Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Saturday, May 20, 2006 someone explain to me...

What the heck is so cool about ninja?

I mean, in a historical sense, I get what's cool about them. Folks dressing up in black, using peasant equipment as weapons, to kill and terrorize local governmental officials into taking the desired course of action...

And yeah, they look cool all in black...

But I mean when you take them out of that social context, they just become vaguely eccentric assassins. Japan's not the only place to have developed particularly visually representative assassin/terrorist figures. Pretty much every court and government in the world has them.

And if you're going to go with a blatant anachronism, I'd think Byzantine court assassins would be cooler. Or the Hashashin, though that's got its own political sort of iffy-ness.

And for the record, I wish someone in an Elektra comic would make a point that sais traditionally can't be used to stab things. They were a seed planting device adapted for use in parrying, a good twist of the wrist would break a sword. But they're not sharp in the least. They're very blunt and heavy. The points are actually quite dull. They're not like daggers, at all, and they're kind of impractical to use against a non-Japanese sword carrying enemy. The only other thing you could really do with it is club someone with it.

I've nothing against Elektra being able to go stabbity with the sais, I just wish it'd be pointed out that sharpening them to do that isn't normal. Well, maybe they have, and I just never read the issue. But still, it seems like a surprised villain pointing that out would just enhance her coolness level, as it's a pretty creative thought.

I don't know though, it just seems like where once I could understand the novelty appeal of ninja, it seems like everyone and their cousin are either ninja, trained by ninja, or use their powers in ways that replicate ninja moves in movies.

It's not like the ninja are the only martial artists in the world (especially as traditionally many were peasants and thus had no fighting training at all!), nor are they the only stealthy assassins in the world. But in comics, (and movies/tv) they're *everywhere*. It's to the point where 7 out of 10 characters in comics have mad ninja skillz!

You know, Europe's got it's own traditions of martial arts too. Melee weapons *and* hand-to-hand. Fighting traditions that are possibly as old as the Japanese and Chinese traditions and are equally as formidable. Just because something's Asian doesn't make it immediately better or worse.

By the way, fellow geeks? If a samurai faces a fully armored knight in combat, and they're even remotely evenly matched? The samurai's going down. Japanese steel is weak, Japanese swordsmiths had to use a technique called "folding" the steel, which is pretty much what it sounds like, to get it to hold an edge. Thus Katana/No-Dachi/Kodachi and other single edged folded steel swords are very very sharp and light, but they're very very weak. And they're slashing weapons. European steel is much thicker and stronger. Katana vs armor, the katana *breaks*.

Now what does do really well against suits of armor are smaller, stabby-pokey weapons. Rapiers and crossbow bolts. Stuff that can find and exploit the weakpoints of the armor. Which is why as you head into later years, you end up with fencers instead of knights. The knight hasn't a prayer.

Now a samurai vs. a fencer? The samurai has extra reach, momentum and speed. A katana has a very wide arc that a fencing foil's not going to be able to touch.

Basically, it's a game of rock paper scissors. Knight beats Samurai. Fencer beats Knight. Samurai beats Fencer.

Anyway, I guess I'd just like to see something other than l33t Asian Martial Artist/Ninja once in a while. Just for variety's sake. Please?

(ETA: To clarify, the use of the term "ninja" in this rant refers to the Western idea of ninja, most commonly derived from the peasant fighters known for stealth and unexpected weaponry. Not to be confused with actual ninja clans, or for that matter the later shishi political assassins, who are different kettles of fish entirely. :-))


  • At May 20, 2006 5:02 AM, Blogger frinklin said…

    At this point, ninjas are often mere cannon fodder anyway. It would be interesting to see some variety, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

    Did you stay up late wondering about all this?

  • At May 20, 2006 5:10 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I'm nocturnal. :-)

    Besides, it's very rare that I get to apply my week-old degree to my hobby. :-)

  • At May 20, 2006 5:14 AM, Blogger Ragnell said…

    We need to come up with handsigns for each.

    I say a single finger for a Fencer, an fist for a Knight, and a flat outstretched palm for a Samurai.

  • At May 20, 2006 5:15 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Palm has to be sideways though. Pinky down.

    The others are great though. :-)

  • At May 20, 2006 5:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It is not true that traditionally many ninjas were peasants and thus had no fighting training at all as you say. Ninjas were traditionally part of Samuarai clans and came about though the overeagerness of many many samurai to get the honour of the first kill in battle thus leading to night infiltrations into enemy camps. Which then developed sooner into ninja clans such as the Iga and the Koga

    I think you have ninja's confused with the invention of the sai in okinawa were the peasants used weapons such as the sai and the tonfa as the japanese had taken all of the swords and armor away from them. It is not in my knowledge that Ninjas ever used the sai - as pointed out rather useless for stabbing. I think it is a product of making ninjas more cool.

