This collection of 15 vintage martial arts flicks contains some of the best ninja action ever seen on film.
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Ninja were (and, depending on whoever you ask, may still be) a real phenomenon. Japanese feudal era was marked by resistance and even hostility from rural clans to being dominated by the laws of nobility, especially when enforced by harsh and ruthless samurai. A few of these clans, who could not compete in traditional battle with the heavily armed and well-funded samurai due to lack of funds and resources, devised unique martial-arts techniques and fighting strategies in attempt to level the playing field in combat.
For this reason, the aristocracy began to use the best of these clans’ so-called “ninjas” as spy and mercenary services. It was because of their ability to perform “dirty jobs” that samurai frequently viewed as beneath them that they became sought-after recruits. As a result, several members of the Koga and Iga clans left their towns to become professional ninja operatives for lords or the Shogunate itself. As time went on, some even managed to create “respectable” houses/lineages of their own, which eventually became the basis for the ninja stereotype.
There are little records of ninja activity in Japanese history, as would be expected of professional murderers paid to carry out “black ops” missions today. Ninja were popularized in Chinese historical-fiction, where they were used as an example of the dishonorable and deceitful behavior that was anticipated of Japanese villains. This is why the name “ninja” itself is an Early Middle Chinese translation. In the original Chinese martial arts film genre, this made them a popular villain as well. During the 1970s and 1980s, “kung-fu movies” were hugely popular, and the ninja mythology went along with it.
Listed here are the fifteen best films that were made as a result.
1. THE KILLER ELITE (1975)
The Sam Peckinpah? No one has ever made a ninja movie by the greatest action filmmaker of all time. With James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Burt Young?! It sounds too wonderful to be true, but regrettably, it isn’t for action seekers. Even while this isn’t one of the legendary tough guy director’s best films, it is a solid movie and a landmark for fans of the shadow-sleepers as one of the first mainstream American features to give ninjas a “realistic” presentation—albeit one that is limited to the extended shipyard brawl finale.
While some may find it fascinating to see the film’s ninja in Peckinpah’s more “grounded” Western style (no wirework, no exaggerated sound-effects, and not invincibility to gunfire), others may be disappointed that when the ninja finally appear, they don’t exactly receive the proper respect from the main (Western) cast. Instead, the film depicts them as a lethal (but not terrifying) element of the Japanese characters’ strange/”exotic” cultural oddities rather than a threat to the protagonists. In any case, witnessing a kung-fu/grindhouse staple like ninja starring alongside famous Hollywood stars was a groundbreaking and exhilarating new phenomenon at the moment.
2. NINJA FANTASY (1987)
Nobody made ninjas more popular in the 1980s than Godfrey Ho, a mysterious Hong Kong producer and director who is thought to have made over 80 films between 1980 and 1990 under a variety of aliases, including Godfrey Hall, Benny Ho and Ho Chi-Mou. Most of his films had the term Ninja in the title, and they were made by splicing together previously unrelated low-budget films from Thailand, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Asia with newly-shot ninja battle scenes and then utilizing English-language dubbing to create a completely new plot.
Ninja Fantasy (also known as Twinkle Ninja Fantasy and Empire of the Ninjas) is one of Ho’s more easily recognizable and well-known works, thanks to an infamous sequence in which a blue-clad ninja battles a swarm of red-suited attackers who sneak up on him and his lady friend on a secluded beach by transforming into fish.. There is an undeniable vitality to Ho’s strange fight scenes, and his characteristic propensity for Skittles-colored ninja garb has affected everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Mortal Kombat.
3. THE OCTAGON (1980)
It’s here: For the first time in his career, Chuck Norris does not be pounded around the Colosseum by Bruce Lee in this Chuck Norris movie. When the Rambo-imitator era hit, Norris quickly moved away from martial-arts films to ones with lots of gunplay. It’s easy to forget how unique he was as a white American action hero with the moves of an Asian kung-fu star in the late ’70s, and The Octagon serves as a fitting reminder while also being (almost) a good movie in its own right.
“The Octagon” is the name of the dangerous obstacle course that must be overcome by the Karate Kommando’s ninjutsu-trained ex-karate champ to penetrate the secretive ninja clan that includes his Japanese ninja “blood brother” (Tadashi Yamashita). Aside from the generic plot, this is a fun action flick with some great ninja action, and it’s frequently credited for igniting the “ninja craze” in low-budget action films of the 1980s.
4. SHINOBI: HEART UNDER BLADE (2005)
It’s hard to believe, but ninjas are still less popular in Japanese pop culture than they are in the West, especially in China’s neighbor. However, the theme is occasionally popular in Japan, notably in the domain of manga, animes, and historical-fantasy novels. Tokugawa Shogunate feud between the Koga and Iga clans during the dawn of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which also served as the foundation for anime Basilisk, is one such novel that Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is based on.
