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-book

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 MA-Mags.com).

mags-81-87

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.

Blackbelt1-81B

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

 

 

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.


 

Awesome resource for MA mags!

Check out this impressively thorough archive of martial arts magazine covers and topics going back 50 years:

Vintage Martial Arts Magazines

When the titles and decades are laid out like this, you can really see the trends and transitions of coverage. Ninjutsu features were a rare exotic thing in the 60’s and 70s, but man do they EXPLODE in the 80’s!

December 1966 - the first ninja cover on an American martial arts mag, heralding the feature by Andrew Adams that later morphed into the famed NINJA: THE INVISIBLE ASSASSINS book.
July 1977 - the first photo cover of a ninja on an American mag, a makeshift shinobi outfit that's pretty rough around the edges, literally. Note the shuriken, of the kung-fu variety and not the off-the-rack mail order stuff so common in the craze 80's.
11/79 - Sho kosugi's first US cover, as a Karate champion. 4/79 - OFFICIAL KARATE is ahead of the curve, as is INSIDE KUNG-FU in 4/80.
6/80 - Stephen Hayes' first cover, albeit without the celeb treatment he'd routinely get a few years later. 8/81 movie mag decries "Ninja: American's New Sinister Hero" and the movie boom is on. By 1983, "Warriors" NINJA hits the shelves, and every other major martial arts title throws black pajama'd assassins on their covers to increase sales. The craze is here.

The folks over at MA-Mags.com have done a tremendous job with this digital archive. Scans are organized by title, then by year, with some category cross-referencing (including “Ninja”). I’ve dug through there for hours, admiring old graphic design and layouts, wondering how I missed certain mags back in the day… its a real trip.

AND a lot of the pictured pulps are for sale! I’m a bit afraid of that right now, as I have tax refunds coming and am getting veeeeery tempted…