  • At May 20, 2006 5:32 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Anon: Thanks for your reply.

    The Western idea of ninja, ninja as they're portrayed in most tv-shows/movies/comics, tend to be based on the peasant fighters with unexpected weaponry rather than the idea of more traditional ninja clans, so I'm basing this rant around them.

    I use the term ninja because that's how Westerners know the concept. But I'll put in a note to clarify. :-)

  • At May 20, 2006 6:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Actually, in one of the two Elektra issues I have, she's told to "Get some real sai. They're not blades, you know." Issue 16, written by Greg Rucka.

  • At May 20, 2006 6:31 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I always did like Greg Rucka!

  • At May 20, 2006 6:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    By day, a humble worker in a local diner,unnoticed,unseen,unassuming....but,by night....DISH NINJA!!!

  • At May 20, 2006 8:57 AM, Blogger Sleestak said…

    Ninjas used to be cool. Now they are just disposable henchmen like the guys in 70's Marvel comics.

    I'd like to see a ninja-purge in comics, so when one shows up to fight Wolverine you can actually expect something interesting.

  • At May 20, 2006 9:03 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    anon: Reminds me of why I always thought it'd be awesome to be a waiter in a Japanese Restaurant::

    "Hey Angelo, that guy on table 5's a real douche! And he ordered Fugu!"

    "Did he sign the waiver, man?"

    "Yeah, yeah."

    "Good!" *haphazard chop* "Eat that, Mr. Only Tips Ten Percent."

    Hey, poisoning is a ninja method. (And in my head, all restaurant cooks and chefs are named Angelo. Even in Japanese Restaurants. I'm not precisely sure why this is.)

    sleestak: That'd be nice. I wouldn't mind them so much if they were rarer and thus back to being cool and interesting instead of very very overplayed.

  • At May 20, 2006 1:22 PM, Blogger 100LittleDolls said…

    I wish more comics could incorporate details from the history that they draw from.

    That would have been especially helpful when I was younger, fighting with my mom over bad comic habit, and all I could say to her was that at least I was learning huge words, and could now understand plots such as 12 Monkeys easily.

  • At May 20, 2006 1:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I've seen kendo students spar with fencing students. I don't know enough about the relative skill of the participants to say who has the overall advantage, but the fencers certainly had the advantage in reach.

  • At May 20, 2006 2:01 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    100: I was lucky, I could get away with anything as long as it was reading.

    Niles: Hmm, you're probably right. I think the kind of strikes were fooling me. Given the arc and lightness of the katana, I do think the bushi would still have the advantage.

    I also think the kind of armor fencers used during the period wouldn't have been nearly as much of a hinderance to a well-trained sengoku-era bushi.

    If they're evenly matched in ability, I'd still think the samurai would have a distinct advantage. YMMV naturally. :-)

    (I'm personally thrilled to be arguing the opposite side of the argument for once. People who think "katana beats everything!!1!" get wearisome. :-P It's such a novelty to be the one arguing the samurai's advantage. :-))

  • At May 20, 2006 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ah, I had been asuming a Tokugawa period samurai. Fencing as we tend to clasify it nowadays wasn't realy a military fighting style, one wore a rapier or smallsword for self-defence, brawling, dueling, or to show oneself a man of consequence. Much the sam reasons a samurai wore a sword during the bakufu. If you pited a vetran of the sengoku period against a fencer with militry training, experience, and equipment, the outcome is probably by whoever is the better shot with a musket. Rather less romantic that way eh?

  • At May 20, 2006 2:47 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Shhh! Don't bring up Firearms! In these sorts of debates, we have to pretend they didn't exist!

    Besides the fun of these debates is to put disparate era swordsmen against each other. In order to rob the debate of any actual relevence it might have otherwise had!

    :-) Silly person, expecting logic and facts at *this* blog.

  • At May 20, 2006 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ninjas were "cool" in the 70s and 80s when the big martial arts action movie pushes were going on. They dressed in dark costumes, and had this "mysterious asian" mystique about them. Plus, the whole "ninja motif" played on adolescent boys' desires to hurl metal things at boards - always an activity that adolescent boys like to have validated.

    Now ninjas are around because they've always been around. They've kind of become a joke, haven't they? Like frinklin said - they're mostly used as cannon fodder - a could hundred ninja henchmen for Wolverine to kill before getting up to the main badguy. Plus, I think there are guys who write this stuff now who were adolescent boys in the 70s and 80s and who still look back nostalgically at the days of hurling metal objects at boards.

  • At May 20, 2006 3:29 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Yes, I understand that. I too love hurling metal objects at things.

    But *other* people besides ninja hurl metal objects at things! Let's see some of those!

