email thomas

















By Thomas Wheeler

There may be those who believe that the popularity of ninjas in pop culture started with a certain foursome of turtles. Well, hate to disappoint you, but G.I. Joe had them several years earlier.

And now, with the sequel live-action movie, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION -- if you've seen the movie, then you know we've got plenty of ninja action, in some settings that, for those that watched in a 3D IMAX format, I might recommend taking some motion-sickness medication ahead of time.

And there's a new entry in the ninja world of G.I. Joe, and he's one of the figure releases in the G.I. Joe: Retaliation line. He's known as the DARK NINJA. Seems rather self-explanatory, doesn't it? Obviously he's not one of the good guys.

For those who might think that ninjas are a product of modern pop culture, this is not the case. They do very much have a real world history, which, after reviewing any number of ninja characters made into action figures over the years, I decided to research a little bit.

A ninja or shinobi was a covert agent or mercenary in feudal Japan who specialized in unorthodox warfare.

Ninja is an on'yomi (Early Middle Chinese-influenced) reading of two kanji "??". In the native kun'yomi kanji reading, it is pronounced shinobi, a shortened form of the transcription shinobi-no-mono. These two systems of pronouncing kanji create words (ninja/ninsha or shinobi-no-mono) with similar meanings.

The word shinobi appears in the written record as far back as the late 8th century in poems in the Man'yoshu. The underlying connotation of shinobi means "to steal away" and — by extension — "to forbear", hence its association with stealth and invisibility. Mono means "a person". It also relates to the term shinobu, which means to hide.

Historically, the word ninja was not in common use, and a variety of regional colloquialisms evolved to describe what would later be dubbed ninja. In historical documents, shinobi is almost always used.

In the West, the word ninja became more prevalent than shinobi in the post-World War II culture, possibly because it was more comfortable for Western speakers.

The skills required of the ninja has come to be known in modern times as ninjutsu, but it is unlikely they were previously named under a single discipline, but were rather distributed among a variety of covered espionage and survival skills.

The first specialized training began in the mid-15th century, when certain samurai families started to focus on covert warfare, including espionage and assassination. Like the samurai, ninja were born into the profession, where traditions were kept in, and passed down through the family.

The ninja was trained from childhood, as was also common in samurai families. Outside the expected martial art disciplines, a youth studied survival and scouting techniques, as well as information regarding poisons and explosives. Physical training was also important, which involved long distance runs, climbing, stealth methods of walking and swimming. A certain degree of knowledge regarding common professions was also required if one was expected to take their form in disguise. Some evidence of medical training can be derived from one account, where an Iga ninja provided first-aid to Ii Naomasa, who was injured by gunfire in the Battle of Sekigahara.

With the fall of the Iga and Koga clans, daimyos could no longer recruit professional ninja, and were forced to train their own shinobi. The shinobi was considered a real profession, as demonstrated in the bakufu's 1649 law on military service, which declared that only daimyos with an income of over 10,000 koku were allowed to retain shinobi. In the two centuries that followed, a number of ninjutsu manuals were written by descendants of Hattori Hanzo as well as members of the Fujibayashi clan, an offshoot of the Hattori.

The functions of the ninja included espionage, sabotage, infiltration, and assassination, and open combat in certain situations. Their covert methods of waging war contrasted the ninja with the samurai, who observed strict rules about honor and combat. The shinobi proper, a specially trained group of spies and mercenaries, appeared in the Sengoku or "warring states" period, in the 15th century, but antecedents may have existed in the 14th century, and possibly even in the 12th century.

In the unrest of the Sengoku period (15th–17th centuries), mercenaries and spies for hire became active in the Iga Province and the adjacent area around the village of Koga, and it is from their ninja clans that much of our knowledge of the ninja is drawn. Following the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (17th century), the ninja faded into obscurity, being replaced by the Oniwabanshu body of secret agents. A number of shinobi manuals, often centered around Chinese military philosophy, were written in the 17th and 18th centuries.

