Five Element Ninjas (1981) Five Element Ninjas / Five Elements Ninja / The Super Ninjas / Chinese Super Ninjas /Ren Zhe Wu Di (1981/1982) ***

     I had always thought of 1980ís ninja mania as strictly a Western phenomenon. Sure, I knew that the Japanese made ninja movies as part of the broader chambara genre of period action melodramas, and I figured it stood to reason that a ninja might crop up as the villain in a Chinese kung fu movie here and there, but I couldnít imagine people for whom the Asian martial arts were an indigenous cultural feature getting as hysterically worked up over ninjutsu as we round-eyes did in those days. Consequently, I donít quite know what to make of Five Element Ninjas. This latter-day Shaw Brothers production, although nominally sitting at the intersection of wuxia and kung fu, not only makes ninjas the bad guys, but portrays them in a manner even more absurdly over the top than the wildest Cannon Group take on the subject. To my astonishment, it goes so far as to make ninjutsu a threat that not even the most powerful kung fu can counter. To defeat these ninjas, the boxers must absorb the deepest secrets of a foreign martial art!

     Five Element Ninjas gets off to an unassuming start, with a tournament between a kung fu school known as the Alliance and the bandit mob led by Chief Hong (Chan Shen, from Bastard Swordsman and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold). There are to be ten bouts, at the end of which either Hongís bandits will cease their depredations on the local peasantry or the Alliance will give up trying to stop them, depending on whose fighters emerge victorious. For the most part, the brigands lose and lose badly, but in the tenth bout, Hong sends forth an unusual allyó a renegade samurai called Kuwada (Wong Wai Tong, of Her Vengeance and Shaolin Intruders). Kuwada not only defeats his Alliance opponent, but follows up by shaming him into committing ritual suicide after the Japanese fashion. That instantly turns the tournament personal, and after a bit of squabbling among the remaining Alliance warriors, the right to avenge the fallen manís honor is claimed by Liang Zhi Sheng (Lo Meng, from Five Deadly Venoms and Hex After Hex), the Allianceís mightiest boxer. So sure of himself is Liang that he pits his bare fists against Kuwadaís katanaó and when Liang wins, he wastes no time in reminding Kuwada of his earlier opinion of what honor demands under the circumstances. Kuwada does indeed commit seppuku, but before he does so, he promises Yuan Zheng, leader of the Alliance (Kwan Fung, of Bloodthirsty Dead and Monkey Kung Fu), a blood feud against his relatives back home. Then with his dying breath, Kuwada tosses Yuan a spiky iron ring. Some indication of the treachery the Alliance will face going forward emerges when Yuan catches the samuraiís bauble; the spikes are treated with a slow-acting poison!

     Kuwadaís envenomed ring is little threat to a kung fu master of Yuanís caliber, but fighting off the poisonís effects will keep all of the Alliance leaderís chi occupied for at least three months. Until Yuanís recovery is complete, heíll have no lifeforce to spare for taking on human opponents. Itís rather inconvenient, then, that the Alliance quickly receives a letter of challenge from someone calling himself Kembuchi Mudou, King of Ninjas (Michael Chan Wai Man, of Ghost Festival and The Deadly Breaking Sword). That would be Kuwadaís brother. Kembuchi announces that heís sending an elite force called the Five Elements Formation to take up positions within the territory claimed by the Alliance, and even goes so far as to specify where those positions will be. If Master Yuan accepts Kembuchiís challenge, he will send champions to face each of the Five Elements. And if not, well, Kembuchi will just have to come and destroy the Alliance the hard way. This ďFive Elements FormationĒ is a new one on Yuan. Hell, ninjutsu itself is largely a new one on him; all he knows is that itís a Japanese martial art, and that it seems to lack the other artsí focus on honorable conduct. Consequently, the Alliance leader suspects that the challenge of the Five Elements may simply be a ruse to draw the organizationís most capable fighters off on a wild goose chase, leaving the defense of the headquarters compromised. Nevertheless, Yuan fears that he canít afford not to take Kembuchiís letter at a minimum of face valueó whatever other skullduggery is afoot, he and his followers have to assume that the Five Elements are a genuine threat. Yuan detaches eight of his most skilled disciples, led by his lieutenant, Lei Ben (Lung Tien Hsiang, from Cripple Lee Becomes Immortal and Ghosts Galore), to meet the Five Elements Formation at the locations spelled out by Kembuchi, holding just two of the Allianceís top-ranked fighters in reserve to lead and coordinate the defense of the headquarters. Not one of those valiant warriors returns alive, and only Lei Ben himself is able to take even a single one of the Five Element Ninjas with him when he goes.