  • At May 20, 2006 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ninjas are cool... 'cause they're cool!
    Is like talking gorillas, they're cool just because they are

    you can explain coolness, coolness just is

  • At May 21, 2006 4:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In the late-mid 1700s (1760ish? somewhere in that area I think) a group of Portuguese sailors in Japan had a friendly sparring contest with some of the local samurai they had gotten to know in the area. Fencers with rapiers, bushi with katana. I don't know if they used practice weapons, but I doubt it. Out of the six bouts, the samurai won one.

    Nowadays, ninja are used in roleplaying games and comics in one of two ways: in groups or as a single infiltrator type. Groups of ninja can die from the sound of a passing jet overhead. A single ninja is death clutching the ceiling.

    I've always thought it would be really kind of neat to have a close-quarters combat expert in a comic who had no Asian experience whatsoever. Pancreatic wrestling, old-school savate, canefencing, stuff like that. I think that's partially why I liked Lady Vic from Nightwing...she used some exotic weaponry that didn't come from China! It all came from former British holdings, and she used them correctly. Awesome. Plus she had a butler who cleaned her knives for her.

    That's all I have. Sorry; go about your business.

  • At May 21, 2006 5:51 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Interesting, I hadn't heard of that encounter. I suppose such things as the varying knowledge of what to expect from one another's sword techniques would play a part in that. The traders that had gone to Japan previously would have spread some knowledge of how Japanese swordsmen fought, and they wouldn't have had similar knowledge in return.

    But I may have to revise my game anyway. :-) I'll think about that. Darn people bringing up actual facts to interrupt my nice clean system. :-P

    But yeah, I find martial artists/melee fighters who use non-Asian techniques pretty fascinating. It's so much rarer. Admittedly, though, it must be easier for writers/artists to use ninja. We all have some vague idea of what Asian Martial Arts should look like, even dramatized. Others aren't so commonly known or easily imagined.

    Still, European swords are much cooler than Japanese swords anyway. Even if my wrist would *break* if I ever tried to swing anything past a rapier. (Am weak and girly, me)

  • At May 21, 2006 5:52 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    anon: They *were* cool. Now they're everywhere. they're the status quo man! It's rarer to find a character with NO ninja skillz now.

    Which makes them cooler.

  • At May 22, 2006 5:30 PM, Blogger Scott said…

    Interesting post - several points.

    1) Katanas are actually reasonably strong, but no more so than European swords of similar quality. A cheap(er) one would probably bend applied directly to modern armor, a really good one would just need the blade resharpened, but of course neither would penetrate unless the wielder managed to get at an opening in the armor. Same goes for the better lacquered armor worn by the other samurai, though - the stuff was pretty tough.

    2) Folding steel was a technique actually used some places other than Japan, and was intended to produce multiple layers with different properties - ideally you want the steel to be harder on the edges, but more flexible towards the center. Some European smiths went for a similar effect by actually welding together strips of different types of steel. Anyway, doesn't make the blades weak - the more flexible the core, the more likely to survive impact with something hard enough to resist penetration. Not that you'd want to chop wood or use as a pry bar *any* type of sword.

    3) Not surprised by the anecdote of the fencers vs. samurai - in any situation where armor is not a significant factor, thrusting techniques with longer reach are likely to have an advantage against swinging techniques - particularly if the swords themselves are longer. Particularly if it's a 'friendly' match, even with live blades, so that you're not worried about getting chopped while your small sword is stuck in the guy's belly but he's still alive enough to return the favor...

    4) Sai are not particularly pointy, no, but besides parrying they do present a number of ways to implement rather nasty blunt blows. You can swing the 'blade', reverse your grip so you're punching with the pommel side, or even 'stab' with the blunt end - which I can attest hurts like hell even if somebody's trying *not* to put any force behind it. Given a full power strike, I wouldn't doubt that people using sai have effectively disemboweled their opponents, which like the joke about removing someone's heart with a blunt spoon, would really, really hurt and probably bleed out very effectively.

    5) I would absolutely love to see more emphasis on Western, or at any rate, non-East Asian fighting arts in various media. Some, such as savate, have included a vast array of cinematic-looking techniques for quite some time, arguably predating 'legendary' forms like Shaolin. For anybody who was dumbfounded by all the kung-fu fightin' in Brotherhood of the Wolf - just tell yourself that wasn't kung fu, that was savate!

  • At May 22, 2006 5:34 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    thanks for contributing! It's always good to get more perspectives on the topic!

    to be fair, also, given the limited mobility of *either* a western suit of armor or Samurai armor, they'd pretty much need to be mounted to be anything but turtles anyway.

    Those poor poor horses.

