“In this slick exploitation, martial arts fantasy from schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, an evil ninja is killed off in a sandtrap on a golf course in Phoenix -- the police riddle him with bullets, foolishly thinking that is the end of it. But as he is dying, the ninja throws a smoke bomb and, hidden by the dark cloud, he crawls into a phone-company van driven by the acrobatic Christie (Lucinda Dickey of Breakin'). As he dies there, his soul possesses her body, much to the consternation of her boyfriend, Secord (Jordan Bennett). Christie periodically uses exotic Eastern skills to slaughter the evil ninja's foes until good ninja Yamada (Sho Kosugi) comes to her rescue.” ~ AllMovie Guide
When trying to decide just which of the countless motion pictures out there is most representative of the decade that was the 1980s, you have to give Ninja III : The Domination its just consideration. First off, the movie has the word 'ninja' right there in the title. I assure you, there are few things that say 80s more than ninjas. In fact, the ninja craze during the 80s was so omnipresent that, even though the town we lived in could only charitably be called mid-sized, I still had a good friend in high school who used to wear those two-toed ninja boots out in public. Now, I’m 99.9% positive my friend was not actually a ninja, but I suppose one can never be entirely sure since ninjas are known to be pretty sneaky.
Well, they're sneaky most of the time, anyway. In Ninja III : The Domination, however, the film opens with an extended sequence in which a lone mascara-wearing ninja shows up in broad daylight and assaults a public golf course. Trust me, it's even more perfect than it sounds. Before it's all over, the evil martial artist has used his awesome arsenal of ninjatos, shurikens, and fukiyas to lay waste to some preppies, knock off over thirty policeman, and kill a helicopter. Yes, you heard me, a ninja takes down a helicopter which, naturally, explodes for no other discernable reason than this a Golan Globus production. Did I forget to mention that? Is it even possible to get more 80s than Golan Globus era Cannon Films, the same folks who introduced the world to such enduring classics as Invasion USA and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo?
Speaking of which, the main star of Ninja III : The Domination, besides the inevitable Sho Kosugi, is none other than Breakin's own Lucinda Dickey. And once her character is introduced, the movie really goes into 80s overload. How so? Well, let's tick off a few points. As in Flashdance, she's a young woman working a "man's job" as a lineman (ding), but what she really wants to do is become a full-time aerobics instructor (ding). So, right after being possessed (ding) by the spirit of the evil ninja, she returns to her flat full of Patrick Nagel art (ding), dons her tights and leg warmers (ding), and preps herself for class by playing an arcade game (ding), one that later shoots lasers out of its screen (ding ding ding). I know, right? I don't think VH-1's I Love The 80s had that much concentrated 80s in it.
Let's not kid ourselves, though. Despite all of that 80s goodness, its the ninjas that are still the main draw for this movie. Now, why exactly ninjas became such a big deal in the 1980s isn't precisely clear. After all, martial arts as a form of entertainment had been around a long time before that. According to the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Chinese Culture, "The genre of martial arts films has cultural origins in an earlier tradition of 'knights errant' novels, opera and street performance, and was represented in the earliest days of Chinese cinema by such films as Burning of Red Lotus Monastery (1928). However... the martial arts genre came into prominence with the explosion of films produced in Hong Kong during the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout these two decades, major studios, most notably the Shaw Brothers studios, fed a growing kung-fu craze with classic films such as The Drunken Master and Enter the Dragon, launching the careers of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, David Chiang and international superstar Bruce Lee."
As popular as martial arts films were overseas during the 60s and 70s, though, in the States they were still considered primarily B-movie fodder (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you), earning for themselves the derisive term of chop-socky films. Bruce Lee managed to become something of a breakout star in America, but everyone else pretty much stayed confined to grindhouses and drive-ins. That all changed in the 1980s, however, when the Sho Kosugi vehicle Enter The Ninja hit movie screens and something about the secretive warriors struck a chord with the general public. Soon, ninjas could be found just about everywhere, in movies fighting Chuck Norris, in comics tangling with Daredevil, in cartoons helping out G. I. Joe or training turtles; you name it, they were there. For a group that was supposed to stay hidden in the shadows, ninjas were fairly ubiquitous throughout the decade.
Well, at least Hollywood’s version of them were at any rate. As you might imagine, real life ninjas were nothing like the superhuman beings we saw in films such as Ninja III : The Domination. Call me a skeptic, but I have my doubts that even the most skilled of ninjas could actually lift a golf cart into the air or crush a pool ball. Still, by all accounts, they were really good at the things they could do. As described by Stephen Turnbull in his book, Ninja AD 1460-1650, ninja as a job description first popped up around the mid-15th century, where such trained individuals were employed by warlords to carry out acts of espionage, intelligence gathering, and assassination, the kind of work that your typical samurai wouldn’t touch because it conflicted with his knight-like moral code.
