The Legacy of 4Kids Entertainment

4Kids Entertainment. I’ll wait while you hug the porcelain and bring up your last meal.

Feeling a little better?

Anime fans detest 4Kids for how they localized and censored and cut series like Pokemon, One Piece, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and others. However, the company is behind successful children’s shows that didn’t suffer the same fate: Cabbage Patch Kids and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Before we mark the company as a villain for anime, we have to consider the time period it committed its anime atrocities, as some fans see it. Hyperbole much? Saban Entertainment also gave Dragonball Z the same treatment during its US release (Daniels, 2008).

But at the time, anime wasn’t mainstream. Sure, it was around, but it wasn’t a part of the American childhood. Despite what anime fans say, 4Kids helped popularize anime. Al Kahn, the head of 4Kids, spent over 20 years distributing and promoting childhood stories. He saw kids playing Pocket Monsters on a business trip to Japan, and he convinced Nintendo and the owning companies to bring the game to the US. He also gave it its iconic name (Tsukayama, 2016):

He decided then that the game needed a cooler name than “Pocket Monsters.” “I didn’t like the name ‘Pocket Monsters,’” he said, partially because it didn’t sound different enough from other monster games. “I wanted the name to be more Japanese-y.”

The statement is a little tone-deaf, and his Americanization of the anime proved controversial and uneven. He kept many of the Japanese names of Pokemon, like pikachu, but changed other aspects of the show. For example, he changed the name of the game’s protagonist from Satoshi to Ash Ketchum. The music and scripts were also rewritten to suit American children (Tsukayama, 2016).  Japanese food was replaced with American foods because the company worried that American children wouldn’t recognize rice balls were food, leading to the (in)famous scene of Brock referring to rice balls as jelly donuts (Champers, 2012).

TV stations resisted the show, thinking it was too strange and too much like anime. Many shoved it into the 6am slot, a poorly performing time, but soon that slot was seeing more viewers than the prime after-school slots (Tsukayama, 2016).

But 4Kids’ concerns may not have been too far off, considering the time. During the 1990s, anime was still hidden in a cultural niche despite Ghibli film releases. I’m not justifying what they did, but their localizations did introduce children to Japanese elements. It was a step toward wider acceptance of anime and Japanese culture. They ran into trouble when they tried the same tactics with One Piece in 2004. By this time, people had become used to anime’s Japanese elements, so when one of the most popular show about pirates hit the US, localization wasn’t necessary. But 4Kids wasn’t with the times.

Instead, the company followed their habit and eliminated One Piece‘s Japanese and violent elements, never mind how violent American TV had become. 4Kids digitally changed all firearms to look like toys. Cigarettes became lollipops or poorly edited out, leaving smoke trails behind. They also cut a large number of episodes, including entire story arcs, and compressed multiples episodes into one.

As you can imagine, fans weren’t pleased.

Considering the US’s history of children’s shows, 4Kids’s decisions make sense. It was a few years after 9/11 and violence in media was under fire. Although TV continued to show ever-escalating levels of violence despite the outcry in some areas of the country. But 4Kids had fallen out of touch with its now-Japanese-culture savvy audience. Eventually the Japanese animation studio that created Yu-Gi-Oh!, 4Kid’s flagship earner–earning $152 million for the company between 2001 and 2009–claimed 4Kids owed it for making secret agreements with TV stations and home video companies and handling royalties in shady ways (Gardner, 2011).

A series of bankruptcies followed with the most recent happened in September 21, 2016. The company attempted to distance itself from its now tainted and infamous 4Kids brand by renaming itself 4Licensing Corporation on December 21, 2012 (4Licensing, n.d.; United States, 2012). But the damage was done with fans as the meme “What if 4Kids got show title” shows.

