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!