‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in American vs. Japanese films

One thing you hear over and over from the anti-‘Ninja-To’-sword-haters-club is the blade is “pure Hollywood.” Before this recent spat of research and over-scrutinizing swords in old movies, I used to argue against that notion; the Japanese studios got ninja ‘wrong’ decades before we did, right? And the blade was sold mail order well before our ninja boom, so Hollywood sure didn’t invent the sword. It wasn’t even used in The Octagon (1980) or Enter the Ninja (1981).

BUT, what can be said is “pure Hollywood” is the narrow strictness of the visual shorthand for ninja. From 1982’s Revenge of the Ninja onward, the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ was absolutely chiseled into the vocabulary of ninja in American film and TV. The sword was so well branded here, Kosugi or Dudikoff using a curved blade would have been seen as a blasphemous prop master’s error.

The Japanese were, as with manga, much less narrow in their use of screen props, however their use of a sword for a shinobi character carried additional editorial significance. Whereas American films were typically ninja vs. mobsters, drug lords, night shift security guards and sometimes other ninja, Japanese movies typically featured ninja vs. samurai.

Samurai use long, ornate blades that make statements of their social rank and wealth. A ninja’s cruder, less decorated blade is an indication of lower social rank. It says his sword is not his soul, but a tool to get a job done. At the same time, the shorter blade when used against full-length katana in the hands of an armored warrior says volumes about the ninja’s skill and courage.

So let’s take a look at some different swords in the hands of shinobi. We’ll start with the most historically credible ninja films ever made – the Shinobi-no-mono series.

But hey! Is that a straight blade???

I’ve had a few people refer me to this photo in opposition to statements I’ve made about the lack of short, straight blades in Japanese ninja films. And yeah, that is Raizo Ichikawa holding an apparently straight blade made by a studio prop master under the guidance of tech advisors like Takamatsu Toshitsugu and Masaaki Hatsumi.

But look again:

Hmmm. Why was the poster image altered to reflect a more traditional sword? Or was the publicity photo above retouched? And was it altered by Daiei back in the 60s or by Animeigo for their recent DVD packaging?

[UPDATE: Or as VN reader Kent Wood points out, is the above image just a scan from a book that is bending at the spine, thus distorting the page? I think he’s right! I think I’m missing the forest for the trees…]

Point I’m making here is even with the Bujinkan tech advisors on board, the blades are inconsistent between the Shinobi-no-Mono films, and they sometimes change from shot to shot. So don’t go putting too much importance behind any single still.

Above, two publicity shots with two different props. Rather than an editorial statement, this is more likely just the difference between what is called a “hero prop” – in this case a character’s signature sword, which they only might have produced a few copies of – and a more disposable prop used as a ‘stunt double’ if you will, for quick-cut fight scenes where the piece is more likely to be damaged.

Raizo’s “hero props” changed from film to film as well – note the different tsuba below. Sheath length also varied, but the blade was always short (signature Hatsumi!).

And not all Daiei ninja used such swords. Battle scenes involving multiple extras and stuntmen as Iga clansmen revert to plain katana and wakizashi. Budget saving measure, or where they embracing the notion that blades would differ from man to man, mission to mission?

Now, I’ll pose a question to everyone who’s seen these films.

I think there’s actually an ever so slight CURVE to this blade. What do you all think?

Hard to tell. I’d kill to see this prop, if it still exists. If there is a curve, it is so minor, changing perspective straightens it right out.

And here’s another question – why the hell hasn’t someone replicated this awesome baby and sold me ten of them? WHY?!?!?

Meanwhile on the small screen, Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia) was absolutely bursting with ninja during its 60s-long run. Prop swords varied from season to season, with a limited TV budgets always the deciding factor in style.

Note Tonbei the Mist‘s wakizashi with oversized round tsuba, in comparison to the standard swords of the hero Shintaro. The good Iga ninja always used these, while the evil ninja clan-of-the-season would have various plain swords. There was, however, a recurring sword used for the several seasons’ boss villains – an absolutely monstrous ‘horse cutter’ (I think?) with a handle as long as its blade. I love this freaky thing!

