“Ninja: Unmasking the Myth is a brave book. With a scientific sense of objectivity, Turnbull tears down an edifice that he himself helped to build, shining the harsh glare of academic rigour on his earlier work. In doing so, he uncovers some striking facts about the evolution of the ninja, not the least that the word doesn’t even occur in Japanese-English dictionaries until 1974.”
My review of Stephen Turnbull’s demolition (and reconstruction) of ninja in history, up now on the All the Anime blog.
From A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements — available now in the UK and in the US.
Considering the ubiquity of the ninja in twenty-first-century popular culture, it is remarkable how fast they appear to have sprung out of nowhere in the 1950s and 1960s.
At first, they were imagined in black – the default colour of stagehands and puppeteers, whom traditional theatre-goers were supposed to blank from their sight. Ninja were proletarian heroes, peasants and underlings in the interstices of times past, literally invisible from a military history that had been dominated by the samurai. However, despite the claims of ninja apologists, it is difficult to find any concrete discussion of them long before the novels of Yamada Futaro (1922–2001) and the comics of Shirato Sanpei (1932–2021). Any attempts to make a scholarly study of ninja lead down a series of false trails, with modern sources that end up only citing each other, and credulous populist works that claim any reference in an old account to shinobi (stealth, spies, assassins) was in fact a reference to one of several secret ninja societies that stayed in the shadows. This fad achieved global recognition with the appearance of ninja in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) – reaching, by nature of its genre and franchise, a far wider audience than any more reasoned, less fantastic account of Japanese martial traditions.
As colour television took hold in Japan, ninja gained more garish colours, as well as a conveniently rediscovered martial art. The TV series Ninja Butai Gekko (1964, released abroad as Phantom Agents) gave them superhuman abilities born from simple camera trickery, and gadgets inspired by James Bond and Cold War espionage. Although ninja were found in some 1960s entertainments for adults, their most enduring legacy has always been in the children’s medium, where every generation seems to have a ninja series to imitate in the playground and the park – Ninja the Wonderboy (1964), Legend of Kamui (1969), Battle of the Planets (1972), Hattori the Ninja (1981), Red Shadow (1987), or Naruto (2002).
A Brief History of the Samurai, by Jonathan Clements is available now in the UK and US.
With a gruelling shoot that spanned April 2007 to September 2008 after its leading man’s injury on set, filmed in the sub-tropical heat of Japan’s idyllic Ryukyu island chain, Kamui: The Lone Ninja recreates a lost world of fishing villages on the Inland Sea, a time when the samurai wars were done, and the people of Japan returned to their fields and their boats. It also evokes a savage era where all unwelcome influences were ruthlessly suppressed, and plays with the notion that the Japanese peasantry of the 17th century had formed secret societies of semi-magical assassins.
The son of a renowned left-wing artist, Kamui’s creator Sanpei Shirato (1932- ) was one of the last of the kamishibai painters, making panels of artwork for Japanese “magic lantern” shows. A narrator, or benshi, would tell a lively story to a crowd while pushing pictures through a lit frame. Soon after Shirato’s first kamishibai work, Mister Tomochan (1951), the advent of television destroyed the medium, leading Shirato to transfer his skills into comics. His early work included adaptations of the animal stories of Ernest Seton and works for girls, but it was as the creator of Ninja Bugeicho (Chronicle of a Ninja’s Martial Achievements, 1959-1962) that he achieved true fame. Even in his early days, Shirato was notable for his insistence on an external narrator, a voice outside the story itself that would comment on the action and steer the viewers like an old fashioned benshi.
His first big success in the TV world was Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru (Fujimaru the Wind Ninja, or Ninja the Wonderboy), broadcast in 1962. His original comic was called Ninja Clan, but in a tense compromise for Shirato the committed socialist, the show was renamed to establish a link with its sponsor, Fujisawa Pharmaceuticals. Each episode of the rollicking boys’ drama would open with a Fujimaru theme song that transformed into a jingle for Fujisawa. Notably, it would close with a live-action sequence in which a breathless interviewer would quiz Masaaki Hatsumi, an accomplished martial artist who claimed to know the secrets of the ninja world, and who imparted them to an entire generation of Japanese boys. Continue reading