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Revenge of the Imaginary Ninjas!

By: NLogan
In the 80s and 90s when I grew up there was a ninja madness that swept America. It permeated every level of entertainment and merchandising. I loved it.

It was probably kick started by the martial arts craze from the 60s and 70s (remember everybody was Kung Fu fighting back then!) thanks to Bruce Lee with a little night creep intelligence gathering mission in dark clothing in Enter the Dragon 1973 combined with that famous secret agent 007 Mr. James Bond in the film You Only Live Twice 1967 that had the world's most famous spy train as a ninja, then attack the secret SPECTRE base inside a volcano with a cadre of Tanaka's ninjas!

Another major influence was the 1975 novel Shogun that featured ninja assassins entering into a fortified castle to eliminate the gaijin (foreigner) samurai warrior. In 1980 it was made into a T.V. miniseries.

What really cemented Ninjas into the public consciousness were several movies starring Sho Kosugi as a Ninja in the early 80s.

Enter the Ninja 1981 the intro to the movie showed Sho Kosugi using various martial arts weapons (Katana sword, nunchaku, tonfa, yumi bow and arrow, kyoketsu-shogei, sais, blow darts, and naginata bladed pole with taiko drums and gongs playing in the background), half of which had nothing to do with historical ninjas.

The movie poster immortalized Sho Kosugi's flying side kick with swords drawn, and the image was reused over and over again on ninja merchandise all through the 80s. In fact Sho Kosugi's body movements have been the basis for many ninja poses in toys and media, he was also the model for Rikimaru the ninja in the game Tenchu: Stealth Assassins in 1998.

It had ninjas in black (Sho Kosugi), white, and even maroon (Sho played all three colors as a stunt man for the fight scenes). Kosugi played the villain who kidnaps the girl.

Revenge of the Ninja 1983 with Sho Kosugi this time starring as the hero instead of the villain. Really jump started the Ninja craze in America. It hit home especially for me as it was filmed in my home town. Now I didn't get to see these movies in theaters but watched them later on through video store rentals of their VHS tape releases.

It also started the recurring motif of ninjas laying out all of their weapons before a mission.

Sho Kosugi

A Ninja adversary in a demon mask.

Sho Kosugi with a kusarigama, a chain sickle weapon.

Sho Kosugi with a ninjato sword.

The mystic ninja contemplates.

There was even a battle versus stereotypical bad guys i.e. a pimp (not kidding, ostrich plume feather in his hat and everything), huge black dude jammin' to music, biker guy, and fat white guy in a sleeveless shirt. The battle happened in Liberty Park on the playground where I played as a kid!

By the mid to the late 1980s ninjas were everywhere and were taking the United States by storm.

At the grocery store we bought toy soldier ninjas.

Master of Ninja Hing Fat Toys 1980s

In various stock ninja poses (many modeled after Kosugi) armed with an assortment of ninja weaponry including bo staff, nunchaku, Yumi bow and arrow, katana swords, ninjato swords, kamas, shuriken throwing stars, tanto knives, and kusarigama chain sickle weapons.

I would get stickers from the gum ball machines as a prize mid-80s (notice the Kosugi kick).

You could also find these little gum ball machine charms in the 80s.

There were even skateboard designs of ninjas! (also Kosugi)

One of the first ninja toys that I can remember having was this ABC Toys Ninja 600 Motorcycle in 1984. The ninja fit his hood over his motorcycle helmet, safety first!

When I was very small my grandma would sometimes watch my twin brother and I as my mom worked. My parents were divorced and I distinctly remember grandma's apartment where we would watch television and grandma would make us meals while we waited for our mom to come get us. Grandma would sing us to sleep for nap time and there would always be the promise of magic candy waiting for us under our pillows if we slept.

Grandma had arthritis and used a wheelchair most of the time, but in her apartment she would use either a walker or a rolling tray table that she called the whisk table. All our meals were delivered to us by whisk table and I remember helping her watering the plants whisking new plants and the watering can around. We would also be whisked to her bed for a nap sitting on the bottom level as grandma pushed the cart. I was young enough to believe in magic, and to me grandma was magical. She sang us to sleep and when we woke up we reached under our pillows and would find magic candy that you could eat with the wrapper still on that dissolved and disappeared in your mouth. It was Botan Rice Candy and the wrapper was made of rice with the candy tasting slightly like oranges.