The 60s weren’t all gritty, B&W, espionage-based, hard ninjutsu, though. There were as many swashbuckling adventurers and colorful plucky heroes as tormented shadow dwellers. Plenty of heroes who were of otherwise samurai status as well, so they used their same trusty blades when on night missions.

Ninja with samurai swords or samurai in ninja garb? Counter-clockwise from top NINJA HICHO FUKURO NO SHIRO (Castle of Owls), AKAI KEGEBOSHI (The Red Shadow), KAZE NO BUSHI (Warrior of the Wind)

However, the 70’s was a decade where ninja on the big screen were less likely to be the hero, and more likely to be fodder butchered by a surly sword-swinging ronin. The financial and scheduling realities of movie and TV production usually trumped any desired fealty to martial tradition or obscure history, so these disposable ninja carried off-the-rack, bulk produced props that didn’t require exclusive tooling or smithing. There were a lot of wakizashi blades with katana handles, and shorter curved swords with square guards, like this:

That’s one of dozens of ninja mowed down in the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and the above style sword was standard issue in 70s and 80s films.

Here’s a better look at what Japanese filmmakers considered the ‘Ninja-To’ pretty much at the same time as we were buying the straight versions made famous by Hayes and Kosugi:

Shogun’s Ninja (Ninja Bugeicho: Momochi Sandayu – 1981) features two competing forces of ninja, both using the same medium length curved blades with plain handles and square guards.

*As a side note, is there a film with a wider pendulum swing of great costuming (above) and laughable bullshit (below)? These hunter cammo suits give me douche chills.*

The same year, Enter the Ninja began Sho Kosugi‘s assault on America. Mike Stone‘s weaponry was custom, not mail order, and the swords were closer to the Japanese studio model.

But in 1983, the smoking chest was opened, and there it was!

From Revenge of the Ninja on, Kosugi was in charge of choreography and props, and never strayed from the short, straight blade with long handle and square guard – used by ALL ninja – heroes, villains, rival clans, students, masters… everyone.

He even made his own in Pray for Death (1985), a scene that drove Tim and I nuts because the sword he supposedly forged real quick during his power-up montage ends up a fully decorated blade with ornate hammon line, right out of the prop bin.

*And that dumb-ass helmet ranks with the cammo gear above!*

When the Cannon Films ninja mantle was passed to Michael Dudikoff, so too was the now requisite ‘Ninja-To,’ seen throughout the five American Ninja films that closed out the 80s craze.

And at the same time in Japan? Masaaki Hatsumi was a big part of the kids’ show World Ninja War Jiraiya (Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya – 1988), which featured a variety of outre ninja-based characters with just as wide a variety of swords.

Curved swords…

Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.

E-debate rages on notorious ‘Ninja-To’

Martial arts are a lot like religion – you can’t have a discussion, it’s an argument. You can’t have an opinion, you take sides. And just like religions draw lines in the sand over buildings, relics and figures, so too has the ninjutsu community focused considerable scrutiny toward the alleged ‘ninja sword.’

Conflicting ‘evidence’ abounds – museums displays here, pictures in karate mags there, eyewitnesses, experts and amateurs all weighing in (*I* fall in there somewhere, ahem…), and too often folks deliver their opinions in over-confident, absolute terms.

‘They existed alright…’

‘My friend trained in Japan in the 80s and he saw the scroll…’

‘Nope, they’re a myth. The proof is in an old issue of…’

And it is those broad, matter-of-fact statements that really escalate the tone and language of these debates. You don’t have to look far, however, to see how contradictory ‘reliable information’ can actually be:

Image from Arthur Adams' NINJA: THE INVISIBLE ASSASSINS, a 1970 expansion of articles from the 60s, and America's first notion of a sword suited for shinobi espionage work. Note: CURVED, but with other elements of the stereotyped Ninja-To, like the shovel tip on the scabbard.
By the early to mid-80s, this was regulation ninja gear. In CAMMO even! Ever notice the short blades got longer and the oversized square guards got smaller as time went on?

