Ninja are immediately recognisable in the west, their imagery and behaviour in most cases only loosely based on the original Japanese qualities. Movies, TV series, comics, video games and a whole world of merchandise demonstrates the continued interest in these mysterious action heroes. Not surprisingly my interest in the ninja is their connection to the elements. That gave me a reason to see the 2017 Lego movie ‘Ninjago‘, ostensibly a movie for children, where the elements are featured. My interest has also lead to reading translations of the original ninja manuals and sourcing other information from Japan. Comparing the different representations of the ninja (west and east, modern and traditional), the ninjutsu they practice, and their relation to the elements has been intriguing – and complicated. These are my impressions so far.
The fifth movie in the very successful James Bond series was set in Japan. Released in 1967 in 18 countries, ‘You only live twice‘ introduced ninja across the western world. Only Australia had an earlier exposure in the series ‘The Samurai’, released in 1964. More of that later. While the portrayal of the ninja in the 007 movie has been a matter of contention, the image appears to have stuck. This poster image was sourced from vintageninja.net. It has a great article about the movie written on its 50th anniversary. Based on what I’ve seen of the movie, and my research on the internet, it appears that elements are not explicitly referenced in the context of the ninja. They should however be implicit in the ninja training and practices used, as explored later in this post.
The next major ninja phenomenon I’m aware of in the west is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) whose initial release was in 1984. My nephews Louis and Yoshi both loved the characters. As shown in this time series from deviantart.net the ninja turtles have changed their appearance and the media they have appeared in over time. In 2018 a brand new 2D TMNT cartoon will be released by Nickelodeon so the ‘brand’ has considerable staying power. Initially the turtles all wore red bandanas over their eyes. This was changed to four colours by 1987 – some commentators say these are related to the four elements of earth, water, fire and wind. I’ve yet to see this connection made in any official material.
I also haven’t found the elements mentioned in any advertising or merchandise for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), apart from the name of the distribution company! So again the link between ninjas and the elements does not appear to be explicit. The exception is the 2003 TMNT series, where Wikipedia refers to the five elements – the fifth element being metal. In this case the elements were associated with mystic ninjas who sided with the bad guys – in the end the mystic ninja were destroyed by the TMNT and their allies. This was because they turned out to be the ancient heralds of a Tengu demon. The association of the elements with evil suggests the TMNT-element link was not part of the major story-line. I would love any fans of the TMNT to correct me if needed.
Enter the Lego Ninjago Masters of Spinjitzu, launched in 2011! In this latest western reinvention of the ninja the elements are central to the story – fire, ice, earth(quakes), lightning, water, and green energy. Admittedly these are not the traditional five elements found in Japan, either the Chinese or Buddhist versions. And admittedly Sensei Wu looks and sounds Chinese. Even so the ninja use the elements as weapons to fight the bad guys and in the 2017 movie Ninjago there is talk of elemental powers, inner peace and the right path. Many of the locations in the movie are also related to the elements such as The Temple of Fire and the Volcano Lair. Although they did not feature in the movie the four most powerful allies of the ninja are the elemental dragons they meet in their adventures. I learnt that from the Official Guide to Ninjago shown above in the bottom left hand corner. This book was discovered in a second hand shop in Melbourne, otherwise I may still have been blissfully ignorant about this very popular ninja juggernaut.
The ‘mechs’ are part of the fascination for the young folk who are attracted the world of Ninjago. They are used in addition to traditional ninja weapons to fight the enemy. Mechs are robotic machines that are either driven or worn. Lloyd (the green ninja) builds all of the vehicles, each of which is related to the element of the ninja that ‘drives’ it. This image of his green dragon fire-breathing mech was taken during the movie. It was awesome. Lloyd is the tiny little figure sitting near the dragon’s head twirling his sword. Watching the movie made me wonder how much influence the Ninjago ninja have on young children (and their parents) and how they relate to the elements and the environment.
