The year was 2006, and it was my first visit to Hollywood. Whom did I choose to meet first on that day? The foremost name in ninja movies: Sho Kosugi. There I was, standing in his office in the heart of Tinseltown, having just wrapped an hourlong interview on the master movie ninja’s life, career and plans for the future, and the camera crew was making its way around the room, getting pickup shots. I was thrilled to have spent an hour hanging with my boyhood hero when Sho Kosugi upped the excitement ante a notch. “I don’t know if you’re interested,” he said, “but if you want more film …”
Sho Kosugi preparing to break flaming blocks circa 1979.
And with that, Sho Kosugi opened a theretofore-unnoticed office door — seriously, it looked like a utility closet — and ushered us into his secret lair. It harbored a treasure trove of every sword, throwing star, costume, metal claw and chain-mail mask that had ever appeared in an ’80s ninja flick. It also housed a plethora of scripts, original film prints and 8x10 glossy color photographs. Once we pulled our jaws off the floor, the cast and crew very professionally filmed every angle of the shinobi cornucopia that Sho Kosugi offered up for our cameras — then very unprofessionally geeked out, tried on every piece of equipment and kept him an extra half-hour to pose for pictures. Ever the gentleman, he indulged our fanboy proclivities and even signed a poster for yours truly. So what did we learn from our close encounter with Sho Kosugi? That if, even in a modest production office, one can stumble across a secret room filled with ninjutsu treasures, memorabilia and death-dealing gadgets, then it’s obvious that the hidden world of the shadow warriors still hasn’t given up all its secrets. Here are 10 more titillating facts I’ll bet you didn’t know — and didn’t even know you didn’t know — about the ninja.
1. Ninja Swords Had Leather Hand Guards, Not Those Big Square Metal Ones You See in the Movies
Risuke Otake sensei of Japan’s katori shinto ryu explains: “This is so they will not rattle when moving around. They also have shorter blades and a longer cord.” Historian Antony Cummins adds, “This is an obvious step for a shinobi to take, and the Shoninki (a historical text on ninjutsu) states that an o-wakizashi is best — which is, of course, a short sword.” [True Path of the Ninja, Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami]
2. Ninja Fought in World War II
From a previously classified document: “A secret military spy school taught ninjutsu … as part of its curriculum. The Rikugun Nakano Gakko was run by the Japanese Imperial Army and was used to train military intelligence operatives in secret.” Some 2,300 soldiers are believed to have graduated from the course before it was closed in 1945, when Japan surrendered to Allied forces. “The students weren’t just taught to sneak around in black footed-pajamas with katana and throwing stars … but also learned more practical methods of gathering intelligence and sabotage, including bomb making and photography,” the document reveals. [“WWII Ninjas? Secret Spy School Taught Ninjutsu Skills to Soldiers,” Adam Westlake, japandailypress.com]
3. Ninja Beat People With Live Snakes
Anyone who’s seen Cannon Films’ 1983 classic Revenge of the Ninja can tell you two things: Ninja grandmas are awesome, and a kusari-gama is a short, sharp sickle with a chain or weighted rope attached to its handle. That attachment is used as a long-range weapon and for entangling a close-range opponent.
Masaaki Hatsumi (photo courtesy of Bud Malmstrom)
However, historical warriors didn’t limit themselves to mere chains and ropes. Masaaki Hatsumi, 34th grandmaster of togakure-ryu ninjutsu, says practitioners would sometimes attach “small, explosive charges or fireballs” and on special occasions “a bound, terrified poisonous snake to the enemy’s body. The enemy would then be so busy dealing with the snake bites [that] he would be unable to counter the ninja as he advanced with his ripping sickle blade.” [Ninjutsu: History and Tradition, Masaaki Hatsumi]
