To hood, or not to hood?

The book, and later film, of the James Bond adventure You Only Live Twice was essentially the West’s introdcution to ninja, and a few widely scattered episodes of American television series like Kung-Fu, Baretta and Quincy notwithstanding, the next major step toward the 80s ninja craze was the mega-hit Shogun mini-series. Bond may have fought alongside ninja, but they never donned the iconic black suits and masks, so for millions Shogun was the intro to the classic ninja look.  (see our breakdown of a pivotal episode here)

Both the notion of shinobi as commandos using swords against guns, and the ancient ninja being a ‘cult of assassins’ were planted, and about to sprout in every  field of popular media.

Somewhere in the middle of these well-fertilized (pun intended) acres grew a burgeoning crop of serious martial artists studying actual ninjutsu — combat, spiritual and lifestyle traditions long removed from their feudal origins and practical applications, now finding new life in somewhat abstract ways in the modern world. But could they escape the often ludicrous imagery of the pop media ninja flourishing around them?

I came across some old book advertisements in a 1981 issue of Black Belt that reminded of this period.

shogun ad

Note this ad for the mass-market paperback edition of Shogun, which sold in the millions both before and after the landmark TV event, is not from the original publisher Delacorte, but from martial arts publishing/distribution house Ohara Publications. This ad ran in Black Belt, Inside Kung-Fu and ilk, aimed at a martial arts community that was about to get drenched in a ninja tidal wave.

The airing of Shogun was followed by the release of Enter the Ninja in theaters, making Sho Kosugi the face of the cinematic ninja movement. But the martial arts explosion that ran concurrently to the entertainment media craze had a face of its own — Stephen K. Hayes.

Hayes 1st ad

The same Ohara company was also running this ad for Hayes’ first book, which followed years of his magazine articles preaching the gospel of ninjutsu’s spiritual enlightenment, tactical thinking and practical self-defense. Legit, serious stuff, right?

Once in a while, though, he’d don a black hood, like a movie ninja, bridging the gap between media and martial traditions. The occasional publicity photo shoot in traditional shinobi coture was smart marketing by Hayes and team. Masaaki Hatsumi himself wasn’t above such fare with his profound publishing career in Japan, so why should the student be any different?


Hatsumi, however, could more safely embrace the popular imagery of ninja because the product on movie screens in mid-1960s Japan was dead serious historical fare (that he himself had consulted on-set in some cases). And while the 60s boom in Japan obviously had its pop entertainment aspects, the 80s boom in the West tended more to the exploitive. It became big business — from turtle toons to mail order weapons. There were dilutions in quality — the movies got cheaper and cheesier and ninja-themed magazines more bloodthirsty.

See the difference between 1981 and 1987 below (and tons more at


Hayes donning a mask and hood put him a “NINJA”-emblazoned headband away from the same visual plane as Richard Harrison in Ninja Terminator. When a legit dojo swam in the same visual waters, training in gear that to the rest of the world was movie costuming, there was always the risk of eroded credibility and unflattering PR. If hooding-up was a necessary evil, which some of these folk balanced better than others, there was a price. It couldn’t have been easy maintaining legitimacy in the midst of such widespread exploitation.

I’ll say this, too… Nobody in the martial arts community has to deal with more public misconception and general pop culture baggage than the practitioner of ninjutsu. If you study kung-fu and it comes up in discussion with laymen, you might get a snicker or a crass Bruce Lee impersonation — “Oh, you mean all that ‘hhhwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!’ stuff?” The same happens with ninjutsu and people are assuming you’re some idiot who hides in the trees wearing black pajamas and a suriken belt buckle. They ask to see your blowgun, or to throw a smoke pellet down and disappear. You’re equated with toon turtles, Power Rangers and video game villains in the minds of a lot of these simps. It has to be a tough road, and I respect the hell out of anyone who puts up with it.


I was never a student of ninjutsu, but being a karateka for a couple of years during my early 80s Junior High days, ninja-mania was unavoidable. I never drew a line in the sand between the martial and movie worlds, finding different levels of entertainment in magazines and books dedicated to both camps. Even if it was the hoods that caught my eye, what I always dug more about the Hayes and Hatsumi articles in Black Belt and Ninja was how different the techniques looked. Punches, kicks, takedowns, ready poses — they were distinct from the long-familiar karate and kung-fu.

weird Hatsumi kick

Maybe that contrast, the simple fact that there was finally something different on both the big screen and in the dojo circuit, was fuel enough for the ninja boom. It was the 1980s, a decade that craved distinction from any previous — punk, New Wave, Nagel prints, fingerless gloves, parachute pants…

And yes… ninja hoods. 

