The new movie “Ninja Assassin” just might spark a new wave of fascination with Asian martial arts, but instead of kung fu, the fad will be for ninjutsu, the art of the ninja warrior.
The film updates the image of the silent, stealthy assassins from Japanese history, and suggests that ninja clans still exist, sending out mercenaries all over the world to kill off targets for gold. It’s an enticing concept, and one that’s in line with the tradition of the ninja in both Japanese history and Japanese pop-culture mythology.
During my childhood, I didn’t really fantasize about being a cowboy. Oh sure, I had the requisite cowboy outfit — western hat perched cockily to one side like a young John Wayne, a real leather holster belt with a pair of shiny Mattel cap pistols hanging down my side (I tied them to my thighs with strips of leather) and a silver sheriff’s star on my chest. I played cowboys and Indians like American boys did back then. But not all the time.
In Japan, there was another, more romantic character that boys could play — the ninja. They were lots cooler than cowboys. They were able to leap incredible heights over palace walls, walk silently through a sleeping castle, and noiselessly kill their prey with their samurai swords (which they wore across their backs instead of hanging on their sides) or shuriken, razor-sharp steel stars like many-sided daggers that ninja could throw with deadly accuracy.
Ninjas even looked cool — instead of fancy, bulky, multi-layered samurai outfits (or battered and sweaty cowboy hats), ninjas were clad in a simple outfit of midnight-black fabric (better to skulk around in the dark) just loose enough to allow freedom of movement in martial arts hand-to-hand combat. They covered their heads with a black hood, and only their eyes were visible through the veil.
Although the ninjas were, like the cowboys of America, a romanticized icon of an earlier, “frontier-era” spirit, they also made sense for the early 1960s. They were precursors of spies in a modern world deeply divided by the Cold War. With James Bond and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. looming just around the pop-culture corner, I was ready-made for sneaking around my small yard in Tokyo, fantasizing about being a ninja.
I used to balance precariously on the cinderblock wall around our yard, pretending to be a ninja breaching the defenses of an evil warlord. I’d leap the couple of feet it took to grab a hold of a low-hanging branch of the persimmon tree, and in my head, I was jumping effortlessly 15 feet straight up. I’d throw the dozens of plastic shuriken I’d hide in my shirt (the ninjas in the black and white movies I loved to watch kept their shuriken hidden near their hearts, and they’d reach in and flip them with a flick of the wrist) all over the property, losing a couple each week to neighbors’ yards or the street beyond the wall. For hand-to-hand combat, I’d pull my plastic sword out of its scabbard strapped to my back, and whack away at hapless branches, or stuffed animals, or whatever handy victim that happened to be lying around.
Oddly enough, I don’t remember playing ninja with other boys. But then, the lot of a ninja can be a lonely one — working solo is not uncommon in the stealth trade.
Ninjas were popular in samurai movies, and I recall being glued to our early TV set, entranced by the fuzzy, black and white images. I even got to see real-life ninja paraphernalia, on special occasions when our family would go to a fancy Japanese restaurant in the bowels of Tokyo. I don’t remember the name of the place, and I would be surprised if it’s still there, but I loved going, because the restaurant had a samurai theme. Right inside the entrance was a display of full samurai armor, with its imposing horned helmet and chain-mail body. There were also swords on display, but they didn’t capture my attention. I would always go straight to one glass case filled with real shuriken — shiny, sharp and scary-looking.
Ninjas have come a long way since I watched them on a fuzzy TV set. They were turned into cartoon characters — the Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers — and have become key characters in a host of computer and video games — including Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat.
They continue to pop up in Western pop culture, even down to the dumbest level: “Ask a Ninja,” a website where a white dude in ninja costume gives vaguely Asianesque and unfunny comedy monologues. These clowns even got a book deal out of this travesty. Thankfully, they seemed to have run out of steam not long after the book came out. The last video was posted in May, and a February letter to readers foreshadows the drought: “The release of the book and the Holiday season took a lot out of us creatively and it’s been hard to get back on track since.” Here’s what I wrote about “Ask a Ninja” back in 2006.
I’m hopeful that the new rise of the ninja in the American pop consciousness will be more respectful of traditions and culture, and the new movie fills the bill for me, although by now, the hardass sensei training young naive recruits is a hoary old cliche by now.