My sister Ruth has accompanied me on this Ninja go! journey. She was with me when I found the Official Ninjago Guide, we saw the 2017 movie together and she gave me the DVD of the 2011 movie that introduced the Lego ninja (top left on the earlier photo). Her family are also ninja fans. We both related to Kai’s sister Nya in the Ninjago movie. She trained as a ninja between the 2011 release of ‘The Masters of Spinjitsu‘ and the 2017 Ninjago movie. Go Nya! Nya is now the Elemental Master of Water, as her mother was before her. Her ‘water strider’ mech is very cool as shown in this official promotion for the release of the movie.
There have been many ninja movies made in Asia, some of which have a cult following in the west. Of relevance is the 1982 movie ‘Five Elements Ninjas‘ directed by Chang Cheh. In the context of this movie the ninjas are cast as the ‘bad guys’. The reviews describe some impressive ‘elemental’ weapons. They also say that the movie is very violent so it’s not one that I’ll be watching. I’ll stick with the Ninjago version of ninjas for the moment.
This screen shot was taken on a plane to Narita in Japan in May 2017. No mechs were to be found here but I did learn a lot about the traditional ways of the ninja. Iga was one of the two main ninja strongholds in feudal Japan, the other being the Koka region. Before I watched the documentary I hadn’t been aware of the link between ninja and Shugendo, the mountain ascetics. Their practices were said to have had a great influence on the ninja, whose origins date back to the medieval period.
This image of Shugendo practitioners in a documentary on ninja was unexpected. The documentary narrative unfolded that through rigorous daily training the ninja inherited the spirit and miraculous abilities of the yamabushi, attaining extraordinary physical and mental abilities. To do this it was crucial to harmonise their mind, energy and body. The skills of the ninja extended to the use of fire and water, both crucial to carrying out their missions. Predicting the weather and natural phenomena, and using natural features to hide were also essential skills. Given the deep Shugendo connection to the elements, covered in part in my post ‘Fire up, Water down‘, the documentary made me see the ninja and their practices in a different light.
Since watching the IGA ninja documentary I learnt that the Shugendo-ninja connection has been explored by Martin Faulks. Of relevance is a book he published titled ‘Shugendo: The Way of the Mountain Monks‘ whose principal author is the yamabushi Shokai Koshikidake. While Koshidake does not believe that Shugendo was the root of the ninja, he does say that Shugendo has deeply influenced the martial arts in Japan. In relation to ninjutsu, Faulks writes in his book ‘The Path of the Ninja‘ that different teachers place different emphasis on the five elements. That explains some of the contrasting approaches I have found in the books that follow. Like most subjects related to the elements in Japan, the deeper you go the more complex the story becomes.
Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami are members of the Historical Ninjutsu Research Team. I would like to thank them for publishing the translations of these ninja/shinobi no mono texts. They are very helpful, particularly the book on the left, originally written in 1676. I’d recommend it for those interested in ninja and their philosophy and practices. Volumes Two and Three are titled ‘The Correct Mind I and II‘ respectively. In this context Confucious is quoted as saying ‘If your mind is not present in the “here”, you cannot see even if you look, you cannot hear if you listen, or you cannot taste if you eat.” The importance of having a correct mind is also reflected in the title of the Iga documentary described above.
Volumes eight to fifteen relate to in and yo (yin and yang) describing techniques for operating outside and inside. Volumes Sixteen and Seventeen of ‘The Book of Ninja‘ are of particular interest to me. Their titles are ‘Opportunities Bestowed by Heaven 1‘ and ‘Opportunities Bestowed by Heaven II‘. They include instructions on how to chose auspicious dates and directions, the Five Precepts, the generating and destructive cycles of the Five Chinese Elements (earth, water, fire, metal and wood), how to forecast wind and rain and to understand the ebb and flow of the tide. There is a wealth of information to be learnt from this book, including considerable detail about the tools and tactics used – ideally when the mind, energy and body are in harmony.
The translated writings on ninjutsu featured in the previous image were originally written in the the 1500s and 1600s. In the Iga documentary it noted that the official duties of the ninja stopped when the Tokugawa government ended in 1868. Despite this, the art of ninjutsu is still being taught with Masaaki Hatsumi a central figure in modern teaching. He is referred to as Japan’s most famous ambassador on all things ninja.