The Dangers of Localization

One Piece and Yu-Gi-Oh! suffered the most from 4Kid’s localization. Pokemon survived mostly intact with only jelly donut-level problems and a few cut episodes. 4Kids had a role in making anime more mainstream in the US, although the most avid 4Kids hater would deny that. However, the company failed to pay attention to their audience’s level of comfort and acceptance for Japanese elements as time passed. Their Pokemon and early Yu-Gi-Oh! localizations had cut a road for new anime fans who wanted the genuine experience. Also, by 2004, anime communities had sprung up online that had access to uncut episodes of One Piece and more.

The removal of Japanese elements and violence can compromise the vision and message the author intended. Violence in anime, for example, may be a comment on the human condition. Eliminating it removes that message. In One Piece’s case, removing cigarettes and making firearms look like toys, denies the danger and roughness of pirate culture. It hurts characterization.

Japanese culture references reveal part of the author’s identity and experiences. It gives context to the story, and without those references, the message of the story may garble. Not to mention it is insulting to substitute American elements for Japanese. It suggests American (or British, or French, or whatever culture is substituting for Japanese) is superior. It also insults the intelligence of the viewer. After all, even a child who had never seen a rice ball and know its food when characters eat it.

Now some aspects of localization are necessary. Some idioms don’t translate well between cultures, and sometimes you run against language limits. Some languages have words others do not have have, so an approximation is needed. 4Kids helped American children wean into anime, but as exposure and understanding of Japanese culture became common, localization of the type the company practice wasn’t necessary.

Vilifying 4Kids

Segments of the anime community can’t forget what 4Kids did. Memes still circulate about the company’s handling. Anime fans are understandably sensitive to localization. They still have the dub vs. sub debate raging. However, even subtitled anime are localized. Localization can only be prevented by watching anime in Japanese and being immersed in Japanese culture. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to enjoy a story as close to the original as possible. However, dubs play an important role in making anime more accessible, which benefits the medium outside of Japan. 4Kids doesn’t fully deserve its smearing in the community. Yes, they handled their properties poorly, and they were….unsavory…..in their “Japanese-y” approach to Pokemon. Their method denigrated Japanese culture.

Despite all of this, 4Kids has an important place in American anime culture. They helped make anime mainstream to the point where Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! weren’t considered anime. They were considered cartoons. This small distinction allowed anime to move from a niche and into the American childhood. It created several generations of anime fans that later moved toward other anime series, such as One Piece. No matter how much the anime community vilifies 4Kids, the company had an important role in the development of anime in the United States.

Reference

“4Licensing Corporation Files for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy | Business Wire”. www.businesswire.com. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160922006380/en/4Licensing-Corporation-Files-Chapter-11-Bankruptcy

Ali, R. (2009). Yu-Gi-Oh! & Cabbage Patch Kids U.S. Parent 4Kids Entertainment for Sale. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/04/AR2009080401638.html.

Chambers, S. (2012) Anime: From Following to Pop Culture Phenomenon. The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications. 3 (2) 94-102.

Daniels, J. (2008) “Lost in Translation”: Anime, Moral Rights, and Market Failure. Boston University Law Review. 88 (709). 709-745.

“UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION: FORM 8-K: 4Licensing Corporation (December 21, 2012)”. Edgar Online. December 21, 2012.  http://yahoo.brand.edgar-online.com/displayfilinginfo.aspx?FilingID=8990367-1208-18945&type=sect&dcn=0001140361-12-052927

Tsukayama, H. (2016) Meet the man who made Pokemon an international phenomenon. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2016/08/04/meet-the-man-who-made-pokemon-an-international-phenomenon/

How Anticipation Helps the Enjoyment of Anime

I enjoy a good Netflix binge, but in our age of on-demand content, we lost the value of anticipation. When we can watch anime whenever we want, for as long as we want, we lose the slow build of excitement waiting can bring. Unfortunately, American society disdains patience. Sure, we say patience is a virtue, but in practice we hate waiting. But waiting helps us enjoy anime more.

