With yet another iteration of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles out today, the sewer-dwelling humanoid reptiles have somehow become our cultural touchstone for the ninja figure.
Why is it so hard to make a good ninja film? For one, the same factors that make ninjas cool, also limit their versatility as characters. The real ninjas existed in the 15th-17th centuries and were the antithesis of the samurai. They operated through stealthiness and trickery – much more than the impressive physical combat we often see in film. “A ninja moves in silence. He is at one with the night,” Splinter chastises Raph. Not necessarily the stuff of a compelling action movie.
Such was the sneakiness of the ninjas that they became the stuff of folk legends, often portrayed as having supernatural abilities such as shape shifting. In fact the mythological ninjas were more like the Faceless Men in Game of Thrones. But still, cinematic ninjas are overwhelmingly sword-wielding, ass-kicking badasses clad in black.
Ninjas are often used as the bad guys: nameless faceless attackers, usually in hordes, for the real hero to pick off heroically. Either that, or a single ninja has a change of heart and sets of to stop his assassin family. The archetype of a killing machine with superhuman emotion control doesn’t allow for a lot of nuance of character. A ninja is good or evil, a winner or loser. Therefore, the best ninja movies are classic action films, usually with a revenge plot.
As an action film, the ninja has to compete with other martial arts film genres. In fact, the ninja film had it’s peak in the ‘60s, and then lost out to the similar kung-fu film, when the latter boomed in the ‘70s. This can be largely attributed to the boom in the Hong Kong film industry, which was much more influential in the U.S. than Japanese cinema.
The end result is that few major feature ninja films excel, especially in recent decades. Rotten Tomato’s top pick, Azumi has a pathetic 43 percent rating by its own users.
In Hollywood we more frequently see “not-explicitly-ninja Japanese-trained assassin”, such as Kill Bill, which would be among the best if we could consider it a true ninja film. There’s also the “ethnically ambiguous martial art film” like Mortal Kombat.
Let’s take a look at the categories of ninja films and some highlights of each.
Unsurprisingly, some of the best ninjas out there live in anime and manga. Naruto is perhaps the most widely known and exists on screen in several iterations. However it’s a 1993 film called Ninja Scroll that wins best animated feature. The critically acclaimed anime with killer character design is set in feudal Japan and the protagonist ninja Jubei is based on a Japanese folk legend.
Japanese cinema produced a lot of ninja films, particularly in the 60s. Shinobi No Mono (1962) by director Satsuo Yamamoto is one of the best known ones, and helped to repopularize the ninja film. It is actually a series of films based on a Japanese serial novel. 13 Assassins and Castle of Owls are two other good films from this era, directed by Kudo Eiichi. This is where you’ll find the best and the truest ninja films, although they suffer a little from the typical production flaws of the era. For a more modern take, try the period romance Shinobi: Heart Under Blade (2005).
The white ninja
Most American-made ninja films center on a white man raised as a ninja, chief among them, American Ninja. It was also pretty common for Hollywood to use ninjas as villains. Some of our favorite Western franchises have sent their heroes through ninja training, such as Batman Begins. You Only Die Twice, the 1967 Bond film with Sean Connery features ninjas, including this sneaky bedroom assassination attempt that’s probably truer to the real ninja style than most screen versions.
At least the white ninja trope has subsided a little. My pick for the best recent ninja film is the 2009 Ninja Assassin. It’s a slick film, with an unremarkable plot but excellent action sequences and a generous helping of blood.
Here we have a group of films that are categorically bad, although some make it into the so-bad-it’s-funny camp. George Takei earned a paycheck for a slightly-porny flick called Ninja Cheerleaders, (which is on Youtube in full if you happen to be drunk and hanging with your girl gang at this very moment). Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) with Chris Farley is probably the best known ninja comedy, although Farley notoriously hated it. There was an ultra-low budget, ultra silly little film called Irish American Ninja (2005), that I would recommend but it’s now off Netflix and sadly seems lost. Instead, try the Japanese Alien vs. Ninja (2010).
Ah the ninja, that ubiquitous yet elusive enigma, so difficult to get right on screen it’s been reduced to a B-movie staple. Maybe it’s time we put this tired archetype to rest. At least we’ll always have ninja cat.