Judge Adam Arseneau knows the most dangerous move in a ninja's arsenal is the one that kills you.
Live in Shadow. Die in Shadow.
Though relatively obscure and unknown in North America, Shadow Warriors (Japanese title: Hattori Hanzô: Kage no Gundan) represents the de facto ninja television drama of the 1980s in Japan. Starring Sonny Chiba, whose career in many circles is synonymous with the legendary ninja he has portrayed on the small and large screen time and again: Hattori Hanzo, Shadow Warriors is now available on DVD in North America for the first time through BCI Eclipse (a company with a serious Chiba addiction).
Facts of the Case
Set in Shogunate Japan, Shadow Warriors tells the tale of a secret clan of ninjas, the Iga clan, and its enigmatic leader, legendary hero Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba, The Samurai Collection Featuring Sonny Chiba, The Shogun Collection).
After the death of Iemitsu, the Shogunate is thrown into disorder. The era of the fourth Tokugawa shogun begins, but Ietsuna is merely a child. Unfortunately, elders in the government see this unstable time as a chance to secure their own grip on power, influencing the fledgling shogun and controlling Japan.
After the assassination of Hotta and the attempted assassination of Hoshina, both political players, chaos erupts. The attack is blamed upon the Iga clan of ninjas, a once prominent group now discredited and shamed into hiding. The Kouga clan, enemies of Iga, offers its services to eradicate the Iga clan once and for all. However, Hoshina, one of the men targeted for assassination, has his doubts.
After the death of the third shogunate, the Iga clan went underground into Edo, vanishing into the darkness, blending in with the public. The leader of the clan, Hanzo, has disguised himself as Mr. Han, a good-natured but clumsy bathhouse proprietor. The Kouga clan has become agents of the government, acting out the will of the Tokugawa. However, the Iga clan refused to serve any master, hoping to control the world through shadow like its ancestors once did.
Hanzo suddenly realizes that Iga has inadvertently become a political scapegoat. Someone in a position of power is manipulating events within the three branch families, looking to cast blame on the disgraced Iga clan to disguise their own machinations. Reluctantly, Hanzo makes a tenuous allegiance with the weakest of the branch families, Hoshina, in order to find the true mastermind behind the events and clear his family name. He will serve the interests of the new Shogunate—for as long as it suits his interests.
Shadow Warriors: The Complete First Season contains all 27 episodes from the first season:
• "Tiger Sharpen Their Claws in a Storm"
If you haven't heard of the series before now, don't feel bad. Unless you lived in Japan or Hawaii in the 1980s, or paid excessive amounts of money for a satellite dish on the West Coast, odds are you missed out on Shadow Warriors, a popular and long-running television jidaigeki ninja drama starring the man himself, Sonny Chiba. You may have missed it, but like a butterfly flapping its wings across the Pacific Ocean, we all felt the effects on our popular culture. Or rather, we didn't feel it at all, because ninjas strike in the darkness, without sound or sight. Whoooosh!
The show's influence on popular culture is subtle but far reaching, spearheading the 1980s ninja craze both in Japan and America, resulting in constant martial-arts films flooding overseas into bad drive-in theaters and even the onerous American Ninja series. Chiba's repeated portrayal of Hanzô, in Shadow Warriors and countless jidaigeki has become the archetypal standard in ninja imagery for the last two decades, even serving as inspiration in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1, who cast Chiba in homage as a master swordsmith named "Hanzo." Amusingly, the packaging of Shadow Warriors makes special note to remind us of this reference, suggesting the only reason this show even got distribution in North America was to milk this particular cultural reference. Irritating, if true. Hell, you could probably even find a way to blame AskANinja.com on Shadow Warriors. Not that anyone needs to be blamed for that, of course.
Shadow Warriors blends political espionage and intrigue around historical jidaigeki drama, but still finds plenty of time to throw in the occasional romance, over-the-top villainy, and rival ninja faction to stir things up a bit. Much of the show plays like a detective drama, with Hanzo and his clan called in to sort out disputes, investigate crimes, right wrongs, and serve out some steaming piles of ninja justice under the cover of darkness. Every episode follows pretty much the same path: a problem emerges, the Iga clan is brought in to deal with the issue, and using their awesome ninja skills of stealth, spying, investigation, interrogation, and combat, it's solved. Over the course of 27 episodes, Hanzo and his merry men have their fingers into political assassinations, double-crossings, blackmail schemes, estranged families, opium peddling, rival ninja clans, sorcery, kidnapping, bandits, and everything in between. One must suspend one's disbelief somewhat when dealing with Shadow Warriors, as its protagonists often display superhuman feats of agility, magic, and stealth. But, hey, they're ninjas. You never know what they're capable of.