For example, each week I look forward to spending a Saturday night watching Toonami. After working all week, it’s a great way to unwind. Now, I could watch most of Toonami shows online. I could binge on DBZ Kai, but I don’t because I prefer the wait. On weeks when I am socially exhausted, Toonami helps me push through the week. Small goals help keep us motivated. When I sit down to watch DBZ Kai and the rest of Toonami, I quite enjoy the time.

Anticipation helps us savor by building excitement and looking-forwardness. Looking-forwardness makes my couch feel softer and my tea taste better. That’s the odd aspect of habit. Habits comfort us more when they are special and when they endcap our time. Time endcaps allow us to shift our thinking from, say, work to hobby. I use Toonami to shift to relaxation. I have a habit of using Sundays as a Sabbath, and Toonami starts that relaxation day. I anticipate this time. Before I wrote this article, I enjoyed a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake. I promised myself early in the day that I would have this snack. I could have had a slice of cake with dinner, but that would have broke the all-day wait I allotted. I enjoyed the cake more because I made myself wait for it.

Anticipation differs from hype. Hype involves expectation and excitement. Anticipation lacks the expectation aspects of hype. When I anticipate something, I don’t have expectations. For example, I still enjoy my time relaxing with Toonami even when the episodes are let-downs. Sometimes, I will hype myself. In those cases, I set myself up for disappointment which makes it harder for me to enjoy the relaxation time. We see hype disappoint people most often in the realm of video games. People allow expectations to grow to the point where no game could hope to match them. Anticipation lacks these vaunted expectations. Expectations quickly get out of hand with the Internet’s echo chamber. Some expectation naturally comes from anticipation, but I find it best to avoid videos, articles, and trailers for content that excites me.

For example, I looked forward to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m a big Zelda fan, but I decided to impose a media blackout. I’ve only seen one early video about the game before I decided to eschew all coverage. I want to know almost nothing about the game until I play it for myself. I am an old-school gamer–the type that grew up drawing maps and making my own guides while I played. I prefer going in without any expectations or knowledge.

In the same way, I blackout anime that I find interesting. When I saw the trailer for One Punch Man on Toonami, I avoided anything that had to do with it. Doing this allows you to avoid anyone coloring your viewpoint. The articles and videos we consume can sway your opinion long before you see the first episode of an anime or read the first page of a manga. Only after I finish a game or series do I seek out reviews. By then, I have my own opinion about the work and want to see what others think.

Cultivating Anticipation

Anticipation is easy to cultivate, and difficult to stick with. The trick is to delay gratification and make that a habit. Waiting to eat my slice of chocolate cake took some effort, but I enjoyed the cake and tea all the more for the wait. Setting small, delayed goals helps you learn resistance to impulse.Instead of bingeing on an anime right now, push the marathon to a future day of the week. Make this a Friday night habit. The habit will endcap the week and help you build anticipation.

Over time, these small habits will transfer to larger concerns and finances. Delaying gratification helps you control your spending habits. Impulsive purchases quickly add up. However, you can use manga and anime purchases to motivate you. Don’t buy the latest copy of Tokyo Ghoul until after you finish Economics with a B. Use it as a reward. Now, this may feel like depriving yourself. After all, some of your friends will continue to buy things, and they will own more than you will. However, you will appreciate what you have more. Your wallet will be healthier too. You’ll also discover the odd result of anticipation: you need less to feel happier.

This isn’t to say the occasional impulsive purchase is wrong, but it shouldn’t rule your actions all the time. Consumption should be planned rather than be automatic. Planning creates anticipation and allows you to set goals to keep you motivated. But this requires discipline. You may need an accountability buddy when you get started.

I know this seems silly. After all, it’s just watching anime. But small habits accumulate and create your character. I like the anticipation period. While it can be mentally painful, when I finally reach the planned point, it is just that much more enjoyable. And length of time affects enjoyment. Once a week anime binges work well for me. I punctuate each month with a movie binge day too. I will set ahead most of a day once every month or 2 and marathon various movies or video games. Rarity makes me appreciate them more.

