Today I watched Sam Firstenberg’s Revenge of the Ninja (1983)
The Ninja, from their historical origins as little more guerilla fighters, insurgents, and assassins in Japan, they have risen to be many things in popular culture. Some Ninja’s are honourable warriors, others roguish outlaws, some are straight up battle wizards, and this is just in Japanese media. While the nature of the ninja as a stealth combatant is hardly unique this particular variation has asserted an unspeakably powerful presence upon global pop culture. Ninja first appeared in film in Japan of course and by the 80’s a number of talented young directors in the action genre had seen the Japanese originals and wanted to use them in their own films. I think to them the Ninja was appealing because it was at once both aggressive imagery and was something attainable on a smaller budget. One has to remember that the action films of the time were dominated by muscle bound bodies and endless fireballs, not the kind of thing one can do on a budget or on short notice. A ninja by it’s very nature can be anybody and goes about violence with a certain precision that allows a film maker to avoid expensive effects.
Revenge of the Ninja is, for my money, one of the high points of the 80’s ninja phenomena. It stars genre superstar Sho Kosugi as the leader of a ninja clan that is attacked in the film’s opening moments. Both his wife and his eldest child are killed in the attack but his youngest survives. At the insistence of his American friend Braden, he moves to the USA to start a new life for him and his son. Braden sets him up with a curating gig but it is soon revealed that the curating job is an unwitting cover for Braden’s drug smuggling operation. Frankly, more so than many films, this story is just an excuse to move from action scene to action scene and has little to it beyond what Kosugi can bring to his role. But as a somewhat procedural look at the violence wreaked by the modern ninja, this is a pretty great flick. Unlike a lot of movies, this one actually has ninja that focus on stealth, even if they still wear their traditional black uniforms. As an American attempt at this genre it is totally solid and a good entry point for sure, though it is as interesting for it’s historical significance to me as it is for the good old fashioned action.
Action movies are one of my favorite topics in the realm of film, especially how they have changed over the years. Those 80’s bodybuilders didn’t stick around forever and I think we really have our friend the ninja to at leas partially thank. The ninja movie, and martial arts films in general, began as an alternative to the muscle bound mainstream. The realistic combat displayed by trained martial artists like Sho Kosugi, who is also an actor who appears as an unassuming everyman when not kicking ass, makes the heroism of action seem so much more attainable, and that notion has taken over. Sho Kosugi and alternative B-movies like this paved the way for skinny guys like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, and less obviously Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Inherently this also meant the less imposing and svelte physiques of your typical Hollywood actresses could also believably kick ass and thus the world of action is a much more inclusive place, thank you ninjas. 5/5