Each package had a sticker inside and I distinctly remember a ninja one we got.

We were puzzled by how the magic worked (mysterious candy appearing as we slept and disappearing wrappers) until we found the ninja sticker. Of course that explains it! Ninja magic!

On top of that my twin brother and I had ninja pajamas that had a ninja hood included. On the back of the pajamas were ninjas executing flying side kicks with weapons ready. My pajamas were black and my brother's were red. The sticker was us, the red and black ninjas! As an adult I still think it is magical how my grandmother used her ninja-like skills to sneak candy under our pillows while we slept with her bunched up arthritic hands.

We used our ninja pajamas as playsuits at home and ran around our house kicking and punching couch cushions and each other. I was the black ninja, my brother was the red ninja. It would be some time before we got a slightly more authentic ninja suit.

I had these kids' coloring and Choose Your Own Adventure books:

1987 Secret of the Ninja

There was even an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Ninja player class introduced in Oriental Adventures in 1985.

Ninja Ral Partha 1987

Even my favorite Marvel comic book character Wolverine of the X-Men was trained as a ninja in Japan by Ogun.

Wolverine also frequently battled a ninja group called the Hand that he first met (chronologically not including retcons) in the Wolverine limited mini-series by Frank Miller in 1982.

The Hand ninja clan were introduced in Daredevil in 1981 also done by Frank Miller and became recurring antagonists. One of my favorite covers featured Daredevil vs the Hand 1982.

Ogun Wolverine's mentor in Ninjutsu in a demon mask

Wolverine's former teacher Ogun captures Kitty Pryde and trains her as a master ninja merging his will and mind with hers in the Mini Series Kitty Pryde and Wolverine 1984-1985.

Ninjas frequently appeared on television in our favorite cartoons and shows as good and bad guys (usually the latter as stock baddies). Ninjas were also a main staple of toys especially for the cartoons, T.V. shows, and Movies.

Knight Rider 1982-1986 even the "Hoff" had to deal with ninjas in the 80s.

Magnum P.I. 1980-1988 Magnum helps a Samurai get back a priceless porcelain artifact stolen by a ninja.

The Greatest American Hero 1981-1983

Ralph has to save a kidnapped Japanese man from a gang of ninjas. Guest starring all of your favorites that are in just about every martial arts movie, Mako as the Master Ninja, Peter Kwong (Rain one of the three Storms in Big Trouble in Little China) as Tanaka, and Al Leong who is in every action movie of the 80s (well it seemed like it) as a ninja warrior.

Secret of the Ninja Remco 1984

Transformers 1984-1987 I kid you not there was even a giant robot ninja Nightbird.

Dragon Force Ninja Lanard Toys 1985

GUTS! Aikido Force Mattel 1986


Long Chop


M.U.S.C.L.E. Mattel 1986 - 1988 had several ninjas here are a few of them:

Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos 1986 there was briefly a cartoon and merchandise that I watched and had the figures and books for.

Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos Ninja Warrior Kenner 1986 one of my favorite ninja toys of all time.

Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos Ninja Master Kenner 1986

Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos Super Ninja Kenner 1986

Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos Ninja Serpent Kenner 1986

Chuck Norris the Caverns of Darkness Big Looker Storybook Marvel 1986

Chuck Norris Skyscraper Assault Big Looker Storybook Marvel 1986

Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos Marvel Coloring Book 1986

Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos Comic Book Star/Marvel 1987

Rambo the Force of Freedom 1986 a short lived cartoon spin off of the Rambo movies and had two ninjas.

White Dragon member of the Force of Freedom, twin brother of the evil Black Dragon.

Coleco action figure 1986

Black Dragon member of S.A.V.A.G.E

Coleco action figure 1986

Ninjor Evil Ninja Warrior Masters of the Universe 1987

Skeletor summoned him as one of the most evil beings of time and space to help him vanquish HE-MAN but this ninja with monster feet didn't help much. He appeared in the 6th wave after the completion of the Filmation animated series so he never appeared in HE-MAN and the Masters of the Universe cartoon.

He was equipped with a bow, katana sword, and nunchaku.

G.I.*JOE A Real American Hero figures by Hasbro 1982 - present

My favorite G.I.*JOE character was Snake Eyes who was a Commando trained by a ninja family and was also a master in 12 unarmed fighting systems.