     Obviously this struggle between Kembuchi and the Alliance is of interest to the Hong clan, the chief of which undertakes to host the King of Ninjas and his retinue in his own palace. Such comfortable accommodations are doubly welcome because the next phase of Kembuchiís plan is going to take a while. Among the ninjas is a beautiful yet devious girl named Junko (Chan Pui Sai), with whom Kembuchi hopes to infiltrate the very headquarters of the Alliance. Once there, she will act as both spy and assassin, learning the layout of the complex, assessing the remaining strength of the Alliance, and seeking opportunities to slay Yuan Zheng by guile and cunning. Itís childís play to get Junko under Yuanís roof, too. After all, the Alliance is an assembly of heroes, and what hero can resist saving a pretty girl from an abusive older man? Certainly not Liang Zhi Sheng. When he witnesses Junko (under the assumed name of Ah Shun) being slapped around in the street outside Alliance HQ by a man she identifies as her uncle, Liang falls gallantly into Kembuchiís trap.

     Only one man among the Alliance suspects that Ah Shun isnít on the leveló a headstrong young brawler named Xiao Tian Hao (Ricky Cheng Tien Chi, from The Nine Demons and Attack of the Joyful Goddess). Xiao has enough of Master Yuanís trust to be Liangís right hand in organizing the defense of the headquarters, but he lacks the rank to press his misgivings about the girl. It doesnít help, either, that Liang is as head-over-heels in love with her as his iron discipline will permit. Even so, Alliance security is too tight to afford Junko much chance to act against Yuan. She does, however, sneak a map of the compound out to Kembuchi, and when the moment appointed for the ninja armyís attack arrives, she comes this close to eliminating Liang. In his wounded condition, Liang is unable to rally the Alliance or to protect Yuan from Kembuchiís personal attack. Junko errs, however, when she intervenes to save the life of Xiao, for whom sheís developed the hots despite (or maybe because of?) his adversarial attitude toward her. Xiao escapes thanks to a rope-untying trick he learned years ago from an eccentric hermit, with the result that thereís still one man left alive from the Alliance once the dust settles and the smoke clears.

     Naturally that means itís Xiaoís job now to avenge his brothers in arms, but how to do it in the face of such powerful opposition? I mean, Kembuchi didnít even need to bring the Five Elements Formation when he launched his attack on Alliance headquarters! Well, what about that old hermit? If he knows the secrets of Japanese rope bondage, maybe he knows the secrets of ninjutsu, too. Fortunately, Yang Tung Fei (Chow Siu Loi, from The 14 Amazons and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) is still right where he was the last time he and Xiao metó and better still, heís already got three promising students learning some manner of chopsocky from him. Yang agrees to take Xiao under his wing, and to reorient the training of his other pupils so as to forge the four men into a unit capable of besting the Five Elements Formation. Not only does that mean instruction in ninjutsu, but it also entails issuing the students special weapons that rival even Talonís famous Swiss Army magic sword for pileup of special features. But while thatís going on, Kembuchi further consolidates his position by betraying and subjugating the Hong clan, making himself unrivaled master of the Martial World. I donít fully understand what that means, to be perfectly honest with you, but Iím certain that itís really bad.

