m sure Van Lustbader had plenty of potential models for both Tomkin’s duplicitous character and his unhealthy interest in his daughters’ sex lives.

The ninja are not bound by the Way, Kansatsu had said, and that was correct. Yet ninjutsu was more complex than that and, as in bujutsu itself, there were many types propounded and taught. Good and evil. The black and the red. Kansatsu himself had shown it to Nicholas before he had left Tokyo. Of the red, he had said, far and away the most dangerous, the most virulent ryu is the Kuji-kiri. “It is the Chinese word for the ‘nine-hands cutting,’ the basis for much of the ninja’s real or imagined power. It is said by many that these hand signs are the last remaining vestiges of magic in this world. As for me, I cannot say, but as you yourself have come to understand, there are times when the dividing line between imagination and existence can disappear.” –p. 382

The Ninja strongly reminds me of the paperbacks I remembered my parents reading when I was a kid–Stephen King, yes, but also the popular novels of Danielle Steel or historical epics like James Clavell’s Shogun.  Sometimes I would read the “adult” novels that were lying around the house if I got bored enough and didn’t have anything of my own to read, gleaning what I could of my own preferred subjects in between the subplots about divorce or real estate or whatever. (I did read some Stephen King in middle school, but as I’ve mentioned before, I had the bad luck of getting into his work during a particularly weak stretch of books, so I wrote him off and didn’t reappraise him until I was an adult.)

A good example is Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters, a novel that has become an infamous example of the anti-Dungeons & Dragons panic of the 1980s (and the source for a risible Tom Hanks TV movie); as a D&D-playing kid I knew that Jaffe wasn’t on my “side,” but I still read her book in the hopes that she might have some original ideas about fantasy. She didn’t, and it quickly became clear that she didn’t have much exposure to the actual game or the way it was played, either, but for some reason I got sucked into the drama of rich, disaffected college kids and their addictive pastime.

I didn’t read The Ninja as a kid; if anyone in my family did, I don’t recall seeing it, but I probably would have at least looked into it if I had. I have more appreciation now for the personal drama that fills novels like this–in this case, not just the hero caught between two worlds, but a great deal of soap concerning Justine’s father and all of his family and business problems–but would I have found enough about, y’know, ninjas to satisfy my ten-year-old imagination? I think I would have: aside from being a better book than Mazes and Monsters (faint praise, I know), The Ninja is dense with research, so reading it one learns about the philosophy and technique of many kinds of armed and unarmed combat, and some terminology to go with it; the mindset and methods of the ninja as he undertakes his mission; and the history and mythology of Japan, both in the middle ages and the twentieth century, with at least the pretense of presenting insights into the differences between the Japanese and Western mindsets. Later in the 1980s, when Americans were terrified of being passed up by the ascendant Japanese economy, businessmen were said to be reading Miyamoto Musashi’s classic Book of Five Rings in order to understand the mindset of their opponents. The Ninja, with its mixture of ancient philosophies and modern economic realities, is likewise concerned with bringing Japanese ways of thinking to Western audiences (it’s even divided into five parts in direct imitation of Miyamoto’s work).

It’s the kind of book, still popular even as Jonathan Franzen complains that the Internet has devalued thorough research, that doles out history lessons between sex scenes and moments of intense violence, so that you could feel that you were learning something while being entertained. Its pulpy mixture of action, mystery, sex, and history promises something for everyone, and although I could quibble with the details of Van Lustbader’s style–he frequently chooses inelegant words in his hurry to get on with the story–he keeps the pages turning. As its status as a bestseller (and its several sequels) demonstrates, Van Lustbader knew what readers were looking for, and in The Ninja he got in on the ground floor of a trend that was set to explode in popularity.

Ninja Destroyer

It sometimes seem like half of my movie reviews for this site include complaints about muffled dialogue, characters I can’t tell apart, or other reasons that I can’t understand just what the heck is going on. Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that either I’m a complete idiot or I should spend my time watching better movies (of course, both possibilities can be true at once). But so help me, the plot of Ninja Destroyer, a 1986 effort by prolific Hong Kong director Godfrey Ho, is hard to follow.