The professionals are just as conflicted, no more evident than in the internet jousting between martial artists/authors/historians that starts with this article by Bujinkan instructor Don Roley on the BudoSeek info board, here:

The Myth of the Straight-Bladed Ninja Sword (read the extensive comments as well)

Mr. Roley’s thesis in short: The stereotypical straight sword is myth, it wasn’t part of the 60’s movement in Japan, Masaaki Hatsumi never used one and shouldn’t be blamed for its proliferation. Rather, Stephen K. Hayes is largely responsible for the erroneous notion that this is the signature and exclusive blade of ninjutsu.

Retorts actually came from Stephen K. Hayes himself!

“Ninja Sword” Non-Controversy

Hayes’ points: Such swords existed, but weren’t a “badge of official ninja-ness.” He admits his written works over the 80s both embraced the stereotype and guarded against it, to the point that the debate is often “silly” and folks should get on with it already.

Then, sitting somewhere between the two is historian/author Antony Cummins:

Cummins originally comes from the doubters camp ala Roley, but comes to defend Hayes as not being the source of the debatable blade. He points to illustrated reference in antiquity to straight-bladed, square guarded swords used by Ashigaru foot soldiers – so such blades may have existed – but emphasizes the lack of evidence relating directly to anything ninja.

For fairness sake, here’s some counter-vids as well, I find this one both amusing and informative, simply for the additional pictures:

Cummins might be a little too eager to state the absolute certainty of his ‘evidence’ (something a historian should be especially weary of), but I really like is his overall summation that “There was no such thing as a specifically generated ninja sword, there were swords ninja used.” Same way there is no official gun of the bank robber. Well said!

And this is probably the healthiest attitude to have on the subject. Martial arts are part history and part faith in oral traditions where that hard data gaps. At the same time, lore and pop media notions come from some nugget of truth somewhere.

To blanket state that the sword is myth is as irresponsible as saying it is absolute fact.

Two images from the Hatsumi (and Hayes) book NINJUTSU: HISTORY AND TRADITION, showing BOTH a curved short blade (similar to what the Bujinkan endorses now)...
...and the more stereotypical sword, seen also in the 1973 mail order ad below.

And here's the very same blade in the display case of the Iga Ueno ninja museum. Neither sword is actually DATED in the display, not uncommon practice for what are more tourist attractions than museums (think Tombstone, AZ for an American equivalent).
Hayes would go on to lend his name to both curved and straight training gear.

So where does Vintage Ninja stand on all this? Think Switzerland. We ain’t got a dawg in this fight…

Tim has trained with both straight and curved blades, and can defend either’s merits. I, being the Japanese media nerd above all else, prefer the curved blades most often seen in their film, TV and comics (posts on these will follow shortly).

Neither of us like to see blanket definitive statements insisting there was or wasn’t one signature ninja sword.

Tim puts it very well, and I’ll paraphrase: If a law enforcement historian made the claim “All American police in the 20th Century wore blue uniforms and carried .38 caliber service revolvers” would it be true? Some did. A lot did. A lot wore brown or green and carried .45 automatics, too. So while there is truth there, its not the only truth, and stating it so authoritatively makes the statement wrong in general.

So if you’re a martial artist taking sides in the debate, lighten up. Martial arts evolve. The fact that these arts are no longer in-use battlefield practices means they’ve been abstracted from their native form already. Evolution of an art to fit new times is just as important as maintaining its traditions. And wasn’t ninjutsu the most adaptable and organic of all martial practices to start with?

If you want to train with a short, straight blade with a square guard, knock yourself out. Sure, it’s a standard of the mail order business, but it had to have come from somewhere to begin with, right? On the other hand, if you want to make a ninja movie where those blades aren’t used in favor of some other screen aesthetic, go nuts too!

There’s really no need to declare your fealty to one school of thought or the other. And anyone asking you to needs to think for a minute about the debate at large. If there’s this much conflicting thought, and this much contradictory ‘evidence,’ maybe there is no absolute truth to be had.

Next time: Ninja swords in manga, followed by the differences in movie props between Japan and the U.S.


