“To be a Ninja, indeed even to contemplate the Silent Way, one must be a hunter. This means that he knows the ways of his prey. He studies their habits, patterns of movements, and routines. In this way, he can strike when they are most vulnerable, or trap them in their own habits.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja
Welcome to Ninjanuary! This month I’ll be exploring and revisiting movies and other media centered on that mysterious figure of stealth and danger, the ninja! I plan to update on Mondays and Thursdays, with a mixture of capsule reviews and longer articles.
Variously translated as the “art of secrecy” or “art of invisibility,” ninjutsu originated in Japan in the tenth or eleventh centuries (or perhaps earlier–fittingly for such a shadowy tradition, there is no single point of origin, but a coalescing of practices originating in China and elsewhere, coming together in the mountains of Japan). As opposed to the rigid, honor-bound code of the samurai, ninjutsu was entirely practical, focused on results, and with an emphasis on acting and escaping with as little trace as possible. Espionage, sabotage, and assassination were the specialties of the ninja, whether working as spies infiltrating an enemy base or as commandos in open warfare. Using sleight of hand and psychology, it was said that ninjas could cloud men’s minds, appear and disappear at will, or even become completely invisible. (The more sober accounts of ninjutsu downplay such fanciful notions, but Ashida rightly points out that if a ninja truly possessed such a power, he would hardly demonstrate it on command for the curious.) Given some of the feats attributed to master ninjas, it is no wonder that the ninja was often perceived as having supernatural abilities, a mystification that only served to hide the truth further.
“To be a Ninja, an invisible assassin, one must be a warrior. This means that he accepts responsibility for his actions. Strategy is the craft of the warrior.” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja
Ninja techniques and skills were closely-guarded secrets, held by the ninja clans who passed their wisdom down from father to son, only rarely taking on outsiders (note that there were also female ninjas, kunoichi, who plied their trade disguised as geishas, musicians, or courtesans). While the earliest ninjas saw themselves as defenders of the common people, living amongst them secretly as farmers or tradesmen, later ninjas were mercenaries and key players in the struggles between competing warlords. With the opening to the West, ninjas declined in power and influence in Japan, but by then the ninja had entered folklore and popular culture. A few families and ryu (schools) kept the traditions alive, but the glory days were in the past.
“To be a Ninja, one must be a wizard. This means that he can “stop the world” and see with the ‘eyes of God.’ This is the essence of Mugei-Mumei No-Jitsu, which is translated to mean, ‘no name, no art.'” –Ashida Kim, Secrets of the Ninja
Ninjas had long been a staple of Japanese entertainment: in addition to appearing in stories and comics, there was a popular cycle of ninja films in the 1960s; in the West, one of the most prominent appearances of the ninja was in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice in 1967. But it was in the early 1980s, following on the heels of the martial arts craze of the 1970s, that ninjas became a full-fledged fad, assuming a seemingly permanent place in Western pop culture. When I was a kid in the 1980s, ninjas were everywhere: I was hardly aware of the long history of ninjutsu or the subtle combination of philosophy and pragmatism that guided the ninja in his own culture, but there sure were a lot of kung fu fighters wearing black pajamas and carrying short swords and blowguns in the low-budget movies I saw on basic cable and on the shelves at the video store.
“‘Lew,’ Nicholas said, ‘slide over. I want to talk to you before the crowd comes.’
Croaker turned to look at him as he slid over to the passenger’s side. Far off, they could hear the wailing rise and fall of a siren. It could have been an ambulance.
‘I know who the ninja is.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja
The ninja was a perfect addition to the roster of character types found in action movies: the story could focus on a single ninja at the center of the action, or use ninjas as faceless goons, henchmen to be mowed down by the hero. The ninja’s pragmatic embrace of fighting techniques and spycraft from multiple sources made him usefully versatile, and filmmakers had fun one-upping each other with increasingly weird skills and powers for their ninja characters. TV shows and comics that weren’t focused on martial arts could make room for a one-off character (and even established characters suddenly “remembered” a trip to Japan in their background, where they learned the secrets of the shadow warriors). It wasn’t just on TV, either: as Bart Simpson discovered, you had to take an awful lot of karate lessons before you learned how to pull a man’s heart from his chest, and “ninja stars” were quickly banned from schools everywhere as untrained kids got their hands on cheap knock-offs of the ninja’s iconic weapons.
“Hatsumei Sensei looked at me curiously. ‘This knowledge is not for the public. In any case, no one would believe in these abilities unless he had seen them in action.’ He handed me a copy of one of his children’s books. It was illustrated with pictures of skulking figures in black outfits that resembled jumpsuits. They were engaged in various types of combat with an incredible assortment of weapons. ‘This is what the public think ninjutsu is, so we humor it. The real secrets that have been handed down through the generations are not for publication. They are for the knowledge of a chosen few.'” –Stephen K. Hayes, The Ninja and Their Secret Fighting Art
It should be clear from the above that I am not a particular connoisseur of martial arts cinema, and certainly not an expert on the real thing, but I hope to fill in some gaps by writing about them. As with some of my other series on Medleyana, part of my goal with this theme month is to explore the roots of this fad and reexamine a part of the pop culture landscape I took for granted when I was younger. When you’re a kid, everything is new, so it’s not always clear when something is genuinely new, or newly popular. In hindsight, the ascendancy of the ninja was a moment, one with a beginning, high point, and end. Eventually, like all fads, the ninja craze faded, becoming first a cliché and then a joke, but ninjas have never really gone away. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally a spoof of the decade’s (and particularly comic writer Frank Miller’s) obsession, are themselves now a venerable institution, such that kids today don’t even realize they were meant as a joke. Scott Adkins has starred in a pair of well-received ninja movies in the last decade. And presumably the real practitioners of ninjutsu are still out there, and if they are anything like the mythic figures shown in movies and comics, I doubt they’ve revealed everything they know. The ninja has proven a durable figure, and like the real warriors on which the fictional version is based, hard to pin down.
“Nicholas gave him a wan smile as he shook his head. Time to go, he thought. ‘I am prepared for it. I’ve been prepared for a long time now.’ He climbed out of the car. Every muscle seemed to ache and his head throbbed as if it were in a vise. He leaned in so Croaker could hear him as the blue-and-white drew up, followed by the ambulance. The street lit up red and white, red and white like the entrance to an amusement park.
‘You see, Lew,’ he said with infinite slowness, ‘I am a ninja, too.'” –Eric Van Lustbader, The Ninja