By the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868), the tradition of the shinobi had become a topic of popular imagination and mystery in Japan. Ninja figured prominently in folklore and legend, and as a result it is often difficult to separate historical fact from myth. Some legendary abilities purported to be in the province of ninja training include invisibility, walking on water, and control over the natural elements. As a consequence, their perception in western popular culture in the 20th century was based more on such legend and folklore than on the historical spies of the Sengoku period.

It's not terribly likely that there are modern day ninjas, at least nothing all that well organized, but hey -- you never know.

As for the presence of ninjas within the world of G.I. Joe, here they certainly have a well-established history. The very first ninja in the entire G.I. Joe line was Storm Shadow, a Cobra ninja introduced in 1984. This character proved so popular that he was nearly impossible to keep in the stores. This was back in a day when the lack of availability of a certain action figure was due more to that character's popularity than any glitches in distribution or the store chain not ordering enough.

Storm Shadow's popularity was doubtless enhanced by a link to Snake-Eyes, who had originally been showcased as the G.I. Joe team's mysterious masked commando, but who soon showed ninja abilities of his own, which doubtless explained some of what he was able to get away with in combat even before this information was revealed. Over time, the origin of these two highly popular characters was woven throughout the adventures of the G.I. Joe team in their battle against Cobra, and any number of other characters, ninjas and otherwise, were shown to have been a part of their past.

But these two were hardly the only ninjas that would be part of G.I. Joe. Hasbro recolored the original Storm Shadow figure, making him into a troop-builder figure known as the Ninja-Viper. Although the Ninja-Vipers never appeared in the comic book, they were a very popular figure, and remain well-regarded to this day. Cobra would enlist the services of a group of ninja mercenaries known as the Night Creepers along the way, and Storm Shadow, right from his first appearance in the legendary "Silent Issue" of the original comic book, showed that he had aides of his own, with the infamous Red Ninjas, who have definitely taken their place in G.I. Joe lore to the point where they are featured in the Retaliation movie!

With all of these ninjas flying around on Cobra's side, G.I. Joe eventually had to do something about it. A reformed Storm Shadow helped to build Ninja Force, one of the Joe Team's special teams, with characters such as Dojo, Nunchuk, and T'Jbang, perhaps the single most confounding, how-do-you-pronounce-it code-name ever. Cobra countered with two new individuals who went by the names of Slice and Dice.

Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes have continued to be a significant presence in all aspects of G.I. Joe, including certainly the live-action movie continuity, and from the look of things, it just doesn't seem as though the Red Ninjas, who have certainly been released as a figure in the new Retaliation line, are going to be quite enough. We've got to throw in this Dark Ninja fellow, as well.

So, how's the figure? Extremely impressive. I initially thought that, like the Red Ninjas, this Dark Ninja might well be some sort of troop-builder figure. But that may not be the case. Although the package cards lack the traditional file card information that G.I. Joe figures have generally been so well-known for, there are a few short sentences at the top of the back of the package, which read as follows:

"The Dark Ninja is the most highly trained of all the evil Red Ninjas and an expert in aerial assaults. He descends silently from the sky using an attack glider. With menacing saber-claws on his arms and legs, he's ready to strike the G.I. Joe team!"

We'll get around to this guy's equipment in a little while. But the point I want to make is, he's rather specifically referred to here as an individual, not representing a group. Now, as of this writing, the movie has yet to premiere, so I haven't seen it yet, so I can't tell you what, if any, role this Dark Ninja may have in it. I say "if any" because we know that there's any number of figures in the movie line that are created just for the toy line. I have no idea whether this Dark Ninja is one of them or not.

Or, for that matter, if he is indeed an individual, or a trooper. As I read the character descriptions for some other Cobras that I know are troopers, such as the Alley-Viper, he is also referred to as an individual on his package. So, your guess is as good as mine.

Conversely, though, I also know that there's any number of G.I. Joe collectors who imagine their own "Joe-verse", and populate it as they see fit. If you want to regard this Dark Ninja as a troop-builder type of figure, and round up multiples of him to expand your Cobra ranks, please go right ahead. Nothing at all wrong with buying more figures, and for all I know, he is a trooper.