It’s that last point which author Joel Levy, in his book Ninja: The Shadow Warrior, posits is where the appeal of the Hollywood ninja actually lies. He writes,
“If the ninja skeptics are correct and the ninja as they are generally understood today did not really exist, how can we account for the evolution of this cultural archetype, its endurance, and its abiding popularity? One explanation is that the ninja should be viewed as a manifestation of an even older and more universal archetype: the trickster. The trickster is a form of cultural hero found in the myths, legends, and folklore of every society and culture in history and around the world. He uses tricks and ruses to outwit the strong and the powerful—the establishment—and to assert the power of the individual. Often he acts in decidedly non-heroic fashion to accomplish these ends: he is not a hero in the moral or virtuous sense… The use of shinobi techniques by ninja characters and their forebears (such as Prince Yamato) is a way of challenging and subverting the traditional Japanese virtues such as manliness, open combat, force of arms and death before dishonor. By contrast with these virtues, we see ninja characters dressing as women, using stealth to secretly infiltrate strongholds, killing from the shadows, pretending to be other people, using poisons, etc… In summary, perhaps it is the correspondence between the ninja and the trickster archetype that accounts for his cultural resonance, his origin, and his enduring popularity.”
Now, personally, I think Mr. Levy overlooks the simple delight the American psyche takes in watching a single individual, ninja or otherwise, open a can of whup-ass on hundreds of adversaries at one time, a concept that 80s action movies capitalized on in spades. But, for the sake of argument, let’s play along with the trickster angle and assume that it is indeed one of the (possibly unconscious) reasons folks in the 1980s liked ninjas so much. If that’s true, then tricksters of all types should be equally appealing, right? Well, it turns out that’s just the argument that arose when Religion News Service interviewed post-modern theologian (their description) Peter Rollins. Mr. Rollins stated,
“Tricksters are revolutionary figures that challenge the natural order. They poke holes in what everyone takes for granted and fight systems that oppress. They work within a given religious or political system, but they wrestle with it, challenge it and transform it. In Jesus, we see a trickster figure, one who respects the beliefs and traditions of real people, yet also questions them, challenges them and subverts them for the sake of political and religious transformation. Consider the example of Jesus supplementing the greatest commandment with a description of a second commandment that is just like the first, namely to love ones neighbor. Here we see that Jesus respects the common belief of the day—the existence of God and the need to love God—but also ruptures it by saying that one knows one loves God when one loves ones neighbors. This is not some atheistic critique of belief in which a person says, ‘forget God, love people.’ It represents a type of working from within.”
If he had stopped right there, Rollins would probably have been okay. His notion that Jesus and his followers were tricksters in the sense that they were both part of the system, as well as a transformative element within it, matches up fairly well with the description of early Christians found in the document knowns as The Epistle to Diognetes, c. AD 130…
“They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonored and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word -- what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world.”
So, yes, if we accept the above definitions of a trickster, Rollins is basically correct in his assumption that there appears to have been something of a trickster element to Christianity from the very beginning, though obviously not one that embraced any of the immoral methods like those Levy attributed to the ninjas. Sadly though, Rollins doesn’t stop there. He goes on in his book, The Divine Magician, to reach the tired and completely predictable for our times conclusion that in order to maintain the effectiveness of its trickster elements, modern Christianity should abandon all of its organized systems because, well… those systems are old and they hurt peoples’ feelings and we’re all just more enlightened now anyway, so there.
I think most ninjas would disagree with Rollins, however. You see, if ninjas are tricksters, one of the reasons they are so effective at it is precisely because of the organized systems which allowed them to develop the skills necessary to do the job. We see this in Ninja III: The Domination when the obligatory flashbacks reveal that both the good and evil ninja had spent years honing their craft together at the same temple. At some point, though, the evil ninja turned his back on his teachers and abandoned their ways. Now, if Rollins’ philosophy is correct, the evil ninja should have gone on to become a more evolved version of himself, an even better ninja than before because he was no longer constrained by ritual or organization. Instead, even though he maintains his martial skill level, the evil ninja becomes a yuppie-killing madman. Obviously, something went wrong.
As noted in Adam Hsu’s The Sword Polisher's Record: The Way of Kung-Fu, the Chinese define all exercise, including the martial arts, by the term ‘yun dong,’ which can roughly be translated as ‘to apply action.’ Under this concept, for any exercise to reap its fullest expression, it must contain both an internal component (yun) as well as an external one (dong). And, as Hsu puts it, the “internal and external must be balanced and the exercise must be complete, if we are to really benefit ourselves and others.” Basically, in terms of yun dong, when the evil ninja broke from the spiritual guidance of his the temple, it threw his craft out of whack and he subsequently lost his way.
It kind of works the same with organized religion. What folks like Rollins so oddly overlook is that while the early Christians were carrying out their trickster ways as described in The Epistle to Diognetes, the Book of Acts unambiguously shows they were simultaneously working overtime to establish a centralized religion. Despite modern protestations, spirituality and religion goes hand in hand. Yes, you can be spiritual without organized religion, but without the guidance and safeguards organized religion provides, that spirituality inevitably goes off the rails, usually veering into some form of self-worship. That doesn’t mean everyone who abandons organized religion will end up becoming a whack job and attacking public golf courses, but it does mean they are missing a necessary component for a healthy spirituality. Or to put it another way, being spiritual without being religious is like putting on ninja boots without all the years of study that’s supposed to accompany them. You may look the part, but when it comes time to prove yourself, you’re not going to have the skills to pull it off.
There’s a reason Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” He understood the need for organized religion because, as God, he’s the one who instituted it in the first place.