Fact: There is nothing that cannot be improved by ninjas. This is one of the few truths one learns in kindergarten and takes with him to the grave. Ninjas are everywhere and nowhere. Ninjas can, and will, happen to anyone at any time. We all know this thanks to a healthy diet that starts by sitting in front of Saturday morning cartoons and ends, quite logically, with Ninja Assassin, the latest collaboration between the Wachowski brothers and V for Vendetta director James McTiegue. Who among us, (“us” being anyone who would actually read a list of Ten Great Ninja Movies) hasn’t staged imaginary ninja sieges using action figures? Who among us didn’t grow up on a regimen of samurais, assassins, elite Special Forces, and, of course, ninjas? I submit there are none.
Ninja Assassin is one answer to what ran through all of our heads watching Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow clash in G.I. Joe, or seeing Sub-Zero and Scorpion stomp faces in Mortal Kombat, or even seeing three dorky little white kids try to man up in 3 Ninjas: These ninjas are weak! More blood, death, and shurikens, please! We all secretly wanted to pick and choose elements from our favorite martial-arts films and combine them into one hell of a lethal, no-holds-barred killing machine of a movie. That’s precisely what McTiegue did with his blood-drenched Ninja Assassin; drawing inspiration from a treasure trove of films while also paving a road of its own with the chopped up bodies of countless souls who felt it wise to question the mettle of a true ninja. If I had to cherry-pick a list of my own ninja films for inspiration, it would look a little something like this:
10. Shogun Assassin
No compilation of cinema’s greatest katana-equipped death-dealers is complete without the inclusion of Shogun Assassin, a movie that rightfully boasts “It’s impossible to keep a body count!” and is itself already a compilation of highlights from the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films. Sure, our hero isn’t an actual ninja (though he does kill quite a few), but he is an assassin who wanders Japan pushing his son in a cart when not slitting the throats of every murderous sonofabitch that comes between him and the man responsible for his wife’s death. Gotta love a movie that not only features a scene in which someone describes the sound it makes when air rushes out of an artery but has a sequel titled Baby Cart in Peril.
9. Shinobi No Mono
While it surely doesn’t conform to the hyper-energetic, red-soaked antics of Ninja Assassin, the latter arguably would not exist without the former. Though it wasn’t the first film to feature black-clad masters of the shadows, Shinobi No Mono essentially set the bar for other ninja films. It may not feature any heads getting bisected by a curved blade, but it’s an almost meditative look at the ways, means and methods of the ninja.
8. Revenge of the Ninja
There are a lot of words often associated with ninja movies, though most of them have to do with the stealthy side of things. However, the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Revenge of the Ninja is slaughter. Not a handful of quick, clever deaths, but outright ninja genocide set in the backdrop of a drug war. Ah, drug wars and ninjas… weren’t the ’80s awesome?
7. Kill Bill
Purists may balk at how many films Quentin Tarantino has drawn his own inspiration from (mainly because most of Kill Bill‘s fans are oblivious to the many hat tips it makes), but at the end of the day I can think of no greater love letter to the high mortality rate found in martial-arts cinema than Kill Bill. Tarantino struck a perfect balance between reinvention and celebration, and anyone who isn’t in love with Uma Thurman after she melts through an entire gang of sword-wielding Yakuza is dead inside.
Nobody does the white ninja better than Michael Dudikoff in American Ninja (and its four sequels). I’d personally rather ninjas stay in Asia, but if we’re going to import them over and call them our own, who better to do it than the ’80s B-movie powerhouse that was the Cannon Group? While the movie is a blast in its own right, nothing tops the American Ninja poster, which not only showcases a ninja losing a sword fight to an American soldier in front of a giant American flag but sports the now-politically incorrect tagline “The deadliest art of the Orient is now in the hands of an American.”
Takashi Miike‘s IZO is a must-see because of how absolutely batshit insane it is. It’s about an assassin in feudal Japan that gets crucified by a rival Shogun, but instead of dying, his rage-driven spirit tears apart the space-time continuum, launching Izo into the future — though not before encountering the personification of Mother Nature, having sex with her, and then killing her. It’s brilliant madness, the likes of which can only be delivered by Miike, and features a body count higher than I have numbers for.
Goemon may be too recent of a film to have garnered a die-hard following yet, but there is little doubt it soon will as Kazuaki Kiriya has delivered one of the best-looking ninja fantasy films ever made. Many attempt it, but few actually accomplish making a “live-action anime” — yet that is precisely what Goemon is: a movie in love with making ninjas look like superheroes … except, ya know, superheroes who kill without remorse.
It may seem like a joke to include Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles among films that practically drown in all of the blood they shed, but there is no comic relief to be found here. TMNT may not be as ruthlessly violent as its brethren, but it deserves respect for being the childhood gateway drug to bigger and better ninja highs.
While this list has jumped across cultures and time periods, it’s nice to revert back to a classic ninja story set in ancient Japan. Plus, Azumi features the rare breed that is the female ninja, a lethal femme who survives the Thunderdome-esque logic of the film’s training sequence (10 ninja enter, 5 ninja leave) before going on to raise bloody, revenge-seeking hell across the land.
1. Ninja Scroll
As much as I love each of the films on this list, if you put a katana to my head and forced me to pick a favorite, it would have to be Ninja Scroll. I distinctly remember the first time I saw a demon’s head slide slowly down a giant sword, stuttering at first with the friction of bone meeting blade before enough blood could lubricate the process and thinking, Well, that’s the first time an animated movie has ever made me cringe. Yet such is the draw of Ninja Scroll, which leverages all of the freedoms inherent to anime to create one of the most memorable, bloodthirsty, purely mercenary ninjas ever to silently grace the screen.