  • At May 22, 2006 5:37 PM, Blogger Seth T. Hahne said…

    Well, there's always Batroc the Leaper, who practices goofy moustaches and Savate (a French martial art). w00t. Go Marvel.

  • At May 22, 2006 5:47 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    :-) Okay, this once I'll agree: Go Marvel!

  • At May 24, 2006 2:21 PM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    Ninjas are a cliche and aren't any inherently cooler than cowboys, pirates, or robots. It all comes down to execution. Ironically, the only Western take in the last decade on ninjas I liked was in The Last Samurai: they were fast sneaky assassins / fighters, they didn't waste time with words, but they weren't superhuman either. [Also nobody needed to point the obvious: "Look out! NINJAS!"] Go figure. :-)

    The vast majority of Asian films seen in this country over the last few decades are from Japan and Hong Kong, with China as a relatively distant third. Which of course is the source material Westerners rip off. :-) As such, we mostly see retreads of Chinese or Japanese stereotypes: ninjas, samurai, Shaolin monks, wizened masters, etc. So no surprise we get bored of seeing the same half-dozen or so cliches recycled. Very rarely do we see archetypes and martial arts styles from other parts of Asia: e.g., I think Ong Bak is the first (and so far only) martial arts film I've seen about Muay Thai; and I remember seeing an Indian film which incorporated an ancient Indian martial arts into its fight scenes.

    So your complaint is "too much Asian martial arts!" - my complaint is "not enough variety in Asian martial arts!" But I wouldn't mind some Byzantine or Middle Eastern assassins thrown in for good measure. :-)

    [You're sensitive to women in comics; I'm sensitive to Asians in comics.]

    Elektra is a Greek woman trained by an ancient order of (originally) Japanese assassins who, nevertheless, have an English name. I think making her sais pointy is the least of the dramatic licenses taken with her. :-)

    Also, I don't pretend to be a history expert, but I'm pretty sure it was the advent of firearms which spelled the end for heavy armor: no point wearing 50 lbs of metal if musket shot tears right through it, is there? :-) Once you lose the armor, you lose the incentive to carry big heavy swords which punch through that armor: much easier to carry something smaller and lighter, like a rapier or short sword, especially as hand-to-hand fighting becomes rarer.

    As for the more general "knight vs samurai vs fencer" question, I'd say a lot depends on both the quality of weapons and armor used and the skills of the combatants. If the outcomes of all fights were really so easily predicted, duels would be pretty boring. :-)

  • At May 24, 2006 5:34 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    I *think* suits of armor actually became obsolete quite some time before hand-held firearms as I recall.

    What made the difference were crossbow bolts which could find the weak points of it pretty easily even before such widespread use of firearms.

    The thing about ninja is that, while cool, also, they're anachronistic. They're like cowboys as products of the time period (whether you're talking the clans or the peasant fighters).

    And I wouldn't mind more variety with Martial Arts in general. :-) More western, more variance in Eastern. :-)

  • At May 25, 2006 10:18 AM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    It was my understanding that the advent of increasingly powerful crossbows circa 12th century led to the gradual switch from mail to plate armor; but it was the advent of firearms which spelled the eventual end of plate armor entirely (though some heavy cavalry units contined to wear some plate armor into the early 20th century).

    Unfortunately, I'm not a historian, just a dude with a bunch of useless trivia rattling around in his head. For all I know, discarding plate armor was a cost-cutting measure. :-)

    Also, ninjas, like cowboys, have become such an embedded part of their native country's pop culture that it's hard to separate fact from fiction.

    Anyway, basic point is: plenty of martial arts styles from around the world - and plenty of sources for assassins - that comic books and Hollywood ought to be ripping off. :-)

    P.S. Congratulations on your now two-week-old degree. :-)

  • At May 25, 2006 2:15 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Hmm, you're probably right. European history isn't my strong suit either.

    Hell, it's history, so it's probably a combination of factors including yours, mine, and the cost-cutting all rolled into one.

    And you're totally right about the styles. I mean everyone seems to use the same handful of techniques when there's *so much* material to choose from. It's a darned shame. :-)

  • At May 26, 2006 11:35 AM, Blogger Ferrous Buller said…

    I'm sure plenty of factors affected the development and deployment of armor: cost, weight, technological developments, etc. Fortunately, this is a blog, not a history term paper, so we don't need to back up our assertions with, y'know, facts. ;-)

    I usually blame lazy writers: far easier to rip off something you've seen plenty of times before than do some damn research to find something new. One of the things I liked about Shi was that Tucci turned to the sohei for inspiration, rather than just falling back on ninjas or whatever. [I also liked the fact Ana was half-Asian, for purely personal reasons.]

  • At May 26, 2006 3:12 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Ferrous: I don't think I've seen that. I'll have to go look!


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