What’s the saga? There are ninjas in Romeo and Juliet! Two clan heads, male and female, are preparing to join forces and form an army that might challenge Tokugawa Ieyasu’s reign, because of the predominance of superhuman ninja talents in both clans. In order to avoid this, his men infiltrate the opposing villages and instigate conflicts while he orders a five-on-five fight to the death between the best fighters of each clan. In spite of the novel’s odd plot twists, the operatic style of the novel is maintained and its battle scenes are endlessly innovative, even if the ninja couple’s relationship is a scheme to lessen the inbreeding that created their clan’s extraordinary powers but also resulted in numerous abnormalities.
5. NINJA TERMINATOR (1985)
Godfrey Ho, the aforementioned director, has at least 115 films to his name, thus his inclusion on this list twice shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ninja Terminator is frequently cited as Godfrey Ho’s “best” ninja film, and for good reason: it features some of the best action (thanks in large part to underutilized martial arts actor Richard Lam), the most compelling plot (a quest to collect three pieces of a gold statue said to grant ultimate ninja power), and the appearance of B-movie star Richard Harrison, who is frequently referred to as “the” Godfrey Ho ninja.
When he was working in Hong Kong, Harrison was paid to shoot a small number of ninja movies for Ho, a veteran of the gladiator and spaghetti western genres, who once joked that his “greatest contribution to cinema” was turning down A Fistful of Dollars and recommending Clint Eastwood for the role instead. That he had “starred” in over a dozen ninja Z-rated films due to Ho’s cut-and-paste editing, which would ultimately damage his reputation as an actor, but are presently among his most well-known work, was only found out after the fact.
6. PRAY FOR DEATH (1985)
He became a B-movie star in the 1980s thanks to his memorable roles in the Canon Film’s “Ninja Trilogy” (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Ninja III:The Domination) and his reputed training in ninjutsu, along with other martial arts, such as Karate (Shindo Jinen-ry school), Kendo, Judo, Iaido, and Aikido, as well as ninjutsu and karate (Shindo jinen-ry school). One of the few American martial arts films to use Asian characters as protagonists was Pray For Death, in which the actor displayed his on-screen charisma to the fullest.
When Kosugi and his family decide to leave Japan for the United States, it’s because his American-born wife wants to build a restaurant in her hometown. This forces him to unleash his (hidden) ninja skills in order to protect the family from corrupt cops and the local crime syndicates. As a film filmed in a time when anti-Japanese prejudice was on the rise, it is gratifying to have a Japanese immigrant family as the film’s unequivocal protagonists.
7. MIRAI NINJA (aka CYBER NINJA) (1988)
“The H.R. Giger of Japan” is Keita Amemiya, the director/fantasy artist/FX supervisor/designer most renowned for his work on the Kamen Rider and Super Sentai (aka Power Rangers) franchises. The weird theatrical sci-fi picture that made Amemiya famous was supposed to begin a Namco franchise. Future soldier turned into a half-machine ninja to fight cyborg invasion from another dimension, it’s weak on plot but high on action and inventive low-tech FX, but its main enduring contribution to popular culture was an arcade game that was never distributed outside of Japan.
Zeiram and Mechanical Violator Hakaider, both directed by Amemiya, would go on to greater acclaim in the years to come.
8. NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984)
After the success of Enter The Ninja and Revenge of The Ninja, Canon Films followed up with this third “spiritual sequel” in a trilogy linked only by the participation of Sho Kosugi in (unrelated) supporting parts in the third film. As the most bizarre, this is often referred to as the “best” of the bunch.
The story revolves around a lady who is possessed by the spirit of a dead ninja, which causes her to perform martial arts murders without her will. He attempts to help, but Kosugi is ultimately responsible for putting things right because he is an exorcist of the highest order. Even in the ninja genre, there’s nothing quite like it.
9. 007: YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)
This is one of the better original James Bond films, especially if you can get past the overt racism (even by James Bond standards), which is difficult in a picture where Sean Connery’s character can “become Japanese” by donning skin-darkening cosmetics and black hair dye. Yeesh.
Connery as Bond, Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld, a rocket-launch base concealed inside a hollowed volcano, and the best Bond climax action sequence; with 007 leading an army of ninja to charge the volcano base are all in this film. With a screenplay penned by Roald Dahl (yes, really), this is one of Connery’s best films. It’s a shame that the film’s second part (centered on the “Japanified” Bond) is so jarring.
10. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1989)
It doesn’t matter how well any of the previous TMNT adaptations have held up, but the first live-action film stands out as a legitimately solid action film that has no business holding up as well as it has. When it comes to the visuals, it’s all about a strong aesthetic decision to keep things grounded in the gritty urban-noir setting of the original independent comics, but to give a more cartoonish look to the titular Turtles themselves in the style of their more strongly-characterized animated series counterparts.
