In the 1980s, the powerhouse production tag team of Menahem Golan and his partner, Yoram Globus, assaulted the world with a seemingly endless stream of cinematic swill that quickly became a staple of my early film-watching life. Nary a trend went unscathed as Cannon Films latched on to one flash in the pan after another, producing as many movies as possible under their banner of Cannon Films before the trend died out and the next thing came along. When an author by the name of Eric Von Lustbader penned a novel called The Ninja that quickly shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed perched atop that pyramid for five months, the boys at Cannon smelled a trend that had been steadily building for the past several months. Genres of film go through popularity cycles, and every seven to ten years, what was popular then becomes popular again. Martial arts movies were due for a return to the big screen, as packed revivals of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon had shown throughout 1979.
Like the masters of sneakiness and surprise that they are, ninjas had slowly and quietly been infiltrating the mainstream consciousness of America for quite some time. One of the first non-Asian films to feature a ninja was the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice. Throughout the 1970s, people became more familiar with these mysterious denizens of the shadows when they were featured as the heavies in many a kungfu film. By 1980, the success of The Ninja and Shogun (which features a ninja or two) opened the doors to the big screen in the form of Chuck Norris’s The Octagon, arguably the first of the ninja exploitation films that leapt out of the trees and onto an unsuspecting American public.
The ninjas of old got their start round about eleven hundred years ago with two separate mountain clans in central Japan – the Iga and the Koga. Isolated form the greater portion of Japan in much the same way that the people of the American Appalachians were insulated from the United States, the mountain clans developed into legendary farmers, healers, and weather forecaster with a profound respect for the land that lent them their livelihood. It was from these mountain clans, steeped in ancient tradition and religious beliefs, that the ninja would acquire their mystical flavoring. Drawing from the Shinto reverence for nature and the esoteric philosophy of Mikkyo, ninjas came to rely on a belief in secret symbols and sacred words as a way to enhance personal power. The religious aspects of ninjitsu eventually mixed with the martial arts of China, which were carried to Japan by exile warriors seeking asylum after the fall of the T’ang dynasty.
The final ingredient in the birth of the Ninja clans was the influence of a sect of people known as the Shugenja, wandering holy men who sought enlightenment through self-imposed physical suffering. They’re the sort of guys who would sit naked in the snow or hang off the side of a cliff in order to understand cold or overcome the fear of hanging off the side of a cliff. Through these acts of punishment, the Shugenja would come to understand nature, and in understanding nature would be able to draw power from it. There’s really very little that’s different from the philosophy of the Shugenja and the philosophy of a mountain man or pioneer. The concepts of “drawing power from an understanding of nature” manifests itself practically as knowing how to stay alive in the woods, knowing what plants and berries you can eat, what certain signs in the weather might imply, things like that. Although approached from a religious frame of mind, the philosophy of the Shugenja and the Ninja is astoundingly practical and down-to-earth.
What the sundry warlords of feudal Japan saw in the Ninja were easy targets. Hillbillies who could be taxed and exploited and were too powerless in government to defend themselves. They weren’t entirely correct. Their superior knowledge of nature and of wilderness survival made a Ninja a fearsome opponent even for a well-trained samurai. Small groups of Ninja could hold off entire armies simply by employing a greater understanding of the land and how to use it to one’s advantage. All that cool looking samurai armor isn’t going to do you much good when some bunch of farmers are rolling boulders and logs down on you. Contact with Chinese martial artists helped them develop a fighting skill and tactical sense that was often greater than the commanders of the samurai legions, and it wasn’t long before the Ninja clans added political savvy to their repertoire. The manipulated policy to protect their villages and would gleefully promote any ignorant superstition about themselves that kept people nervous and away from their hills. Once again, similarities to the so-called hillbillies of Appalachia abound.
In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu became the ruler of Japan and ended the bloody era of warring states and petty lords. The new shogun decided he would hire Ninja to be his personal bodyguards. For the most part, members of the Ninja clan stayed out of the mainstream political and military scene, preferring to stick to things that directly affected them and their villages. The allure of money is strong, though, and for some Ninja it was more than enough to lure them out of the mountain forests and valleys and into the halls of the Imperial Castle, newly established in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) instead of its traditional home in Kyoto. Other Ninja looking for a quick way to make money rented themselves out as spies. Ninja had always been willing to do a little infiltration here and there in order to protect their family and community, and now some of them were putting these skills up for auction to the highest bidder rather than sticking to the tradition of working for and as part of the Ninja community.
