Flashing Swords of Death: The Best Ninja Movies Ever Made
An image automatically pops in your head when you say the word ninja: a warrior in a black shroud and black garb, with a ridiculous array of weapons including a katana, shruiken, caltrops, smoke bombs, and various types of poison. Even though there hasn't really been a breakout ninja movie or TV series for decades, there's a special corner of pop-culture for these assassins that never seems to really die. And why not? Ninjas have that sort of rare crossover appeal that spans from those fans of Navy Seal-like efficiency, physicality, and stealth (only without modern weaponry) all the way to those that prefer ninjas to have the sort of supernatural abilities you would normally see in comic book heroes and villains. Add in the kind of recognition factor you could also associate with samurai or pirates and you can see why the public fascination with ninjas is seemingly immortal.
It's with those thoughts in mind I present to you this list of the best ninja movies ever made, and while doing so I'd like you to keep in mind how international this list is. Japanese, American, and Hong Kong cinema are all represented here, but I've seen ninja movies from countries of all sorts ranging from Canada to mainland China to Thailand to Norway, and each has a slightly different variation on why we love these assassins. The one constant throughout, is that ninjas are awesome.
It's Clobberin' Time!
10. The Hunted (1995)
Starring: Christopher Lambert, John Lone, Joan Chen, Yoshio Harada, Yôko Shimada
Directed by J.F. Lawton
Now, I can understand why the word ninja does not immediately conjure up the name Christopher Lambert in your mind, and thankfully he doesn't actually play a one in this movie. Lambert gives perhaps his most charming performance as Paul Racine, a clumsy businessman in Tokyo for the weekend who picks up a beautiful girl in a bar (Joan Chen), and has the evening of his life before it all becomes a horrible nightmare. Turns out the girl was the target of Japan's deadliest assassin, Kinjo (John Lone), who will now stop at nothing to end Racine's life after the American accidentally witnesses the murder and sees Kinjo's face.
One of the wildest aspects of this film for me is that a major studio like Universal would release an almost completely serious drama/action film about a man being chased by ninjas. Even wilder though, is that The Hunted is pretty terrific. Director J.F. Lawton (most noted as the writer of Under Siege) stages some really exciting action, especially a "Bullet-Train" sequence where Racine is attacked by a squad of ninja, only to be saved by a samurai master (the legendary Yoshio Harada) and his wife (Yôko Shimada) who end up putting Racine under their protection. A solid movie all around, The Hunted should surprise many and would make a great triple feature with the likes of Ridley Scott's Black Rain and John Frankenheimer's The Challenge.
9. Five Element Ninjas (AKA: Chinese Super Ninjas) (1982)
Starring: Tien-Chi Cheng, Tien Hsiang Lung, Meng Lo, and Wai-Man Chan
Directed by Chang Cheh
While not as well-known as Shaw Bros' staples The Five Deadly Venoms or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Five Element Ninjas is an old school kung fu classic with a fun twist on their usual honor/revenge premise and also stands as one of the bloodiest films the studio ever produced. The plot is fairly simple; a kung fu school is wiped out by a team of ninjas using the elements of Wood, Earth, Gold, Water, and Fire, and the last remaining kung fu student must train with a new master in order to learn the secrets of ninjitsu and defeat the villains who have murdered all of his friends.
Chang Cheh, who perfected the chop socky-trope of martial artists mastering specific types of skill in order to wage combat with his films such as Five Deadly Venoms and its amazing follow-up The Crippled Avengers, uses the same formula here as the kung fu students must learn each ninja element (the wood ninjas wear camo and crawl up trees, the earth ninjas are in brown uniforms and hide underground) and then use those skills to fight against their foreign enemy. Fighters are literally pulled apart limb from limb in gory battles, but this flick never loses its sense of fun. If you're looking for that signature Shaw Bros' energy, you could do much worse than what Chang Cheh has in store for you here.
