In the ancient world of 1980s video libraries, the ninja ruled supreme. Literally hundreds of ninja films flooded the VHS market, their lurid artwork promising the extreme violence and exotic mystery of the shadow warriors. More often than not the box was the best part, with many substandard movies (some of which didn’t even feature ninjas at all) hiding behind beautifully rendered design work.
Sifting through the dross for hidden ninja gems was something of a pastime in itself and those elusive occasions where the film lived up to its artwork provided an unbeatable thrill. With many of the distributors long gone, it’s nearly impossible to track down the original artists/designers for many of these sleeves, but nonetheless their work is worthy of celebration.
(Note: I’ve stuck to UK VHS artwork here but I’m aware that some of these films had even more incredible international sleeves – especially the IFD movies with Eagle Leung art, well worth checking out!)
Ninja Warrior (1985)
Probably the archetypal image of the era, Ninja Warrior (Apex Video) combines multiple rad-looking ninjas with a city skyline and some gratuitous explosions. What I particularly love about this is the detail. If you look closely at the buildings, you can see troupes of mini-ninjas climbing up the sides and fighting on the rooftops; a nice touch. Although there are ninjas in the movie, it’s a patchy low-budget effort (written and directed by the ‘other’ Ken Watanabe) and nothing in it looks as cool as the box art. Weirdly, this was re-released a few years later by Moonstone Video and they painted out the mini-ninjas for their version of the sleeve. A travesty, I’m sure you’d agree.
Ninja Showdown (1986)
Ninja Showdown is one of Godfrey Ho’s cut-and-paste ninja films, splicing footage from an obscure Chinese romantic drama into a new ninja storyline. Unusually, the images on the sleeve are actually taken from the movie but a lot of effort has gone into the design, making a rural tussle on pushbikes look pretty badass. Observe the classic Ho ninja (complete with headband that reads “NINJA”, just in case you weren’t clear) at the top, the shuriken in the background (quite the tease since all shuriken scenes were censored from UK video releases in the 1980s) and the flagrantly stolen Ninja font from the Kawasaki superbike of the same name. The piece de resistance however is that tagline: “CATACLYSIMC NINJA CLIMAX”. How could you not rent this?
Lone Ninja Warrior (1982)
This tawdry Moonstone artwork from the late 80s cleverly conceals the fact that the film is, in fact, an old wuxia fantasy originally known as Night Orchid (aka Demon Fighter) and has nothing whatsoever to do with ninjas, skylines or scantily clad blonde women (all stolen from other sleeves and pasted together). Definitely a disappointment for any gullible renters since, as crude as this ‘artwork’ is, there’s no denying its lowest common denominator appeal. To be fair though, the 15 certificate should’ve been a clue…
Rage Of The Ninja (1988)
One of the later Godfrey Ho ‘cut and paste’ ninja films, Rage Of The Ninja is a low point for all involved, but that box art just keeps on giving. The impossibly musclebound ninja’s sword is made from reflective foil that sparkles in the light and the mob of angry manga-style comrades behind him imply that the “massacre” promised in the tagline will be a splattery one. No such luck. Rage Of The Ninja is quite a lumbering, messy effort and the best thing about it is an Italo-Disco cover of the theme From E.T. that plays during an awkward badminton scene. But oh, that sleeve!
The Master Ninja 3 (1984)
The Master was a groovy ninja TV show with Lee Van Cleef and Sho Kosugi that was (mostly) released on a series of two-episode-a-tape volumes courtesy of the Ninja Theatre label. All the tapes had lovely artwork that maximised the beloved key tropes – ninjas, skylines, explosions, nasty-looking weapons, madcap stunts – although I think Volume 3 remains my favourite for its kitchen sink approach. A bike chase, a car crash, a zip-wire getaway AND some mystical ninja gesticulation, all happening at the same time! Yow. These are also some of the few ninja box paintings that can be attributed to an artist; one Roger Payne whose original work (including some of his Master images) can sometimes be found for sale online.
Ninja Apocalypse (1982)
Although a cheeky retitling of a Taiwanese film called The Impossible Woman, this one does actually feature ninjas – in particular, ninja mainstay Elsa Yeung as a flying assassin embroiled in all kinds of drug trade family drama. It’s not a great movie in honesty – cheap and slow, and a waste of Yeung’s talent – but the gorgeous sleeve with its bold yellow and blue colour combo and shimmering weaponry suggests a moody atmosphere of mystery and exoticism that’s sure to draw in punters. Points knocked off, however, for writing “Ninja” as, uh… “Ninia”.