4. Also, With Angry Cats!
Kunoichi (female ninja) would sometimes carry a fluffy cat in their arms to conceal “a ninja dagger and smoke grenade,” Hatsumi writes. “[The cat] could also serve as a potent distraction weapon when thrown into the face of an unsuspecting intruder.” [Ninjutsu: History and Tradition, Masaaki Hatsumi]
5. Ninja “Magic” Comes From India, Not Japan
The shinobi mystic’s half-meditational, half-magical practice of kuji-in finger knitting, first popularized in the films of Sho Kosugi, was adapted from esoteric Buddhism. Before that, it was part of some sects of Hinduism. The earliest records of the practice are said to be written in Sanskrit, a 3,000-year-old dead language. Perhaps because of their mystical powers of concentration … [True Path of the Ninja, Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami]
6. Ninja Put Up With a Lot of Crap — Literally
“The most famous ninja assassination story is of how Uesugi Kenshin was murdered in his lavatory by a ninja who had concealed himself [for days] in the sewage pit and who thrust a spear or sword up Kenshin’s anus at the crucial moment,” Stephen Turnbull writes. Despite helping tip the political scales in favor of his presumed employer, Oda Nobunaga, the name of this muck-and-shadow-swathed hit-ninja, has been practically forgotten by history. The official record simply lists Kenshin’s cause of death as “a stomach ache in his toilet.” [Ninja: AD 1460 – 1650, Stephen Turnbull]
7. Sho Kosugi Is Not a Ninja, But He Plays One on TV
The world’s most famous movie ninja — the man who’s done more than anyone to bring Japan’s notoriously secretive shadow warriors into the fickle light of pop culture — is actually a master of shindo-jinsen-ryu karate. In addition, he studied iaido and kendo while in college and, at age 18, became the All-Japan Karate champion. [Ninja: AD 1460 – 1650, Stephen Turnbull]
Sho Kosugi (photo courtesy of Cannon Films)
As if his movie career and martial arts achievements weren’t enough, Kosugi’s publicist occasionally makes some noise about his client having been informally trained in ninjutsu by a mysterious “Uncle Yamamoto.” However, his existence hasn’t been confirmed.)
8. Sho Kosugi Wasn’t the First Movie Ninja
Although he’s certainly the most famous — witness his of-course-we-cast-him-as-the-head-of-the-ninja-clan selection for the Andy Wachowski–produced 2009 homage to the genre known as Ninja Assassin — Kosugi is far from the first black-clad shinobi to slink across the silver screen. You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery’s fifth outing as British super-spy James Bond, introduced Western audiences to Japan’s shadow warriors way back in 1967. Sam Peckinpah’s The Killer Elite, starring Robert Duvall and James Caan, featured an extensive ninja battle on board a battleship, showcasing the slick kicking skills of the sensational Tak Kubota, in 1975.
9. Hattori Hanzo Was a Real Person
Of course, Japanese audiences have thrilled to the sight of cinematic ninja since movies and television first found their way east. Arguably, the most famous was Kage No Gundan (aka Shadow Warriors), a popular TV series that ran intermittently from 1980 to 1985. It starred Sonny Chiba as Hattori Hanzo. Not coincidentally, both the actor and the character were later co-opted by Quentin Tarantino for Kill Bill. What Gundan fans might not realize, however, is that Hattori Hanzo was the real name of the real person who was the head ninja in charge of ninja-ing for the shogun’s household. The name and the job were passed down from father to son for generations — although by the end, the position was mostly ceremonial and sadly vestigial: Foreign visitors reported seeing Japan’s top ninja being tasked with entertaining the shogun’s children by dodging snowballs in the courtyard.
10. Yes, You Can Visit a Ninja Village
Japan’s Koka Ninja Village is a popular tourist attraction. It features a range where you can throw shuriken, tunnels where you can explore once-secret escape routes and a nine-stage obstacle course where you can use “historical tools” to try to walk on water or climb walls. There’s also a museum “displaying various manuals and tools used by the Koka ninja in the past.” Nearby is the Ninja Mansion, a 300-year-old building riddled with passages and more historical artifacts. However, before you sell all your worldly possessions and book your pilgrimage to ninjaworld, bear in mind that in Japan, the ninja exist mostly in history and comic books. Therefore, going to Koka Village to learn the ancient art of the shadow warriors would be tantamount to showing up at Universal Studios for Spider-Man lessons. If a trip to Japan isn’t in your budget, you can visit a ninja village closer to home. Ninja New York is a high-end sushi restaurant located deep under Manhattan. Step into an ominous-looking elevator with only one button — down — and step out into a sprawling underground Japanese village. Ninja waiters will bring you sushi, sashimi and sake to your heart’s content while cutting your food with razor-sharp katana and performing sleight of hand and flash-fire magic tricks. All this ninja goodness doesn’t come cheap, though. Dinner for three can exceed $500. And lest you think of saving a buck by skipping out on the tip, remember that your waiters are armed and dangerous. [Koka Ninja Village, japan-guide.com; ninjanewyork.com]
Text by Jason William McNeil