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. Continue reading