Ninja Shadow Warriors

This show unearths the true history, unique military skills and ancient traditions behind the infamous Ninja, a small band of rebellious Japanese mountain villagers, who struck fear into ordinary people’s lives and were a constant thorn in the side of the battle-hardened Samurai warrior clans.

Ninja Shadow Warriors tells the intriguing story of Ninja Tanba who was trained by his grandfather to become one of the most feared warriors in ancient Japan. We follow Tanba’s life from boyhood to old age with the help of historic re-enactments, elaborate costumes and original Ninja weapons, supported by CG animation from an award-winning UK design team. Featured experts include British and Japanese historians as well as Master Kawakami, one of the last (if not only) surviving Ninja masters, who demonstrates for the first time on television the unrivalled tricks the Ninja used to fool their enemies.

The Ninja first appeared in the 14th century in the mountainous Iga-Koka region, where outlaw warrior clans and former peasant farmers trained in the secret warrior skills. Over time the Ninja clans refined their lethal guerrilla warfare, espionage and assassination techniques to uphold their independence against the power-hungry warlords surrounding the Ninja heartland.

From the 15th century, a long and bloody civil war was raging between feudal warlords fighting to become the unifying ruler of Japan. The Ninja offered their in-demand mercenary skills to anyone who could afford their services. They were specialists in attacking and infiltrating castles, spying on troop numbers, or could be used as special units that would cause chaos in battle. The Ninja were masters of disguise, travelling the country as merchants or wandering priests while using various local accents. The film also reveals how the Ninja developed their extensive general knowledge of night navigation, astrology, explosives, medicine and poisons. Most of the dark arts were kept secret; passed orally from generation to generation.

When the civil war turmoil finally came to an end, Warlord Nobukatsu decided to finish the troublesome Ninja once and for all. It was a dreadful slaughter; Nobukatsu’s army suffered a humiliating defeat. The film explains how 5000 Ninja could defeat an overwhelming Samurai-led force. After this crushing defeat Nobukatsu’s father, Japan’s most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga, cannot let his family’s loss of face stand unanswered and launches a massive invasion with an army of 60,000. Under the guidance of Master Tanba the Ninja resist the warlord’s armies for over two weeks, before the villages are eventually burned to the ground, consigning the Ninja phenomenon to history.

The Ninja legend only lives on in fictional action superheroes of B-movies, comics and computer games. But even in Japan today, any association with the Ninja ancestry is regarded as shameful – as opposed to the blemish-free image of the loyal Samurai.

Japan Foundation, MEDIA Programme, ZDF / Arte and Smithsonian Channel.