The ninja or shinobi are a group that are universally known and yet still shrouded in mystery, due to the myth building that has surrounded them much like that of Robin Hood and his band of thieves .
Ninja first started to appear in Japan around the 15th century out of necessity because people needed someone to perform clandestine activities, assassinations, intelligence gathering, and they needed outside mercenaries . One of the main needs for this was the samurai ideal or code, warlords didn’t want to damage their samurai’s reputations and most samurai would refuse this type of job .
Because of this code the ninjas weren’t liked and didn’t even like themselves, never admitting to anyone that they were a ninja . You can’t really blame the Japanese society not liking them, “no one had any respect for someone whose job it was to sneak into a person’s house to spy on them, slit a throat, steal, or poison the food” .
They had knowledge of the martial arts and various tactics, used camouflage, explosives, and various weapons. All of this has been exaggerated and embellished like a myth or fairy tale to create a group that was almost superhuman.
The first notable versions of the ninja appeared in the 1957 with the two Ninjitsu and future Japanese films playing them straight and realistic; the Ninjitsu films starred Toshiro Mifune who had just come off of the popular Samurai trilogy. The Shinobi no Mono film from 1962 was so popular it was followed by seven sequels.
Outside of Japan, the ninjas abilities where embellished. Hong Kong and other Asian countries released films involving the ninja starting in the 1970’s, with the major quantity of ninja films coming out between then and 1990. There were just several U.S. films involving the ninja during the 1970’s.
It wasn’t until 1980, when the novel The Ninja written by Eric Van Lustbader that the ninja popularity was near ready to explode. There was a plan to make the book a big Hollywood movie, but Cannon Pictures beat the other studios by releasing Enter the Dragon. It was a huge success and ninja popularity completely blew up, with a slew of ninja movies coming out during the 1980’s.
[Author’s Note: This list is not meant to be an all inclusive list or a best of list; it is simply twenty cult movies that may be worth your time.]
1. Ninja, a Band of Assassins (1962)
This is one of the first films to depict the ninja. It is a about a rogue ninja named Goemon Ishikawa that goes against a warlord that despises the practice of Buddhism.
It is based off of a popular series of novels and would have a total of eight films made, all starring Raizo Ichiwaka. This is essential viewing for fans of the old school samurai films that Japan produced from the 1950’s through the 1970’s.
The plot may be difficult at times to follow but there is a lot going on in this, as normally the case with most of these types of films. Ichiwaka was a popular star and appeared in several other series but unfortunately died in 1969 from rectal cancer at the age of 37.
2. The Third Ninja (1964)
Set in 1572 Japan, a ninja is sent out to assassinate one warlord. Three ninja loyal to this warlord find out about the plan and set out to stop the ninja.
This gritty black and white story resembles a film noir and portrays the ninja and their techniques in a serious and realistic manner. The early Japanese ninja films were more concerned with realism, similar to the stories told about the samurai.
3. Shadow Hunters (1972)
“Sudden Death Comes in Threes!” . Three men during the Tokugawa era have a real big problem with the ninja, so they hunt them down and kill them. Based on a comic, the film has the same level of nudity and violence that Lone Wolf and Cub do.
Not as well remembered as that series, this one delivers in every category that would make this a cult film. It has violence, lots of blood, and nudity. Add some ninjas into the mix and you have an awesome film. It was popular enough to have a sequel released in the same year.
4. The Killer Elite (1975)
“MEN WANTED. Private company with C.I.A. contract seeks men willing to risk life. Perfect physical condition. Experience with weaponry, incendiaries, Karate/Judo. No loyalties. No dependents. Long career doubtful” . George (Robert Duvall) takes a better deal with a ninja organization and shoots his best friend Mike (James Caan) and partner in the elbow and knee, nearly crippling him. With the use of braces and somewhat healed, George takes a job in order to seek out revenge on his former friend.
The film is directed by Sam Peckinpah and while it is nowhere near the level of the Wild Bunch, it is a decent enough movie. He deals with the same theme of conflicting friendship, loyalty, and honor that he dealt with in the Wild Bunch. In that one Deke had no choice in pursuing Pike.
In this film, it is all about revenge. But their friendship is deep and neither is willing to finish the job, which is why George didn’t tap a third bullet in the head. It also features appearances from Peckinpah regulars Bo Perkins and Burt Young.