This was the first film by Ho I’ve watched–at least, I think it was. One of the themes of this particular series is keeping an eye out for movies I might have actually watched back in the ’80s that I could have forgotten about due to the passage of time and the fact that I was a more passive viewer as a kid. So far, nothing has rung a bell; I thought I might have seen Enter or Revenge of the Ninja, due to the titles being familiar, but they didn’t bring any memories back. In any case, based on what I know of Ho, whose reputation for recycling and combining footage rivals Jerry Warren’s, I’m quite willing to place the blame for my confusion squarely at his feet. It’s not me, it’s him.

Ninja Destroyer is actually two movies: the first, which takes up most of the running time, concerns a dispute over an emerald mine near the border between Thailand and Vietnam. A group of rebels mounts periodic attacks on the work camp, hoping to take over so they can use the emeralds to fund their activities. The owners hire a man named Harold to defend the camp, but he gets greedy and decides to make his own play to take over. A third force, the Black Knights, a group of black-clad horsemen, led by a mysterious masked woman, periodically rides in to battle the rebels. A young man named Chester gets caught in the middle and plays the various forces off of each other. I could go into more detail if I felt like watching Ninja Destroyer again and keeping track of all these people, but I really don’t. Suffice it to say that with its struggles over resources and borders, double-crosses, and horseback chases, the oft-repeated cliché applies here: it really is a Western if you think about it.

The second strand of the plot, clearly filmed separately and connected to the rest by dialogue, is where Ninja Destroyer gets its title: the CIA has trained an elite squad of ninjas, led by a man named Michael (Stuart Smith), and they’ve gone rogue, working with the Vietnamese against the Thais and training the rebels in the tactics they use to terrorize the emerald miners. The US government cannot let this potentially embarrassing evidence of covert activity survive, and the only man who can eliminate the ninjas is Byron (Bruce Baron), once Michael’s closest friend and a ninja himself.

Only a true ninja can wear this headband.

Interestingly, the memory of the Vietnam War is fresh in everyone’s mind: the emerald miners are afraid of Thailand becoming the next Vietnam, and the Americans are concerned about rogue assets pulling the region back into conflict. (Note that, since this is a Hong Kong production, all of the American characters–and many of the dubbed Asian characters–have British or Australian accents.) Byron is supposed to liaison with Chester, and Michael occasionally has conversations with the rebel leaders, but those are the only connections, and it’s clear from the way their conversations are filmed that the actors never got anywhere near each other.

While the plot is confusing, the action is the real draw, and there is some fun to be had. The back of the DVD promises “incredible kung-fu heel-to-skull techniques,” which is a fancy way of saying that a lot of people get kicked in the head. There is a lot of kicking and tumbling, but there’s also quite of bit of gunplay (the raids on the mining camp are more like something out of a war movie or, like I said, a Western) and knife action. The transfer on the DVD is clearly from a VHS source, with occasional tracking lines, and I was struck by an increase in static around one shot of a fighter with a big knife having his blade turned on him by Chester and sticking himself in the gut, as if that were somebody’s frequently rewound favorite shot. Say what you will about 4K transfers, you don’t get that kind of insight into your fellow viewers’ minds with digital formats.

And of course there is the ninja action, with Byron taking out Michael’s squad one by one before the final confrontation. The ninjas in this are of the superhuman variety, performing incredible feats (with the aid of the camera, of course): leaping onto rooftops, hiding in unlikely places (my favorite example of this is Byron hiding behind a Chinese hat and rolling along the ground to shield himself from Michael’s arrows), and even disappearing and reappearing in different places with a sci-fi pinging noise. The film makes you wait until the last ten minutes for this, but it’s worth the wait, as it’s paired with dialogue that sounds like it was written by Garth Marenghi:

Byron: You’re coming back for the court-martial.

Michael: Damn your court-martial. Don’t be such an asshole!

B: I won’t stop until I’ve stopped you.

M: Let’s make a deal. I’ll offer you a million dollars.

B: A million dollars won’t bring back a million people’s lives.

There’s more where that came from, but you get the idea. I award Ninja Destroyer one out of five throwing stars, a rating I just made up.