Stealth Versus Swashbuckling
It was a decade that defined us all. Clinton dominated the White House, Saturday Night Live was funny and yet the mullet was not. The 1990s were a different time. It may have only been 15 years ago, but since those pivotal years the face of the world has been changed by a variety of inventions and cultural developments. In those days, there were word processors and pagers. Today, cell phones and computers are found in every home. In the drastic changes over the years, it has been easy to lose track of the species that once heavily populated the Earth but whose numbers are currently dwindling thanks to the efforts of an inferior subspecies.
I am, of course, speaking of ninjas, particularly their unceremonious dethroning by pirates. Ninjas were once proud animals, evidence of which could be found all over the world. Of course, no one has ever seen a real ninja and lived to tell the story. We do not even know the exact locations of their natural habitats because they have silenced those who could speak. Still, they were alive in the collective consciousness of us all. It was impossible to throw a plastic ninja star without hitting ninja paraphernalia.
Saturday morning shows were saturated with ninjas. Power Rangers, which was proclaimed the “Most Popular Kids Show of the 1990s” by Nielsen Galaxy Explorer, Nielsen’s national ratings delivery system, went through several ninja incarnations. The exploits of America’s greatest fighting force, G.I. Joe, which was very successfully re-launched in 1985, often featured the eternal struggle between the ninja forces of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. Virtually every child’s cartoon featured at least one ninja guest star. Pokemon ninjas used Voltorbs as smoke bombs on the same Saturdays that Goliath from Gargoyles protected the innocent from those warriors of shadow.
And we can’t forget the grand master of all ninja television shows: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT), which originated as a popular comic but re-incarnated as wildly popular cartoon and live-action television shows and movies. TMNT was the Bible of pizza and fighting. The cartoon version ran half a decade and had more of a cultural impact than any children’s franchise until it was eclipsed by Pokemon. The peak of Ninja Turtles coincided with the greatest ninja population in history. This is only an estimation; of course ninjas are impossible to count. They all look the same and can disappear. But what we do know is that shows like TMNT spawned action figures and video games that dominated the average little boy’s life until he cared about what girls thought.
Movies were also saturated with delicious ninja power. Children’s classics like “3 Ninjas” featured the exploits of a trio of prepubescent brothers defending their family against a violent drug lord using the ninja skills taught to them by the trainer similar to the one from Karate Kid. A forgotten treat, Surf Ninjas, was also popular. It featured — now follow me — a pair of teenagers who were surfers and ninja princes. They were followed by their surrogate brother who had a Gameboy that predicted the future. Unfortunately, it was disqualified from the Oscars race because it blew the judges’ minds.
Where were the pirates during the glory years of ninja goodness? After retreating from the world of musicals and ceasing to attack the Swiss Family Robinson, pirates remained out to sea and hidden in their theme park rides. They were virtually non-existent in the land of popular culture. They briefly crawled ashore for the embarrassing flop “Cutthroat Island,” starring Geena Davis as possibly the worst pirate in history. They managed to resurrect themselves for a laugh in 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island,” but other than the occasional joke, pirates laid low for the decade.
The change in territory did not come as a result of a grand battle. Ninjas easily defeat pirates using stealth and guile. Power shifted in 2003. The TMNT franchise had all but run out of steam and had not been used in almost five years. Hollywood had become weary of ninja movies and had reduced them to direct-to-video releases.
Ninjas had simply gone the way of the western. Cowboys dominated the media for almost two decades. They were well-respected, blockbusters, action-packed and Oscar-winners. People just started cranking out too many, to the point that soon only the finest examples of them remained. The general population could only see John Wayne growl his lines and shoot his pistol so many times. The ninja flip and katana went the same way.
Still, the slump in ninja popularity alone did not produce the change. The war was lost when the monster of a movie franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean” raised anchor in 2003. The movie series was arguably convoluted, silly and (aside from Johnny Depp) poorly acted. Still, despite all logic, and the fact that it did not have a clairvoyant Gameboy, it made billions of dollars and inspired rip-offs, pornography, toys and reality TV shows. Plus, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” made a total of over $300 million domestically while the latest “TMNT” film barely hit $55 million. The sequel to the pirate trilogy also set box-office records in the U.S.
The most heartbreaking sight was last Halloween, which clearly illustrated the loss of ninja habitat in the imagination of children. In the 1990s the average playground was filled with ninjas on Halloween. This year all I saw were Jack Sparrows — and one child pimp.
Ninjas are not completely gone from the collective conscious. They survive in the nerdiest of nature reservations. This article, video games and anime all serve as forums attempting to keep the ninja dream alive. Ninjas cannot be rid of that easily, and until the world has gotten weary of pirates they will wait in the shadows for the perfect moment to strike.