According to the Vintage Ninja blog on ‘You only live twice‘ Hatsumi and a few other consultants on the 1967 James Bond movie washed their hands of the project in frustration that their art wasn’t being done justice. From Wikipedia: Masaaki Hatsumi currently heads the international martial arts organisation Bujikan. The combat system comprises nine separate rhuya or schools, which are collectively referred to as Bujikan Budo Taijutsu. The ryuha are descended from historical samurai schools that teach samurai martial tactics and ninjutsu schools that teach ninja tactics. The book above on the right is written by one of Hatsumi’s students. Coincidentally another of his students – Duncan Stewart – teaches in Hobart, Tasmania.
My first encounter with Duncan was at the World Games Day in May 2015 – my first taiko performance. He was demonstrating some of the samurai and ninja weapons/tactics. They were both instructive and captivating. Knowing very little about ninja and the elements at that stage – except that there was some connection – I asked him about the subject. He answered that the elements were only introduced later in people’s training when they were ready for the information. That’s my memory of our conversation at least. If I was asking the question now I would also enquire which elements they were taught about. There are the physical elements of course. I’ve also seen reference to the Five Chinese elements in relation to the ninja (in ‘The Book of Ninja‘ and ‘The Complete Ninja‘) and the Five Buddhist elements (in ‘Spirit of the Shadow Warrior‘ by Stephen Hayes, see above). So I imagine that Duncan’s answer would be ‘both’. I admire the integrity, experience, discipline and strength that Duncan brings to his teaching – if I was going to learn ninjutsu it would be from him.
Another connection between ninja and taiko, apart from both being related to the elements (see ‘The way of the drum‘), was my visit to Mie University in 2015 as part of a taiko tour in Japan. Mie University, which is located in Iga prefecture, is a centre for ninja research. During our visit we were told about the online book on ninja shown here. Sub-titled ‘The New Mansenshukai‘ it presents itself as a modern version of the Bansenshukai, translated in ‘The Book of Ninja’ above. In June 2020, Genichi Mitsuhachi became the first ninja studies graduate in Japan, graduating with a Masters degree from Mie University.
Like the Iga documentary image shown here, ‘The Ninja Book‘ refers to the use of the Kuji goshin-ho (nine syllable defense method) by the ninja for protection against disasters and to focus the mind. Kuji are used extensively in Shugendo, which is linked to ninja in the Mie book. There are lots of connections to explore further. In July this year the Mie University opened an international ninja research centre. They are collecting and creating a database on a broad spectrum of ninja-related materials ranging from old manuscripts to films and cartoons. That should be a very useful resource. The centre will be researching the light but nutritious diet of the ninja with an eye on developing and, if successful, commercialising emergency or functional foods. The University believes that ninja wisdom can tell us a lot about how to coexist with nature at a time when we are surrounded by machines and the artificial materials of the modern age.
Museums devoted to ninja are located in Iga, Kyoto, Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan – ninja shows can be found in Theme Parks such as Toei Kyoto Studio Park, and ninja experiences, especially for children, are offered in places such as Koka (Shiga Prefecture) and Togakushi (Nagano Prefecture). I’d be interested to see the coverage of the elements in these varied settings.
This final image is an apt way to end as like the OO7 poster it is from the Vintage Ninja site. Prior to the release of the James Bond movie, ninja mania swept across Australia with the release of ‘The Samurai‘ TV series in 1964 (called Onmitsu Kenshin in Japan). I chose this card from the series, which were included in packs of chewing gum, because of the reference to the girl ninja, and the snow. In this example the elements are being used as a weapon – they were also used to help disguise ninja through the use of mist, smoke and other techniques.
‘The Samurai‘ series became massively popular in Australia, influencing and entertaining many people. My brother-in-law Peter was one of them. Wikipedia has a comprehensive article that describes each story line. Both the Iga and Koka ninjas are featured. Through a mix of east and west, traditional and modern, the fascination with ninja and ninjutsu in the west had begun. The worldwide release of ‘You only live twice‘ in 1967 took it to another level. The examples provided in this post illustrate the continued interest in and exploration of the philosophy and practices of the ninja. The elements are an essential part of that story.