These are, of course, the ninja embraced by film and literature. Though interesting, the fact that most Ninjas were farmers and herbalists doesn’t necessarily make for rousing tales of action. Few and far between are the people who would see a movie called Furious Blade of the Ninja that was all about a clan of ninja diligently hoeing the garden and using scythes to clear a patch of land for planting. The ninja who rented themselves out – the sell-outs, basically – made for cooler stories, and so the renegades and the Ninja in the service of the Tokugawa shogunate became the basis for the bulk of the books and movies that were to come. Unfortunately for the sell-outs, with the Tokugawa era came relative peace throughout Japan. Ninja eventually moved from roles as saboteurs, spies, and assassins to being castle guards, and eventually they came full circle, being relegated to the ranks of palace servants — most specifically, the gardener.
The outlandish notions regarding the Ninja that have become de rigueur in most ninja films evolved from a combination of widespread ignorance, propaganda, and creative license. Because the ninja clans followed a different set of rules than those that governed the samurai lifestyle (ninpo instead of bushido), most of Japan’s looked down upon the Ninja as backward hayseeds and uncivilized countryfolk. They were the rednecks of medieval Japan. Part of the resentment toward the Ninja communities also came from the fact that the samurai were generally so unsuccessful at dealing with them. Masters of guerilla warfare – a necessity for a group of poor mountain folk who are vastly outnumbered by well-equipped armies – the ninja were often able to befuddle even well-trained samurai through their command of the land and understanding of the sneakier aspects of a fight. Defeated samurai decried the Ninja tactics as dishonorable and deceitful; the ninja claimed they were fighting the only way practicality would allow.
To a samurai lost in the woods, it must have seemed like these backwoods yokels were wielding some sort of magic power. They would appear and vanish without a trace, use every part of nature to their benefit. Combine befuddlement with ego, and a samurai would return home with tail between legs and spin fanciful yarns about how the only reason he was defeated was because the ninja disappeared into thin air, flew over the treetops, and performed other feats of wizardry. The Ninja clans, in turn, were more than happy to take this hyperbole and run with it. The more people feared them, the less likely people were to come around and stick their nose into the ninja communities. Because the ninja were a secretive and insular community, there really wasn’t anyone to talk sense into people and refute the claim that ninjas disappeared into clouds of multicolored smoke or were able to explode into hundreds of tiny ninjas.
While most early filmic depictions stuck to the historical facts about the ninjas who became assassins and spies for hire, the farther things moved from their Japanese roots, the more the wild old stories were once again embraced. Before too long, thanks in part to Chinese kungfu films, ninjas were everywhere, often clad in garish neon outfits and doing things like flying over castles and shooting flame out of their hands. By the 1980s, things really got out of hand, and more than a few movies from both sides of the Pacific featured people in wildly colorful ninja outfits running around the streets of modern-day cities. Of course, any real ninja would understand the key to performing their job is to blend end and seem nondescript and normal. You don’t get very far as a spy if you look like a spy, and there is very little that’s nondescript about a guy in metallic red pajamas and a face mask running down the streets of modern-day Duluth while waving a katana over his head. Logic and history didn’t really matter of course. What people wanted wasn’t historical accuracy; they wanted guys screaming and using weird weapons and wearing hoods. And by 1980, American filmmakers were ready to give it to them.
Hot on the heels of The Octagon came Golan and Globus with 1981’s Enter the Ninja, the film that really kicked the trend into high gear. Real-life martial arts superstar Mike Stone had this script called Dance Of Death. He’d been shopping it around without much success, and eventually the thing landed on the desk of Menahem Golan. It took Golan a while to read it since he wasn’t initially interested in a martial arts movie. The success of The Ninja quickly changed his mind, and before long he and Stone were heading down to the Philippines to make Enter the Ninja. Stone was set to star, at least until production began. Then all of a sudden, Stone was just the fight choreographer and stunt double for the new star, Italian star Franco Nero. Stone was baffled, but what the hell? He was getting paid more to work behind the scenes and as a double than he was originally offered to be the star. The one problem that emerges in the film with Stone as Nero’s double is that he’s not only leaner, he also has a big, dark white guy ‘fro while Nero has fairly thin, blond hair. Luckily, most of the action takes place behind the hood and mask of a ninja uniform, so the difference is only obvious in a few scenes.