Keith J. Rainville — March, 2014



Ninja scenes in SHOGUN

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 5

Three decades of video trading and niche releasing have given us a much wider view of world cinema since 1980’s Shogun, and its easy to look back on it with a snarky laugh or two now. Plenty of stereotypes and simplifications of complex history and culture. And the gong! You can play a pretty devastating drinking game by doing a shot whenever the cliche gong sounds in the ham-fisted score.

But the more familiar you become with Japanese cinema and TV, the more you can look back at the mini-series with a whole new appreciation… for the production designers. Being the first American major caliber period-piece shot in Japan, the producers knew they were potentially in over their heads and made some very good decisions with what to simply rent outright from their established co-producing studios. So one sees some very familiar jidai-geki exteriors, back lot sets, castle chambers, etc. Same with all sorts of weapons and costumes. They didn’t try to reinvent the wheel, they knew the Japanese had it right for decades, and their tried and true stuff would be new and exotic to the American audiences.

To that same end, they also bought some off-the-rack ninja gear and went to town on two scenes that while old hat to us with our 2010 perspective on an increasingly familiar pedigree, were downright radical and influential at the time. Nothing we produced here in the next decade of the craze was nearly as authentic as these brief shinobi cameos.

Shogun re-aired a few times during the mid 80’s craze, and a condensed version came out on VHS. I remember actually guffawing at the ninja costuming at the time, preferring the more 80’s-fashioned skin-tight satin look of Sho Kosugi’s superhero ninja. Looking back now, this gear is right out of an episode of The Samurai or countless ninja movies of the 60s – 80s. Dumbass!

Weird. Using some smutz to darken the exposed skin is a sound and common sense commando technique, but something you just didn't see in the 80's craze movies.

You expect to see the iconic (not yet cliche) shuriken, but looking back now I'm surprised to see...
...a Naruto-esque Kunai!
Too bad this dude had to do a clean job in the middle for Richard Chamberlain. Yer facing a white superstar in an American movie pal, just kill yourself and get it over with!
Cool as these scenes are, these stupid 'assassins cult' tattoos are pure BS. Nothing like having a big identifying brand on your secret agents.

The notion of the ninja as shadowy merc assassin was introduced and cemented to a massive mainstream audience right here. The word was now household, the black night gear iconic. Basically, the vocabulary that allowed the craze was laid down for millions of TV watchers, and the rest is history.

Makes me think of a similar production situation that 25 years later produced nowhere near as satisfying result. The makers of The Last Samurai crow-barred a rather ludicrous ninja scene into a narrative set centuries past the height of shinobi military activity, with American prop designers giving the assassins European crossbows and shiny square-guarded straight swords right out of an 80’s Asian World of Martial catalog. Such a big budget, so vast a studio resource, yet no one seemed to sweat any sort of historical (or cinematic) research.

The face-black is back, but mostly to hide the fact that most of the ninja are American stuntmen.
The scene is shot super-frenetic, and you never get a good look at anyone. Serves to hide some rather questionable costuming, like this guy with leather sleeves and a Wolverine-style claw. Others have tac vests and scraps of what look like Mortal Combat costumes.
Sais? Seriously?

The difference between Shogun and Last Samurai‘s ninja? The former’s budget-concious rented gear gives it a Japanese sensibility, and what in the era of subtitled Shinobi-no-Mono DVDs on every ninja fan’s shelf we can now recognize as classic to the genre. Samurai‘s scene is executed with a pure American slant, and comes off as serious cheese in an already insufferable whitey-centric jerk-off of a film.

After we saw Last Samurai, my friend Nathan Long (writer of Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight) commented that the same film, scene for scene, same script even, but shot in the 80’s with Sam Elliot and Toshiro Mifune as the leads would have been one of the greatest movies ever. Gotta think that ‘what-if’ of a dream film would have had a gratuitous and amazingly fun Japan Action Club ninja beat down, too! And yeah… greatest movie ever…