As a kid in a not-so-cosmopolitan town in Pennsylvania, my first introduction to ninjas – or anything to do with Japanese culture – was the classic 1982 Chris Claremont / Frank Miller Wolverine miniseries. , both heavily influenced by manga and anime, featured the white Western X-Man making his way through phalanxes of ninjas and samurai in pursuit of his Japanese girlfriend. The Wolverine of the 1980s was (yet another) mighty white who travels east, learns from non-Westerners, then becomes better than them at their own culture of honor and deadly combat. As a dark yakuza leader says in the new Netflix movie Kate, “His [Westernerâs] how to take and take until there is nothing left; gorging on cultures they don’t understand and then draining their entrails onto the rest of the world.
This is a criticism that could be addressed to Kate himself. The film follows Wolverine’s orientalist lore of whites beating the snot of Japanese antagonists. At a time, Kate suggests that after decades of pulp borrowing between Japan and America, which culture is gorging itself on violent fantasies of empowering the other is hard to disentangle. When you tell someone else’s story, do you steal it? Or is he stealing from you?
Kate, like many genre products, is a multicultural stew of familiar ideas. The titular main character (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was adopted as a child by Varrick (Woody Harrelson) who (having apparently seen The Woman Nikita) transformed her into a peerless assassin. After an incident involving Ani (Miku Martineau), the daughter of a target member of the Japanese Yakuza criminal gangs, Kate wants to retire (as Chow Yun-Fat in John Woo’s The killer.) She has to do one more shot in Japan, however, and before she can do it, she is poisoned. With 24 hours to live, she must find her murderer by slaughtering her way through the Japanese underworld, as in many a yakuza revenge movie. And, as in lone wolf and Lion cub Where Terminator 2 she has to fight all these baddies while protecting a child, in this case, Ani.
Kate isn’t precisely a superhero, although her origin and supernatural fighting abilities are virtually indistinguishable from those of the recently released MCU movie. Black Widow. She isn’t precisely a ninja either, although she looks a lot like the ninjas themselves. In theory, ninjas were a secret military force of assassins during the Sengoku period. [c. 1487-1603] who developed extremely difficult and unbeatable stealth killing techniques. In fact, such a secret force almost certainly did not exist. The Japanese army practiced espionage and assassination like most other armies, but there was no cult secret. Ninjas are more or less to Japanese history what James Bond is to the British Secret Service; a complete fantasy.
Instead, ninjas as we know them today – dressed in black, invisible, unstoppable – are a story, a myth, or a genre, much like spy fiction or like superheroes. Ninjas appeared in books and plays in the 1700s; over time, artists and writers have dressed them in black pajamas to indicate their ability to disappear.
In Japan, ninjas were primarily associated with espionage, not assassination. When they crossed borders, they tended to turn into more deadly assassins, starting with the James Bond movie. You only live twice in the 1960s, through Hong Kong films such as the breathtaking Ninjas of the five elements in 1982, and up to the ninja company of the Hand, which was invented by Frank Miller in the 1980s and appeared in the recent Netflix series Daredevil.
Ninjas reached their peak of Western popularity in the 1980s, when Japan’s economic boom sparked both resentment and envy around the world. Ninjutsu martial arts schools, allegedly based on ninja techniques, have become popular in the United States. I remember the kids in my school enthusiastically debating the virtues of nunchucks and shuriken. The cinematic depictions of ninjas reflected Western anxieties about Japan; impenetrable, deadly and omnipresent.
Kate is ambivalent about its enthusiastically infiltrated and impure genre roots. The character herself is fluent in Japanese; like many powerful whites before her, part of her poise and mystique lies in how easily she can navigate and blend in with a foreign culture. And Ani, the moral center of the film, has a Japanese mother and a white father. Kate, by protecting her, partly protects and defends the film itself, with its mix of Japanese and white characters and tropes.
At the same time, however, the film’s ultimate villains are collaborating to expand white influence among the Japanese Yakuza criminal gangs. This is presented as an attack on the honor and Japanese tradition embodied by the Japanese leader, but also embodied by Kate herself, who fights impossible obstacles even as she faces death.
Kate makes a white woman the true icon of Japanese honor, even though she draws on the incredible talents of Asian stuntmen. Part of what’s going on here is cultural appropriation. But part of what’s going on is just the remixing of pulp and pulp genres that all went global decades ago. The Seven Samurai of Kurosawa, influenced by the Hollywood westerns of the American occupiers, have themselves become the model of Hollywood westerns like The Magnificent Seven in the 1960s. All of this established the mixed-gender East-West DIY that eventually led to space cowboy Han Solo teaming up with space samurai Obi Wan Kenobi, who also looks like a space superhero.
That superheroes, from space or the MCU, have conquered global movie screens is no surprise; it’s in the spirit of the genre. Superheroes are empowering fantasies. These are stories about acquiring supreme physical and magical skills that allow heroes to defeat all enemies. The whole point of Captain America, Iron Man, and Dr. Strange is that they are the most awesome forces for the good of the universe. Everyone is supposed to encourage them and / or want to be them.
Likewise, ninjas are meant to be unbeatable and uncontrollable; there is no gate or security that can protect them. Like shadows, they slip into James Bond, Wolverine, China, superheroes and fictions near and far. You can’t stop them from entering.
The pervasiveness of powerful white stories is one of the ways that American culture can be racist and imperialist. Another way is to assume that America is the only culture with global influence, or the only one whose stories invade the earth, by force or stealth. Kate leaves a trail of carnage behind her. But even she can’t escape the ninja.