Anticipation remains a forgotten virtue in our on-demand world. Without it, we fail to enjoy stories, video games, and other aspects of life to the fullest. While it’s cheesy, the best really does come to those who wait.

Jiraiya and the Magic Frog: The Story Behind Naruto’s Characters

“Jiraiya and the Magic Frog” provides the inspiration for three of Naruto’s characters: Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru. In this story, Jiraiya doesn’t become a sage until the end, but he summons giant frogs and matches the rough character from Naruto. As in Naruto, the Jiraiyo of folklore chases Tsunade. Both struggle against Orochimaru. Many of Orochimaru’s powers trace to this story. Anime taps many of Japan’s folktales for characters and inspiration. As you read this story, you’ll see many other similarities with Naruto.

Ogata was the name of a castle-lord who lived in the Island of the Nine Provinces, (Kiushiu). He had but one son, an infant, whom the people in admiration nicknamed Jiraiya (Young Thunder.) During one of the civil wars, this castle was taken, and Ogata was slain, but by the aid of a faithful retainer, who hid Jiraiya in his bosom, the boy escaped and fled northward to Echigo. There he lived until he grew up to manhood.

At that time Echigo was infested with robbers. One day the faithful retainer of Jiraiya being attacked, made resistance, and was slain by the robbers. Jiraiya now left alone in the world went out from Echigo and led a wandering life in several provinces.

All this time he was consumed with the desire to revive the name of his father, and restore the fortunes of his family. Being exceedingly brave, and an expert swordsman, he became chief of a band of robbers and plundered many wealthy merchants, and in a short time he was rich in men, arms and booty. He was accustomed to disguise himself, and go in person into the houses and presence of men of wealth, and thus learn all about their gates and guards, where they slept, and in what rooms their treasures were stored, so that success was easy.

Hearing of an old man who lived in Shinano, he started to rob him, and for this purpose put on the disguise of a pilgrim. Shinano is a very high table-land, full of mountains, and the snow lies deep in winter. A great snow storm coming on, Jiraiya took refuge in a humble house by the way. Entering, he found a very beautiful woman, who treated him with great kindness. This, however, did not change the robber’s nature. At midnight, when all was still, he unsheathed his sword, and going noiselessly to her room, he found the lady absorbed in reading.

Lifting his sword, he was about to strike at her neck, when, in a flash, her body changed into that of a very old man, who seized the heavy steel blade and broke it in pieces as though it were a stick. Then he tossed the bits of steel away, and thus spoke to Jiraiya, who stood amazed but fearless:

“I am a man named Senso Dojin, and I have lived in these mountains many hundred years, though my true body is that of a huge frog. I can easily put you to death but I have another purpose. So I shall pardon you and teach you magic instead.”

Then the youth bowed his head to the floor, poured out his thanks to the old man and begged to be received as his pupil.

Remaining with the old man of the mountain for several weeks, Jiraiya learned all the arts of the mountain spirits; how to cause a storm of wind and rain, to make a deluge, and to control the elements at will.

He also learned how to govern the frogs, and at his bidding they assumed gigantic size, so that on their backs he could stand up and cross rivers and carry enormous loads.

When the old man had finished instructing him he said “Henceforth cease from robbing, or in any way injuring the poor. Take from the wicked rich, and those who acquire money dishonestly, but help the needy and the suffering.” Thus speaking, the old man turned into a huge frog and hopped away.

What this old mountain spirit bade him do, was just what Jiraiya wished to accomplish. He set out on his journey with a light heart. “I can now make the storm and the waters obey me, and all the frogs are at my command; but alas! the magic of the frog cannot control that of the serpent. I shall beware of his poison.”

From that time forth the oppressed poor people rejoiced many a time as the avaricious merchants and extortionate money lenders lost their treasures. For when a poor farmer, whose crops failed, could not pay his rent or loan on the date promised, these hard-hearted money lenders would turn him out of his house, seize his beds and mats and rice-tub, and even the shrine and images on the god-shelf, to sell them at auction for a trifle, to their minions, who resold them at a high price for the money-lender, who thus got a double benefit. Whenever a miser was robbed, the people said, “The young thunder has struck,” and then they were glad, knowing that it was Jiraiya, (Young Thunder.) In this manner his name soon grew to be the poor people’s watchword in those troublous times.