8. American Ninja (1985)
Starring: Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, Judie Aronson, and Guich Koock
Directed by Sam Firstenberg
To be honest, the worst thing about American Ninja is that it was originally a vehicle that was developed for Chuck Norris. Though Norris' own entry into the genre, The Octagon, is a bit of a snoozer, I can imagine this movie setting the world on fire with Norris in the lead. Unfortunately, the karate champion didn't want to have to work under a mask for most of the picture, so he turned down the part, which went to eventual star Michael Dudikoff.
The good news is, American Ninja is still a blast, with Dudikoff bringing a "B-movie James Dean" cool to the part of an amnesiac named Joe, who is secretly a master of ninjitsu. After being forced to join the military rather than go to prison for crimes he's committed on the streets, Joe is stationed in the Phillipines at a base where the Army's supply trucks are regularly attacked by bandits. Turns out, the bandits are actually ninjas (surprise!), and only Joe and his friend Jackson (the immeasurably awesome Steve James) are able to stop them.
While Dudikoff had zero martial arts skill before the filming of this movie, his moves here are pretty good; helpled by a decent stunt team and main villain Tadashi Yamashita, who also played the heavy in The Octagon facing off against Chuck Norris. This is 80s action cheese at its finest, and while no one would put Dudikoff in the same league as a Schwarzeneggar or Stallone, here he absolutely brings the action movie goods.
7. Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005)
Starring: Yukie Nakama, Joe Odagiri, Tomoka Kurotani, Erika Sawajiri
Directed by Ten Shimoyama
If you're looking for a sort of "live-action anime" approach to your ninja films, I've got good news for you. Based on the 1958 novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Futaro Yamada, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade is the story of two 17th century ninja clans that must go to war in order to settle a succession dispute within the Tokugawa Shogunate* government. Each clan selects five of their best warriors, all having to battle to the death in order for their family to survive.
Director Ten Shimoyama uses an obvious anime and manga influence with Shinobi, as the warriors from each clan have special powers ranging from super speed to shape-shifting to immortality itself, with each power matching the combatants' wild costumes and hair. The battles themselves are gloriously put together, as the ninjas battle up and down the country side in furious struggles of life and death, their weapons and powers on full display.
6. Azumi (2003)
Starring: Aya Ueto, Kenji Kohashi, Hiroki Narimiya, Takatoshi Kaneko
Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura
If you were looking for the perfect double feature to go with the previous film, then look no further. Ryûhei Kitamura's action epic also wears its manga and anime influence on its sleeves (it's based on a 90s manga series), but this film favors swooping camera moves and ridiculous amounts of stylish action to anything resembling superpowers. The story deals with a group of orphans who are trained as assassins since childhood, and now that they've come of age they're unleashed against the enemies of the Tokugawa Shogunate government. Standing in their way? A literal army samurai, ninjas, barbarian assassins, and a samurai killer that seems to have no equal.
While it should come as no surprise that Kitamura's film is packed to the gills with ninja acrobatics and thunderous swordplay, what does come as a shock is how much time the director dedicates to the pathos of these characters, who are basically teenagers who have known nothing but violence and death their whole lives. As Azumi (Aya Ueto) and her comrades go deeper into their mission, the more they question the sense of so much killing, which leads to conflict against their master (the still legendary Yoshio Harada).
If you're worried the film will get too philosophical though, then put that thought out of your mind. These small interludes are only the calm before the storm of Azumi's wild camerawork and choreography. As Azumi battles Bijomaru (Joe Odagiri), a psychopath and unstoppable killer, Kitamura's camera does an insane 360 that makes your head dizzy and your jaw drop. This is preceded by a massacre of wirework and steel-clashing vengeance as our heroine must do battle with a battalion of armed killers and assassins. Ninja movie fans looking for films that feel as close to anime as possible should look no further.
5. Ninja Scroll (1993)
Starring: Kōichi Yamadera, Emi Shinohara, Daisuke Gōri, and Takeshi Aono
Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Now, ninja movie fans simply looking for an actual anime should look no further than Ninja Scroll. Influenced heavily by the same novel that inspired Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, Ninja Scroll is a wild experience and one of my first exposures to anime and the types of stories it could tell. The film deals with a ninja named Jubei Kibagami, a vagabond swordsman who gets wrapped up in a plot by the 8 Devils of Kimon, a group of super-powered ninja villains, as they try to overthrow the Tokugawa government. With only his wit, swordsmanship, and two compatriots, Jubei must face down assassins with varying powers such as stone skin, electric powers, living tatoos and much, much more.
