Jackson: Have you ever heard of ninjutsu sir?
Colonel Hickock: What’s that?
Jackson: The secret art of assassination.
It’s a well-known trope that pop culture ninjas, like pirates, are nothing like their real-world counterparts. While there were indeed ninjas, they were assassins rather than warriors who chose to blend in, use underhanded weapons, and kill when the victim was least suspecting it. Unlike the samurai, the ninja were seen to have no honor nor great status.
Pop culture ninjas couldn’t be more different: black-garbed martial arts masters who had an impressive array of weapons and an uncanny knack of kicking everyone’s butt in the room. While the pop culture ninja had its roots in 60s and 70s films, it was the 80s that embraced them with such unabashed love that they saturated film and TV. We didn’t even blink twice when a series called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came on the air, ninjas permeated GI Joe and comic books, and films such as American Ninja elevated these figures to be admired and emulated. Our video games back then were filled with them, particularly Shinobi, Strider, and Ninja Gaiden.
Even if you sneer at this type of ninja today, put yourself in the mindset of a young child. Ninjas hit all the marks that made kids flip out: they had a cool costume that could be reproduced with towels and bathrobes, they got to use swords and throwing stars, and they not only dominated fights, but they got to be all stealthy when the situation called for it. The cap on all of this was the mystical Japanese teachings and secret powers of the body and mind. Even today, Japanese culture is captivating to Western audiences, because who knows that they’ve learned to do while the rest of us were farting around with cottin gins and Manifest Destiny?
In the 80s, ninjas were Batman. They were the answer to any question of “Who would win in a fight, ninjas or…?” They were soaked in cool and we felt cool by any association possible. I’ll admit to having purchased a few ninja books and secretly practicing with a wooden katana while wearing my ninja pajamas. Mind you, there’s no photographic evidence, but my mother will gladly recount the time when I scared the crud out of her by leaping out of the shadows at night in the house with my sword when I thought she was a burglar.
So yeah, we may look back at films like American Ninja and scoff at how silly it all was, but even now I can’t but help think how this was genuine fun in a way that our current movies are missing. Maybe it’s time for a ninja revival.