Surprisingly entertaining, the material in Shadow Warriors makes for a great television show. I mean, a show about a secret ninja clan trying to take over the Shogunate? Awesome! Who could want anything more? And did you see those totally righteous episode titles? If you missed them, scroll back up and check those out. Man, how cool is that? Much more progressive than North American television in language, nudity, and violence, it gives us topless women, severed limbs, spurts of blood, and carnage aplenty—not quite "R"-rated movie levels, but pretty darn close. The production values and fight choreography are surprisingly good, on par with other films from the same period. Chiba and his merry band of stunt regulars contribute much to Shadow Warriors, so Chiba fans will feel right at home here.
The show is fairly well-acted, but the star (as always) is Chiba. With the dual personalities of Mr. Han, bathhouse proprietor and klutz, and Hanzo Hattori, master ninja, comedy and awesome ninja action often go hand-in-hand. Hanzo is a beautifully-executed anti-hero, a leader of men who seeks to have control over the entire country not in the open, but in the shadows, pulling strings and manipulating leaders. His ideology would be suspect were it not for his undeniable moral center and protective nature of his clan, responding to any threat with swift action. As the show progresses, Hanzo softens somewhat, getting more comfortable with his political role, but his prejudices against being a "government puppet" always make his actions unexpected.
Like most Japanese television of the day (and today), Shadow Warriors, for all its ninjas and samurai and swordplay and supernatural elements, is essentially a soap opera. Oh sure, an epic bad-ass soap-opera full of ninjas, but soapy and operatic all the same. Embarrassingly melodramatic, campy, and formulaic, the predictable story, over-the-top music cues, and hammy acting borrow more from Dynasty or Dallas than any jidaigeki. You know, as if J.R. was the leader of a squad of ninjas. Of course, this was the 1980s; every television show was kind of like a bad soap opera, at least a little bit.
Outrageously melodramatic, the show's episodes usually center around a backroom political plot to overthrow the Shogunate by killing the young ruler or around a mysterious secret ninja clan strolling into Edo looking for a fight. An omnipresent narrator fills in the historical/pseudo-historical information as needed. Episode after episode, an event occurs that threatens the Shogun or the Iga clan, and Hanzo and his men are on it. Suddenly, and without warning (ha), a bunch of mysterious ninjas attack! One would think that Hanzo and his men would be used to this by now, but it comes as a surprise every time. Really, all they have to do is listen for that Herbie Hancock-style synthesizer stab—it means ninjas every time.
Like other period pieces and ninja films from the late 1970s and early 1980s, Shadow Warriors is frighteningly and embarrassingly dated by today's standards, and the music gives it away every time. A full-on orchestrated hybrid of Japanese melody and late 1970s funk rock serves as the show's theme, with every episode scored in similar fashion: a hodge-podge of electro funk and high hats mixed with traditional Japanese melodies. Subtitles are good, but the simple stereo presentation of the original Japanese language track can be weak, thin, and raspy.
Likewise, video quality is pretty sketchy. Detail is sharp overall, but big hunks of film seem to be missing from time to time, the source material showing heavy wear and tear. Colors are washed out and muted, grain is high, and black levels often descend into a sea of incomprehensible murky blues and grays. Considering the quality of the original source material, this is probably as good as this show looks.
Extras are pretty slim. We get a small essay included in the liner notes that mostly talks about Quentin Tarantino, and a 16-minute interview with Chiba recorded for the DVD, discussing his memories and insight into Shadow Warriors and the character of Hanzo Hattori. Good stuff, but I wanted more.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For the casual or curious, this one is a tough sell. With an MSRP of almost eighty dollars, Shadow Warriors: The Complete First Season will set you back a fair chunk of change. Only the most hardcore of ninja lovers or Chiba fans would throw down for such a purchase. Though an admirable box set, Shadow Warriors will daunt all but the most dedicated of aficionados in both time and money.
Unlike the horrendous American cultural juggernaut which forces its cultural exports upon the world like a bad table wine at an Italian restaurant, Japan does not often export its television, save for transmogrified and gentrified garbage like the Power Rangers or the several hundred metric tones of anime dumped on us every year. Getting a chance to crack open a quintessential ninja drama like Shadow Warriors is a rare treat.
While admittedly great to see such obscure product make its way overseas, Shadow Warriors has limited appeal for the masses. The cheese, melodrama, bad acting and goofy soundtrack are campy fun for a few episodes, but can quickly lose their appeal over…twenty…hours…zzzz. A Shadow Warriors marathon would be a fool's errand.
Still, this is a great show, full of action and intrigue, violence and political machinations, double-crossing and historical drama. Die-hard ninja fans will be delighted to see an entire television series—with Sonny Chiba no less—finally make its way to our shores. I'm thrilled with this set, campy ninjas and all.
Here's hoping this show catches on so that BCI Eclipse can bring us more seasons.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Eight-Page Booklet by Patrick Macias
Review content copyright © 2007 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.