Nero plays Cole, the first Westerner to ever be recognized by a Japanese school of ninjitsu. He gets this recognition by running through a bamboo forest and pretending to kill his ninja brothers. He looks resplendent in his bright white ninja uniform, the perfect color for blending in with his lush green background. As a testament to the sophistication of his skill, he manages to bury himself, climb trees, jump off cliffs, and swim in a brackish pond while still keeping his duds sparkling white. Sho Kosugi, soon to become the face of the 1980s ninja craze, plays Cole’s ninja brother, Hasegawa, who is not as impressed as the master by Cole’s ability to sprint through the jungle and pretend to behead people. Hasegawa displays his ninja training prowess by tipping over his tea cup, pounding his fists on the table, and whining, “He is no ninja!” If you’ve ever been to a friend’s birthday party where one kid starts crying, or your friend gets yelled at by his mom in front of everyone, you have a general idea of how this feels for all the other ninjas. They just keep quiet, stare at the table, and pray that the cake comes soon.
With his newfound ninja credentials secure, Cole heads to the Philippines to visit his old war buddy, Frank Landers (Alex Courtney). He and his British wife have one of those standard issue pieces of land that some greedy developer wants to buy. They, of course, won’t sell, having fallen in love with the simple, rustic life of owning a lavish Filipino plantation house. The greedy businessman, who of course, lounges about his posh high-rise office space in a silk robe, employs a variety of ludicrous goons in hopes of strong-arming Frank into selling the land. Leading the goons is Sigfried, a bulbous limping worm of a German stereotype in a white Panama Jack suit (you’ll see many of those during the course of the film) and sporting a hook hand. Exactly why a man who could best be described as “hamster-like” gets to be in charge is a mystery. Movies, especially bad movies, have a tendency to always cast some incredibly greasy little twerp as the leader of the evil thugs. What are they thinking? Fat German weasels who sweat a lot and can’t walk are seldom the leader of vicious street toughs, but in movies, gangs always get lead by the goofiest guy imaginable? I mean, what makes a criminal mastermind look at an overweight sweat hog with a bum leg and think, “This is the perfect guy to be my main thug!” Oh sure, he has a hook hand, but his nasal voice and gland problems negate the coolness of steel, and his primary value of a fighter seems to be the ability to stick the occasional surly dock worker in the thigh.
Cole quickly becomes entangled in Frank’s fight to get rid of the thugs, which in a way is actually in line with ancient Ninja priorities about defending their farms and small rural villages from big city heavies. The script from here on out is pretty much what you would expect. There’s a scene of Frank getting drunk and losing hope, followed by a scene of Cole kicking someone’s ass. Peppered throughout are scenes of Filipino farmers getting beat up by the lamest looking bunch of thugs you could possibly imagine. Isn’t there a single Filipino who can fight? Here’s the thing movies have never understood. They always feature some backwater town full of helpless peasants who get bullied by even the lamest of villains. Try this experiment: go to some small hick town, go to the local bar, and try to start some shit. Walk up to the first guy you see and pour his Red Dog into his lap, then say, “I think you work for me now, asshole.” As the six-foot six factory worker with a belt buckle bigger than your head stands up in preparation for pounding your ass into next week, reflect on why it is movies always feature skinny-ass, no-fighting-talent goofballs reigning over entire hick towns like little Hitlers. I find it difficult to believe there’s not a single Filipino bad-ass who could just strut up and beat the unholy crap out of the sweaty German goatman or the floppy-haired beanpole whose big 1970s mustache weighs more than the rest of him. Go to some seedy Filipino bar in some small farming shantytown, start throwing your weight around (possibly while faking a limp and a sniveling German accent) and see if a dozen beefy guys with mustaches, cowboy hats, and unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts don’t line up to teach you a valuable lesson about the difference between movies and real life.
