Director: William A. Graham
Writer: Ed Spielman
Cast: Michael Beck, Mako, Richard Lynch, Nancy Kwan, John McMartin
Among other important lessons during my upbringing, my father taught me how to throw a football, hook live bait on a fishing line, and draw both cat and dog cartoon faces with relative ease. These details may strike most readers as ordinary fixtures of an American male’s formative years, but they’re totally boring to anyone who grew up as an orphaned caucasian adopted by a middle-aged Asian martial arts master. Michael Beck’s character in 1983’s The Last Ninja looks at your idyllic childhood and does a sarcastic jerk-off motion before disappearing behind an exploding cloud of ninja smoke. After all, playing catch can’t hold a candle to throwing your first shuriken into a tree.
From where did this whiteboy karate fantasy originate? I would think that Kwai Chang Caine in the 1970s Kung Fu television series served as the first model for orphans learning fighting skills under the tutelage of their older Asian masters. (Other examples include the protagonists in Bloodsport and American Ninja, respectively). It may surprise no one to learn that Ed Spielman, creator of the original Kung Fu series, wrote the screenplay for The Last Ninja, an ABC TV pilot that never took hold as a regular series. Did Spielman go to the well of head-scratching cultural appropriation once too many times? Fuck yeah he did, but read on anyways.
Michael Beck (Swan of The Warriors fame) plays Ken Sakura, an art and antiques collector who makes his home in California. By all indications, he lives on a sprawling estate with his step-sister, Noriko (Kwan), but this detail puts no cramp in his debonair life of bachelorhood. When he’s not appraising vases or charming strangers at soirees, Ken is a heroic ninja who breaks up dope rings and captures serial killers and rapists. Only Noriko knows of his secretive triple life of art-collecting, man-whoring, and crime-fighting.
Mr. Cosmo (McMartin), the government agent who was legitimately born with that name, may have an inkling about Ken’s post-work activities. He pays Ken a visit one afternoon and details a series of correlations between Ken’s whereabouts and the captures of criminals on various dates by a mysterious ninja. Despite the implication, Ken laughs it off and chalks it all up to (a shitload of) simple coincidences. Not to be dissuaded, Cosmo intends to reveal Ken’s vigilante deeds to the newspapers unless said ninja hero infiltrates a Dallas skyscraper where a group of defense industry employees is being held hostage. The ninja, quite simply, is the only chance they have to save them.
Not that head kidnapper Dr. Gustav Norden (Lynch) is such a bad guy. He’s professorial (tan corduroy coat), direct (“the mobile laser system, that’s what we want”), and extremely sweaty. A disgruntled former colleague of his hostages, Norden simply wants the plans for some nondescript military technology to benefit himself and his kidnapping brethren instead of the annoying assholes with whom he used to work. Don’t we all want that at the end of the day?
For the remainder of the story, Ken’s past is slowly revealed through a series of flashbacks. As a newborn, he was left on the doorstep of the Sakura family during a stormy night. After his biological sons are killed in the Korean War, Mataro Sakura (Mako) has no direct heirs for his ninjitsu wisdom, but tosses baby Ken into a pool as a test of his suitability for training. Ken survives! Mataro doesn’t get arrested for attempted infanticide! Mataro kicks adolescent Ken out of the house for a week to teach him humility. He gives him a kitten upon his return to teach him about balance. He performs sleight-of-hand tricks to teach him about misdirection. He shows him that the catch and release of a fly is more skillful and virtuous than catching and killing it. I’m sure there was an awkward talk about “the birds and bees” that involved a katana blade and a watermelon, but it probably ended up on the cutting room floor. THANKS REAGAN.
It should be noted that the showdown between Ken’s ninja persona and Norden’s gang arrives with about 20 minutes remaining in the 93-minute film. Most would agree that’s not a lot of time for insane ninja action. Ken has only two fight scenes that I can recall, and the most notable aspect of the action scenes is the raspy and oddly cosmic voice he uses when talking from under his mask. (Imagine Christian Bale’s Batman voice hooked up to a reverb pedal). Instead, the emphasis here is on the training and origins underpinning the central character -- keep in mind this was a pilot for a TV series -- and the central relationship between a father and son. There’s roughly a 60-40 split between flashbacks and “present day” footage, so viewers should be prepared for a lot of bouncing back and forth. And more clever disguises and silly voices than the transformation scene from Mrs. Doubtfire.
If you peruse the user reviews on the film’s IMDb page, you’ll notice that it’s almost universally praised. However, it’s striking that many of the users recall seeing the movie when it originally aired, and I can’t help but feel that nostalgia may have influenced their opinions. (No judgement: nostalgia was the primary motivation for this entire site)! Despite my dissatisfaction with the action elements, I found myself really engaged during Mako’s scenes and I enjoyed Richard Lynch’s scenery chewing, because the man chews the fuck out of scenery. That said, these are decidedly non-ninja reasons to enjoy this particular film, which makes it a bit of an outlier: the unspectacular character study dressed up in ninja’s clothing.
The Last Ninja offers none of the harebrained plot points we’re accustomed to seeing in most American ninja films. Instead, it features a compelling character study with a well-written father-and-son relationship at its core. The action, while infrequent, emphasizes realism and illusion over the more fantastical visual tropes that would come to epitomize the 1980s ninja film (lasers, decapitated limbs, unexplainable flying). While not without its issues, this is a decent standalone “origin” story that also portended an entertaining TV series. It’s a bit of a shame it didn’t get an actual run, but I feel the same way about Poochinski, so I may not be the best evaluator of failed TV pilots.
As an early 80s TV film, it never had an official home video release on VHS or DVD. There may be gray market copies out there, but YouTube is your friend. Go forth and plunder.