Snake Eyes Commando version 1 1982

Snake Eyes Commando version 2 (my favorite) 1985

Snake Eyes Commando version 3 1989

Storm Shadow Cobra Ninja version 1 1984

From his file card:

"Storm Shadow can trace his family history through thirty generations of assassins. He can scale sheer walls with bare hands and feet, move with blinding speed, and endure unspeakable hardship and pain. Qualified expert: Long bow, Samuari sword; Throwing stars; Nunchaku sticks; 8th degree black belt in five martial arts."

"The great Ninja assassin clans disappeared a hundred years ago. If they were wiped out, nobody took the credit for it and if they're still around - who are they working for?"

Storm Shadow Ninja version 2 1988 (my favorite)

From his file card:

"Storm Shadow served with Snake-Eyes in Southeast Asia and both of them later studied the secret arts of Ninjutsu with Storm Shadow's family, a ninja clan that could trace its history back through thirty generations of assassins. Unhinged by the murder of his uncle and mentor, he infiltrated Cobra, seeking revenge but found vengeance to be a poor substitute for life. Now, in semi-retirement at a remote mountain hideaway, he occasionally takes on a special mission or two-if Snake-Eyes asks him nicely."
"A ninja is a silent wraith with a razor-edged blade in one hand and a scaling-grapple in the other. Ninjas can penetrate the most sophisticated defenses and leave without a trace. They are mystic swordsmen, spies, assassins, acrobats, quick-change artists and conjurors. Most people will tell you that ninjas don't exist. That's exactly what the ninjas want you to believe..."

Jinx Ninja Intelligence 1987

Firefly Cobra Saboteur 1984 (not really a ninja but looked like one and sabotage was a ninja mission)

G.I.JOE A Real American Hero comic book published by Marvel Comics from 1982-1994

G.I.*JOE A Real American Hero 1983-1987 was also a well loved cartoon series that had ninjas in the pilots, series, and movie with Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes, and Jinx.

Storm Shadow Cobra the Enemy member

Snake Eyes GI*JOE team member

Jinx GI*JOE team member

Trial of the Incredible Hulk 1989

The Hulk and Daredevil team up to fight the Kingpin Wilson Fisk.

The Simpsons 1989 - present Bart dressed as a ninja in the 1st season

Batman the Animated Series 1992-1995 even Batman fought ninjas.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 

TMNT were a phenomenon that swept up all marketing in the the late 1980s/early 1990s that all started with a Comic book by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 in black and white. It was an entirely different storyline than the one in the later animated cartoon series on television. It was bloody, dark, and grim and an homage to Frank Miller's style in the Marvel comic book Daredevil during the early 80s. In fact Daredevil is in the first issue and the writers pay tribute to him by imitating him with their ninja turtles who fight crime in New York City. The original comics were bloody in fact in their first battle the ninja turtles kill, wound, or drive off 15 members of a rival gang, the Purple Dragons. Splinter who is their mentor and who taught them Ninjutsu is modeled after Stick who trained Daredevil in the martial arts. The Shredder kills Splinter's owner (Splinter was originally always a rat) because his owner killed Shredder's brother during a love triangle where the brother was beating the woman to death. Forced to flee because of the killing Yoshi (Spinter's owner) comes to NY where he is later murdered by the Shredder. Living on the streets Splinter witnesses the origin of Daredevil when a radioactive canister comes off a truck swerving trying to avoid a blind man, and a young Matt Murdock dives in and saves the blind man only to be blinded himself by the canister (becoming Daredevil). The canister then breaks a fishbowl holding four pet turtles and rolls into the sewer. The radioactive ooze mutates the turtles into anthropomorphic turtles and Splinter from a rat to a humanized rat. He then trains the turtles in Ninjutsu that he learned from watching Yoshi and imitating him. Their first mission is to kill the Shredder who has employed ninja members of the Foot Clan (analogous to the Hand Ninja Clan that Daredevil fights frequently). The turtles kill the Foot Clan members and then over power the Shredder who they give the option of Seppuku (ritualized suicide) because he is defeated. Instead the treacherous Shredder tries to take out the turtles with him as he is dying by using a thermite grenade but he is knocked over the edge of the roof and destroyed in the explosion. "The Shredder is shredded".

Cartoon series 1987-1996

It really took off as a cartoon series cementing itself into popular culture with boardgames, lunchboxes, you name it.

Abandoned pet turtles mutated into human-sized anthropomorphic turtles by radioactive ooze. But this time toned way down with jokes and humor for children audiences. No longer are the turtles impaling people with their weapons or getting sliced up in battle. Leonardo with blue mask and katana swords, Michelangelo with orange mask and nunchaku, Rafael with red mask and sais, and Donatello with purple mask and bo staff.

Master Splinter as a rat was the turtles' teacher who was a human ninja and mutated into a human-sized rat/human hybrid. In this version Splinter and Yoshi are merged into the same character.

Their evil nemesis the Shredder

The Foot Clan (a spoof of Marvel's The Hand ninjas) now are robots so they could be frequently destroyed without upsetting parents or the cartoon censor board.

Playmate Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Toys 1988

Rafael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Donatello


The Shredder

Foot Soldiers of the Foot Clan

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
1990 movie

The turtles are still wise cracking shell heads and far less violent than their origins, and the Foot Clan are human again.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Video Game for the Nintendo 1989

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II the Arcade Game NES 1990

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III The Manhattan Project NES 1991

Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja 1988 arcade game ported to Nintendo

You were a coca cola drinking vigilante up against a horde of multicolored ninjas.

Shinobi (1989) a popular arcade game ported to various systems the most popular being Sega but this is the NES version I had. Another Kosugi kick.

Shadow of the Ninja (1990) another save the world from the evil threatening empire by using your ninja skills game.

Wrath of the Black Manta (1990) Ninja magic and flying on kites at its finest plus the ability to sneak up on enemies from behind and hold a knife to their throat. Another Kosugi kick.

My favorite Ninja game was Ninja Gaiden (1988) and it's two sequels
Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos and Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom

Mortal Kombat in the Arcade 1992 had three ninja-esque characters Sub-Zero, Scorpion, and secret character Reptile. It was a shockingly gory combat game that you could kill your opponent by decapitation, pulling out their spine, or several other brutal ways. Of course it was a huge hit with kids! FINISH HIM!

As a child oh how we wanted to be a ninjas. I did not fully understand what a ninja was and would have raised a dubious eyebrow if someone explained that ninjas were most prolific centuries ago (15th-17th century Japan) and no longer around and likely did not wear black suits and hoods but villager, farmer, or wandering monk clothing so as to blend into the populace. Rarely did they don masks and dark clothing (dark blue or gray) over chainmail armor to sneak into an enemy stronghold as their primary goals were not like the Samurai (a glorious death in battle for their master) but to survive at all costs and gather information as spies, and sew confusion as saboteurs lighting fires to ease their escape, and act as assassins. They would have rather walked into the front gate as traveling guests, monks, or artisans above suspicion. I clearly knew as a kid that there were examples of the shadow society all around in nearly every cartoon or T.V. show I watched as stock bad guys (it was easy for producers to reuse the same stunt men over and over if they had masks on). Ninjas gone hah! I knew better. You see as a kid I was caught up in the imaginary near superhuman skills of Ninjas as portrayed in the media and legend. Any fool could tell you a ninja could scale sheer walls, and disappear without a trace in front of your eyes.

So we donned our ninja pajamas and armed and equipped ourselves with the only weapons available to children.

Plastic katana swords came in multiple colors usually molded white or gray to imitate the rayskin handles with colored cotton ribbon to imitate the silk ito (braid) that wrapped the tsuka (handle) to form little diamond shapes along the handle, and gold or black tsuba (hand guards), kashira (handle cap), and korjiri (scabbard tip) that you could slide off.

We always searched through the rainbow of swords to find the black ones.

For Shuriken (throwing stars) we had various options. Some were purchased off the cheap rack of toys in the grocery store others were gotten from gumball machines. Some were the suction cup variety that you could throw and stick to windows, the sliding glass door, or the television (another Kosugi kick). Others had a safety ring of plastic that we immediately cut off upon arriving home.

This set was an officially licensed product of the 1985 film American Ninja and included a tanto knife with shuriken stars.

We also had plastic nunchaku.

Plastic Kama

I don't know what a Bakahtsugama is but apparently it is a variation of the standard Kusarigama the chain sickle commonly used by ninjas.

In addition to your standard shuriken throwing stars and throwing knives or darts you could also get these "thro" knives and stars on a watch band. Why? Because ninja tell time by the stars, sun, and moon and don't need some silly watch but still like to accessorize.

As we got older, my brother and I set out to become ninjas. But how? We did not know. Even if someone was teaching Ninjutsu or how to become master ninja assassins likely it would be illegal (learning to murder people/ assassination, espionage/spying, and sabotage) and a secret society that clearly would not let children join their ranks. So because this was before the internet we did what any self respecting person would do who was eager to learn more about a subject than could be found in their collected set of Encyclopedia Britanicas, we visited the library. We came away with these books about Ninjutsu or Ninpo as it is now known and checked out the library's whole section on the subject.

The Ninja and their Secret Fighting Art Stephen K. Hayes published by Tuttle 1981

Secrets of the Ninja Ashida Kim published by Paladin Press 1981

Ninja the Invisible Assassins Andrew Adams published by Black Belt Communications 1970

Ninjutsu the Art of Invisibility by Donn Draeger published by Yenbooks 1989

We brushed up on our ninja history, learned about their training and techniques, poured over the sections on their costume and weapons, and read up on their tactics, facts, and legends. Still where to find gear?

We regularly made a pilgrimage down to the local martial arts dojo to stare at the vast array of weapons and of course magazines which featured a ninja on just about every third cover. Although we never bought any magazines we perused them all.

We purchased, of course, every Sho Kosugi poster we could afford for our bedroom walls.

My favorites were this one with a sword and shuko claws and one of his flying side kick poses. The kanji (character writing) says Shinobi shortened form of Shinobi-no mono in the Japanese pronunciation and means hidden or invisible person, or Ren Zhe which sounds like jzin juoa or close to Ninja in the Chinese pronunciation. Shinobi is the historically correct name for ninja as the term ninja wasn't popularized until after WWII several centuries after the Shinobi had lived and died.

In the magazines were all kinds of order forms for weapons and gear (Score!) like these handy dandy Shuko climbing claws (that weren't so handy and hurt to use them the metal band digging into the back of your hands to even get a few feet off the deck). Also because it was the 80s you could get your Shinobi shozoku (ninja outfit) in camouflage. But instead of ordering we just bought stuff from behind the counter at the dojo. It was the 80s and any kid off the street could waltz in and buy lethal weapons. If they didn't have it, THEY would order it for you!

I got my first "real" ninja suit at around 12 years old which actually only consisted of a black (that quickly faded to a really dark gray after repeated washings) karate GI top, pants, tabi boots and a hood but it was better than my old pajamas.

At the time we couldn't afford a sword, or weren't daring enough to sneak one home.

But we bought lots of shuriken. I distinctly remember a giant shuriken like the Eagle deluxe in the ad but painted camouflage, we also had several of the dragons and yin and yangs, because well they looked cool to kids. We never got the dart board target for our throwing stars electing instead to aim at wooden fences and telephone poles. I do not recommend camouflage as we promptly lost that one in some bushes behind a fence (go figure) or throwing at drywall that completely embeds the star and unless you want a gaping hole where you dug it out it is now part of the wall.

Somehow we convinced my dad to buy blowguns.

We received the stern admonition to not shoot anything living unless we were prepared to eat it.

We also armed ourselves with balisong knives commonly referred to as butterfly knives. Because they were cool and showed up in a lot of martial arts movies even though they are Filipino in origin and have nothing to do with ninjas. We mastered spinning them anyway.

But we still didn't have swords, the ninja's primary weapon (in our eyes, it was actually probably poison or fire). One day while roaming the fields near our house we found some heavy gauge pipe. The length was perfect for a sword and the diameter was perfect for a handle. We proceeded to beat the underbrush with them and regularly carried them with us as weapons when pretending to be ninjas in the underbrush then stashing them before heading home. Then we got the idea to try to flatten them out to make an actual blade. We were vaguely aware that swords made in Japan were high carbon steel heated and folded over and over and then shaped. We didn't have a way to heat the metal (probably a good thing) so we just hammered the crap out of them over improvised anvils of parking blocks, flat stones, etc. Eventually a blade shape emerged. We bend the ends back and forth until they snapped to get the pointed ends we wanted. But because we were hammering one side more than the other to taper it down to a blade edge, the swords developed a pronounced curve more so than we desired. But we had no replacements or alternatives. We sharpened the improvised swords over stones and wrapped the handles in nylon rope to afford a grip. Finally we had swords! No sheaths but still, swords. My sword is visible in the picture below. My brother's is in the following picture of weapons.