 

JIRAIYA photo book (part 2 of 2)

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 1

World-Wide Ninja War Jiraiya may have been centered on a single hero, but it was the wide range of supporting characters, global guest stars and villains-of-the-week that were the show’s strength.

Masaaki Hatsumi and his fictional kin operate out of the real Togakure Bujinkan. Note the silhouette from the firey credit sequence, where some distinctive ninjutsu kicks are thrown.
Inspired by the notion of the Olympics, ninja from every corner of the globe got involved in the war, including Yanks and Brits.
Awesome as the main villain's costume was, his troops... maybe not so much. Chuunin Benikiba, the villainess at center, is stuck in one of the most unflattering female costumes in TV history. I've had a vinyl figure of her for decades and never knew it was supposed to be female until recently.
The 'karasutengu' crow ninja are a great idea, but the goofy eyes KILL the whole design. They look like spokes characters from some fast food chain. Recurring baddie Hoshinin Retsuga looks like he bought his ninja gear at Chess King!

OK, so after three days of Jiraiya, what do y’all think? I know folks who LOVE this show’s dizzying array of characters and Japan Action Club-esque action. Others just can’t stand how 80’s it is, and yeah, it is definitely a product of its time.

To me, it seems like the thing just came a few years too late. By 88-89 the craze was waning world-wide. The same show in 84-85 might have been a bigger sensation, including here.

If for nothing else, comb the greyer markets for eps of this oddity just to see the integration of genuine ninjutsu with over the top superhero antics. I mean Hatsumi in a kids’ show, who knew?

JIRAIYA photo book (part 1 of 2)

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 1

A noble ninja family battles an ancient demon and his evil hordes, with international ninja from around the globe thrown into the mix. Gimmicked vehicles, soaring stunt work and plenty of explosions in rock quarries are on tap. It’s World-Wide Ninja War Jiraiya, as seen in a 1988 photo book:

MESH was used in most all of the costuming to connect the modern superhero costumes to feudal-era costuming.
Female costuming here is oddly weak. The hero's younger sister has the best gear by far.

Tomorrow, some of the weirdest ‘shockers’ ever and some reeeealy 80’s costumes.

World-Wide Ninja Olympics?

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

If you’re a big enough toy geek, the 1988 Japanese tokusatsu series Worldwide Ninja War Jiraiya (Sekai ninja sen Jiraiya) will look somewhat familiar. The action-packed “Metal Hero” show was never exported to the States, but some of the toys were — the absolutely awful line of floppy rubber figures in hard plastic armor known as “Tacky Stretchoid Warriors.”

While these gummy figures positively sucked, the source series is a pretty damned good example of 80’s superhero television, packed with tons of colorful characters, high-flying stuntwork, explosive action, and some historically significant cast members.

Takumi Tsutsui stars as the young hero Jiraiya, as shinobi as he is Red Ranger.
Modern Iga grandmaster Tetsuzan Yamaji was, appropriately, played by ninjutsu legend Masaaki Hatsumi! The godfather of modern ninjutsu, Hatsumi was also tech advisor on the SHINOBI-NO-MONO films, showing the range of media projects he influenced with genuine shadow arts.
Arch-villain Oninin Dokusai is one of the best deigned TV villains ever.

Jiraiya’s plot unfolded over 50 episodes; a ninja family entrusted for centuries to guard the secret of an alien treasure races against an ancient demon to unlock its considerable powers. Complicating matters is a colorful cast of international ninja with mixed allegiances — a superb plot device said to be inspired by the Seoul Olympics.

In-dojo training sequences with Togakure-Ryu grandmaster Hatsumi and appearances by several of his ninjutsu students give this show a unique quality. Mixed in with the genre-requisite explosions and decorated vehicles are some genuine martial arts. This kids’ show may have been the most Hatsumi and the Togakure were involved in a media property since their genre-defining technical advisory role in the Shinobi-no-Mono films.

Starting tomorrow, we’ll have a pile of pages from a nice photo book of the series, showing both some timeless tokusatsu designs and some hopelessly 80’s fashions.

Meanwhile, there’s a nice show gallery at the French-language Space Sheriff blog and a brief write-up on the American toys at the PrimeTime Toystore.