Shadow Warriors (1980)
Directed by Eiichi Kudo

Shadow Warriors
Kage no gundan: Hattori Hanzo
Starring Tsunehiko Watase (Lower Hanzo), Teruhiko Saigo, Mikio Narita, Ken Ogata, So Yamamura (Hoshina)

Toei Company, 133 minutes
Color, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Kurotokagi Gumi

This Eiichi Kudo film served as the precursor to the popular Shadow Warriors (Kage no Gundan) starring Sonny Chiba as the ninja master Hattori Hanzo. Unfortunately the original movie is lacking in two essential ingredients: Sonny Chiba and the quality of being interesting. It's a really, really crappy movie.

The Chiba series was fun, funny, action-packed and always entertaining. This movie, on the other hand, is a boring and incomprehensible mess. Both share the same basic plot setup: during the political instability following the death of Iemitsu Tokugawa, Hanzo's Iga ninja clan battles against the Koga clan as various factions vie to seize power. Beyond that, I really can't tell what the hell is happening in this movie. We get dumped into the story with little introduction to the various characters and what their motives are, and little reason to care.

There's an "Upper Hanzo" and a "Lower Hanzo," apparently brothers whose father was the previous Hattori Hanzo. I'm not sure whether Upper and Lower are allies or one's good and the other is evil, and can't sort out what kind of conspiracies they're involved in. Tsunehiko Watase starring as the main Hanzo (the Lower one) has all the personality and charisma of an Ikea bookshelf. Whereas Chiba's likeable Hanzo has his civilian disguise as Han-san, mild-mannered bathhouse owner (in the first season of the TV show), this Hanzo is just a 24/7 gruff ninja asshole. I feel no interest in him as a protagonist and would just as soon see his head get lopped off by a Koga assassin at any moment.

As deadly serious as the characters seem to take themselves in this turgid, 2-hour-plus snoozer, the action scenes are completely batshit nonsense. There's a fearsome Koga adversary who dips himself from head to toe in a vat of black goo, apparently because it makes him look bad-ass. And contending for the title of Most Ridiculous Ninja Fight Ever, we get a protracted sequence of two ninja armies staging an American football game. No, seriously. Complete with NFL-style shoulder pads, football helmets, lining up along a line of scrimmage and sacking and tackling... the only thing missing is kunoichi cheerleaders. What the fuck?

The only direct link between the Shadow Warriors movie and the TV series is actor So Yamamura in the continued role of Hoshina, the official who serves as the shogun's liaison to Hattori Hanzo. Otherwise there is no vestige of evidence that the two productions are related. It saddens me that Eiichi Kudo could sink to such an level of ineptitude, and it amazes me that Sonny Chiba and his producers managed to create such a compelling and delightful television classic based on this smelly piece of trash.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema