“Ask A Ninja”Evening @ El Rey, 12/5/2007

’askFollowing various comedic efforts, the musical trappings of Hard ’N Phirm and a KFC- and George Lucas-infused stand-up set by Patton Oswalt, the crowd packed into the El Rey Theatre last night – largely devoid of ninja garb – got down to business asking A Ninja various pressing questions. DF regales us now with the overview.

Background: For those not in the know, the “Ask a Ninja“ live experience is a performance phenomenon in which audience members ask a faux-ninja (broadcast live on-screen from an undisclosed locale) various wacky questions, and the ninja responds with some goof-assed remark or other that has no real relation to the actual Japanese art of ninjutsu. The tension between the seriousness of actual ninjutsu and the sheer absurdity of the audience and the faux-ninja’s playful responses creates a delicious comic irony. For those of you not fortunate enough to be at the El Rey for last night’s performance, here’s a taste:

Q. Hey, ninja, what’s your wife’s bra size?!?

In the history of Japan, a ninja (忍者) was someone specially trained in a variety of unorthodox arts of war. The methods used by ninja included assassination, espionage, and a variety of martial arts.

In the Japanese culture, they were usually trained for dangerous missions. Although their exact origins are still unknown, with some historians speculating about some Chinese origin or influence, it is known that they appeared in 14th century feudal Japan, and remained active from the Kamakura to the Edo period. Their roles may have included sabotage, espionage, scouting and assassination missions as a way to destabilize and cause social chaos in enemy territory or against an opposing ruler, perhaps in the service of their feudal rulers (daimyo, shogun), or an underground ninja organization waging guerilla warfare.

[Audience laughter.]

Q. All right, ninja, what does a ninja do to get laid!??!?!?

Ninja is the on’yomi reading of the two kanji (忍者) used to write shinobi-no-mono (忍の者), which is the native Japanese word for people who practice ninjutsu (忍術), sometimes erroneously transliterated as ninjitsu). The term shinobi (historically sino2bi2 written with the Man’yōgana (志能備)), has been traced as far back as the late 8th century when Heguri Uji no Iratsume wrote a poem to ÅŒtomo no Yakamochi. The underlying connotation of shinobi (忍, 忍), in Sino-Japanese means “to steal away” and–by extension–”to forbear,” hence its association with stealth and invisibility. Mono (者, likewise pronounced sha or ja) means “person.”

The word ninja became popular in the post-World War II culture. The nin of ninjutsu is the same as that in ninja, whereas jutsu (è¡“) means skill or art, so ninjutsu means “the skill of going unperceived” or “the art of stealth”; hence, ninja and shinobi-no-mono (as well as shinobi) may be translated as “one skilled in the art of stealth.” Similarly, the pre-war word ninjutsu-zukai means “one who uses the art of remaining unperceived.”

Other terms which may be used include oniwaban (お庭番 “one in the garden”), suppa, rappa, mitsumono, kusa (草 grass) and Iga-mono (“one from Iga”).

[More audience laughter.]

Q. Okay, you crazy old ninja, what kind of underwear you got on, boxers or briefs!?!?!?!?!

The ninja use of stealth tactics against better-armed enemy samurai does not mean that they were limited to espionage and undercover work: that is simply where their actions most notably differed from the more accepted tactics of samurai. Their weapons and tactics were partially derived from the need to conceal or defend themselves quickly from samurai, which can be seen from the similarities between many of their weapons and various sickles and threshing tools used at the time.

Ninjas as a group first began to be written about in 15th century feudal Japan as martial organizations predominately in the regions of Iga and Koga of central Japan, though the practice of guerrilla warfare and undercover espionage operations goes back much further.

At this time, the conflicts between the clans of daimyo that controlled small regions of land had established guerrilla warfare and assassination as a valuable alternative to frontal assault. Since Bushido, the Samurai Code, forbade such tactics as dishonorable, a daimyo could not expect his own troops to perform the tasks required; thus, he had to buy or broker the assistance of ninja to perform selective strikes, espionage, assassination, and infiltration of enemy strongholds.

There are a few people and groups of people regarded as having been potential historical ninja from approximately the same time period. It is rumored that some of the higher-ranking daimyos and shoguns were in fact ninja, and exploited their role as ninja-hunters to deflect suspicion and obscure their participation in the ’dishonorable’ ninja methods and training.

Though typically classified as assassins, many of the ninja were warriors in all senses. In Stephen K. Hayes’s book, Mystic Arts of the Ninja, Hattori Hanzo, one of the most well-known ninja, is depicted in armor similar to that of a samurai. Hayes also says that those who ended up recording the history of the ninja were typically those within positions of power in the military dictatorships, and that students of history should realize that the history of the ninja was kept by observers writing about their activities as seen from the outside.

Ninjutsu did not come into being as a specific well defined art in the first place, and many centuries passed before ninjutsu was established as an independent system of knowledge in its own right. Ninjutsu developed as a highly illegal counter culture to the ruling samurai elite, and for this reason alone, the origins of the art were shrouded by centuries of mystery, concealment, and deliberate confusion of history.”

A similar account is given by Hayes: “The predecessors of Japan’s ninja were so-called rebels favoring Buddhism who fled into the mountains near Kyoto as early as the 7th century A.D. to escape religious persecution and death at the hands of imperial forces.”

[Hysterical audience laughter erupts and continues as ninja leaves stage.]

*ninja responses provided by wikipedia