There is a surprising amount of heart and real stakes in the end result (what “kids movie” nowadays would slow down for the meditative 2nd act journey to the farm?”) as a result. In contrast to the slapstick-heavy animation, the film was based on a series of dramatic ninja confrontations. As a result, parents were incensed enough that the Turtles were obliged to refrain from using their weapons in the sequel. Bogus.
11. SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA (1978)
However, despite their origins in Japan, Chinese martial-arts films account for the vast majority of how the world sees ninja.
As one of the greatest martial arts films ever made, Shaolin Challenges Ninja stars Gordon Liu as a ninja who is challenged by the renowned Lau Kar-Leung (Master of the Flying Guillotine, My Young Auntie, Drunken Master II) (Kill Bill, The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter).
To his dismay, Liu discovers that his father, a Japanese businessman, has planned his marriage to the daughter of an associate, a Japanese woman he doesn’t know. He weighs the pros and cons of the situation and makes the decision to marry her. In her favor, she’s quite attractive. His new spouse is a martial artist, and the two of them quickly dispute over their professional beliefs (Japanese Karate is “undignified,” Chinese weapons are “inelegant,” etc.), as well as her history in the ninja skills, which he deems dishonorable. While Liu plans an invitational China vs. Japan combat competition to win her back when she returns to Japan (her attractive former ninjutsu instructor), she becomes upset and heads back to Japan. Liu’s three-section-staff technique against a Bruce Lee impersonator with nunchaku is the most amazing cross-discipline bout of the night.
12. NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013)
Undisputed 2 and Universal Soldier: The Reckoning are two of Scott Adkins’ best B-movie martial-arts films, and he’ll soon be seen in the upcoming Doctor Strange film. While the original Ninja was a relatively forgettable film, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is a true ninja masterpiece.
Shadow of a Tear is a revenge story that exists solely to set up eye-poppingly violent, flawlessly-choreographed ninja fight sequences that showcase Adkins’ impressive physicality.
13. LONE WOLF & CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1972)
In this film, one of the most renowned samurai film franchises of all time was born; it featured ninja as the principal adversaries and inspired the graphic novel (and Tom Hanks hitman movie) Road to Perdition.
This is the plot: Retsudo Yagyu, master of the Shogun’s personal ninja murder team conspires against Ogami Itto, head executioner of the Shogun’s execution squad. A ronin for hire, Itto takes his infant son Daigoro with him in an armored, bullet-proof, and equipped with hidden weapons baby carriage. Both father and kid can activate the weaponry (hence “Baby Cart”). Their journey through feudal Japan includes work as a soldier of fortune and a battle against the Yagyu ninja clan.
14. THE FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982)
“Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema” Chang Cheh, who directed more than 100 films in his illustrious career, is widely recognized as one of the greatest filmmakers in the martial arts genre, if not the entire history of Chinese filmmaking. Furthermore, he contributed to the development of the formula that would be used in nearly every following ninja film.
Students of a Chinese martial-arts school are hunted by a group of revenge-seeking ninjas who use their attacks and fighting tactics based on the elements of Water, Fire, Earth, Wood, and Gold in their attacks and defenses. There are many claims that Cheh popularized the “color coded ninja” visual gag (red for fire, blue for water, etc.), but the wide range of weapons and styles (both authentic and very imaginary) help him deliver some of his most impressive action sequences, including an impressive twenty-minute (really!) final stretch in which the kung-fu students defeat all five elemental teams with a barrage of new weapon-techniques that have to be seen in order to be believed.
15. DUEL TO THE DEATH (1983)
The action choreographer in Hong Kong martial arts films for nearly a decade was Ching Siu-Tung before he decided to make his first film. When it came out, it divided critics, audiences and filmmakers, but today it is widely regarded as the beginning of Hong Kong action cinema’s transition from the Shaw Brothers “Golden Age” to the modern era that would bring international superstars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and John Woo to international prominence; ramping up the formerly-taboo bloodshed and sexuality while eschewing studio-bound settings for nefarious locations.
It also had a lasting impact on how ninjas were portrayed in popular culture for decades to come. Small squads were replaced by a glut of infinitely regenerating foot troops swarming over action scenes like human fire ants—and that was just the beginning of the transformation..
The film’s premise revolves around an annual international martial arts competition that culminates in a ceremonial combat for national pride between the greatest swordsmen from China and Japan. While the two major competitors fight their inner demons on the route to the tournament, other masters making the same trek are being systematically abducted by ninjas as part of a diabolical Japanese plot to steal the secrets of Chinese kung fu. Swordfighting scenes in the film are widely regarded as the film’s most inventive, but back in the day, it was the new-school ninja action that sparked a commotion.
It’s ninja action like no other! An army of ninjas in suicide vests, flying enormous kites, burrowing in the ground, shattering into five or six smaller forms, flashy nudity-flashing “distraction” ninja, and swordplay with hundreds of shuriken falling like lethal snowflakes are all part of the show. It was the first time in film history that there were ninja, and every subsequent depiction of them owes it to Duel to the Death.