The appearance of ninjas is very minimal in this film and is pretty much just towards the end, focusing more on the friendship story between George and Mike.
5. The Octagon (1980)
Chuck Norris takes on a band of ninjas that have created camps around the world for training ninja assassins to complete terrorist acts. The film is known for the audience being able to hear the characters inner voice.
The film is pretty light on action. There is a car chase and then the final battle is pretty decent as Norris takes on multiple ninjas and then the top level guys. While this one appeared before Enter the Ninja, it didn’t create the ninja explosion that would soon follow because it was more realistic compared to the Cannon films.
6. Enter the Ninja (1981)
“Warriors of a lost martial art! Hired assassins …human killing machines!” . Even though there were a few before it, this was essentially the film that led to the American ninja explosion. Franco Nero plays a man that was trained as a ninja and heads to the Philippines to visit a friend who runs a farm and ends up having to use his skills to battle local thugs and a former ninja rival (Sho Kosugi).
The originally was supposed to star Mike stone, but they weren’t satisfied with his acting and replaced him with Nero and kept stone on to do the stunts. Nero had no martial arts training, so all of the martial arts were performed by Stone. This was the first in an unofficial trilogy, which also included Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination.
7. Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1982)
A woman spends 17 years training in the ways of the ninja so that she can return to China and avenge her father’s death. Once she gets there, she gathers together a team of girls and trains them to become ninjas. After 17 years, you would think the people that killed her father would be dead already but apparently not.
There’s crazy action and wire fu, including multiple training sequences where she trains to become a ninja and where she stretches and tortures her new girls. There is one big training sequence where she takes on multiple ninja and they surround her with shield lit on fire.
8. Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (1982)
This is a Hong Kong production that features a ninja and Chinese martial artist teaming up to take on a powerful sorcerer. This was Cory Yuen’s first film as a director and he delivers on the action, also normally serving action choreographer as well. He directed several Jet Li films and has done multiple American films including The Transporter.
The film’s stars are Conan Lee and Hiroyuki Sanada. Lee was a credible action star in Hong Kong, appearing in Tiger on the Beat and is also featured in Gymkata. Sanada has had a long and successful career and played samurai and ninja, starring in Twilight Samurai and 47 Ronin.
9. Five Element Ninjas AKA Chinese Super Ninjas (1982)
This was the first Chang Cheh movie that no longer featured the venom mob, with most of them “jockeying for space” and three returning to Taiwan to make films . Cheh found a new star in Tien-Chi Cheng, who plays Shao Tien-Hao. Two rival martial arts schools have a competition when Chief Hong challenges Yuan Zeng.
Hong brings in a Japanese samurai to be one of the competitors, who ends up being defeated by one of Zeng’s students. The samurai in defeat commits suicide and has a letter sent back to Japan asking to be avenged. The five element ninjas show up and challenge the clan; consisting of gold, wood, water, fire, and earth. Not knowing of their ninja tricks, the group murdered.
A female ninja infiltrates the rest of the clan and helps the ninja get in. All but one is killed and he escapes. He seeks a new master who teaches him the ninja tricks and is joined by his other students to get revenge.
This is quite possibly Chang Cheh’s most violent and bloody film, which is one reason what this film is so popular and in the realm of a cult classic. The ninja costumes and different weapons used stand out. Add to that the story of the hero creating techniques and weapons in order to defeat them makes it quite memorable. The action and fight choreography is outstanding, especially the last twenty or so minutes for the final battle.
10. Revenge of the Ninja (1983)
“400 years of training in the art of sudden death… unleashed on 20th century America” . Shane Kosugi stars in this unofficial sequel to Enter the Ninja, this time with him taking on the main character of the story.
He plays a father who moves his son to America to start over after his family was murdered by ninjas. He starts a doll shop with an American friend, who turns out to be using the dolls as a way to ship heroin. Oh, and he also happens to be a ninja. Kosugi just cannot catch a break and must don his ninja pajamas and kick some ass.
Personally, this is the best of the Kosugi Cannon ninja films. It’s the first appearance from his son Kane Kosugi and he stands out with several good fight scenes. And then the final fight scene on the rooftop between both ninjas is good, with it taking around two weeks to film the entire sequence.