Catch ‘Em If You Can: An Incomplete Guide to Ninja on Celluloid

The following essay was included in the program for a VCinema-sponsored screening of the film Kamui Gaiden on 11/19/10.

As you watch the renegade ninja Kamui locked in battle with his bitter rival Fudo in Kamui Gaiden, you may ask yourself, “When is the last time I saw a ninja movie?  Ninja Assassin, Ninja Wars?  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?!”

Ninja.  It’s a word that has become synonymous with stealthiness, craftiness, not losing your cool or bullying your way through a situation, but flying under the radar and getting the job done with a smug, knowing twinkle in your eye and smile on your face.  Even the kanji (忍者) looks kind of cool; you could certainly imagine it meaning “shadow warrior”, “dark assassin”, or some similarly badassed moniker.  In reality, though, the kanji more simply means “patient person”, a more fitting term required of the work of the ninja since the job requires just as much patience as speed and efficiency.

Patience has also been a quality required of cinematic ninja fans, because their favorite hooded warriors have rarely been the subject of a truly great movie.  In fact, if there’s ever been one really great cinematic ninja, it was Raizo Ichikawa IV.  Ichikawa was a popular actor whose success in films in 1950s and 1960s films such as The Outcast and Enjo, both directed by the great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa, led him to a role that defined the cinematic ninja:1962’s Shinobi no Mono (the title of which, incidentally, is an alternate reading of the kanji for ninja).  A dramatized account of the legendary bandit (and ninja, of course) Goemon Ishikawa, the Shinobi no Mono series lasted a whopping eight installments and to this day remains one of the more subdued and authentic accounts of ninja life.  Forever after, the ninja would be a part of Japanese pop culture, appearing in television, manga, anime, and video games.

Ninja would also stealthily make their way abroad.  One of their earliest appearances was in Sean Connery’s fifth outing as James Bond in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.  In the film, Bond must ally himself with “Tiger” Tanaka (played by the inimitable Tetsuro Tamba), a member of the Japanese secret service whose ninja force Bond must train with.  This early ninja visit to overseas cinema proved to be too stealthy; instead of the crafty arts of the ninja, America took to the more aggressive, in-your-face martial arts such as kung fu and karate, represented by the wild popularity of Bruce Lee and Sonny Chiba.  It wasn’t until 1981’s Enter the Ninja, starring spaghetti western stalwart Franco Nero, that the ninja invasion in America officially started.  And, from then on, shelves at video rental stores would be filled with the likes of American Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Cheerleader Ninjas.  A country that would welcome ninja immediately with open arms, however, was Hong Kong.  One look at that country’s ‘70s and ‘80s would reveal a great number “ninja” title: Ninja in the Deadly Trap, Ninja Massacre, and Ninja Vs Ninja.  Though many of these titles had the same dubious quality as their American counterparts, a few good ones were made.  In particular, Chang Cheh’s 1982 film Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Super Ninjas) is a standout, but that may speak more of Chang’s veteran directorial hand than anything else.

If the spotty track record of the cinematic ninja has told us anything, it’s that our stealth friends have enjoyed some good times.  There will probably never be an Academy Award winner among them (though Kamui Gaiden features two Japan Academy Award winners — director Yoichi Sai for Blood and Bone and Kenichi Matsuyama for Detroit Metal City).  You will probably never see one in the Criterion Collection, the measuring stick of film quality, or on many critic’ “Top Ten” lists, but there still remains enough general interest to produce some more ninja stars.