An epic movie but… were ninjas really like that?

What today we call “ninja” is something that is very different from the historiographic truth.

Note – This article has been asked by one of our Core Course practitioners on Patreon (see how to attend our home study classes here Learn Kung Fu online: a beginner-to-expert course).

The real Japanese feudal ninja (or better, “shinobi” 忍者), was:

  • A spy or a mercenary (not forcibly a killer, not forcibly an athlete nor an expert in combat)
  • A master in deception and stealth (read for example Stealth mobility)
  • More similar to a secret agent than to a warrior (devoted to espionage, sabotage, infiltration, murder and guerrilla warfare)
  • Not able to do impossible things like walk on walls like lizards (read also How to climb over a wall), jumping like frogs or other nonsense (present in the movie we are going to analyze)

A note by Master Kongling – To deepen this topic read Ninja (shinobi): who they were and how they acted.

In this discussion:

  • We will not go into the merits of the historical precision
  • We will not criticize the obvious narrative / choreographic exaggerations
  • We do not intend to promote training and (above all) teaching methods that are exasperated, unhealthy and inhuman (such as those present in Ninja Assassin)

Said this, we continue the cinematic path we have started (read for example 4 teachings from the movie Ip Man) with a movie that, despite the exaggerations, the splatter and the stereotypes, allows us to glimpse something very interesting.

Ninja Assassin’s teachings

1) Being prepared to die

“One day death will come for us all.”

When the protagonist (Raizo) says this phrase, it is to cut a discussion with a curious cleaning lady but this gives the occasion to stress the fact that the ninjas were ready to die at any moment.


The point is that when we are in a situation where our life is truly at risk, the thought of death is totally useless and worst, it distracts us, it takes us away from our chances of survival.

In an extreme situation (as Wu-zi says):

  • The fact of being prepared to die can allow you to survive
  • If you put the fear for your life above all, you will probably die
  • Once your mind accepts that you will surely die, you are free to use all of your resources without hesitations; this may allow you to survive

Actually, this is also something that philosophically makes sense even in everyday life:

  • The life of those who constantly fear that it will end is an unbroken path of terror
  • On the other hand, each day of the life of someone who accepts death (and is prepared for it) is an incredible gift

2) The mind must dominate the body

“The body must obey the will. Hunger and thirst, even the blood in your veins, are the body’s weaknesses.”

When Lord Ozunu teaches the children, he wants to stress the primacy of the mind over the body:

  • It must not be the state of our body that dictates our mood
  • It must not be the needs of our body to force our choices

A note by Master Kongling – This teaching can be enlarged to the fact that even if it is impossible to control what happens outside of our mind, we can and we must learn to consciously manage the way we interpret what our senses perceive (read also Fighting and mind control: the anchors). This capability is not something that can be done overnight, it is an attitude that must be built gradually, through concentration and self-discipline (read also Discipline is the key to freedom).

3) In combat, the mind must be free

“In combat, you face the enemy without doubt, pity or remorse. To survive, you must learn to fear nothing at all.”

For a warrior, the best choice is always to avoid any real combat (read The 6 types of martial clash) but when it comes the moment to fight between life and death (read also The 6DKF’s diagram about the use of violence), when all the other options are gone (read Personal defense: the S.A.F.E. method):

This is not because we want to be detached and therefore crueler but simply to be able to access all of our resources and take advantage of every chance to save our lives.

4) Hate your weakness

“Pain breeds weakness. Remember, suffering exists only because weakness exists. You must hate all weakness. Hate it in others but most of all hate it in yourself”

In one of the most violent scenes of the movie, Lord Ozunu punishes the young Raizo reciting this phrase that can be interpreted in many ways:

  • The wrong one is to hate who is weak
  • The right way is to hate weakness due to mental laziness (lack of discipline, concentration, precision, etc.)

In martial arts terms, this is true as for a student as for his master:

  • If the student yields to boredom, to distraction, to superficiality, to bad habits, to the useless complaints, to fake fatigue (etc.) what will his training ever lead to?
  • If the teacher overlooks the aforementioned shortcomings of his students, what will his teaching lead to?

Staying away from extremes, although it is difficult to accept, if a teacher is more severe it is because he cares a lot about the success of his students (read also Recognize a good / bad master: 5 characteristics).