We were now armed to the teeth with knives, shuriken throwing stars, swords, and a set of foam practice nunchaku (we usually left the blowguns behind as they were very long and cumbersome, and the darts too easy to lose in underbrush). We were dressed in our shinobi-shozoku (ninja outfits). It was the birth of the imaginary ninjas. We had to have names. My brother decided he was the White Shadow (even though he was dressed in really dark gray) because of his affinity for Storm Shadow his favorite GI*JOE character. We had some bandanas that we had purchased at the martial arts dojo and his was white with a dragon and shuriken on it. He folded it Karate Kid style or like a traditional Hachimaki Japanese style with dragon head visible and placed it over his ninja hood on his head. Since we were twins and I couldn't think of anything better I was Black Shadow and wrapped my black rising sun bandana around my head in a similar fashion. I was the YIN to his YANG or the IN to his YO pronounced on-myou in Japanese! The Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers were born! Pssst, if anyone can read the kanji on the above bandanas, I would love to know what they say. For those wondering the orange fist one is actually the arena mat from the Competition Center in the Karate Kid toy line.

Eventually we amassed an arsenal of junk stainless steel (not real folded high carbon steel) decoration only swords that looked better but probably would have fallen apart had we hit anything with them.

Surprisingly though our homemade swords held up well. Since we didn't have rolled up tatami mats to practice slicing through we came up with other targets for our homemade swords. They were sharp enough to cut through emptied two liter bottles of pop or milk jugs that we refilled with water. We would travel to the fields near our apartment and battle stinging nettle plants slicing and chopping our way across the field that was thick with them. They grew quite tall (taller than us) and bled white sap when cut. They fought back brushing our exposed hands with their fine needles on the undersides of their leaves producing some gnarly rashes. They had cocklebur allies that clung to our outfits with brutal spikes. If you look closely you can still see the green stains from our battles on the homemade swords. We also attacked cardboard box enemies with swords and shuriken throwing stars.

The Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers went on several missions. Our apartments were situated across the street from a scientific research development laboratory that dealt somehow with DNA. Along the curtilage of the science laboratory there was a creek running along their property line. We would regularly climb the fence drop into the creek side and bushwack to get to the fields, golf course, and riparian corridor along the river beyond. We also played guns and army men there with friends. For some reason however very few friends went with us on our ninja creeps we were usually the Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers alone against the world.  Soon however we realized that ninja outfits were quite hot during the summer in the underbrush and foliage of the field working up a sweat under the blistering sun fighting imaginary foes in the shape of plants.

The Black Shadow and White Shadow ninjas began to sneak out of their house at night while mom slept! Under the moon it was perfect for a ninja creep. We would silently open the sliding glass window to the balcony. We would then climb and shimmy down a few floors to the ground and immediately slink into the shadows near the bushes. Alert and aware watching for anyone that may have seen us. We would run along the tops of fences and carports, and time our crossings across the street when no cars were present and far from the street lights sticking to the shadows. Cautious at the sound of barking dogs we would slowly climb the chain link fence (lest the rattling noise betray our presence) and drop into the creek side. We roamed the deserted golf course under the light of the moon having crossed the creek using a tree with branches that arched over the water. We snuck from tree to tree and bush to bush. But there were no foes to fight. Bored the Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers threw rocks into the pond instead of our shuriken throwing stars into fence posts, fearing losing them at night (missed throws were hard enough to find during the day).

We made our way to the fields and rivers beyond battling the Stinging Nettle Samurai along the way. We watched the moon reflecting in the river as it passed by as the city slept. We recrossed the fields to the few buildings under construction and explored their vacant floors and peered into unfinished elevator shafts. We came to the back of the scientific research laboratory property on our way home and quickly realized here was the true proving grounds. We had scaled the back fence topped with barbed wire and dropped into the property when we were nearly caught by a real security patrol. Alerted by the sound of the night watchman's jingling keys we dove behind a curb and lay flat in the gutter. We waited until he passed by and then we melted behind the tires of a parked semi-truck trailer. From our hiding spot we realized that this place had actual security (as an adult I surmise it was because of the chain of evidence for DNA testing from crime scenes and rape kits). We could see cameras atop the buildings on the corners. This was it. Our mission was to infiltrate the evil science laboratory of SLRD or S------- Laboratories Research and Development where we imagined they used DNA to genetically modify people to become super-powered assassins and develop chemical weapons.