Yet Jiraiya was always ready to help the innocent and honest, even if they were rich. One day a merchant named Fukutaro was sentenced to death, though he was really not guilty. Jiraiya hearing of it, went to the magistrate and said that he himself was the very man who committed the robbery. So the man’s life was saved, and Jiraiya was hanged on a large oak tree. But during the night, his dead body changed into a bull-frog which hopped away out of sight, and off into the mountains of Shinano.

At this time, there was living in this province, a young and beautiful maiden named Tsunadé. Her character was very lovely. She was always obedient to her parents and kind to her friends. Her daily task was to go to the mountains and cut brushwood for fuel. One day while thus busy singing at the task, she met a very old man, with a long white beard sweeping his breast, who said to her:

“Do not fear me. I have lived in this mountain many hundred years, but my real body is that of a snail. I will teach you the powers of magic, so that you can walk on the sea, or cross a river however swift and deep, as though it were dry land.”

Gladly the maiden took daily lessons of the old man, and soon was able to walk on the waters as on the mountain paths. One day the old man said, “I shall now leave you and resume my former shape. Use your power to destroy wicked robbers. Help those who defend the poor. I advise you to marry the celebrated man Jiraiya, and thus you will unite your powers.”

Thus saying, the old man shrivelled up into a snail and crawled away.

“I am glad,” said the maiden to herself, “for the magic of the snail can overcome that of the serpent. When Jiraiya, who has the magic of the frog, shall marry me, we can then destroy the son of the serpent, the robber named Dragon-coil (Orochimaru).”

By good fortune, Jiraiya met the maiden Tsunadé, and being charmed with her beauty, and knowing her power of magic, sent a messenger with presents to her parents, asking them to give him their daughter to wife. The parents agreed, and so the young and loving couple were married.

Hitherto when Jiraiya wished to cross a river he changed himself into a frog and swam across; or, he summoned a bull-frog before him, which increased in size until as large as an elephant. Then standing erect on his warty back, even though the wind blew his garments wildly, Jiraiya reached the opposite shore in safety. But now, with his wife’s powers, the two, without any delay, walked over as though the surface was a hard floor.

Soon after their marriage, war broke out in Japan between the two famous clans of Tsukikagé and Inukagé. To help them fight their battles, and capture the castles of their enemies, the Tsukikagé family besought the aid of Jiraiya, who agreed to serve them and carried their banner in his back. Their enemies, the Inukagé, then secured the services of Dragon-coil.

This Orochimaru, or Dragon-coil, was a very wicked robber whose father was a man, and whose mother was a serpent that lived in the bottom of Lake Takura. He was perfectly skilled in the magic of the serpent, and by spurting venom on his enemies, could destroy the strongest warriors.

Collecting thousands of followers, he made great ravages in all parts of Japan, robbing and murdering good and bad, rich and poor alike. Loving war and destruction he joined his forces with the Inukagé family.

Now that the magic of the frog and snail was joined to the one army, and the magic of the serpent aided the other, the conflicts were bloody and terrible, and many men were slain on both sides.

On one occasion, after a hard fought battle, Jiraiya fled and took refuge in a monastery, with a few trusty vassals, to rest a short time. In this retreat a lovely princess named Tagoto was dwelling. She had fled from Orochimaru, who wished her for his bride. She hated to marry the offspring of a serpent, and hoped to escape him. She lived in fear of him continually. Orochimaru hearing at one time that both Jiraiya and the princess were at this place, changed himself into a serpent, and distilling a large mouthful of poisonous venom, crawled up to the ceiling in the room where Jiraiya and his wife were sleeping, and reaching a spot directly over them, poured the poisonous venom on the heads of his rivals. The fumes of the prison so stupefied Jiraiya’s followers, and even the monks, that Orochimaru, instantly changing himself to a man, profited by the opportunity to seize the princess Tagoto, and make off with her.

