Ninjutsu, the art of the ninja, is an ancient, closely guarded tradition of stealth, martial arts and assassination that is only taught to the most skilled of Japanese warriors… and pretty much any white dude who happens to be in the neighbourhood. Seriously, it’s like ninjas have their own version of Affirmative Action just for white guys, and thus several Euro-Americans have managed to snag honorary ninja degrees when they had no business doing so. Here are 10 of ’em.
1) Joe Armstrong, American Ninja
The bad news is that Private Joe Armstrong has amnesia; the good news is that he still remembers an impressive amount of ninja skills. It seems that when Joe was just a baby, he was raised by one of those kindly ninja who like to adopt white infants and who taught him the arts of ninjutsu until a bomb separated the two and wrecked Joe’s memory. As a soldier, Joe saves his base commander’s daughter from a ninja attack, and then stops a dude from stealing and selling U.S. military weapons, and who also happens to run an evil ninja training academy or something. But Joe was hardly the only American Ninja…
2) Sean Davidson, American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt
A new American Ninja was introduced in the third movie, raising many questions. Did Joe Armstrong pass down the title? Did he die? Is “American Ninja” an elected position? Apparently, Sean goes to Japan to receive ninja training — which he gets with disturbing ease — to avenge his dad’s murder (like you do). When he wins a martial arts tournament, a bad guy injects him with some germ warfare-type disease he’s trying out, and Sean has to 1) stop the dude, 3) survive his army of genetically modified ninjas and 3) survive the disease. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but he uses ninja powers to do all three things.
3) Joe Kastle, American Ninja V
While Joe and Sean would team up in American Ninja IV: The Annihilation, American Ninja V: Not Good Enough for a Subtitle started from scratch with Joe Kastle (who was played by the same guy who played Sean Davidson, for maximum confusion). Joe is an American Ninja who doesn’t do anything particularly ninja-like, although he does teach a kid in a very Karate Kid-esque fashion, and the kid dresses like a ninja sometimes, so maybe that counts? My favourite thing about this movie is this line from its Wikipedia entry, in which someone felt compelled to note: “Joe in addition to being the American Ninja also owns a boat.”
4) Cole, Enter the Ninja
The awesomely mustachioed Cole is the “White Ninja” in this 1981 movie, and he helpfully wears an all-white ninja costume so people know it. Cole had to face the prejudice of his fellow student Hasegawa as a ninja cadet, one of those backwards guys who think only Japanese people should be ninjas. Their rivalry comes to a head years later when Cole visits a friend and his wife on their farm in the Philippines, where an evil tycoon wants the land for the oil reserve underneath. Cole stops his goons, so who does the tycoon hire to kill Cole? None other than Hasegawa. What are the odds?!
5) Christie, Ninja III: The Domination
Enter the Ninja was followed by Revenge of the Ninja, which had the gall to star Japanese actor Sho Kosugi as a Japanese ninja, but things got back on track in Ninja III: The Domination, when… uh… a female aerobics instructor gets possessed by the spirit of an evil ninja (the evil ninja was in America, doing evil ninja things, got wounded, and Christie tried to help him as he died, if that makes you feel any better). Anyways, the ninja-filled Christie begins a mission to kill everyone who killed the ninja — which turns out to be a surprising number of people — until Sho Kosugi, playing a completely different ninja from Revenge of the Ninja, has to step in.
6) Snake Eyes, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
Snake Eyes — real name classified — has had several origins in the many incarnations of G.I. Joe, but they pretty much all end up with him being a white guy who gets himself some serious ninja training, either before or after his face is disfigured and vocal chords destroyed in an attack. In the Marvel comics, he just heads to Japan after his accident and enrolls in ninja school, but in the movie, he’s a homeless white kid who breaks into a dojo, and has a knockdown, drag-out fight with an equally young Storm Shadow, which impresses the Hard Master (which is an incredibly unfortunate name for any teacher at an all-boys school of any sort). At any rate, despite his ninja skills, Snake Eyes stays true to his American roots by being just as comfortable with a gun as he is with a katana.
7) Nicholas Linnear, The Ninja Cycle
The star of Eric Lustbader’s six-book “Ninja Cycle” series, Nicholas Linner is not totally Causasian, but actually a Chinese-American; since he ends up being a ninja when neither country has anything to do with the Japanese art of ninjutsu, I’m making a small exception. Linnear is a follower of the aka I ninjutsu — or “red” ninjutsu, a.k.a. “good” ninjutsu. His nemesis, cousin Saigo, is a kuji/black/evil ninja who hates the hell out of Nicholas for beating him in a duel as kids. The first book, simply titled The Ninja, features Nicholas as he tries to protect his new girlfriend’s dad from an assassin who of course turns out to be Saigo. But in later books, things apparently take a dark turn when Saigo rapes both Nicholas’ girlfriend and Nicholas and then kills the girlfriend. Yikes.
8) Casey Bowman, Ninja
Much like Snake Eyes — ok, exactly like Snake Eyes — Casey Bowman, the star of 2009’s Ninja, is adopted by a ninja clan at a young age, becomes really good at it, and annoys the hell out of Masazuka, the Japanese former top pupil. Eventually, Masazuka becomes a highly paid assassin, kills the dojo’s sensei, and tries to get a chest containing a ancient ninja treasure, but Casey manages to spirit it away to New York first. There, Scott is framed for murder, the sensei’s daughter is captured, a police station is infiltrated and ninja are fought — all standard ninja operating procedure, at least until the daughter is poisoned and Casey realises his katana has an antidote hidden inside it because “katana can heal” or some nonsense. Incidentally, Casey is played by Scott Adkins, who was also the mouthless Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, so… gross.
9) Frank Dux, Bloodsport
Trained by a Japanese master of ninjutsu, Frank Dux enters the Kumite martial arts tournament in Hong Kong. Despite being trained by a master of ninjutsu, Frank uses almost no ninjutsu in any of his fights, instead using very generic martial arts with perhaps a slight preference for kickboxing. And during the training montage (above) with his ninja master, the master doesn’t teach him any ninja movies either — just more basic martial arts, how to serve tea blindfolded, and forcing him to endure some mild torture. Seriously, the only thing even slightly ninja-like about any of this is that people say it’s ninjutsu, even when it clearly isn’t. Interestingly, Bloodsport is actually based on a real book by a real Frank Dux who claims to be a real ninja himself. Shockingly, Dux’s tale seems to be complete bullshit.
10) John Peter McAllister, Master Ninja
Finding himself at loose ends and entranced by the tranquility of post-war Japan (?), John Peter McAllister stuck around after fighting in World War II and ended up as “the first Occidental-American to ever achieve the status of the ninja.” He returns to America in the ’80s to look for the daughter he suddenly discovers he has, gets chased by a ninja who is really upset he left Japan (played by Sho Kosugi), and meets Max, a moron with a hamster and a van, whom McAllister teaches the ways of the ninja while they travel from small town to small town, looking for John’s daughter and getting into adventures. (For the record, Max is played by Timothy Van Patton, who would go on to be an Emmy-winning HBO TV director of Deadwood, Game of Thrones and more, which never fails to blow my mind.) This was actually part of a short-lived TV series called The Master, which was edited into a few incomprehensible movies dubbed Master Ninja, two of which ended up on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. I used the MST3K version because MST3K rules.