A note by Master Kongling – I remember one of my Chinese masters who said to me: “with the other students I cannot use the stick and for a long time I have not held it during a lesson but with you this is fine…” – After the initial period, he started to show me the things only once and if I was wrong, even only the first time, he hit me (partly also because he knew I was conditioned, partly because he knew exactly how to hurt without doing harm). At the time I did not understand the meaning of this severity, also because it seemed to me that I did not get along so badly (it seemed to me like a punishment I didn’t deserve); the point is that he demanded maximum concentration because he knew that I could give it to him, or rather, because he knew that this was an (the most) important goal: work on the focus span. In other words, he cared a lot about the quality of my preparation. Another of my masters, on the other hand, had a body full of small scars: they were all blows inflicted by his father on every mistake he made (which is why he ran away from home as soon as he could). Although he did not approve the method (as of course, I also do not), he explained to me that what leaves no trace can be forgotten, what remains is instead an imperishable memory of the superficiality shown. As his father intended it, it was he himself, with his disrespectful behavior (superficiality) that forced him to mark his body. He told me that in his father’s mentality, some minor injuries were nothing compared to what could happen during a real martial clash.

5) The application of aloe vera on the open wounds

After a violent punishment of Raizo by Lord Ozunu (he cuts the skin of his feet with a whip), a little girl, during the night, applies a mysterious transparent medicative cream soothing his pain.

The ancient ninjas were experts on the use of herbs / plants and as it happens in the movie, they well knew that aloe vera is a good remedy for open wounds:

  • It has been proved that it helps wound healing (small cuts, abrasions, skin irritations, and mild burns)
  • It contains collagen, an essential protein that promotes wound healing
  • It helps to reduce inflammation, prevent ulcers, and enhance skin integrity

To apply a thin layer of aloe vera gel to the wounded area (or dress the wound in a bandage soaked in aloe vera gel) is a functional remedy.

2 other teachings from Ninja Assassin

6) Exploit the combat scenario’s elements

In the training scene with the bokken (where Raizo is a teenager), his opponent uses the burning candles hanging from the ceiling to distract him.

In a self-defense situation (again, where we are forced to fight), we teach our students to:

  • Think at all the elements of the scenario as neutral, nothing is against us or in our favor
  • Exploit every passive (eg. a branch of a tree) or active (eg. the arm of our aggressor) element of the scenario at our advantage
  • Transform everything in an attacking (eg. improvised weapons, read Improper weapons in a real situation) or defensive tool and use them as if they were part of our body

7) Dedicate specific training for each combat capability

“For an entire year, you shall live without one of your senses, beginning with the sense you rely on the most: your sight.”

In another training scene, Raizo spars with blindfolded eyes:

  • If on one side an entire year without one sense could be too extreme (we would risk losing part of its combat functionality)
  • On the other side, periodical sessions with a selective deprivation of one or more senses (or better, combat capabilities) can be incredibly useful

A note by Master Kongling – In the particular case of sight, the benefits are endless, we can have improvements in terms of: senses connection, hearing, spatial intelligence (read The most important skill in combat), spatial memory, balance, concentration, proprioception, combat-related anatomy, unpredictability (we learn to do not look at our targets), touch and even smell (at a more advanced level).

As the advanced practitioners of the Core Course know, in our training method (once reached a certain skill level) is extremely common to:

A note by Master Kongling – We do not do this because we are fanatics of martial arts movies but because this is the only way to cultivate the excellence of every single element. Anyway, to train the single is not enough, after each cycle, we exercise to make the ensemble able to work harmonically together. What must be clear is that the primary goal is not to become able to prevail in absurdly disadvantaged situations but to act better in the normal ones.

Final notes

A few conclusive thoughts:

  • There should be no need to stress that this is an action movie, most of its contents are purely fantasies (magic blows, regeneration capabilities, super speed movements, etc.) but (unfortunately) it remains one of the best recent ninja movies
  • Someone could criticize that we are using such a film for teaching purposes, however, the fact of wandering in the method of transmission of the notions serves to make them less heavy and to build valuable motivation (read Motivation: from passion to self-discipline)
  • It is very important to learn to distinguish value in the midst of what is apparently worthless; all are able to express generic judgments, few know how to distinguish, in detail, the correct parts from the wrong ones (as Kung Fu practitioners we must learn to grasp teaching from any experience)

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Reply in the comments and share your experience:

  • What is your favorite movie about ninjas?

Author: Master Kongling

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