Scared off the first night by security we began our surveillance of the property from the creek bed and along their fences during subsequent night raids spaced out so mom wouldn't catch us. When we got home we made a map of the area as best we could from our limited vantage points and planned our mission. We had a standard route that I tried to outline in red lines along the map (sorry I couldn't make it bigger for the article). We crossed from our apartment, followed the course of the creek bed, sojourned across the golf course to the fields and river, then backtracked through the construction to the enemy stronghold. Carefully we scaled the barbwire topped fence and dropped into the property. We were careful to avoid the night watchman on his security patrol waiting until after he had returned to his guard shack booth at the gate entrance and was reading a book and eating his lunch. We crawled under semi-trailers lined up at the loading bays. We hugged the building and slid along the walls to be under the view and out of the watchful eye of the security cameras. Unexpectedly a door was opened by an employee looking for a smoking break. Apparently they were busy working on their evil schemes even in the dead of night. We were trapped.

We could not cross the well lit parking lot to get back home nor could we go back the way we came as the security guard would come out to do his sweep again hourly and it took painfully long to get where we were. We didn't dare whisper and lay silent and motionless on the ground in the harsh shadows of the semi-trailers from the yellowish security lighting. We didn't panic as we had honed our hide and seek skills during many night games of kick the can with the neighborhood children. When the coast was clear my brother pointed and we hurried to a large metal container of cardboard near an awning over the truck bay and shimmied up the pole and dropped over a parapet to the other side. We climbed an electrical box and shimmied up the wall in the corner that had an angle tight enough that we could span and climb up to a drain pipe coming out from a wall to a low roof and then ran across the flat rooftops hiding along the air conditioning units and fume hood vents (stupidly in retrospect, who knows what chemicals vented there?). The low roof abutted a higher roof that we were able to get up by boosting each other up to a rain gutter (lucky it held) then reaching down for the run, jump off the wall, and grab to pull up for the other brother. We crossed the roof and tried to figure out a way down to the ground as we were now about 30 feet off the deck. There was a large metal staircase that went up and over a wall then back down to an adjoining roof that seemed lower. We circled that roof until we saw a little roof lower down that covered some kind of vestibule and gripping the edge of the roof lowered our bodies down enough to drop to the lower roof. and then from there to an electrical box to jump to the grass. We ditched our weapons first far enough away to not land on them before the jump fearing getting stabbed as we landed on the lawn.

We then used the bushes to make it to the back of the sign out front of the building that was lit from the front but bathed in shadow from behind. Peering through the glass doors from the shadows we could see another security guard behind a desk and a row of television monitors presumably the security camera feeds. We melted further into the bushes and made our way back home. Another successful mission for the Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers! The next day we examined our battle wounds which consisted of stinging nettle rashes and scrapes along our bellies and legs from climbing up and bellying over the rain gutter to get on the roof.

We were way lucky that we were never caught. I can only imagine the repercussions if we had been seriously injured jumping around like fools or caught by security and turned over to police. Who would have laughed at two twelve year olds dressed like ninjas and armed to the teeth as they hauled us over to our parents to present us to them with our juvenile court date for criminal trespassing and carrying concealed and dangerous weapons along with the statutory curfew law for minors. My mom would have flipped her wig and whupped us good with an actual spanking on the bare bum, then called our dad so we would double down on punishment. I shudder to think of the possibilities. Grounded for life would have been a mercy compared to whatever my dad would have dreamt up as he screamed his head off with vein pounding in his forehead and spittle flying in our faces. Perhaps the thought of what would have happened if we had been caught dampened our resolve for further missions. Instead of actual ninja missions outside of the house we began drawing The Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers (at least an idealized form how we wished we looked instead of how we actually looked) in comic book form with the plan to make a comic book about our adventure. Of course we would have infiltrated the building unseen, taken out the numerous guards, and made away with the secret formula, while spreading destruction with sabotage in the wake of our escape. Sadly we never finished the book, only a few pages and they were not saved so no record exists of the Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers except our memories.

