You have that image in mind: ninja are black-clad spies, rarely talk, can choke you in an instant, like to throw ropes and chisels around, and are for the most part mysterious characters we just don’t want to come across in a dark room. That image was largely created by Hollywood movies, but here in Japan, ninja’s country of origin, the sight is, well, quite different. As we see from the following eight characters from popular Japanese films on the theme, most ninja were not all about black pajamas and martial arts mastery. Some of them may as well be your neighbor, coworker or even yourself — at least, as far as their human nature speaks for themselves. So what’s the ninja truth? Push play and find out for yourselves!
1. The lazy dude – Mumon: The Land of Stealth (忍びの国), 2017
Mumon: The Land of Stealth tells the story of the titular Mumon, a member of a feared ninja clan. He is considered the most powerful ninja in the clan, but…he also happens to be terribly lazy and interested in little more than collecting enough money for a comfortable lifestyle that’ll keep his wife happy. One day, he kills someone for the bounty and triggers a regional war with an encroaching power — not a good move for a lazy guy, but his subsequent transformation from shiftless opportunist into a reborn man makes for great entertainment!
Director: Yoshihiro Nakamura Starring: Satoshi Ohno, Satomi Ishihara
2. The homework-bound ninja-wannabes – Ninja Kids!!!: Summer Mission Impossible (忍たま乱太郎 夏休み宿題大作戦！の段), 2013
Ninja Kids!!!: Summer Mission Impossible is the sequel to another good-natured silliness known as Ninja Kids!!!, and here again we’re back at the Ninja Academy, having adventures and hijinks with friends and ninja-in-training Rantaro, Kirimaru, and Shinbee. What are they up to this time? Well, trying to find a stolen sword that grants the power to conquer the world. If our young proto-ninja are successful in their first mission, they’ll get a nice long vacation from school. But only if they finish their homework first, of course.
Director: Ryuta Tasaki Starring: Seishiro Kato, Roi Hayashi
3. The retired but still superhero warrior – The Ninja War of Torakage (虎影), 2015
Set in Japan’s Sengoku period, our story is that of a retired ninja, Torakage, who’s trying to live peacefully and enjoy family life (sound familiar?). But his skills remain sharp and when his son is kidnapped, he puts them to good use and draws out the burning rage of a trained fighter. Torakage fights against armies of non-retired ninjas and a handful of semi-fantastical warrior creatures in battle antics that reach near-super-hero levels — which is fun.
Director: Yoshihiro Nishimura Starring: Takumi Saito, Yuria Haga
4. The cat-chasing guy – Neko Ninja (猫忍), 2017
Our man in this comedic, partially dramatic movie is the young bumbling ninja, Kagerota, who embarks on his first mission…to steal a general’s goldfish. Kagerota’s father was once a highly regarded red-nosed ninja who engineered his own disappearance when Kagerota was just 10 years old. When the young ninja nearly completes his first mission, he gets distracted by a fat cat with a red nose who reminds him of — you know who: his pops. And so, Neko Ninjya explores the adventures of a forlorn rookie ninja and his fat, red-nosed, pseudo-father-figure cat.
Director: Takeshi Watanabe Starring: Takuro Ohno, Eriko Sato
5. The secret ninja – Ninja The Monster, 2015
Ninja The Monster is set in relatively peaceful late-1700s Japan, a time when the dangerous ninja have been outlawed, hunted down, and executed — all except for our man Denzo, who now serves as a security guard for Princess Koh. On a journey to the capital, the princess’ traveling cohort are attacked by a monster and all are killed except for Denzo, the princess, and her head of security, the samurai Choemon. In a race against time, being stalked by an unidentifiable monster, Denzo is forced to reveal his true identity and use his ninja skills to keep the trio alive.
Director: Ken Ochiai Starring: Dean Fujioka, Aoi Morikawa
6. The escape-the-past-not ninja – Kamui Gaiden (カムイ外伝), 2009
Like our last ninja, Kamui is also trying to hide his past, but this time he merely wanted to escape his ninja clan and lead a normal life. But things rarely happen as they wish for members of the ninja clan, so Kamui’s former brothers hunt him constantly, looking for any chance to take his life and prevent him from sharing his clan’s ninja top secrets. Kamui eventually finds his way to an idyllic fishing village and begins building friendships and uncovering mysteries. But his former clan eventually finds him, setting up a final showdown that endangers his life, that of his friends, and the harmony and peace enjoyed by the innocent residents of the village.
Director: Yoichi Sai Starring: Kenichi Matsuyama, Koyuki
7. The Robin Hood ninja – Goemon, 2009
Goemon’s namesake, Ishikawa Goemon, was a real person, probably a real ninja, and actually lived in central Japan in the 16th century. In literature and the general cultural zeitgeist, Goemon is basically the Robin Hood of Japanese folklore, and like his English counterpart, was known as a “steal from the rich, give to the poor” kind of guy. Our Goemon in this movie is orphaned as a young boy by the political assassination of his family, then taken in by a daimyo (feudal lord) who orders him trained in the ways of the ninja. When one day the daimyo is killed in a coup, Goemon leaves the house to embark on adventures and become a very successful thief. In other words, we’re witnessing a story of a ninja who never really got to be a ninja — unless you count stealing all your belongings in an instant as a ninja skill, of course.
Director: Kazuaki Kiriya Starring: Yosuke Eguchi, Ryoko Hirosue
8. The Romeo-in-love ninja – Shinobi, 2005
Imagine that Shakespeare’s most famous lovers, Romeo and Juliet, were powerful ninja loyal to two different semi-supernatural warrior clans in feudal Japan; clans who’ve been just itching to murder each other for hundreds of years…well, that’s Shinobi! In this case, the youngsters get married completely unaware that they are members of rival ninja clans. But when one day the then-shogunate calls for a fighting competition between the clans, deliberately provoking an open war, our love birds Gennosuke and Oboro suddenly realize that they are standing on opposite sides — which, in other words means the end of the romance. Sort of.
Director: Ten Shimoyama Starring: Joe Odagiri, Yukie Nakama
Now that you’ve seen all these ninjas, perhaps you’ve noticed that one commonality across this entire selection of films is how sincerely most of the ninja characters actually don’t want to fight — be in out of laziness or, well, chasing cats. For fans of ninja films, this gives a slightly more complete idea of what the ninja actually were…or, at least what we think they might have been: maybe just a bunch of regular folks like us. But then again, it’s good to keep in mind that ninja were intentionally mysterious masters of misdirection, too…