The Master Ninja (1984)

There was no one more important in middle school than Sho Kosugi. In retrospect, we should have worshipped him even more, because without him bringing the weapons and skills to Cannon’s Enter the Ninja, we would not have the ninja elements that have been used in everything from G.I. Joe to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, video games and a million Godfrey Ho movies.

You can’t imagine the literal madness when the idea that Sho would be on TV every single week became common knowledge.

From January 20 to August 31, 1984, NBC aired thirteen episodes of the adventures of John Peter McAllister (Lee Van Cleef). Let me just quote the narration at the beginning of each episode: “John Peter McAllister, the only Occidental American to achieve the martial arts discipline of a ninja. Once part of a secret sect he wanted to leave, but was marked for death by his fellow ninjas. He’s searching for a daughter he didn’t know he had; pursued by Okasa, once the Master’s student, now sworn to kill him. That Master found a new student. That’s me, Max Keller. But we knew Okasa would be behind us, in the shadows, ready to strike again.”

Max Keller may have been the unexciting Timothy Van Patten but the evil Okasa? That’s Sho Kosugi. Actually, Sho also was Van Cleef’s fight double, the series’ fight choreographer, ninja technical advisor and stunt coordinator.

While the show was cancelled in less than a year, seven movies were made out of the episodes.  In the U.S., they had the simple title of The Master Ninja, but in Europe they got rad names like Ninja – The Shadows Kill and The Ninja Man.

The first film is episodes one and two of the series. In the first, Peter meets Max and together they help the Trumbulls (Claude Atkins and Demi Moore) save their airport from the sheer evil that is Clu Gullagher. And if you wondered, does Gene LeBell show up, you have seen more than enough American kung fu movies. This was directed by Robert Clouse, who certainly understood how to shoot martial arts thanks to being the director of Enter the DragonGame of DeathGolden NeedlesBattle Creek BrawlGymkata and Deadly Eyes (actually, that was has chihuahuas dressed as killer rats). It was written by series creator Michael Sloan, who also created The Equalizer and wrote for the reboot of Kung Fu in the 90s.

The second part, “Out-of-Time-Step” finds the Master and Max helping a dance club as he searches for his daughter. Lori Lethin (Bloody Birthday), Brian Tochi (Takashi from Revenge of the Nerds; more to the point of ninjitsu the voice of Leonardo the ninja turtle) and Swamp Thing Dick Durock all are on hand. This portion was from director Ray Austin, who directed the 80s returns of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the Six Million Dollar Man and written by Susan Woolen, who acted in both of those reboots.

Isn’t it strange that in order for western audiences to accept ninjas that we needed Italian western heroes to ease the transition, with Franco Nero battling Kosugi in Enter the Ninja and Lee Van Cleef here? Did no one want to see Jack Palance wear those cool ninja shoes?

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