As a kid, I spent many hours buried under leaves in the woods behind my house. Waiting to pounce from a secret hidey hole, I was doing my best ninja impersonation. The early 80's was a good time for the ninja, and I know I wasn't alone in my love for cheapie ninja costumes, homemade broom handle staff and nunchucks, and flea market throwing stars. Hell, even as an adult I still get the itch to perch in a tree and do my best Storm Shadow impersonation.
In the US, we had the Sho Kosugi Canon/Golan-Globus entries and the whiteboy Michael Dudikoff American Ninja films, and if you lived on the West Coast and had the right satellite provider, you could watch Sonny Chiba in Shadow Warriors (four series, from 1980-1985). Sadly, I lived in the South, and Shadow Warriors became a show I obsessively tracked down. When I finally found some copies, as both a Sonny Chiba fan and former childhood wannabe ninja, I was happy to find that the series lived up to my expectations and even surmounted them.
Shadow Warriors, series one, begins with the death of the third Tokugawa shogun and the appointment of the next in line, who happens to be a five year old boy. During Japan's turbulent age of feudal warring, this naturally adds an extra stone in the already rocky path that comes with each changing of the guard.
For the Iga ninja, the previous shogunate left them in near ruin and forced them into hiding, scattered them across the land, and over the years they have maintained a fragile connection with one another while struggling to survive on their own. Their leader, Hattori Hanzo has been living an inconspicuous life as a bathhouse owner. His distrust of the government has grown so great, despite many of his compatriots starving, he doesn't even want to bother with getting Iga a new foothold within the new power structure. He figures ninjas were meant to be in the shadows, "Shadow is always a shadow. It cannot be the light," and he doesn't want to make his men and women political puppets again only to be tossed away and cheated by those in control.
But, Hanzo's hand is forced into action to protect his clan and defend those who need justice. Rival ninja clan the Kouga ninja, lead by viper-eyed Minaguchi Kisabuto, uses the new leadership as an excuse to gain power and rid the territory of their competition. Well-intentioned official Hoshina, a just politician among many snakes, begins an uneven alliance with Hanzo, informing him of shady goings on in hopes that Hanzo and his ninja clan will uncover the wrong doings.
The warring factions and underhanded political machinations open the door for many stories. The Iga, though they are a clan of ass kickers, are downtrodden underdogs, ten years separated from any kind of support, yet not defeated and very much thirsty for action. You'll find Hanzo and the Iga fighting against their own and various clans, the main one being the pesky Kouga who are intent on destroying the Iga. Storylines deal with everything from dealing with assassins, assignments to guard government loot, many kidnapings, mysteries, and general intrigue abounds from episode to episode. Also, being a Sonny Chiba and the Japan Action Club series, you'll find some affiliated guest stars like Yasuaki Kurata (Shaolin Challenges Ninja) and Etsuko Shihomi (Sister Street Fighter). The supporting cast and reoccurring characters are a wonderful lot, from fellow Iga like the reserved doctor-ninja Kyunosuke , to Hanzo's scrappy buddy Hyouroku, bathhouse matron Orin, to the pitch perfect foils in Kouga leader Kisabuto, witchy supernatural baddies, corrupted officials, or the complex unrequited love/hate relationship with the revenge seeking kunoichi Okou, just to name a few.
Shadow Warriors may be the best demonstration of Sonny Chiba's strength as a lead actor. While his peak 70's work, like Streetfighter, Executioner, Killing Machine, Bodyguard, and Yagyu Conspiracy showed him command of different levels of badassery, the breadth of a tv series gave Chiba the chance to play a character who operated on a few different levels. Hanzo is a man of many faces and facets. There is Mr. Han the public, in-hiding persona of the working class, easygoing, downright jovial, bathhouse owner. Then we have the two faces of Hanzo the ninja. To any non-Iga ninja, like officials and enemies, he is a no nonsense intimidator, very much pushing a commanding presence to be reckoned with; however, to his Iga brethren, Hanzo is very much a leader with the strength of a decision maker but also the softness and open mind of a diplomat. Depending on the circumstance, which Hanzo he is playing, Chiba changes the inflection of his wonderful, cement thick voice. Hanzo the intimidator, for instance, has vocalizations that would turn any man chalk white with fear.
Now, I won't say that Shadow Warriors is a perfect series. Luckily, its sour spots are the sour spots that plague all tv series, be it Star Trek, CSI, Lost, Bonanza, and what have you. That problem is a sense of repetition and predictability. It does play to formula and each episode, more or less, follows the basics in terms of setup, conflict, and resolution. The music, likewise, often uses the same tunes ad nauseam. Admittedly though, tedium only becomes a problem watching the episodes back-to-back and this is not how any weekly series was intended to be seen.
I wish I could go into some episode synopsis to really give a bigger picture, but I think that will make this review far too long. Trust me, if you havent had the pleasure of watching it, Shadow Warriors is pure ninja goodness. By that I mean, the fictional, fantasy view of the ninja. In truth, the ninja's factual history is pretty underwhelming, but the view perpetuated in fiction is one of the impossible, of ceiling grabbing, shadow hiding, false face impersonating, ground burrowing, assorted nifty weapon wielding men and women who were the ultimate guerilla warriors and assassins. You'll find it all in the series, from telepathic communication, grappling hooks, smoke bombs, throwing stars, swordplay, reverse jumping, and general subterfuge. Just writing about it makes me want to go jump into a pile of leaves and wait for an unsuspecting neighbor to pass by.
The DVD: BCI.
First, the packaging. Seven double-sided discs, contained in four slimline cases which are housed in a nice, hard slipcase. Well chosen graphic art ties it all together.
Picture: Full-screen. Standard. Well, it is, after all, an early 80's tv show so there are some production and age limitations. This is a case where the source is presented well but could use a remastering boost. Given the cult nature of the material, that just isn't likely on our shores. So, the overall details (contrast, sharpness, color) are a bit murky and there is some occasional dirt and spottiness, but it is forgivable and more than satisfactory considering the shows age and production impediments.
Sound: Mono. Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Again, not to repeat myself, but the problems can be stacked up to the limitations of the source track. Distortions are minimal. No hiss but the occasional warble and muffle. You'll be left humming the groovy prog rockish scoring and catchy Shadow Warriors theme song. Great subs. I didn't spot any glaring bits of mauled or misspelled grammar.
Extras: Liner note booklet with essay by Patrick Macias. -- Sonny Chiba Interview (16:01). Sonny's answers about what he wanted to accomplish with the series, his thoughts on action choreography, and his career are mostly kept within the realm of the philosophical. He does manage a brief, gossip-y anecdote about Tarantino being a big souse. All good stuff.
Conclusion: I spent the past three weeks watching this series. Aside from getting out to see Grindhouse and the occasional Netflix rental, I spent almost every night immersed in Shadow Warriors. By the time I was done, I wasnt tired. I was ready for series two. The show is that entertaining. BCI has done an excellent job, presenting the whole entire first series, no protracted Vol 1, 2, 3, etc slow burn release like some companies have done with other cult shows. For ninja fans, foreign action fans, and Sonny Chiba fans, this is a must own.