Ninja Holocaust (1985)
Not to be confused with Ninja Apocalypse, this fast-paced exploitation epic comes with what looks like it could be another Roger Payne painting, combining the requisite ninjas, skylines and explosions with a trio of middle-aged white guys (none of whom appear in the movie), what appears to be the Golden Gate bridge (why? because it looks cool, that’s why) and a tagline that slays with its simplicity: “THE NINJA DEALS IN DEATH”. Of course he does. The film really delivers the goods too. It’s a cut-and-paste job made from the remnants of a softcore Rocky rip-off called Rocky’s Love Affairs and pretty much wall-to-wall sex and violence.
Ninja Hunt (1986)
This bizarre movie represents the only time that a Godfrey Ho film was released in the UK by Cannon, a comparatively respectable label (the actual director credit here goes to cohort Joseph Lai although Godfrey himself pops up for a rare cameo as ‘Doctor Ho’). There’s a typical plot about missing formulas and super-soldiers but it does boast a lively performance by Stuart Smith in canary-yellow ninja garb, as depicted by the amazingly crude cover art. The painting may be borderline cubist but it crams in all the attention grabbers – skylines, ninjas, explosions – while also representing the surreal shoddiness of the movie to a tee. The possible health warning at the bottom, however, may put cautious renters off touching the tape at all…
A Life Of Ninja (1983)
Taiwanese grindhouse legend Lee Tso-Nam’s trash opus gets a lovely cover treatment courtesy of the Ninja Theatre label. Anyone picking this one up’s in for a treat but it’s only what you’d expect from a cover with four swords, two ninjas, a pair of giant wrestlers and one heroic moustache. Amazingly, all of these things represent real scenes from the movie indicating (for a change) that the artist did actually watch it before commencing work. If anything, the painting is quite coy and restrained compared with the craziness of the movie (which also chucks in naked mud wrestling, eye gouging, double-decapitation, laser-eyed ninjas, magical ninja flutes, weird sex games and a dude getting a car dropped on him).
Ultimax Force (1987)
As the 80s progressed and ninjas became less of a safe bet for violence than commandoes, what better way to hedge one’s bets than produce a film about THE FIRST NINJA COMMANDOES? Ultimax, in case you wondered, is short for ‘Ultimate Maximum’ and the cover, with its obvious ninja commandoes (ninja in the top, commando down below? Uh, wait, no, that doesn’t sound right) and exploding Buddha, tells you all you need to know. There are, of course, no helicopters in the film (the budget doesn’t stretch that far) but there is an absurdly high body count of 151 (151!), a lot of ninjas, a fair bit of kamikaze pyrotechnic work and some very silly dialogue to keep most punters happy with their choice.
Enter The Ninja (1981)
The grandaddy of ninja films, Cannon’s inaugural outing for Sho Kosugi has one of the classiest designs of the lot. The deadly eyes of the ninja invite potential renters to an endless staring contest while sword-wielding Franco Nero kicks his way out of a neon star, all against a jet black background. The throwing stars (again, none of which you’ll see in the movie due to censorship issues) further entice and that marvellously simple ninja drawing in the title graphic was pilfered by all and sundry over the years. This is about as close as ninja box art came to minimalism.
Shaolin Challenges Ninja (1978)
The movie here – a retitling (and minor re-edit) of Lau Kar-Leung’s stunning Heroes Of The East – is seminal Shaw Brothers fare. It predates the Ninja Boom by a good few years but that didn’t stop Warner releasing it on video in the mid-80s to catch the wave. The cover art, like all the Warner/Shaw tapes of the 80s, is a beautiful painting that combines exoticism and an implication of graceful fighting; also a reasonable assessment of what the film delivers. This may be infinitely more subdued than most of the sleeves on here but it an abundance of charm. I’d love to know who painted it…
The Ninja Strikes Back (1982)
For some reason, this sleeve always used to give me the creeps as a young boy in the video library. I’m not sure where they got the image from but it’s either Michael Berryman or (more likely) some ageing Soho video salesman behind what looks more like an executioner’s hood than a ninja suit, staring dead-eyed at the renter while brandishing a whopping great blade. Luckily, the film is nowhere near so sinister. It’s a hugely entertaining Brucesploitation romp starring Bruce Le and ‘Chick Norris’ (a pseudonym for Corliss Randall, the producer’s wife) among others. It’s a very Bond-style story of fightin’ ’round the world (so much so it even features Oddjob in a cameo role and a few bars of the actual Bond music) but if you’re brave enough to pick up the scary sleeve, you’re in for a wild ride here.
