Horrible History: 'Hollywood' Ninja
Introduction What follows was inspired by a @HistoryFilmClub tweet shown right. Like many who responded, naming just one historical inaccuracy in a film or TV show proved far too difficult. Sadly, and contrary to the claims of directors, producers, costume designers et al., far too many historically themed media productions are beset with inaccuracies. Not wishing to be unreasonably critical, we thought there was an opportunity to highlight some of the more common errors and then counter them with whatever historical evidence exists. In this way we hope to learn something, but there are some caveats to be born in mind:
• We know films and TV dramas are fictional, whether they claim to be ‘based on true events’ or not. Yet that does not always excuse the liberties taken with characters, timelines, locations, costume, technology, props, action sequences (especially fight scenes), and a whole lot more.
• That said, ‘errors’ are clearly excusable if a production is rooted in the fantasy genre, is not claiming 100% historical accuracy, or is not a factual documentary.
• However, where inaccuracies appear, especially in historical documentaries, we think it only fair to point them out because they mislead the audience.
• And finally. we are well aware from our experience advising filmmakers and from being on set that liberties are sometimes taken due to production constraints.
Ninja So, with that in mind, what can we ‘learn from mistakes’ with depictions of Ninja? First off, why are they always wearing black? This cliché, which has fed into many aspects of modern culture - films, TV, graphic novels, video games, etc. - is largely a fantasy. Even the term ninja is incorrect!
Historically, the word ninja was not in common use. In period documents the more correct term was shinobi-no-mono (忍びの者), or shinobi (忍び) for short, which first appears in poems dated to the late 8th century AD. The underlying connotation of shinobi (忍) means ‘to steal away; to hide’ and, by extension, ‘to forbear’, hence its association with stealth and invisibility, while mono (者) means ‘a person’.
The stealthy assassin in black robes with almost supernatural abilities in the arts of concealment and murder so beloved of movies, video games and comic books remains a very compelling image. The historical reality is somewhat different, however. In feudal Japan, shinobi were a lower class of warriors often recruited by samurai and governments to act as spies and assassins. Precisely when they first appeared is difficult to determine but the image of them wearing black is not. This idea seemingly derives from a tradition in Japanese kabuki theatre where stagehands (also known as kuroko, or ‘black person’) would wear a black outfit to indicate that they were not part of the scene. In a similar way, actors would also wear black to indicate that they could not be seen by the other characters. If the role of shinobi was not to be seen, then dressing head-to-toe in black begins to seem plausible.
The primary function of the shinobi, however, was to carry out their tasks without drawing attention to themselves. It therefore makes much more sense that, if they wanted to blend in and be unobtrusive, they would dress as an ordinary peasant or whatever character was appropriate. As Jacob Dorey points out on Quora.com: [they] ‘could wear black, but only if wearing black fit the context’ and, likewise, it would not have looked out of place for shinobi to wear masks as part of their disguise since masks were commonplace in Japan (Dorey, 2019). In most everyday circumstances, however, black would draw attention to an individual thus defeating their clandestine purpose . Nor would shinobi have worn a uniform or livery unless to do so suited the situation they were in. To enter an enemy castle, for example, it seems sensible that they would ‘hide in plain sight’ disguising themselves as a samurai, servant, ashigaru (foot-soldier), or whoever might be expected to be inside. The key aspect to remember is that shinobi were spies and saboteurs first and foremost. They were not always trained fighters and were most certainly not all assassins (Dorey, 2019).
In summary, the term ninja, or as we now know, shinobi, has a broad definition but most usefully describes someone who conducted mostly espionage, but sometimes also sabotage, assassination and psychological warfare, on behalf of feudal Japan’s ruling class. Yet to perform these roles covertly, the notion that they infiltrated places wearing black robes, in groups, is fanciful at best. Trained shinobi would most likely wear whatever clothing and carry whatever equipment necessary to achieve the task. If that meant disguising themselves as a fully equipped samurai or the lowliest peasant, then so be it.
Should you be interested, Dr Kaillie Szczepanski has written a good introduction on the history of ninja, or shinobi, for ThoughtCo.com which can be read here.
And finally…This has either been a rant on some pet peeves with media representations of historical themes or food for thought. Regardless, thank you for reading this far. Until next time, bon appétit.
Dorey, J., (2019), ‘Did Ninja's actually wear black or does that come from movies & folklore & in reality they wore clothing that would help them blend into daily life?’, quora.com, available online (accessed May 31st, 2022).
Szczepanski, K., (2019), ‘The History of Japanese Ninjas: feudal warriors who practiced Ninjutsu’, ThoughtCo.com, available online (accessed May 31st, 2022).
1. Counterintuitively black is not necessarily the best colour to use as camouflage at night. As strange as it may seem dark blue or even dark red works better, and multiple subdued colours have been proven to break up a person silhouette.