We rarely snuck out again until our later teenage years and that wasn't as ninjas but for girls. Still, I will always remember those night creeps as the Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers in the cool of the night, the swaying of the trees and bushes in the breeze, the sounds of crickets, shuffling footsteps and jingling keys, and looking into my masked brother's eyes knowing we were sharing an adventure. The buildings still exist and the ones under construction are finished however it is now a medical park and most of the fields are long gone covered by business buildings and apartments. I have driven by as an adult and remembered going over the fences and creeping across the rooftops and smiled at our foolishness with fondness.

My brother and I eventually got our black belts however not in Ninjutsu but Tae Kwon Do. I still have a love for martial arts and am working on another black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Who knows maybe the next generation of ninjas is already coming as my sons join me in training. These are my sons on different Halloweens. I am sure to keep a close watch on them as I know what I was capable of at their age.

For more awesome vintage ninja madness go check out Keith Rainville's awesome website:


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NLogan Posted on Sep 03, 2019 at 09:53 PM

@jkatz Ha ha ha thanks that made me laugh!

jkatz Posted on Sep 01, 2019 at 08:53 PM

This isn't an article.. this is a dang master's thesis on Ninjas in 80's pop culture.

Ravenloft Posted on Jan 13, 2019 at 10:57 AM

Few took ninja mania as far as my twin brother and I. Shadow Warrior Ninja Brothers! I am still Storm Shadow to his Snake Eyes. He has betrayed our ninja secrets in his article to you. You have been marked for death. Always the athletic and agile kids we would scale telepole poles, run on wooden fences, climb up on roofs of multiple story buildings, leap treacherous gaps, climb over razor and barbed wire and other dangerous stunts that as an adult can only make me cringe at the possible injuries we could have had. Astonishing to think I never broke any bones (ahem, that were mine anyway.) The old style metal, concrete and wooden playgrounds were our ninja training camps like in the ninja movies and we learned the very real consequences of any fall. Far from the so called ninja tv shows that have safety foam pits and water to break your falls that are on today. We were doing Parkour a solid decade before it had a name or a popular following. He failed to mention that we spray painted the ropes on the home-made swords so they would be stiff and not come unraveled ever. I have never seen ninja children running around with real weapons the way we did as kids, maybe there were some and they had good training to remain unseen the way we did or maybe we were the last or only ninjas- a recurring ninja theme that is highly inaccurate; as the Hollywood pop culture version of the ninja is still going strong despite all of the imaginary and historically inaccurate elements. Ninja are so ubiquitous that they have become an archtype for play or Halloween costumes joining such other archtypes as the astronaut, cowboy, soldier, knight, superhero or finally the ninja.

DirtyD79 Posted on Sep 21, 2017 at 06:59 AM

Me and my brother went through the ninja phase too. I remember when we were teenagers we got some swords and knives at this one flea market up the street from us. I also remember for Halloween in 5th grade I dressed up as a ninja. I also wanted to take some karate classes but my parents never got around to signing me up. Eventually I became more interested in cars and model building instead.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Sep 14, 2017 at 09:44 PM

Wow, I knew Ninjas were big business, but this article shows how vast their reach was. Wrath of The Black Manta was a comic book ad I couldn't escape back in the day. Wasn't there even a shopping spree contest tied to that game?

Also, I have to thank you for using your Ninja toy hunting skills to help me find a complete V2 Storm Shadow (my favorite Ninja) at RetroCon last year, he is proudly displayed in my retro room now.

NLogan Posted on Aug 24, 2017 at 09:28 PM

The kanji on the white dragon bandana says Ninja or at least part of it.

Mr Magic Posted on Aug 23, 2017 at 02:32 AM

It's movies like Revenge of the Ninja that make being a ninja sound like fun!

vkimo Posted on Aug 22, 2017 at 11:55 PM

I'm definitely in Ninja mode now. I remember Snake Eyes being your avatar for years on RetroJunk. In a way, you were very much like a Ninja, seldom seen but always lurking in the shadows.

NLogan Posted on Aug 22, 2017 at 03:03 PM

Kids across America became imaginary ninjas in their minds and snuck around wishing they had the martial arts prowess and abilities of true ninjas before the videogame craze took over and firmly rooted their butts to the couch. I am glad you were one of those kids.

Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 22, 2017 at 08:04 AM

I think the saturation of "ninja" in the late 80's was it's peak. Even I had a full on ninja outfit (as ordered from one of the many ninja magazines I had), including foam nun chucks, rubber throwing stars, and a sword. You couldn't escape it. Everyone wanted to be a ninja.

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