To a substantial degree, the Dark Ninja uses the same body molds as the Red Ninja. This is no great surprise. The Dark Ninja is affiliated with the Red Ninjas, for one thing, and it's an excellent design, so why not get another use out of it? The lower arms, knees, feet, and lower legs are different, however, as is the belt around the waist, since the Dark Ninja lacks the over-the-shoulder strap that the Red Ninjas have, that on the figure is connected to the belt.

The Dark Ninja is dressed mostly in a very dark gray ninja outfit. It's not quite black, as he does have some black details on him that are visibly darker than the rest of his costume. The uniform consists of a loose-fitting hood, shirt, and trousers, that because of their loose fit have been exceptionally well-detailed in the sculpt. The shirt is designed to look like it folds over to the right, and is held in place by the belt.

While most of the costume is dark gray, the Dark Ninja is wearing a black mask over the lower part of his face, which seems to merge with a sort of black undershirt. The belt around his waist is also black, as are the tightly wrapped gauntlets and boots around his lower arms and lower legs, into which the shirt sleeves and trouser legs look to have been tucked.

The Darn Ninja's feet are dark gray, and his footwear leaves the big toe separate from the others. Unlike the Red Ninja, the Dark Ninja is not wearing gloves on his hands, but rather, his hands are painted in a flesh tone. The only other place where this color appears is in the narrow space between his hood and his face mask, which also shows his eyes. The eyes have been very neatly painted, including the whites of the eyes, black pupils, and a black line over the eyes to represent eyelashes.

Completing the costume is a large, dark red dragon emblem on the front of the shirt. It definitely lends a bit of extra detail to the figure, not to mention something of an intimidation factor. I mean, if you're a ninja and you're going to boast about wearing a dragon on your shirt, you'd better have some serious skills to back it up, and I'm sure he does.

The Dark Ninja comes with a very impressive variety of equipment, most of it designed to cut something. He has two ninja swords, molded in black, as well as a scabbard to hold both of them. He has these claw-like devices that attach to his wrists, painted in black and silver, each of them having three long claws on them. Wolverine just called, and he wants his gimmick back...

The Dark Ninja also comes with claw-like devices that attach to his lower legs. These each have two long, sword-like claws extending from them, that are somewhat serrated along the way. One can imagine him wearing these and coming towards the ground -- or worse, an opponent -- whole soaring down on his glider. Definitely lends a new definition to the gymnastics term of "sticking the landing"...

Finally, there's the glider itself, a rather clever little device. It consists of a white, oval-shaped backpack with black and red detailing on it, and angular wings that are a dark red and black camouflage pattern. These are actually made from fabric. There are little clasps at the bottom to attach to the Dark Ninja's lower legs and handles on the upper framework for him to hold onto.

I doubt very much that something like this would work in real life, and even in the G.I. Joe universe, I think it'd take someone with ninja skills to get away with using it -- and one of the more determined bad guys to be crazy enough to. But, as an action figure accessory, it's really a very impressive item, and certainly well made.

As one would expect, the Dark Ninja is superbly articulated, and is fully poseable at the head, arms, elbows, wrists, mid-torso, legs, knees, and ankles -- which have a surprisingly wide range of motion, I might add. In a time when it seems a number of 4" scale action figure lines are cutting articulation across the board, it's nice to see most of the G.I. Joes keep up the good range of movement.

So, what's my final word? Ninjas are still extremely popular, and the design of this one, and his crimson counterparts which are also a part of the Retaliation line, is really excellent. They look -- like one would expect ninjas to look. Mysterious, anonymous, and dangerous. Certainly that describes the Dark Ninja, and whether you buy one as an individual, or decide that he'd make a good trooper division in your interpretation of the G.I. Joe universe and buy a number of them, I can promise that you'll be pleased with the Dark Ninja, a most impressive addition to the world of G.I. Joe!

The COBRA DARK NINJA from the G.I. JOE: RETALIATION line definitely has my highest recommendation!