Because this was the 1980s, Cole is joined by the “comic relief codger,” who fulfills the role with gusto, even performing the standard routine of popping up to cover the hero with a gun when faced with a dozen opponents. He also fulfills the role by upholding the tradition of not being very funny. You know, you could probably count the number of comic relief characters who were actually funny on one hand, even if it was a hook hand. Seeing how Cole has a cackling old fart with a white beard, a drunk guy with a white dude afro, and a sassy British gal as his army, the developer sends out a couple more guys in white suits and hires Hasegawa, telling the ninja master that they are fighting local thugs and bullies who are hassling the farmers. The ninja master doesn’t really research this claim too heavily. Hasegawa isn’t naive about the motivations of his new employers, and he doesn’t much care so long as it gives him a chance to face off against Cole.
Though Cannon’s follow-up, Revenge of the Ninja was both better and sillier, Enter the Ninja is still a fair movie and certainly better than the vast majority of ninja films that would follow in its footsteps. Golan’s direction is pedestrian and uninteresting, but it gets the job done. His big flirtation with style is to play the “wah wah wah wahhhhh” comedy punchline music when Cole rips off Sigfried’s hook hand and throws it to him with the stinger, “Hey! You forgot something.” Nero is not very convincing as a master of the martial arts, but he is convincing as a fist-swinging bad-ass. The plot has its fair share of goofiness, of course, but at the heart of things is a predictable though time-tested story about the greedy developer picking on the innocent. The silliness stems mostly from the fact that Cole and Hasegawa feel the need to thrown on their ninja uniforms for the big finale. What’s the point? All the bad guys already know who Cole is, and everyone knows who Hasegawa is as well. What’s the point in wrapping your head up in a sight-restricting hood to hide your identity? Nothing looks sillier than a guy in a white ninja suit stepping out of a Cadillac. Wait, did I say “sillier?” I meant, “more awesome.”
All things considered, and in the greater scheme of things, Stone’s script commits no great offenses worse than anything you’d find in any other low-budget action film. In fact, as far as ninja films go, it’s one of the most sensible scripts around. Although Hasegawa and Cole do eventually suit up in the traditional garb, Cole does most of his ninja-ing in a pair of slacks and a safari shirt or in a jogging suit. And not once do they perform mystical feats like flying or disappearing or splitting themselves into phantom decoy images. It’s all pretty straight-forward, no-nonsense stuff, and given the utter absurdities that would soon clog the ninja arteries, the simple yet grounded-in-reality (relatively speaking) story is a welcome thing. It wasn’t until after this film that things would get ridiculous and Tomas Tang would have lanky white guys in shiny red, white and blue ninja outfits running around with bright yellow headbands that said “Ninja” on them in that jagged “Oriental” font.
The fight choreography ranges from typical to slightly above-average, with the final sword fight between Cole (being played under the mask by Mike Stone) and Hasegawa being the high point. It’s obvious that you have two real martial artists doing the work during that scene. The rest of the fights consist of the typical “guy with martial arts fights lugs without martial arts,” so there’s very little in the way of martial arts choreography. Franco Nero hits the guys a lot, then transforms into Mike Stone to deliver the occasional kick or flip. Sho Kosugi fight twice. He gets his ass kicked both times. The only time he wins a fight is when he’s tangling with a drunk. All things considered, his onscreen fight victories are no more impressive or numerous than those of Sigfried. But at least he looked good getting his ass kicked, and Sho Kosugi was aggressive enough behind the scenes to parlay his supporting villain role into a memorable career. If you want scintillating martial arts mayhem, Enter the Ninja is going to leave you cold. If you want historical facts about ninjas, you’re going to be just as cold, and you really should start exercising better judgment in where you look for historical information. If, however, you’re looking for an unpolished but fairly enjoyable low-budget action film that just happens to feature two guys who don ninja uniforms at the very end, then you could do worse.
Cannon followed the success of this film with Revenge of the Ninja, this time turning the tables and making Sho Kosugi the hero. He did very little in Enter the Ninja until the end, but Revenge was Sho’s show. It was supposed to be Stone’s show, but once again, Golan pulled the rug out from under the karate champ and left him standing in the rain. It seems kind of cruel, but given Stone’s acting career after his time with Cannon (as in, he didn’t have one), perhaps his acting skills were simply not as impressive as his fighting skills. When the ninja craze died out a few years later, Sho disappeared back into the shadows from whence he came, emerging only once in the 1990s in an attempt to market his “Ninjasize” workout video, complete with spandex-clad “Ninjettes.” It didn’t really grab the world the same way Tae Bo did, but it paid a few bills.