One of the great things about having my childhood (if it can be called as much) take place throughout the 80’s is all the great movies that started to come out. We got the Christopher Reeve Superman sequels (even if they weren’t well received), the last two original Star Wars trilogy chapters and a saturation of “Brat Pack” movies, including The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty In Pink (I’m partial to Molly Ringwald, sue me!)
But there is a particular movie genre that also became popular during the 1980’s and it still holds a certain level of fascination to the public, even today. I’m talking about ninja movies. I’m sure you’ve seen at least SOME of these movies; stealthy assassins cloaked in mystery and garbed in black hoods, they seemed almost unstoppable and were usually trained in a variety of weaponry and were usually depicted in the movies as being exceptionally skilled in hand-to-hand combat.
But how accurate was that portrayal? To be honest, there is a common misconception that ninjas are martial artists. And although I’m no ninja myself, I can say for a fact that this isn’t true. The ninja were covert assassins, believed to have existed during the feudal era of Japan. They were basically mercenaries who could be bought by whomever could afford them.
Their preferred method of operation was to spy and assassinate through the use of disguises, deception and avoidance. They considered escape and living to see the conclusion of their mission to be paramount over active engagements or fighting. Because of this, the ninja were often considered dishonourable and the samurai considered the ninja beneath them.
When referring to martial arts circles, people usually tend to immediately associate a ninja with Ninjutsu (or ninjitsu) and consider it to be a martial art. The reality is that Ninjutsu is anything BUT… Ninjutsu, as it is, is classified as a system of espionage and assassination, normally including infiltrating locations, spying and accomplishing specific tasks that included but were not limited to capturing criminals and other individuals, obtaining private information and whatever other tasks that could not be accomplished through conventional means. This explanation clearly does not include the martial arts, which are defined as a means of self-defence.
A ninja would be trained in Ninjutsu and expected to develop some proficiency in a number of different weapons and offensive tools that would allow infiltration without notice, evasion and exfiltration. All of this would happen without the victim(s) even knowing that they are there. Ninjas would often originate from the samurai class and would already have some familiarity with an actual martial art. Since some of their tasks would often unavoidably include combat, ninjas would often train in some form of martial arts as well as the expected weapons and tools of the trade.
So the portrayal you see in the movies, where a ninja suddenly stands up out of a small shadow in the corner of a room to face off against an opponent is far from accurate, although it still makes for great cinema (if you haven’t seen 2009’s Ninja Assassin, I highly recommend it!) And if a martial arts practitioner tells you that he or she is a ninja, then by definition they are not. Especially since the ninja were not in the habit of revealing themselves to anyone outside of their clan. ☯