     Director Chang Cheh was one of the giants of Asian martial arts cinema during its late-60ís-to-mid-80ís glory years. He was one of the driving forces behind parallel revolutions in wuxia and kung fu movies, transforming them into something capable of taking global pop culture by storm with the right vector of transmission. Explaining the full scope of Changís influence is a bit beyond my current competency in the subject, so weíll have to put that off for another time. Right now, suffice it to say that anyone who has both The One-Armed Swordsman and Five Deadly Venoms on his resumť deserves to be taken seriously indeed. Five Element Ninjas came near the end of Changís long association with the Shaw Brothers studio, following a string of projects on which he reunited the stars of Five Deadly Venoms to varying degrees of success. It seems to be highly regarded by chopsocky fans, and although Iím in no position to evaluate it against the rest of Changís work, I can say that it left me wanting plenty more.

     To begin with, the action in Five Element Ninjas is extraordinary. There are often whole bunches of people fighting at once, all with the balletic choreography that marks top-notch Hong Kong action direction. The titular ninja teams each have their own memorable gimmick: Gold Teamís ninjas all wear reflective metal sugegasa hats that double as shields and triple as knife-launchers, Wood Team ambushes the unwary from the insides of tree trunks, Water Team has a variety of tricks involving snorkels and floatation devices, Fire Team uses pyrotechnics as both weapons and a misdirection tactic, and Earth Team attacks from under the ground with a dastardly nad-stabbing technique. In general, Five Element Ninjas features a lot more armed fighting than Iím used to, encompassing something close to the entire historical arsenal of Chinese and Japanese melee weapons, plus a few obviously fanciful things like the hand-held buzzsaw blades wielded by the first Hong Clan fighter in the opening tournament scene. And as you might guess with all those swords, spears, and whatnot swinging around, the battles get remarkably goryó although the gore effects are so crude that it can be difficult to tell what youíre supposed to be looking at. For instance, I never could make up my mind whether the camera keeps cutting to a closeup on the bloody legs of the first fighter to take on Earth Team merely to establish that heís been stabbed in the femoral artery, or because that thing flapping around among the remains of his pants is supposed to be a loop of his guts. Since he gets killed only after he trips over the thing, I prefer to believe itís the latter.

     Five Element Ninjasí other virtues are subtler, but from what Iíve read, they might actually be more important for reckoning this movieís place within the broader context of Chang Chehís career. Itís a rare director who can make so nigh-complete a sausage-fest of a movie this compelling, especially when the only woman with a speaking part exists solely to wreak havoc with her feminine wiles. Junkoís whole involvement in the film could easily have come across as hateful and reactionary. Iím not entirely sure what stops it from doing so, either, unless maybe itís that the Alliance seems so subliminally queer that it would be unfair to ding them for wanting as little to do with women as possible. That latent homoeroticism works to Five Element Ninjasí advantage in another way, too, by making the Alliance feel less dour than other fictional (or fictionalized) kung fu schools I could name. Iím sure Master Yuanís discipline is as exacting as the next sifuís, but the overwhelming impression I get from his followers is one of camaraderie and mutual devotion. Honor and duty and codes of behavior are all well and good, but the Allianceís greatest strength is that these men clearly love each other, and that makes them an unusually appealing bunch. Itís sad to see them getting wiped out, even when we barely know most of them.

     There are some things I wish Chang had handled differently, however. Iím beginning now to get used to the very different understanding of story structure that one often encounters in Hong Kong cinema, but Five Element Ninjas puts itself in a difficult position by annihilating the Alliance with more than half an hour (but only that) still on the clock. There quite simply isnít time to introduce an entire new supporting cast of good guys. And indeed Yang Tung Fei and his three students never come into anything like focus as characters. That isnít too big a problem with Yang, since anyone watching Five Element Ninjas is likely already conversant with the trope of the gruff old martial arts master who subjects his pupils to a torturous routine of training bearing no obvious relation to the advanced fighting techniques theyíre supposed to be learning. But it seriously weakens the showdown against Kembuchi and the Five Elements Formation when Xiao enters the fray at the head of his own squad of soulless mooks. I would also have preferred a more memorable exit for Junko, given her central role in both the Allianceís defeat and the Kembuchi ninja armyís undoing. The presence of a female ninja on the Fire Team proves that Chang was prepared to accept women as credible fighters, so shouldnít it be a little harder for Xiao to be rid of Junko?

 

 

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