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.
Based on what I’ve seen of the James Bond 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 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.
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.
Jet Black is another kunoichi (female ninja) that followed in the footsteps of her mother. She is the main character in the 2013 book ‘Jet Black and the Ninja Wind‘, written by Leza Lowitz and Shogo Oketani, and is awesome. I read this book in early 2021 and was blown away by the story-line and the way the ninja became one with the elements. The descriptions of how Jet moves with the wind, indeed becomes the Ninja Wind, are spellbinding.
Many ninja movies have been 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.
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.
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.
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.
If I was asking Duncan 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.
In July 2017 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.
‘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.
One exciting aspect of exploring the elements in Japan is when new material comes to light. In 2021, as well as reading the book about Jet Black, the kunoichi, I discovered another elemental connection to the ninja. The story of Naruto, a young ninja hoping to become the village leader, began in a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Masashi Kishimoto. Naruto now has a global empire to his name with his story adapted into an anime series, book series, video games, novels, music, art and guide books and a collectable card game, to name a few spin-offs.
The Naruto Wiki site contains a wealth of material. This is where I found an excellent post on ‘Nature Transformation‘. The process involves the elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Lightning. The post indicates that Nature Transformation parallels the real life art of Onmyodo, the Way of Yin Yang – a topic that I have great interest in (for example, see my blog on Yinyang in Japan). I was excited to learn of the connection. It is well worth reading the Wiki post to learn more about this fascinating connection between ninja and the elements. It is a site that I will return to for further information and enlightenment.