21 Apr KEMBUCHI AND THE ART OF CONQUEST: A TRIBUTE TO FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS’ BIG BAD
By Kim August
In 1982, director Chang Cheh unleashed one of his greatest examples of super-heroic mayhem with Five Elements Ninjas. Calling back to a favorite theme of China vs. Japan, this no-holds-barred example of Peking Opera acrobatics and traditional Japanese ninjutsu remains a fan favorite to this day. Released as ninja movies grew in popularity, Five Elements Ninjas is among the most colorful and graphic depictions of this unconventional Japanese martial art. In this film, Chang Cheh gives us one of his greatest villains from his epic Shaw Brothers filmography, the King of the Ninjas Kembuchi Muduo (Chen Hui-Min).
On serial bad guys, Roger Ebert once said, “Each film is only as good as its villain.” Kembuchi’s methodically gruesome and patient destruction of the Chinese Alliance pushes the audience against him, making the journey of our desperate heroes all the more engaging.
Invited to China by Chief Hong to eradicate the Chinese Alliance and their master Zeng, Kembuchi soon decides he wants to rule the Martial Arts world rather than allow Chief Hong that distinction. The King of the Ninjas tells Chief Hong, “I’ve conquered the martial arts world. Such an accomplishment, why should I go back?” Under Mudou’s wing, the title ninja clans -including the lovely Junko- use every form of lethal deception to carry out that goal. Once Venom’s mob favorite Lo Meng is dispatched by the ninja master’s ruthless final strike, you cannot help but loathe Kembuchi and his dastardly clan.
This “Supreme Ninja” is a by-the-scroll-type, he’s mastered every ninja weapon and trick (note his expertise of the Fire and Earth ninja tactics). Kembuchi will not suffer fools and gladly get his hands and feet very bloody. As leader of the ninjas, he is the most dangerous and devious of them all. Chen Hui-Min was well known in kung fu cinema (and real life) for his street fighting style (including Western boxing, Tae Kwon Dao and several forms of kung fu). His mastery of blades and footwork is prominent throughout Five Elements Ninjas. As Kembuchi, Chen performs some of his best fighting for Shaw Brothers. Chen’s nimble martial style easily matches his acrobatic foils, as the King of the Ninjas holds his own against the heroes played by Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi, Chu Ko, Wang Lik, and Yu Tai-Ping. While Chen has described his martial strength in delivering more powerful punches than kicks, one could easily debate this upon viewing the elaborate sweeps and legwork he performs during the final fight.
Kembuchi may not be as complex as other villains Chen essayed for Shaw Brothers, yet this Japanese adversary is among his most visceral. He is just a delight to watch facing off against Chu Ko and Ricky Cheng.
Without Kembuchi, Five Elements Ninjas wouldn’t quite hit the grand, go-for-broke strokes director Chang Cheh delivers on screen. As the director builds our sympathy for the heroic Chinese Alliance fighters, we care so much because those nasty ninjas and their ruthless leader are so darn evil. If you’ve never seen this crowd-pleasing movie, you’re in for a shuriken-laden good time.
Watch 5 Element Ninjas here!
When not honing her pen-fu for ShawBrothersUniverse.com or studying the precepts of film and media, Kim August can be found writing, drawing and thinking about Shaw Brothers movies at her blog. Kim’s short story based on Chang Cheh’s Vengeance! was recently published in NANG Magazine #3.