Gradually the faithful retainers awoke from their stupor to find their master and his beloved wife delirious, and near the point of death, and the princess gone.

“What can we do to restore our dear master to life?” This was the question each one asked of the others, as with sorrowful faces and weeping eyes they gazed at the pallid forms of their unconscious master and his consort. They called in the venerable abbot of the monastery to see if he could suggest what could be done.

“Alas!” said the aged priest, “there is no medicine in Japan to cure your lord’s disease, but in India there is an elixir which is a sure antidote. If we could get that, the master would recover.”

“Alas! alas!” and a chorus of groans showed that all hope had fled, for the mountain in India, where the elixir was made, lay five thousand miles from Japan.

Just then a youth named Rikimatsu, one of the pages of Jiraiya, arose to speak. He was but fourteen years old, and served Jiraiya out of gratitude, for he had rescued his father from many dangers and saved his life. He begged permission to say a word to the abbot, who, seeing the lad’s eager face, motioned to him with his fan to speak.

“How long can our lord live,” asked the youth.

“He will be dead in thirty hours,” answered the abbot, with a sigh.

“I’ll go and procure the medicine, and if our master is still living when I come back, he will get well.”

Now Rikimatsu had learned magic and sorcery from the Tengus, or long-nosed elves of the mountains, and could fly high in the air with incredible swiftness. Speaking a few words of incantation, he put on the wings of a Tengu, mounted a white cloud and rode on the east wind to India, bought the elixir of the mountain spirits, and returned to Japan in one day and a night.

On the first touch of the elixir on the sick man’s face he drew a deep breath, perspiration glistened on his forehead, and in a few moments more he sat up.

Jiraiya and his wife both got well, and the war broke out again. In a great battle Dragon-coil was killed and the princess rescued. For his prowess and aid Jiraiya was made daimio of Idzu.

Being now weary of war and the hardships of active life, Jiraiya was glad to settle down to tranquil life in the castle and rear his family in peace. He spent the remainder of his days in reading the books of the sages, in composing verses, in admiring the flowers, the moon and the landscape, and occasionally going out hawking or fishing. There, amid his children and children’s children, he finished his days in peace.

What Naruto Gets Wrong: The Real Shinobi

For many anime fans, Naruto introduced the world of the shinobi, or the more familiar word ninja. Sadly, Naruto plays fast and loose with the history of the shinobi. It gets some things right, but it gets far more wrong. This isn’t to beat up on the series. It’s fiction, and fiction makes reality its own. But you may find the reality of the ninja just as interesting as Naruto’s world.

Throughout this article, I’ll use the words shinobi and ninja interchangeably. The words come from the same Chinese word, which traces to the 7th century. Japanese kanji comes from Chinese writing and typically has 2 different pronunciations, the Japanese and the Chinese. The Chinese word, ren zhe 忍者, didn’t appear in Japan until the  15th century (Bertrand, 2006). In Japanese, this is pronounced as nin sha. Ren zhe means “one who endures or hides” in Chinese, but in Japanese, the phrase shinobo mono means the same. Because of this, the words nin ja (or nin sha) and shinobi were used interchangeably (Bertrand, 2006; Man, 2013).

The History of the Shinobi

Nothing is mystical about the true tradition and correct way of ninjutsu

–Natori Masatake, Shoninki.

Ninja enjoyed their height of activity during between the 15th and 16th centuries when Japan was in its Age of the Warring States (1480-1600), a period of conflict between the various samurai families as they vied for power. This period of constant warfare erupted as the shogun and emperor lost their grip on power.  Ironically, the successfulness of the ninja led to their downfall. However, ninja existed long before the province of Iga with its own hidden villages. China had their own version as early as the 600s and perhaps long before. In Japan, the first appearance of a ninja strike dates to the mid-10th century. Ninja don’t become part of the official record until 1488 when government annuals mention the Kawai family’s involvement in a siege. The family originated from Iga province (Man, 2013).

