Crafted in Hollywood, shot in Japan

I roll my eyes as much as the rest of you when it comes to The Last Samurai, and the ninja scene is just as cheesy and unconcerned with history as the rest of the movie. However, when I had a chance to snag one of the costumes used in the film, I jumped.

I work for a performing arts company world-reknowned for its costuming, and I’ve developed a serious appreciation of movie and stage duds, and the ways they differ.

Stage costuming tends to be more rugged, as it is used for multiple performances and often subsequently rented to another company in another city. The creators have an advantage in that they are seen from afar, so materials like leather can double for steel.

Movie costuming, on the other hand, needs to hold-up only for that shoot, sometimes even a single take, but it is also subject to camera close-ups,  needing to look authentic when projected in 70mm big screen glory.

This screen-used costume from Last Samurai actually embodies a lot of both construction philosophies. It’s pretty durable, and uses leather to sort of read as lacquered armor and steel in spots, if you squint.

Come to think of it, that scene is so frenetically shot and frantically edited, they could be wearing Addidas track suits and you’d hardly know the difference.

There’s a very nice mixture of textiles, no one section of the costume blends into another. The  grains and weaves vary and the color hues alternate dark greys, browns and blacks so the suit looks more complex.

I passed on another suit at an auction, as I thought it crossed a line with the liberties it took – just not Japanese enough, conjured Batman BeginsMortal Kombat and ancient China more than Japan. Here are the catalog pics:

The absolute lamest thing about these suits are the hoods. Simple head wraps made of two rectangle of cloths, with big, bulky knots in the back. Not much effort spent there.

For you non-Hollywoodians, lots like this show up on eBay all the time. Happy hunting.


Yep, let’s just throw the term KOGA around…

Merchandisers love VARIETY of offerings and EXCLUSIVITY of products at the same time. But above all else, they love a healthy PROFIT MARGIN.

To those ends, you see ads like this one from the mid 80s a lot. Take the basic black uniform you currently offer, add some cheapo extra pockets, liberally borrow a region name from history to differentiate your stuff from the next guy’s, and blammo – “The Koga Combat Ninja Uniform.”

The inclusion of free bang-snaps and a light stick must have made this irresistible. I’m thinking that dart hidden at the convergence of neck and spinal column might not have been the best idea, though…

Ninja costume shops in Japan

Got a request for info on Japanese ninja wear outside the usual off-the-rack martial arts gear that’s pretty much stuck in the 80’s mail order mold. So here’s a few shops and their offerings.

Should be noted that all this stuff is in the realm of costuming, and won’t be up to the rigors of martial arts training. Fine for you indie film guys and cosplayers though.

*If you DO want to explore some high-end training gear that’s closer to the source than the average Karate-Mart’s, a great place to start is Shinobi Outfitters and vendors they portal to like Yamato Budogu.

Bokunan-Do sells a huge variety of traditional Japanese formal and casual wear, stage costuming, festival and parade gear, etc., with large sections of shinsengumi repros, samurai and ninja costuming, an awesome selection of basket hats, and even complete ‘travelling crow’ period yakuza garb! Fans, sandals, underwear, archery gloves, you name it.

English-language ordering, too, and we can personally recommend their customer service.

Now, we haven’t used any of the below, but know people who have. They’ve all been around for years, the websites have some bi-lingual capabilities, and we’re confident in their reputability:

Ninja-Isyo sells various grades of costumes to both the public and the entertainment industry. Unique to them is the variety of off-beat colors, including those weird brown and peach shades you see in 70s and 80s Japanese TV. Love this stuff!

The Rakuten shop is affiliated with some of the Iga-Ryu ninja theme parks/museums (and related books), supplying movie-derivative costuming to performers and public alike. Plenty of Azumi-wear and Hanzo hoods!

Shinobi-Ya has more souvenir-grade costumes for all ages, good for a single-night Halloween party or the like. They also have a wide variety of weapons and martial arts-related giftware.

Caveat emptor!

And just to crowbar in some personal advice… for my dollar, you grab a training-grade hakama from any martial arts supply depot, a judo gi top, improvise your own tie-downs and you’re more than halfway there. A visit to any textile outlet provides much of the rest.

The historical accuracy of the oft debated ‘ninja suit’ isn’t something you need to sweat, so you’re either aspiring to a movie or TV costume or are wide open to your own interpretations. I prefer the latter. Be creative. Go nuts!

*** We’re looking to follow this piece up with a round-up of more folks providing custom costuming and tailored training gear, so if you are one of those craftspeople or have had good experiences with one, please give us a shout! ***