At least “Ninja Assassin” isn’t a ripoff or misappropriation of ninja-ness even though it was written, directed and produced by European Americans (the team that brought us “The Matrix,” the 10-year old — ! — film that remains one of the few perfect movies ever made, alongside “Casablanca” and “Strangers on a Train” and “The Conversation”… but hey, that’s another blog post altogether…).
For starters, “Ninja Assassin” has cast Asians in the roles of lead ninja characters and the masochistic master, Ozunu. In fact, Ozunu is played by Sho Kosugi, who has made a career out of playing ninjas in Japanese movie since the 1980s. (That’s him wearing black in the black-and-white still photo at the top of the post.)
The main character, Raizo, is played by Korean pop star Rain, and though the character’s body is covered by the scars of the years of training as an assassin, Rain’s pretty-boy looks mark him as a matinee idol in the making.
At least his English has a believable Japanese accent, unlike the lazy casting of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” in which the Chinese leads spoke English with obvious Chinese accents. The excuse given by the producers of “Geisha” was that they just couldn’t find Japanese (or Japanese American) actresses with the box office draw. But they obviously didn’t try to coach their stars to speaking English with Japanese inflections. either. The message I got from the filmmakers was, “All Asians are alike and it doesn’t matter who we cast in what roles and how they sound.”
One of our favorite Asians working in Hollywood, Sung Kang, gets a cameo in the opening scene, which is a mere prelude to the bloodshed to follow, but he gets dispatched right away. Rick Yune, another Korean American actor, who unfortunately gets cast as a bad guy way too often, plays Raizo’s rival.
The story is simple: Raizo, who is raised with other orphans by a ninja clan led by Ozunu, ultimately rejects his fate as an assassin, and is hunted by his brothers and sisters. Meanwhile, he’s trying to help a pair of international cops (they work for “Europol”) track down and stop the spate of ninja-caused assassinations. Between beginning and end, buckets of blood are spilled and squirted, bt you know, if you’re a fan of Japanese samurai and ninja movies over the decades, the blood is nothing new.
In the end, I thought “Ninja Assassin” was pretty solid — and respectful, although Erin pointed out that it does send the message that Asians are evil, dark and deadly. But I don’t know, maybe Asian Americans can use some of that darker image so we’re not always so invisible and ignored in mainstream culture.
I’m not so sure “Ninja Assassin” will be a huge box office hit, but I bet it’s a cult favorite, and spawns a wave of fascination with ninjas way beyond the silliness of “Ask a Ninja.” It’s a buyer for me, on DVD.
Then again, I have a soft spot in my heart for ninja in general, and I’ve even submitted to watching a bunch of crappy old American “ninja” B-movies even though they’re not very accurate or respectful of culture. I just like the butt-kicking action, I guess.
Even in Japan, ninjas have been romanticized and mythologized for so long that the popular representation probably isn’t at all what the reality was. Some recent ninja flicks have been pretty silly, like “Shinobi: Heart Under Blade,” a Romeo-and-Juliet take on competing ninja clans. Ninjas originated sometime during the feudal era as spies, assassins and terrorists, trained in shinobi or ninjutsu, special martial arts and the use of special weapons. They reach back to older traditions in Korea and China before that, but their traditions were codified by certain clans in remote parts of Japan (which the new movie fictionalizes, but no more than many Japanese filmmakers have done).
For anyone interested in ninja lore, there are plenty of online resources but I like The Ninja Dojo because it focuses on the Japanese movies and not the dungeons-and-dragons-gone-far-east cultishness that ninjas seem to evoke from some people. Plus, the Ninja Dojo places ninjutsu in its larger context of samurai period films.
Some of the earliest movies the site covers are ones I used to watch as a kid, and reading about them makes me want to skulk around again, silently without a squeak or a creak in the floorboards, stalking my prey only to strike without warning, and disappear again into the shadows.
Beats staging a cowboy showdown, any day!
NOTE: For a very cool conversation about how Asian men seem destined to have to play martial arts roles to get star billing in Hollywood, check out this podcast from IFC. It’s thought-provoking and entertaining, and educational, all at the same time.
Here’s the trailer for “Ninja Assassin:’
Note: portions of this post were originally written for a 1999 Nikkeiview column.