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131-3. Ninja Death I, II, & III (1987)
Director: Joseph Kuo
From: Cult Cinema
The story of Tiger, a brothel owner who’s the target of a ninja clan.
Happy New Year everyone. As a last-minute gift, here’s a triple-feature for you to enjoy over the holiday weekend that I can’t properly describe.
I really can’t and you can Google the movie for the technical reasons why. You can also just click on the title above which will take you to the IMDB page for the first part of the trilogy. I say “first part” because parts 2 & 3 don’t have pages. Other essays about this series wonder if it’s actually one movie, three movies, or something that was never finished or intended for distribution. Just to be clear about how much this trilogy makes me wonder if it’s an actual film, there are no credits—opening or closing—on any of these, each movie ends at a relatively random point, and the dubbing changes from American to British English 2/3rds of the way through the first movie only to switch back at the start of the second. I don’t know what this is as an industrial product.
All of that’s before we even get to the film (trilogy, movies?) itself which is completely bonkers. In the first five minutes, three men are protecting a woman with a baby from a horde of ninjas. The ninja master shows up, plucks out the eyes of one man, kicks another across the field, and the third runs away with the child only after the mother stabs herself in the stomach. Then we cut to a red background where various martial artists are demonstrating their styles and facing off against each other. I think this is supposed to be the opening credit sequence since the martial artists are the main characters and the sequence plays at the start of each of the three parts, but there are no credits. There’s never an official title card. Thereis never even any text on screen.
Cut to, as we come to learn, 18 years later. Tiger is the owner of a brothel trying to convince people to come in. This, naturally, allows for easy gratuitous nudity that is curiously limited to only this first portion of the movie. The second and third parts, while having sex scenes, avoid these kinds of full-frontal displays. A competing brothel, offering the “Japanese style,” opens nearby, but it’s actually run by Sakura and Fujiko, sister and brother who are ninja servants of the Grandmaster trying to get Tiger’s clothes off to see if his chest has a plum blossom tattoo marking him as the baby from the beginning.
Just typing that is making me go, “What is this movie?”
Tiger’s master (just called “Master”) is the head of the beggars and, once he learns about the new brothel, starts Tiger on an aggressive training regimen. The training montage is the strangest thing I think I’ve seen in these kung-fu movies: Tiger is suspended by ropes, forced to drink vinegar, and then poked all over his body by Master. Tiger then breaks his bonds, basically hulks out, and the beggars beat him with sticks. Later, Master spits snake blood on Tiger’s bruises and then hits them again with a stick. All of that’s just for starters.
The villain of the film is the ninja Grandmaster who controls a masked fighter, Devil Mask, by playing a flute which drives Devil Mask into a murderous rage. That’s really all you need to know about that.
None of this makes a lick of sense. There’s an extended flashback where Master is explaining ninjas to Tiger (don’t you remember when you had the ninja talk with your folks?) that has an extended sex scene in the middle of it. There’s even a homophobic running gag where Fujiko keeps trying to get Tiger’s shirt off to check for the tattoo leading Tiger to insist “no backdoor!”
Master instructs Tiger to find a blind fortuneteller, which Tiger puts no effort into, but stumbles across anyway when he gets into a fight with Fujiko on the street. The blind fortuneteller tells Tiger he’ll be protected by the plum blossom.
That night, Sakura breaks into Tiger’s room and sees the plum blossom tattoo on his chest. Normally it’s hidden, by which I mean “normally it isn’t there and inexplicably is right now and only right now,” so Sakura has sex with him since she’s pledged to be the servant of the plum blossom (?). Afterwards, he flees the room and goes in search of Master.
Meanwhile, the ninja attack the homeless encampment and the brothel, killing everyone except Master and Tiger. Master, it turns out, is a ninja himself and is trying to infiltrate someplace, but faces off against Devil Mask. Master tears Devil Mask’s sleeve revealing a plum blossom tattoo which makes Master realize he’s Devil Mask’s brother. The grandmaster uses his flute to force Devil Mask to attack Master and Master flees. Fujiko finds him, reveals that he actually works for Tiger’s mother, the princess, who hadn’t actually died, and that he’s seeking Tiger out because he’s an heir to the Japanese throne and instrumental to the princess taking revenge upon the grandmaster.
You get all that? Don’t worry. If you missed it, they’ll repeat it again at the beginning of parts 2 and 3, but using different language what actually implies other interpretations.
This is basically where part one ends. Tiger gets the backstory from Master about what led to the opening scene: Master is the man who fled with the child, the child was Tiger, Tiger’s father is Devil Mask, and the man who had his eyes plucked out is the blind fortuneteller. The Grandmaster is the man who, for inexplicable reasons, raised the three of them after massacring their town. Part two starts with exactly that scene again, Master tells Tiger not to fight Devil Mask, and then hits himself in the head to commit suicide to prevent Tiger and Fujiko from wasting time and energy helping him.
Then nothing of consequence happens for the rest of the trilogy. That seems glib, but all the craziness is in part one. Parts two and three focus on Tiger needing to train to face off against the grandmaster and nothing happens before the final battle. The one event that would be significant in any other movie happens in part two. Tiger is ambushed by ninja, jumps over a waterfall, and is helped by a young woman and her grandfather. Tiger’s feverish and delusional from ninja poison and, in his delirium, mistakes the young woman for Sakura and rapes her. Grandfather accepts Tiger’s explanation that he didn’t know what he was doing, but will only give him the antidote if he promises to marry the woman. Tiger agrees, but leaves immediately thereafter, promising in a note that he’ll return if he doesn’t die, but then ninja show up at the house and kill the grandfather and the young woman anyway.
Tiger never even mentions them again!
This isn’t a trilogy, this is one maybe three-hour movie that’s been cut into three parts. I just don’t know what the intended distribution platform was, though. Each part is 83/84 minutes which suggests they were intended for television broadcast, but there’s so much nudity and profanity in the first part that I can’t imagine they were hoping to have this on TV. But if it was intended for the home video market, you’d cut it into two maybe 100 minute parts and release them that way. Where did this thing come from?
Hopefully it’s obvious that this is garbage, but it’s fun garbage. The first part has so much absurd content and has the dubbing switch on top of that (which leads to my favorite delivery of the word “motherfucker” ever) that you can’t help by laugh. It’s an absurd delight. Parts two and three, while less energetic, are still filled with campy terribleness. Part two features Devil Mask tearing someone’s head off with his bare hands and then pulling someone else’s heart out and part three features a monologue by Tiger that has all the drama, pathos, and virtuosity of Dramabug.
Seeing as there’s no copyright information whatsoever, I’m guessing this is public domain and have uploaded all three parts to archive.org. You can enjoy it for yourself, but make sure you’re not alone. My goodness, it’s hilarious and absurd, but mind-melting if you’re trying to manage it solo.