Pray For Death (1985)
Conversely, I was always very eager to pick this one up but my parents were the apprehensive ones. I mean, this cover just SCREAMS ultraviolence. From the stark threat of the title – Pray… For… Death… – to Sho Kosugi’s furious eyes peering out of a metal ninja helmet so badass it has a throwing star stuck to the forehead, to the promise that he “REDEFINES REVENGE”… Phew! This was clearly going to be brutal. And it is, you’ll be glad to know, a very nasty film indeed (although the UK version remains heavily cut to this day). Whatever else, the cover will always be a favourite of mine, from its use of lush 80s typeface and bold primary colours to the simple but effective “ripped” layout. It’s distinctive and powerful stuff.
The Ninja Mission (1984)
Mats Helge may be the only Swedish ninja auteur and his movies may leave a lot to be desired in the quality stakes, but The Ninja Mission remains one of the great marketing victories of the 80s. Shot for approx. $2.5 million, the film grossed somewhere in the region of $30 million on release and a large part of this must surely be attributed to the tremendous artwork. This chaotic painting capitalises not just on a gaggle of angry ninjas (and the obligatory helicopters – some of which, surprisingly, do actually feature in the film this time) but also exploits cold war imagery of Hazmat suits and heavy artillery, with a spectacularly splattery typeface proclaiming “NINJA” right up in the front. If you grew up in the 80s and you never rented this one, you’re clearly what they call in the business ‘a tough sell’.
Ninja III : The Domination (1984)
This looks like the kind of image that the movie couldn’t possibly deliver – a green skinned demon ninja looking on as a shadowy figure stalks a spectacularly coiffed Lucinda Dickey through a haze of creepy mist. And yet Cannon’s notoriously mental mash-up of ninjas, aerobics and exorcism gives you all of this and more. It’s a ridiculous film, of course, but you can’t say it doesn’t try to cover as many bases as possible, exploiting three major video markets all at once. The artwork is a thing of beauty too. Everything about it from the earthy colours to the (now quite retro-futuristic) fonts is well lush.
Sakura Killers (1987)
Sakura Killers is one of the lost gems of the video age; a rough-n-ready East-meets-West ninja clash that’s a joy from start to finish and, to this day, has never been released on DVD. The artwork (courtesy of Entertainment In Video, who had a bigger design budget than many of their smaller counterparts) was some of the most iconic of the era too. The font is perhaps a little Chinese takeaway but actually works as a nice contrast to the American flag being cut (UNTIL IT BLEEDS), and the concealed ninja’s eyes promise exactly the kind of colourful action the film delivers.
Ninja And The Warriors Of Fire (1987)
I’d love to find out one day who ran the art department at Kick Video (a subsidiary of MIA) because all of their designs were amazing. This one, in particular, is beautiful and classy far beyond the content of the movie. It’s a Tomas Tang cut-and-paste job (the original movie was called Queen Bee) about a woman who trains as a ninja after her husband is killed. She takes on a new ninja name of Crazy Like A Bee (who knew ‘ninja names’ were a thing until this movie?) and wreaks havoc. It’s quite an enjoyable movie – full of tattooed beauties kicking ninja asses and a ton of blue neon lighting – but nothing in it quite lives up to the lyrical, Patrick Nagel inspired imagery on the box.
Revenge Of The Ninja (1983)
Revenge Of The Ninja remains one of the best and most influential ninja designs. The cityscape and burning red sky give this a certain beauty while the raging eyes of Sho Kosugi tell you he means business. In case said business wasn’t clear enough, he’s simultaneously throwing shuriken and firing some kind of flare gun, while at least three other deadly looking weapons are strapped to his suit. Ouch. Luckily, the film lives up with a non-stop parade of gory ninja ultraviolence to get stuck into. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice that this iconic image was also appropriated by Clive Townsend for use as a loading screen on his seminal 8-bit computer game Saboteur!
Ninja Terminator (1985)
Probably my favourite sleeve of the era, Braveworld’s release of Godfrey Ho’s masterpiece, Ninja Terminator, is simply sublime. It appropriates the skyline, sword and flare motif from Revenge Of The Ninja but chucks in a samurai (who doesn’t appear in the film) and decks the main ninja in camo gear (which does appear in the film), just to make him even more badass. What’s particularly nice is if you flip the box over, the image extends gatefold-style and we see that the ninja is actually delivering that killer flying kick TO THE SUNSET. A ninja kicking shit out of the sun is about as good as these images got and the film is, of course, essential viewing too – an utterly insane treat guaranteed to surprise even the most jaded of renters.
If you’d like to read more about all of these ninja films – and many more besides – check out Craig’s blog, Ninjas All The Way Down.
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