Viewers not used to animated pictures with extreme violence and erotica may be agasp at what they find, as Ninja Scroll is still quite shocking. Limbs are hacked, heads are sliced and geysers of blood are very plentiful, and the film doesn't even get close to passing the Bechdel test. Needless to say, this film is not for children in any way shape or form.
On the other hand, those looking for anime action at it's most brutal need look no further. While Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and the works of Hayao Miyazaki are also fine places to start with anime as an artform and offer amazing visuals and deep philisophical discussions, if you're looking for an animated version of badass feudal Japanese fantasy, Ninja Scroll is what you're after. This may not be the best anime film of all time, but to me it feels like the most anime movie ever committed to film.
4. Pray for Death (1985)
Starring: Sho Kosugi, James Booth, Donna Kei Benz, and Norman Burton
Directed by Gordon Hessler
I doubt there's a name more identified with ninja movies than that of action star Sho Kosugi. A martial arts instructor who started doing bit parts in films simply to get noticed, Kosugi then in turn got noticed on the set of 1981's Enter the Ninja; impressing producers so much he was immediately promoted from extra to the film's main villain. From there, the next two entries of Kosugi's Ninja Trilogy for Cannon Films made him an international sensation, but it's with 1985's Pray for Death that Kosugi really establishes himself as one of best screen martial artists of the decade.
The premise is refreshingly simple. After relocating his family from Japan to America for better opportunities, Akira Saito (Kosugi) finds his loved ones terrorized by mafiosos looking for a missing diamond necklace. His family is brutalized by the gangsters, not knowing the soft spoken Japanese businessman is actually a retired ninja. As I said recently in a review of Pray for Death's blu-ray release, this is an especially mean movie. Saito's family is so likable, but these gangsters show no mercy, and once Saito comes out of retirement he deals out death and gives no mercy of his own.
Once the action starts, it doesn't let up, as Saito lays waste to every criminal he can get his hands on, letting his sword and skruiken do the talking. Director Gordon Hessler stylishly handles the material, which is a hard hitting revenge tale, and in fact has one of the most brutal villain deaths I've ever seen. Kosugi shines as a man out to avenge those he loves and does so in the bloodiest fashion possible. From Enter the Ninja to Ninja Assassin, no name is more synonymous with ninja on film than Sho Kosugi and Pray for Death is a prime example of why that is.
3. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear (2013)
Starring: Scott Adkins, Kane Kosugi, Mika Hijii, Markus Waldow
Directed by Isaac Florentine
While we've seen the "white guy ninja" formula played out in American Ninja, Enter the Ninja, The Octagon, and recently in the big screen G.I. Joe movies, with Isaac Florentine's Ninja and most especially Ninja II: Shadow of the Tear comes the perfection of this particular formula. While the first Ninja is a fun comic book-like take on the material, Ninja II is a bone-crunching, sword-swinging masterpiece of the genre, and has Scott Adkins take his place as one of the best martial arts stars of this generation. This is no CGI-fest with bad editing and an over-bloated budget; Ninja II is a reminder as to why we loved these movies in the first place.
Scott Adkins IS Casey Bowman, the sensei of the Koga Ninja Dojo, living a simple but happy life with his pregnant wife in Tokyo. When his wife is mysteriously murdered, Casey travels to Thailand at the behest of his friend Nakabara (Kane Kosugi), but soon uncovers a conspiracy regarding his wife's death, and in the best tradition of these pictures, all hell breaks loose. When Casey finds the man who he believes is responsible for his wife's murder, Bowman will stop at nothing to enact his vengeance.
It really can't be understated what a physical specimen that Scott Adkins is onscreen. While he looks like he's made of pure granite, his moves are lightning quick, whether it's with a katana in his hand or at any time when he seems to defy gravity with an incredible barrage of spin kicks. Adkins was made for these types of movies, and here's hoping he keeps starring in them for decades to come.
I'd also like to mention what a kick (pun intended) it was to see Kane Kosugi in this film. While his father is an institution when it comes it ninja movies (with Kane and his brother, Shane, also appearing in his films as children), it feels like a cool passing of the torch to have Kane show up here, in the best ninja film of the modern era. Best of all, he does his father proud with some amazing fight sequences.
2. Shogun Assassin (1980)
Starring: Tomisaburô Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Minoru Ôki, Shôgen Nitta, Shin Kishida, and Akihiro Tomikawa
Directed by Robert Houston
On so many levels, Shogun Assassin shouldn't even come close to working as a film. In 1980, Roger Corman's New World Pictures released the movie into grindhouse theaters, where it became one of the pillars of exploitation cult cinema. What many audiences at the time didn't know was that the movie was actually a clever re-editing and re-dubbing of two different movies based on the legendary manga series Lone Wolf and Cub, Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart on the River Styx.
As a huge fan of the original manga, which is one of the best comics I've ever read in any form or language, and as a fan of the original Lone Wolf and Cub movie series, Shogun Assassin should come off as just a cheap cash grab and at best work as a highlight reel of the best bits from the series' first two movies. Amazingly, not only does the movie work, but it's quite compelling dramatically and because it has so much material to work with, the movie's action is spectacularly non-stop. In fact, it's possible that Shogun Assassin may actually be more entertaining than the first two films are on their own.
For those that don't know, Lone Wolf and Cub is the story of Ogami Itto, the official executioner for the Shogun, who would behead criminals of the state when ordered to do so. After being betrayed by a rival clan, Itto has to go on the run with his child, battling ninjas and bandits along the way until he can some day get his revenge. Despite being cobbled together, Shogun Assassin is actually a pretty accurate telling of the same mythos, with a few exceptions to make the movie work.
Bottom line is, if you want to watch scene after scene of our hero hacking ninjas to pieces over and over, you've come to the right place. The best part is, despite the violence being constant and in your face, it always feels fresh because of how creative it is. Instead of just seeing decapitations, you watch as ninjas get their heads split in half or their bodies get mutilated one limb at a time until just a stump is left. This movie was a huge influence on Tarantino, with geysers of blood that leave red hot images in your brain that are tough to let go of.
1. Duel to the Death (1983)
Starring: Norman Chu and Damian Lau
Directed by Ching Siu-tung
Flat out, Duel to the Death is tops on this list because it's one of the most insane movie experiences I've ever had in my life. The story takes place in 16th century China and revolves around a legendary duel that happens every ten years between the two greatest fighters of Japan and China to determine who has the greatest martial artists in the world (other countries need not apply). Only thing is while the Japanese representative in the duel, Hashimoto (Norman Chu), is an honorable fighter, the contingent from his home country (a giant army of ninjas) is determined to win at all costs.
While this would normally seem like pretty standard fare for this period in Hong Kong cinema, in the hands of director Ching Siu-tung this movie becomes a wild extravaganza of ridiculousness and violence that will leave your mind boggled. How ridiculous is this movie? In the movie's signature scene, a shaolin monk is traveling through the desert to witness the duel when he is attacked by a 12-foot ninja. The ninja then transforms into 8 regular-sized ninjas, and after a flurry of fighting all but one of the villains explode for no apparent reason. This is followed by the last remaining ninja violently disrobing to reveal herself as a beautiful naked woman, which distracts the monk long enough to where she subdues him.
Another bravura sequence has a fighter attacked by a giant squad of ninja who are all flying on kites, while yet another scene features ninjas flying, getting cut in half vertically, disappearing, reappearing, and of course, exploding. Duel to the Death has so much action it's actually difficult to catch your breath. It's like hitting a virtual wall of kung fu and ninja action. Admittedly the movie is a little difficult to find, but I implore you to seek it out as those that do will be rewarded with one of the best martial arts films I've ever seen and definitely the best ninja film ever made.
*Editor's note: A shogun was a hereditary military dictator in Japan during the period from 1185 to 1868 (with exceptions). The Tokugawas ruled Japan from 1603-1868, after which time the Meiji Emperor regained control of the government. See this column can be entertaining and educational!