They come from the shadows, striking silently…leaving behind only b-movies, Halloween costumes and tongue-in-cheek internet memes in their wake. They are the Ninja and as Ninja Assassin lurks in the mutiplex shadows, you might say the ninja is back…but some of us know they were always there. You just didn’t see them….y’know because they’re ninjas. Here’s a list of a few a noteworthy ninjas that might have stalked under your pop-culture radar.
Sho Kosugi (Enter The Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, etc.): To people of a certain age whose childhood coincided with the mainstream advent of premium cable and the VCR, The name of Sho Kosugi is legend. Sure, the cornpone karate antics of Chuck Norris were always good watchin’ at 1 A.M. on the Superstation, but discriminating minds knew to scan the cable guides and $1 rental racks for the works of Sho Kosugi, whose black-pajam antics in films like Revenge of the Ninja and Nine Deaths of the Ninja pulled out all the ninja stops. The shogun of cheapjack English-language ninja flicks, If Sho’s name was in thee credits you knew that, although you might not be getting a Kurosawa film, you’d be guaranteed plenty of shuriken, tabi Socks and smoke bombs. Kosugi’s 1980′s films are the cinematic equivalent of bad comfort food for martial arts fans, better, perhaps,in retrospect and as fodder ofr referential humor than in the actual watching. Kosugi’s stab at TV stardom, as the heavy on the hilariously awful 80′s TV flop The Master never netted him Mr. T level crossover success, but it did immortalize him in two of the best episodes of T.V.’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. In the 80′s Kosugi never got a film that was worthy of his shadowy talents, but to many of us, he’ll always be The real ultimate ninja.
Michael Dudikoff & David Bradley (American Ninja, etc. al.): Opposite Kosugi on the ninja spectrum is whitebread, anglo assassin Michael Dudikoff, whose American Ninja films plagued the cable airwaves and vid store shelves for nearly a decade. Dudikoff’s films were the unfortunate last resort of embryonic martial arts fans when all the Sho Kosugi and Chuck Norris movies were rented. The American Ninja films were odious for a few reasons. The first was the fact that Dudikoff pulls a Toby Maguire in most of the films, i.e. he seems pretty averse to donning the full ninja threads, especially the mask, and, in the 80′s, if you didn’t wear the ninja threads, you weren’t really a ninja in my book. Also, the ninja adversaries of the series were laughably inept. They had a baffling tendency to use their stealth skills to cunningly wait in ambush behind bushes and boulders, only to jump out ten feet in front of their quarry as they approached screaming “HA!”, guaranteeing their “victim” would have ample warning to drop them with one punch. Also, The American Ninja films seem to fly in the face of common wisdom by proposing that thereal global hotbeds of ninja activity are not located in Japan, but in South America and The Middle East, where drug lords and terrorists prefer the high overhead of commissioning ninja armies over cheap local labor. Dudikoff, however, can’t be faulted for the most laughable entry in the series, 1993′s American Ninja 5. David Bradley plays the titular yank ninja in that film, which also features Pat Morita as a wise old ninja master exasperated by his tweener grandson’s lack of interest in continuing the family tradition of shadowy murder. The film stretches credibility by asking audieneces to believe that there’s a 12 year old boy out there who would actually turn down a chance to learn how to hide in the shadows, chuck shuriken, and kill a man with his pinky finger. These aren’t supposed to be science fiction films after all.
Otori Takeo (Tales of the Otori novels: Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass For His Pillow, Brilliance of The Moon, Harsh Cry Of The Heron ): Novelist Lian hearn never uses the “N” word in any of her Tales of The Otori novels, but if it talks like a ninja, stalks like a ninja, and flips out like a Ninja…it’s a Ninja. Tales of The Otori‘s Takeo may be literature’s first “emo ninja”. After spending his youg life as a humble farmer in , monotheistic community of shunned pacifists, our hero learns he is the heir to both a powerful clan of nobles, and the scion of a secret society of ninjas called The Tribe. But Takeo’s powers of invisibility, mesmerism, and skill with a blade can’t make up for the fact that his obligations to The Tribe keep him from inheriting a kingdom and getting that cute girl who’s betrothed to the patriarch of an enemy clan. Hearn’s conceptualization of The Tribe draws brilliantly from both the real historical background of the ninja as masters of disguise and espionage experts, and the fanciful legends that ascribe mystical mind powers and supernatural prowess to the fabled killers. Perhaps a little short on action in spots, Hearn meks up for the slow points and young-adult lit. melodrama with evocatively spare, poetic language and a real empathy for the inner turmoil of her characters. One of very few effective martial arts tales in prose, The Otori books are an admirable and recommended riff on the mythology of the original men in black.