Shinobi reached their apex of ability during the time of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, two daimyo who eventually united Japan under a single shogunate. Oda began the effort but died before he could finish it. That left Ieyasu to finish the job and found a 250 year period of peace and isolation.

Oda started employing shinobi after he barely escaped an assassination attempt in 1573. The ninja attempted to kill him in his sleep, but the ninja was captured by Oda’s bodyguards. The ninja killed himself and Oda had his body displayed in the local marketplace to discourage further assassination attempts (Bertrand, 2006). However, the experience taught Oda the value of ninja, and he began to use them to gather information about his enemies.

The effectiveness of the ninja and the independence of the ninja villages led Oda and his son Nobuo to eventually march on Iga province, the heart of the shinobi villages. Iga also stood between Oda and the lands of his archrival, Mori Motonari. Although the ninjas of Iga held off Oda’s armies for a time using their ninjutsu, eventually they succumbed to Oda’s superior resources. Of course, Oda also hired other ninja families to turn against their neighbors in Iga (Man, 2013).

Ieyasu relied heavily on ninja during his final years of unification for reconnaissance and espionage. Ninja had pivotal roles in several fateful points in Ieyasu’s campaign. The information they gathered proved vital for his victories; on October 21, 1600, ninja helped win the victory that allowed Ieyasu to become the first shogun to fully unify Japan and found a shogunate that would last until Commodore Matthew Perry’s visit in 1858. Ieyasu rewarded the ninja by granting them a special status as a security detail in his capital Edo (Bertrand 2006; Man, 2013). This job gave them prestige and wealth, but Ieyasu’s victory began the end of the ninja. Even the eradication of the ninja couldn’t end them, but peace did.

Life as a Ninja

The way a good ninja works is to know about people without letting them know about him.

–instructional ninja poem

Being a shinobi was a family occupation. Few people born outside of a ninja family or village were accepted into training. At a young age, future ninja learned the arts of balance, swordsmanship, camouflage, and wilderness survival. They trained in groups and learned climbing techniques that served as inspiration for stories of ninja’s flying through villages. A shonin (village ninja leader) watched over these ninjas-in-training until they were deemed ready for their first mission when they reached their late teens (Bertrand, 2006).

Contrary to Naruto and other stories, ninjutsu wasn’t a hand-to-hand combat system. Ninja didn’t have specific fighting techniques. Rather, ninjutsu was a set of skills used to infiltrate enemy positions and gather information. Fighting was a final resort (Cummins, 2015). Size and strength wasn’t considered as important as being aware of surroundings and the weaknesses of the opponent (Dawson, 2000). Ninja were unable to stand up against samurai in a direct fight–although most ninja were samurai. The primary weapon of a shinobi wasn’t a sword or fist; it was information.

This isn’t to say ninja weren’t assassins. However, their primary role involved espionage and peacekeeping.

Like their inhabitants, ninja villages appeared normal but were designed for easy defense. Fake walls and trap doors allowed for ambushes, escape, or hidden weapon caches. Most ninja homes had floorboards designed to squeak when stepped on, making it more difficult for intruders to get around undetected (Bertrand, 2006).

Deception marked the central focus of shinobi. Their villages looked like regular peasant villages, and the shinobi used various disguises (Man, 2013):

  • Zen Monk The traditional Zen monk allowed a shinobi a valid reason to travel in an age of travel restrictions. The large straw hat of the monk allowed the ninja to observe without being observed, and people allowed monks to get close to them, making spying and assassination easier.
  • Mountain Priest, Merchant – Similar to the Zen monk disguise, the Mountain Priest and Merchant disguises allowed a ninja to travel without drawing attention. Like the Zen monk, the mountain priest allowed the ninja to get close to people, whereas the merchant was able to mix freely with people.
  • Street Performer, Actor – Allowed a ninja to hide by drawing attention to himself.
  • The Fashion of the Area – Finally, a ninja would have to dress as the town, village, or castle dressed. This regular clothes allowed them to move, but a shinobi would also have to back up the disguise by speaking in a local dialect or know information natives would only know.

