There are some of the best ninja scenes ever filmed in these ten classic martial arts flicks.
Unambiguously: Ninja were (and, depending on whom you ask, are) real. Many isolated rural clans of Japan’s feudal era (which began in the 15th century) were resistive and even antagonistic to the idea of being dominated by the laws of nobility, especially when they were enforced by often brutal samurai. Some of these resilient clans, unable to compete with the well-funded and well-equipped samurai in traditional combat, developed martial arts techniques and fighting strategies based on environmental mastery, as well as weapons made from common farm tools and simple farming equipment, to level the playing field in battles..
For this reason, the aristocracy began to use the best of these clans’ so-called “ninjas” as mercenaries and spies. As a result of their abilities and willingness to do “dirty work” that samurai typically considered beneath them, they became highly sought after. Even though they were well-known for their ninja prodigies in the Koga and Iga clans, many left the communities to work for individual nobility or the Shogunate itself because of their abilities. Many established “respectable” houses/lineages of their own, which later became the basis for today’s popular image of ninja as “shadow warriors.”
In Japan’s history, little is known about the actual ninjas who carried out what would now be called “black ops” missions. 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 primarily Chinese-centric martial arts film genre, this naturally made them a popular villain as well. During the heyday of “kung-fu movies” in the 1970s and 1980s, the ninja mystique grew exponentially.
As a result, the following are the top ten best movies of all time.
1. 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 Nina, 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 (Shind jinen-ry school). Pray for Death, one of the few American martial-arts films of the day that featured Asian characters at the core of the plot, was a perfect vehicle for his onscreen magnetism.
The story revolves around Kosugi, a Japanese guy who uproots his family and relocates to the United States in order to help his American-born wife build a restaurant. In order to protect the family from corrupt cops and local criminal lords, he is compelled to use his (hidden) ninja talents. Action is satisfying, and it’s admirable to have an immigrant Japanese family as the film’s unequivocal heroes in an era when anti-Japanese bigotry was rife in the United States at the time of its production.
2. 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. For all of its ninja action and low-tech creativity, the film’s most lasting contribution to popular culture was an obscure arcade game that was never released outside of Japan and featured a futuristic soldier who had been changed into a half-machine ninja to fight an alien invasion.
Zeiram and Mechanical Violator Hakaider director Amemiya would eventually find more success.
3. NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984)
This third “spiritual sequel” in a series tied together only by the presence of Sho Kosugi in (unrelated) supporting parts follows Canon Film’s money-making B-grade ninja smashes Enter The Ninja and Revenge of The Ninja. As the most bizarre, this is often referred to as the “best” of the bunch.
Exorcist-ninja hybrid: A lady is possessed by the spirit of an extinct ninja, who forces her to perform martial-arts murders against her will. Kosugi is the only good ninja who has the power to expel evil through a ritual fair combat, despite the efforts of Chinese exorcist James Hong. Even in the ninja genre, there’s nothing quite like it.
4. 007: YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)
Assuming you can get past all the highly uncomfortable (especially by James Bond standards) racism, this is one of the greatest ninja-centric action movies and one of the best original James Bond flicks… if you can get past all the skin-darkening cosmetics and black hair color. Yeesh.
No wonder they didn’t like this one. It includes the best Bond (Connery), the best Bond villain (Donald Pleasance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld), the best Bond villain lair (a rocket-launch facility concealed inside a hollowed out volcano), and the best Bond finale action sequence. 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 act (centered on a “Japanified” Bond) is so jarring.
5. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1989)
It doesn’t matter how well any of the other TMNT adaptations have held up, because the original live-action film stands out as a legitimately solid action feature that has no Earthly business holding up as well as it does. A lot of that has to do with a strong aesthetic decision to ground the narrative in the gritty urban-noir setting established in the original independent comics (a brutal satire of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run) that started the franchise, but render the titular Turtles themselves in the fashion of their more strongly-characterized animated series incarnations.
There is a surprising amount of heart and real stakes in the end outcome (what “kids movie” of today would slow down for the meditative 2nd act journey to the farm?) 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.
6. SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA (1978)
Despite the fact that ninja originated in Japan, their depiction in Chinese martial-arts films has largely shaped the public conception of them around the world.
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).
A Chinese Shaolin-kung-fu student is shocked to learn that his businessman father has arranged for his marriage to the daughter of a Japanese partner, but he decides to stick it out after assessing his options (Cons: lifelong commitment, had no say in the matter, doesn’t know this woman. In her favor, she’s quite attractive. They dispute over professional standards (Japanese Karate is “undignified,” Chinese weapons is “inelegant,” etc.) and, in particular, over her past in ninja techniques, which he sees as dishonorable, when he learns that his new bride is also a martial artist. She gets angry and leaves for Japan, but Liu has a plan to woo her back by hosting an invitational China-versus-Japan fighting competition she will be unable to reject. Liu’s three-section-staff technique against a Bruce Lee impersonator using nunchaku is the most amazing cross-discipline bout of the night.
7. NINJA: SHADOW OF A TEAR (2013)
He’s one of the most exciting Western martial-arts stars on the B-movie industry today, thanks to his roles in the two Undisputed sequels and Universal Soldier: The Reckoning. But although the original Ninja was a rather forgettable affair, Ninja: Shadow of a Tear is a bona genuine ninja masterpiece.
A revenge story, Shadow of a Tear is directed by Israeli-born action specialist Isaac Florentine, who worked on the original Power Rangers series from the “Mighty Morphin” to “Lightspeed Rescue” eras (with whom Adkins frequently collaborates) and is a showcase for Adkins’ impressive physicality in the form of ninja fight scenes.
8. LONE WOLF & CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE (1972)
This film, often known as the “Baby Cart” series because of the prominent role of ninja adversaries, is the origin of one of the most well-known samurai film franchises of all time.
The plot: Retsudo Yagyu, the Shogun’s personal ninja assassination squad master, conspires against Ogami Itto, the Shogun’s head executioner. He goes on the run with his infant son Daigoro in a bulletproof and armored baby carriage loaded with secret weaponry that both father and kid can use (hence “Baby Cart”). Soldier-of-fortune job and the Yagyu ninja clan’s onslaught continue to plague them in feudal Japan.
9. THE FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982)
With films like The Five Deadly Venoms, Crippled Avengers, The Water Margin, and many more, Chang Cheh, aka “The Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema,” is widely recognized as one of the most influential filmmakers in the martial arts genre, if not the whole history of Chinese cinema. And in The Five Element Ninjas, he established a framework from which nearly all following ninja films would borrow.
Chinese martial arts pupils are stalked by ninja teams who use the elements Water, Fire, Earth, Wood, and Gold in their attacks and fighting tactics after their leader kills a Japanese opponent in combat. Color-coded ninja visual gimmicks (red for fire, blue for water) and a wide variety of weapons and styles (both authentic and very imaginary) help Cheh deliver among his most impressive action sequences, including a bravura twenty-minute (really!) final stretch in which the kung-fu students take down all five elemental teams with a flurry of new weapon-techniques that has to be experienced to be believed.
10. 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. Action films of the Shaw Brothers’ “Golden Age” were seen as the beginning of Hong Kong action cinema’s transition from the Shaw Brothers “Golden Age” to the modern era, which would produce international superstars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and filmmakers like John Woo; reviving the formerly-taboo bloodshed and sexuality, while eschewing studio-bound settings for neo-realistic, on-the-street locations.
It also had a lasting impact on how ninjas were portrayed in popular culture for decades to come. There were no longer any color-coded uniforms, only black pajamas, and hordes of ever replenishing foot soldiers swarming over action scenes like human fire ants.
The film’s premise revolves around an annual international martial-arts competition that culminates in a ceremonial combat between the greatest swordsmen from China and Japan for national pride. Other masters traveling to the tournament are being kidnapped by ninjas as part of a Japanese conspiracy to steal Chinese kung-fu secrets as the two major competitors battle their inner demons. Swordfighting moments in the film are widely regarded as the film’s most original, but back in the day, it was the new-school ninja action that sparked a flurry of talk.