Burrowing Ninjas, Flying Ninjas, Ninja Voltron (Duel To the Death): At the height of the 1980′s ninja film craze, Chinese filmmakers were even more eager than their Japanese counterparts to cash in on ninja-mania. Ironically, since Chinese directors really had no allegiance to the historical traditions of ninjitsu, it gave them a lot more freedom to make up crazy ninja hi-jinks Japanese filmmakers were too austere to conceieve. Case in point is the 1983 film Duel To The Death, a bloody wu-xia roller coaster that features some of the most over-the-top ninja gimickry ever put to film. Duel follws the events of a once-in-a-generation duel between the Chinese and Japanese fencing masters. Since this is a Chinese film, the plot involves the evil Japanese clan’s scheme to send a band of no goodnik-ninjas to steal the Chinese techniques, rig the contest and ruin an otherwise honorable swordfight to the death. Director Ten Shimoyama has ninjas strapped to kites, ninjas flying through trees, even strategically naked ninjas. Duel To the Death is an action-overloaded, sometimes head-scartching piece of vintage Chinese ninja excess, a must see for anyone whose cinematic tastes are not avesre to copiousamounts fake blood and borderline-surreal fight choreography.
The Iga and Kouga Clans (Shinobi: Heart Under Blade): The look of the ninja has become less conservative since the 1980′s. That kid from Naruto runs around in bright orange togs for kosugi’s sake. How stealthy can you be in a tangerine pullover? The ninja skill set has expanded as well. Modern manga and movies have broadened ninja powers so much that ninjas have basically become feudal superheroes. Shinobi‘s ninjas don’t sport the black pajamas, and their martial powers include things Sho Kosugi wouldn’t try even on his best day, but ther a prety good representation of the neo-ninja. This 2005 film, which can basically be described as Romeo and Juliet with ninjas, has flying ninjas, feral wolverine beastman ninjas, ninjas who can slow time, and even a ninja who can kill just by looking at you. Shinobi‘s cast is also an example of a rather upsetting trend in modern martial arts films that carries over to Ninja Assasin. Shinobi’s cast members seemed to have been chosen more for their prettiness than prowess, which means much of the over-the-top ninja action is performed by pixels rather than the performers, and some of the ninja powers are so over-the-top, the later fights can be exercises in anticlimax. Still, the film has great comic-book look, and the cinematography of haunted forests and cliffside aeries is gorgeous and atmospheric, making Shinobi an admirable modern ninja outing.
The In-laws (Heroes Of the East): marriage is a big adjustment for anyone. Getting used to the in-laws can be real trial. It’s even harder when your in-laws are a clan of deadly samurai and ninja. Lau Kar Leung’s 1979 masterpiece Heroes of the East takes wacky marital misunderstandings and cultural differences and turns them into martial arts gold. Heroes tells the story of a young Chinese martial artist (Gordon Liu) who makes the mistake of insulting his new Japanese bride’s martial arts skills. Word filters back to the in-laws, and before you can say “dysfunctional family”, Liu finds himself embroiled in a series of duels with his in-laws, each of whom is a master of a different Japanese fighting technique. One of the in-laws, of course, is a master of ninjistu who uses stealth, misdirection and the “crab technique” to test his new realtive’s mettle. Heroes is notable not just because it is one of Lau’s greatest films, but also because it is one of the few Chinese films that portrays Japanese martial artists as honorable equals to the chinese Kung-Fu masters. Presenting the martial arts as a philosophy that fosters mutual respect and discipline was one of Lau’s recurring themes, and Heroes lets that ethos shine through, while simultaneously providing a humorous and supremely accomplished martial arts classic.
Kyodai Ken (Batman The animated Series “Night of The Ninja”, “Day of The Samurai”): By 1993, the real heyday of the ninja had passed and, aside from those ubiquitous turtles, ninjas were not the staple of juvenile awe that they once had been. When Bruce Timm and company dusted off the old convention in two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, it was both nostalgic and innovative. “Night of The Ninja” begins with a mysterious thief arriving in Gotham. The cunning burglar starts robbing Wayne eneterprises factories and, when Batman investigates, he realizes the thief is not just a ninja, but a man from his past, the one student the youthful Bruce Wayne could never defeat at his old karate school. It’s amusing to hear Batman explain to a confused Robin exactly what a ninja is, in Timm’s anachronistsic animated world, apparently, ninjas never had their turn in the pop-culture limelight. Pairing up Batman with a foe from Wayne’s less self assuerd past is also fun. The run in with the arrogant, baiting Kyodai Ken plays out kind of like meeting the high school bully at the 10 year reunion and finding out he still wants to give you a wedgie…and then beating the hell out of him. The sequel “Day of The Samurai” has a more traditional martial-arts flavor, reminiscent of both Joseph Kuo’s Seven Grand Masters and Kurosawa’s Judo Story. The plot concerns a manual of secret techniques Koyedai Ken has stolen from Batman’s old sensei. It’s one of the handful of episodes from the series where we get to see The Dark Knight operate outside of Gotham, this time in a neon infused Tokyo and on the slopes of an erupting volcano. The only downside is that Bruce spends a lot of the episode feeling all angsty because his alter-ego Batman seems more like Ninja than a Samurai. All apologies to Toshiro Mifune, but everybody knows it’s way cooler to be a ninja.
These are just a few ninjas of note, if you like ninjas, check ‘em out, if not that’s OK too. The best thing about ninjas is they’re subtle. If you don’t look for them you’ll never know they’re there…