Is the ninja a pop-culture cliché or poised for a comeback?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
June 15 2010 2:47 PM

The State of the Ninja

Pop-culture cliché or poised for a comeback?

(Continued from Page 1)

The '90s saw a rash of child ninja movies spearheaded by the 3 Ninjas series, which were enormously lucrative on home video. Many of these kid ninja movies—3 Ninjas Knuckle Up (the three ninjas bring justice to Native Americans) and 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (the three ninjas plus Hulk Hogan vs. Loni Anderson)—were produced and directed by Simon Sheen, better known as Shin Sang-Ok, one of Korea's master directors from the '50s who was kidnapped by North Korea and held against his will for eight years before reappearing in Hollywood and going into the child ninja business. Compare any of Shin Sang-Ok's earlier works, like the prostitute drama Flower in Hell, to the Native American dance scene from 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up, and you'll see compelling visual testimony that North Korea can destroy a man's soul.

These days, the Internet has not been respectful to ninjas despite how popular they seem to be online. Most people who say they love ninjas are only pretending to love them—and the more they say they love them, the more they are actually making fun of them. The Web video series, "Ask a Ninja" is the nadir of ninja Internet humor, a brand of comedy designed for people whose daily lives are so vacuous that pop-culture references have become the height of hilarity. Watch the videos on a site like Ninja Spirit, or go to a theme restaurant like Ninja in New York and experience the kind of industrial-strength, soul-killing, reflexively ironic emptiness that may have been used to destroy Shin Sang-Ok's talent. The ninja seems to have fallen into the clutches of the shallow and callow, fit only to be an object of mockery for sad men-children.

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But it's the children—happily—who are our future. Now that the ninja death touch has been laid on the Harry Potter franchise, ninjas have craftily engineered his replacement by Naruto a frighteningly popular Japanese series about a young ninja in training. The animated show is one of the Cartoon Network's highest-rated programs, and the Naruto manga, now on Volume 16, consistently debuts as one of the top-selling novels on Bookscan. That's top-selling novels, not graphic novels.

In early June, a Naruto feature film called Naruto the Movie: Ninja Clash in the Land of Snow debuted in a one-night-only screening at 166 theaters around America—many of which sold out in advance. If you're an adult or can only consume pop culture that's safely sealed away between quotation marks, you probably haven't heard of Naruto, but he does for ninjas what Harry Potter did for wizards. Naruto is misunderstood, but infinitely powerful, and watched over by kindly mentors who teach him powerful techniques. He arrives as the ultimate power fantasy for kids who feel not only underestimated by their parents but also that there must be something more to life than school and family—that somewhere there must be a supercool place like Hogwarts or a ninja academy where they'll finally fit in. So, while we were distracted by hipsters and their insincere ninja worship, real ninjas slipped in and brainwashed America's children to their cause. For that is the ninja way.

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Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.

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