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?

An American citizen was arrested today as he tried to cross the border into Afghanistan to track down Osama bin Laden, ninja-style.Armed with a handgun, 40-inch sword, dagger, and night-vision equipment, 52-year-old construction worker Gary Brooks Faulkner told police he was on a one-man mission to kill the al-Qaida leader. In 2007, Grady Hendrix assessed the state of the ninja in pop culture, and traced its influence to the Middle East. Read his article below.  

Ninjas are everywhere. Ninjas are in movies, ninjas are on TV, there is probably a ninja clinging to the bottom of your desk right now. With their roots in the battlefields of 14th-century Japan, ninjas were assassins who practiced the art of ... oh, who cares? It doesn't matter where ninjas came from. All you need to know is that ninjas can totally kill you without even thinking about it. In fact, ninjas are so lethal that it takes an enormous effort of will for them not to kill you. You are only alive because a ninja is trying very hard not to shoot a blow dart through your neck right this minute. Ninjas are being kind to us and yet we haven't returned the favor. Even so, ninjas have stealthily taken over the planet in the last few years and no one over 30 saw it coming.

Back in 1964, before irony turned the earth into a toxic wasteland, Ian Fleming wrote his last Bond book, the trippy You Only Live Twice that concludes with 007 turning Japanese and forgetting his life as a white man. The 1967 movie version featured Japanese actor and cult spokesman Tetsuro Tamba as Tiger Tanaka, a Japanese secret agent who trains Bond as a ninja. What you may not know is that the entire Bond franchise was saved by ninjas when the movie's producers canceled their tickets on their departing flight at the last minute to go watch a ninja demonstration. Twenty-five minutes after take-off, the plane they were supposed to be on crashed, killing the passengers and crew. Perhaps ninjas were sparing the producers' lives as a thank you, because You Only Live Twice marked the entry of the ninja into mainstream Western pop culture.

Later that year came the most important moment in ninja history: Israel's Six-Day War. That conflict established the legitimacy of modern-day Israel, and without modern-day Israel, there would be no modern-day ninja craze. In 1979, Israelis Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan established Cannon Films, and in 1981 Golan directed Enter the Ninja starring Sho Kosugi, a Japanese karate-champion-turned-stuntman-turned-actor, who would become the most iconic on-screen ninja of the '80s. The film's success led to more landmark ninja movies from Cannon: Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and Ninja III: The Domination (1984), both directed by Israeli Sam Firstenberg.

The Israeli affinity for ninjas makes sense when you consider that ninjas are basically supercool Jews. Both practice esoteric traditions that must be kept pure or they'll lose their power, both wear black outfits, and both can destroy much larger and more numerous opponents. The main difference is that while observant Jews spend a lot of time praying, observant ninjas spend a lot of time hiding and killing people. The most financially successful ninja movie produced by Cannon, Firstenberg's American Ninja (1985), featured Michael Dudikoff as an assimilated ninja who has forgotten his traditions and only defeats his enemies when he rediscovers his heritage. Its trailer, preserved on YouTube, allows you to taste its exquisite pleasures.

Fueled by Cannon Films, the '80s was the decade when the ninja entered the homes of most Americans under 12. The GI Joe character and popular toy Snake Eyes was originally a commando but was quickly rebranded as a ninja when Hasbro realized that this would increase his awesomeness by 40 percent. Batman's origin suddenly included ninja training. There were even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who made an awful lot of money for reasons that no one can quite remember anymore.

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.

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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