Sam Firstenberg Interview

Hello Mr. Firstenberg. Thank you very much for agreeing to answer these simple questions about your pivotal and groundbreaking American Ninja movies. First of all, big congrats for your astonishing film-making career, quite a big achievement! Now, let’s talk about Joe Armstrong and his fictional universe…

Q: AN1. Is Joe supposed to be 22-24? I assume he has been retrieved amnesiac when he was just 13 or so. Do you remember you being given any interesting “inside” info about his origin from the movie screenplayers, for instance why Joe’s biological parents were located in the Philippines? I cannot find either the name or the bio of the actor who played Joe as child anywhere…

S.F: In the script Joe is serving in the military, usually here in the US young men go to the army after the graduate from high school at age 18. Joe is already after basic training and is assigned as a driver to an active unit so he is probably around 19 years old. Of course Michael was older than 19 at the time that he played the part.
In the scene of the explosion the little Joe Armstrong is about 10 years old and in the montage of him being trained by Shinyuki he is about 12 or 13.
Joe’s biological parents were stationed in the Philippines as diplomats.
For some reason the boy that played young Joe’s name does not appear in the IMDB list, I just remember that he was a local boy actor in Manila of Western descent.
You can set up the timeline any way you see it but make Joe at least 21-22 years young because here in America to be 24 and still in military service is too old.  

Q: AN1. Is Joe T. Armstrong supposed to be a name they gave him when they retrieved him?

S.F: The name Joe was given to him by Shinyuki, the family name Armstrong he adopted later in life.

Q: AN1. Is Shinyuki, Joe’s master, supposed to be a former member of the Narajama clan or he belonged to some other ancient and secret clan? It doesn’t seem like Black Star Ninja recognized him or his (and Joe’s) techniques. How did Shinyuki end living on the Philippines anyway?

S.F: Shinyuki ended up living in the Philippines as a gardener for Ortega we don’t know more, the rest is mystery. It is destiny that brought him there to be in the right time at the right place to serve justice.

Q: AN1. Is the exact name of the ninja magic “Kobudera”?

S.F: As far as I know it is "Mystical Warrior Magic". Things believed to be within the Kobudera contigent are Genjutsu (art of illusions), Yojutsu (art of the supernatural "tricks") and Onmyodo (The Way of Yin-Yang - rough translation, there is really more to it).

Q: AN1. Was American Ninja financially successful? It was a big, renowned TV/video hit here in Italy. What can you tell us about the popularity and the resonance of the movie all around the world? In Italy it was re-titled as Guerriero Americano.

S.F: American Ninja was immediate success upon its release in theaters and later on a huge success when it came out on the home video market. Since it was a low budget movie eventually it was and still is a tremendous financial success worldwide.

The name American Warrior instead of American Ninja appears first in France and later in Italy. Maybe the local distributors did not believe that their audiences know what a “Ninja” is and therefore change the name to insure box office success. In any case in France for two weeks the movie was at the top of the list.

Q: AN1. In your view, apart Michael Dudikoff (The James Dean of Ninjas), the ninja’s conceptual theme and the impressive action scenes, what else is part of the big appeal of the American Ninja story? In my view, the self-discovery of secret “special” origin and skills which somehow underlines a similitude between Joe and Superman.

S.F: In my opinion the appeal of American Ninja is not only Michael Dudikoff and the fact that he was the first “Western” Ninja, but also the innocent love story between Joe and Patricia (Judie Aronson) and the body-body storyline between Joe and Curtis Jackson (Steve James). Young movie viewers are attracted to true friendship and first love.

 Q: The final fight of AN1 is iconic and thrilling, just a marvellous set-piece. Why in AN2 are Joe’s screentime as American Ninja and his final duels somewhat shorter?

S.F: No, it was not budgetary reasons that Joe’s final fight is shorter; it was only the different structure of the plot that is broader in scope. The first American Ninja concentrated on the story of Joe Armstrong the second had more narratives to follow.

Q: AN2. Was it successful?

S.F: American Ninja 2 was successful as well since it had a build in enthusiastic followers, fans of the first movie, but in the long run stretching over 30 years the first American Ninja is the undisputed champion the most successful of all the other American Ninja movies in the series.

Q: AN2. Is it supposed to be fictionally set in the Carribean Islands? In my timeline, now Joe is 29 and 5 years have passed by since the events of AN1.

S.F: Yes the story of American Ninja 2 is taking place on some fictional Caribbean island and though we never timed it while writing the script, you are probably assuming that it is few years later but not 5 probably 3 which will make Joe 22 or 23 years old.

Q: AN2 is a fan favourite and a cult classic like the first one, but some complained about the ninjas being more easy to defeat/kill… especially in the last fight, where some Marines just took them down. What’s your say and perspective about this? My theory is that the so-called “Super-Ninjas” were not yet fully developed and at that point their “super” abilities just hadn’t kicked in like planned. This is also evident in the beach fight sequence.

S.F: I did not fill that it was easier to take down the Ninjas in one movie then the other but I must admit that I like your theory very much, such an idea did not cross my mind but story-wise it makes sense.

Q: Is Tojo Ken (Mike Stone) supposed to be Japanese? He is as much iconic as Black Star Ninja, despite having a much shorter screentime.

S.F: Mike Stone is Hawaiian and has a very unique look so we left it at that, there was no need to define him as Japanese or anything else.

Q: Do you think Joe used the American Ninja persona some more times in his life? It seems to me AN1 is the start of his “career” as vigilante, and AN2 just reinforced this concept. IMHO, in AN2 we got a more determined and focused Joe Armstrong, and that is truly one of the best aspects of this fantastic sequel!

S.F: In the beginning of the first movie Joe Armstrong is reluctant to get involved in any kind of mission or action - he even refrains to join the game of the other soldiers in the first scene. At this point he is also unaware of the special fighting abilities he possesses. As the plot progresses, and catapulted by his basic set of moral values, he is being pulled into getting involved in the events surrounding him, seeking justice. Along this process he discovers the secret of who he is and the skills he possesses.

In all the sequels later on, Joe is in a mission to resolve an unjust problem and right the wrong, he is aware of his abilities and therefore more determined and focused.

Q: American Ninja 3, 4, 5. Have you seen them? Which one is your “fave”? We would love a movie reunion, an American Ninja 6 featuring an older Joe and maybe even Sean Davidson (David Bradley) in some capacity…

S.F: I must admit that I did not see any of the sequels to the first two American Ninja therefore I have no favorite or unfavorite among them. If a sixth American Ninja will be made it will be a miracle, I heard that Michael is involved in an attempt to produce an older Joe Armstrong movie.

Q: Is it true that you own the rights of the “classic” image of the American Ninja persona, black ninja garb + red belt? I’m asking this because Joe in #4 just wore a full black ninja garb.

S.F: I do not own any right in the movies that I directed, usually all the rights belong to the company that produces the film, in this case it was Cannon Films and today all the rights of American Ninja belong to MGM. In the classical Hollywood system the director works for the producer or the production company, he get paid (sometimes very well) and therefore he “seals” his creative rights in the movie. Just in only few independent productions the director retains any rights.

Q: Last question! Steve James. We fans just feel Curtis Jackson as being an eighties cult icon along with Joe Armstrong. What’s your best memory of Steve?

S.F: Steve James was a great man, kind, goodhearted, enthusiastic cinema lover, and iconic black American Hero. We all loved working with him and we all miss him so much. I am sure he will be remembered by many for a long time.

Thank you so much, Mr. Firstenberg...

Pictures courtesy of SAM FIRSTENBERG, all rights reserved.