Monday, May 3, 2010

Everything's Better Without Ninjas

The internet often creates an inescapable feedback loop, drawing in a somewhat funny or interesting idea, which then multiplies itself, repeating ad nauseam and mixing with other memes like the backwards residents of a Louisiana bayou.

Nothing is quite so subject to this pop-culture inbreeding as the ninja, that poor-Japanese-peasant-spy-turned-superhumanly-athletic-wizard. The internet seems to toss ninjas into just about everything, and people seem to think that dropping the mere word seems to add a level of random anarchic wit that completely ignores the fact that it's a joke only slightly less common than “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

So being now, as always, a determined iconoclast, I will act in defiance of the overblown popularity of dropping ninjas in place of actual humor. I think I will take a step into my time machine and try to spin this trend backwards, by taking great scenes from classic movies and demonstrating why:

Everything is Not Better With Ninjas!

North by Northwest

One of the most iconic scenes in cinema history, here we see Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant each at their absolute best. A plane swoops in after a man on foot…a truly masterful use of tension. We take it for granted that planes exist not only far away in the air but, in a sense, on something of a different kind of existence…the idea that it one could actually run you down is bizarre and yet strangely possible. And it’s all brought to excellent fruition by Hitchcock’s near perfect cinematography, showing us the plane as it slowly grows from a speck in the background to a devastating weapon in the foreground, slowly encroaching on Grant.

Now, imagine how a ninja would ruin this scene. What could one possibly add? The mastery is all in a plane you can see and how it moves and appears, but a ninja would have to move invisibly…it just wouldn’t carry any of the same tension or atmosphere. Not to mention that this isn’t set in Feudal Japan.


What can be said about this great film that hasn’t been said before?

It isn’t just the tremendous presence of Bogart that helps this film so much, it’s the tremendous range he portrays; the way he transitions so smoothly from the cold intensity of his first appearances to the warmth of his Parisian flashbacks to this heart-wrenching moment of heartbreak.

Why would you even consider adding a ninja to this scene? It isn’t even an action sequence. Here you have an excellent moment of character-driven drama and all a ninja could do is distract from that, not to mention that you’d have to draw the camera back to get him properly in shot and that would reduce the effectiveness of this amazing close-up. And, to reiterate, the appearance of ninjas would have not only been inappropriate in a pre-occupation WWII Parisian train station, but would have likely represented a gross misapplication of Imperial Japanese tactical resources.

Throne of Blood

Akira Kurosawa was quite possibly the greatest director of all time, and his adaptation of Macbeth is not only a fantastic rendition and treatment of the material, but a revelatory example of how to extend and utilize film as a medium. His gorgeous panoramic landscapes set a scene of a castle overlooking a kingdom that is at once vast and yet closed in by an ephemeral wall of solid fog, and the evocative expressions of master actors like the immortal Toshiro Mifune merged film with the classical appearances of Noh theater that are at once terrifyingly human and yet fascinatingly inhuman.

In this final scene, the woods rise from the fog and appear to march upon the castle, revealing the true nature of the witch’s prophecy and inciting the lord’s soldiers to turn on him. Hundreds of arrows fly from the mass of soldiers, slowly enclosing the lord in a rain of death. Mifune’s fear radiates through the silver screen as the stark lines of the arrows strike through the air. It is a thrilling climax that does justice to the Shakespearean text, the master actor, and the legendary director.

And yet even in a story set in Feudal Japan, a ninja would only make things worse. First, in practical terms, a ninja would probably sneak in and kill him swiftly and easily…it would just be boring and lose all the claustrophobic tension of the hail of arrows. Second, you wouldn’t even see it…it would just be an off-screen fatality in the dark.

So, what have we learned: Ninjas just aren’t theatrically sound from a story or visual perspective. So…can we all just get over this already?

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At May 3, 2010 at 9:17 AM , Blogger Kyle said...

This is why ninjas are funny.

At May 3, 2010 at 12:36 PM , Blogger Jade Knight said...

So, I guess the pirates win.

Aye! Avast!

At May 4, 2010 at 10:27 AM , Blogger Matt Kamm said...

This was highly amusing. In the interest of balanced journalism (though I realize that you make no claim to such), I think it would be good of you to follow-up with an "Everything's Better Without Pirates" article.

At July 3, 2011 at 8:32 PM , Blogger Miss Elainie said...

im not convinced. north by northwest is awesome. but how would having a ninja pilot have made that scene any less dramatic? huh?


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