by Travis Vogt
Few genres have given more masterpieces to the world of VHS box art than Ninja movies. What is it about these films that so inspired legions of box artisans throughout the years? The balletic movement of martial arts in application? The primal simplicity of raw human combat? The swan-like elegance of a muscular human body while engaged in the sacred act of kicking? The nifty costumes? Sadly, we may never know the answer to this age-old question, as all of the artists responsible for the following pieces are no doubt long dead by now. Their work, however, lives on in all its rapturous, thrust-y glory. Brace yourselves–the dazzling beauty of these canvasses will shake you up like a spin kick to the jaw. Or better yet, a throwing star to the crotch.
Stunning. There is so much color and incident packed onto the thin cardboard surface of this box, that the viewer scarcely has time to be confused by the title. Is it Tough Ninja the Shadow Warrior or The Tough Ninja Shadow Warrior? Isn’t a “tough ninja” by definition a shadow warrior and vice-versa? None of these important questions matter when you bask in the glory of this immaculately colored pencil creation. A work of unbridled ambition, this piece toys with perception by featuring a tiny ninja with his ninja chain wrapped around a giant ninja’s ninja sword. It grapples with concepts of personal identity by featuring a man standing next to his own shirtless, machine gun clutching doppelgänger. It tangles with religious themes by positing the existence of a massive ninja god creature that looks over us all. And, to top it all off, it features a woman in mid-sneeze just for the sheer hell of it. Truly an auspicious beginning to the now-legendary Ninja Chronicles collection.
Just a quick glance at this startling photo collage is enough to make my heart palpitate. It is a brazen provocation that risks all in pursuit of shaking the viewer out of his complacency. It presents three distinct dimensions of action, three panels of reality, if you will. In the very back, the union of man and woman. The endless possibilities of love and devotion. In the middle layer, all notions of security have been ruthlessly upended as we are presented with a man who’s face has been impaled with some sort of object, hopefully a throwing star. If that image wasn’t upsetting enough, in the nearest panel, the artist directly confronts the viewer, as a bloody fist shatters the so-called “fourth wall” in a deliciously literal invocation of the film’s title. In the mind of the artist, death comes for all of us; we are all damned, the viewer as much as (or more than) anyone.
Beloved and entirely famous 80’s action icon Jason Blade was particularly inspiring for VHS artists, and it’s easy to see why. He’s handsome enough, he seems to know some sort of karate, and he favors blindingly white pants. The creator of the Day of the Panther box allowed this white-pantsed muse to take him to a very strange place–a pinkish, hazy world filled with people wearing boar, skull and old lady masks. The abstract dreaminess of the world invoked here clearly worried the film’s producers, as they hastily tacked on a photo of a man punching Patton Oswalt in the face. This assures casual viewers that, yes, people will be punched in the face in this movie. Karate will be practiced as well as posed. In my opinion, it was the right call.
One of the primary attributes of the Vampire Raiders Ninja Queen box is its unflinching honesty. The box holds up a mirror to society, firmly assuring us that–despite what PC culture might say–the world of man is divided into three distinct camps: ninjas, bikini ladies and green skinned, witch-type people, all fighting each other at the same time. There are no “good guys” or “bad guys.” Concepts like “equality” and “justice” are merely constructs, illusions. If, god forbid, I ever have a child some day and she asks me to explain how the world works, I’d hold up the Vampire Raiders Ninja Queen box and say “like this.”
To the untrained eye, this piece might seem like a lazily slapped together afterthought. A hatchet job, probably made in less than five minutes to meet a deadline. A blurry, unappealing, blandly colored disaster with clumsy wording and at least one entirely unforgivable font. To the trained eye, however, the box for Equal Impact is a revelation. Because I took no less than two art history classes in college, I’m able to recognize subtle cues from the artist. All of the “obvious” “mistakes” in this piece are simply too obvious. In reality, the artist clearly splattered his elements onto the canvas in much the same way that Jackson Pollack would create one of his paintings: in an unconscious stream of pure, unrefined creation. It’s supposed to look bad. That’s the whole point. How else could you explain such prominent ass crack placement? Wake up, people.
This one is a bit more on the cerebral side, so if you’re not very cerebrally oriented you might not fully infer the staggering enormity of this piece. The key to understanding lies in the koan in the lower left corner: “You can’t fight the evil forces of power without the power of force.” Yes, few things are as satisfying as a perfectly symmetrical sentence. And in that symmetry lies the key to the mystery of Ninja Vengeance. It’s all about balance. The yin and the yang. Dark and light. Red and blue. Greasy haired men and greasy haired women. Ninjas and KKK guys. Now, please do me a favor and close your eyes and really think about that for a good half hour.
Art can inspire, provoke or educate. And I’m okay with that, I guess. But sometimes it’s important for art to go back to it’s roots: being nice to look at. This piece is one of the purest examples of being nice to look at that exists on this planet. Legend has it that the artist used real gold and silver to create the shimmering backdrops for the stately tableaus of ninja action in the foreground. To be perfectly honest, there is a death of ideas on display in Full Metal Ninja’s box, but after dealing with the weighty themes of the previous entries in this column, something beautiful but uncomplicated is a welcome change of pace. The last thing I’ll say about this is that if you enjoy staring at the sun but worry about the health risks, I think this will work perfectly fine as a surrogate.
This is the Citizen Kane of VHS box art. [Interestingly, the VHS art for Citizen Kane was absolute garbage.] Strong, clean lines. Cleanly delineated action above bitter rivalry motif. Inexplicably torn borders. And a nice, big orange pyramid at the bottom, where such things belong. There’s not much I can say about this box that hasn’t already been discussed at length in Art in America, numerous TED talks and Ken Burns’ three-part PBS documentary About a Box. What I would like to add to the discussion is an observation about how success can lead to apathy. For you see, the producers of No Retreat No Surrender were heralded as geniuses when this box premiered. Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, they started to believe it themselves. So, when it came time to release the next No Retreat box, they clearly didn’t put as much time or effort into it.
Nobody was expecting anything as brilliant as the first NRNS box. That would’ve been statistically impossible. But this box was still a crushing disappointment when it debuted at MOMA in 1988. Gone were the elegant penciling, the dueling nations/flags/dudes motif, and the inexplicable tearing. Instead, we’re treated to some guys with weapons, a kicking lady and a backdrop the exact same color as a tutti frutti Jelly Belly. The art world was aghast. Little did we know at the time how much lower the franchise could sink.
Needless to say, this travesty of an abomination ended the trilogy for good. The dirt-spattered photo up top, the uninspired font and the listless inclusion of photo stills from the movie add up to a drab and downright cowardly presentation. Even the tagline reeks of compromise–everyone knows that family is much more boring than honor and country. After worldwide outcry against this visual tragedy, the producers of the film were brought to trial for “crimes against integrity,” but got off with a slap on the wrists. They may have avoided jail time, but they still have to live each day for the rest of their lives with the consequences of their disaffection.
The movie’s pretty solid, though.
Travis Vogt is the editor of the Scarecrow Wire. Follow him on Twitter @travisvogt.