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Ninja Movies That Helped Shape a Generation

If you were fortunate enough to be an 80s and 90s kid, you were probably shaped by Kung Fu Action Theater and a plethora of ninja movies. However, if you missed these decades don’t worry, we’re here to guide you through some hidden gems. If you’re wondering how these classics escaped you, they’re ninjas, silly. It’s kind of their thing.

Ninja Movies Knew How to Do It Right

A hollow reed, used to enable breathing underwater, makes its way silently across a moat. Then, a grappling hook is tossed over a wall, allowing a shadow to enter the castle unnoticed. A sleeping guard at his post is dragged into darkness, and a blade cuts his throat.

Next, using hand claws, the shadow scales the wall and enters the rafters above his victim’s bedchamber. A cotton thread saturated with poison is lowered from the ceiling, and a single drop seals the victim’s fate. 

To escape, the ninja must cross the compound’s nightingale floor. A momentary lapse in focus causes the dreaded chirp of the floorboards, which alerts all within earshot of the ninja’s presence.

As the guards give chase, they are greeted with a barrage of shuriken. Many are expertly cut down by the ninja’s blade in an epic battle. Finally, there is an explosion followed by a white puff of smoke, and the ninja vanishes into thin air. 

(Photo by iStock Photos)

Legendary spies and assassins, ninjas came to prominence in 15th-century Japan. This led to them becoming immortalized on the silver screen in what became the ninja craze of the 20th century.

Early films, like Shinobi No Mono from 1962, took the world by storm and inspired an additional seven sequels and a TV series. The original film follows Goemon, a young ninja caught up in intrigue who is forced to try to assassinate the powerful warlord Nobunaga before he destroys the ninja clans of Iga, Japan.

It was a tale of betrayal and revenge that paved the way for so many great films to come.

Sho Kosugi Movies

Franco Nero Poster, Enter The Ninja (1981).
(Photo by Alamy)

The Japanese filmmaker, actor, and martial artist Sho Kosugi is one of the best things to ever happen to ninja movies. And he has a host of great titles under his black belt.

Currently 72, he has studied multiple martial arts across his extensive career, including ninjutsu. He also starred in a trilogy of early-1980s ninja movies—Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination. The third film in cinematic trilogies is rarely the best, but Kosugi’s movies just kept getting better.

Ninja III features a bloody assassination battle on a golf course that sees Kosugi’s character killed. But even then, he possesses the body of a female aerobics instructor and proceeds to take revenge—ninja style. It sounds campy, and it is. However, Ninja III comes through with all the high-flying ninja action one could ask for.

Continuing his reign of ninja supremacy, Sho Kosugi later starred in other ninja films. These include 9 Deaths of the Ninja, Pray for Death, and Rage of Honor. He them teamed up with another great martial artist in Black Eagle.

This was not strictly a ninja film, but it does pit this ninja master against Jean-Claude Van Damme, which makes for some explosive action. Sho Kosugi’s films should definitely be on every aspiring ninja’s watch list.

You Only Live Once

With the recent passing of Sean Connery, I must mention the James Bond classic You Only Live Twice since it is a ninja extravaganza.

In this film, Bond faces off against the terrorist organization SPECTRE in a bid to stop a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This takes him to Japan, where he works with ninjas to halt the threat. Alongside Bond, ninjas play a pivotal role in taking down the SPECTRE base in a hack-and-slash spectacular worthy of any ninja film.

The Octagon

The Octagon, American Cinema Releasing (1980).
(Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection, Alamy)

Ninjas are powerful and mythical warriors. But before they go to sleep at night, even they check under their beds for Chuck Norris. We all know that if you can see Chuck Norris, then he can see you. However, if you can’t see Chuck Norris, then you may be only seconds away from death. This is definitely the case in the 1980 classic The Octagon.

Norris plays Scott James, a karate champ who must defeat a plan by ninjas to create a worldwide training camp for terrorists. This is one of Chuck’s first leading roles, and it builds to a crescendo when he enters the Octagon. Once there, he battles his way through a horde of ninjas to get to their leader, Seikura.

The action is brutal as Norris weaves his way through a labyrinth of traps while kicking and chopping through any ninjas that stand in his way.

Five Elements Ninjas

Next comes the classic Five Elements Ninjas. In this movie, a martial arts school is defeated by its rivals. So, they hired the Five Elements Ninjas to destroy that school. The only survivor of the massacre comes back to seek revenge in a bloody romp for the ages. 

He faces the ninjas whose fighting styles represent the five Chinese elements of gold, wood, water, fire, and earth. Their abilities make for some excellent fight scenes, such as earth ninjas exploding up from under the ground. Likewise, water ninjas drag victims into the depths to drown.

Golden shields, ninjas disguised as trees, and significant use of fire round out the Elements’ battle tactics. This one should not be missed.

Ninja and Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear

Scott Adkins Ninja: Shadow of A Tear; Ninja 2 (2013).
(Photo by Alamy)

Another great duo of films is the combo of Ninja and Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear.  They feature Scott Adkins, who is an incredible martial artist known for his aerial kicks.  (You may know Adkins from his portrayal of Yuri Boyka in the Undisputed films.)

In Ninja II, he faces off in the climactic fight scene against Kane Kosugi—that’s right, Kane is the son of Sho Kosugi. The battle choreography in this movie is top-notch and makes for a hell of a ride.

Ninja Assassin

Rain Ninja Assassin (2009).
(Photo by Alamy)

Finally, we come to Ninja Assassin from the Wachowskis, who also brought us The Matrix. This is the tale of Raizo, who was trained by the Ozunu clan. After the clan kills his friend, he realizes that they are truly evil and seeks revenge on them.

The Ozunu clan is headed by—you guessed it—Sho Kosugi, who plays Lord Ozunu. This is an action-packed film filled with all the gory ninja goodness you could ask for. The fights are bloody, making this a must-see for any disciple of the ninja genre.

Ninja movies are in a class all their own, and there is no shortage of cinematic tales of martial arts revenge to slake your thirst for blood and dazzling fight choreography.

Beware the shadows, for death lies within at the hands of the ninja!

This article was originally published in the Skillset Spring 2021 issue. Purchase this issue in print or digital at OutdoorGroupStore.com.

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