The disguises allowed a shinobi to move freely without drawing attention. During the period ninja worked, few people traveled more than a few miles away from their home villages.

The Art of the Shinobi, Shinobi no jutsu

Ninjutsu is escape rather than kill—take shame, take embarrassment, take anything rather than kill if you can. Hone your ability to escape rather than kill…

–Jack Hoban, martial arts instructor (Morganelli, 2011)

Naruto makes a fuss about the martial arts of a ninja, but the art of the shinobi centered on information gathering and deception instead of fighting. Ninja swords, for example, were shorter than samurai katana, and ninja would try to avoid fighting a samurai directly (Bertrand, 2006). Even the famous shuriken wasn’t design to kill, nor could a ninja throw them hard or accurately enough to kill. Rather, they were used to distract or disable opponents so he could be killed with a sword. Caltrops were used to hinder pursuit. The shinobi-gama, or sickle and chain, depended upon deception and distraction to be effective. One strategy, called fukurogaeshi no jutsu, or reversing the bag, involved a shinobi sneaking into a castle and then announcing he was a ninja looking for work. However, the ninja was actually using the ploy to gain the freedom to move about the castle and gather information for his original employer (Fujibayashi, 2016). Sneaky way to earn two paychecks, eh?

This isn’t ninjitsu

Ninjutsu’s focus on deception served both military and civilian roles. Military ninja roles included: establishing spy networks, gathering information, making maps, and planting long-term agents. Ninja also spread misinformation and propaganda, acted as guides through enemy territory. Finally, ninja would command night attack squads, commit arson, destroy supplies, assassinate targets, and defend against other ninja (Cummins. 2015).

As civilians, ninja shared a lot in common with private investigators. People could hire them to spy on relatives and neighbors, mete out revenge, or as personal bodyguards.

While ninja had chants, charms, and hand gestures, these were used as support instead of relied upon.

What Naruto Gets Wrong and Right

Naruto’s world of the shinobi draws from reality, but it makes too much of a fuss over jutsu; it becomes something of a magic system. While real-life ninja had their own charms and hand-gestures, they relied on pragmatic observation. The Hidden Leaf Village fails to be a true ninja village by the fact it stands out too much with its version of Mount Rushmore. The anime, being an action shonen after all, focuses on fighting, whereas ninja would only fight as a last resort. When a ninja traveled, they attempted to blend in with the locals, dressing as a peasant or as a wandering monk. The shinobi of the Leaf Village do not.

Naruto does get some things right. First, deception is a part of their fighting styles, just as a real ninja. Several times throughout the series, Naruto and friends were hired as bodyguards, and the school atmosphere is kind of what villages would do to train their children, barring the modernization shown in Naruto of course. Finally, the politics the series hints at taps the real-life politics that swirled around ninja.

As mercenaries, ninja had a unique and important place in Japanese history. Much of what we know of ninja came from the stories they spread throughout the Tokugawa period as they declined. Naruto and other ninja fiction pull from more from these stories than from history. However, the history of the shinobi contains just as many stories of daring do, despite the reality of ninja being mapmakers rather than mischief makers.

One fact about shinobi Naruto hits and hits well: it’s all about the mind. What made a ninja a ninja was their ability to think, observe, and plan. They didn’t act on impulse; they studied and understood people. The true shinobi would watch and learn instead of jump in and fight. Ninja changed Japanese history, and through Japanese culture, the unseen ninja continues to shape the world.

References

Bertrand, J. (2006). Techniques that made ninjas feared in 15th-century Japan still set the standard for covert ops. Military History, 23(1), 12.

Cummins, Anthony. (2015) Samurai and Ninja : The Real Story Behind the Japanese Warrior Myth that Shatters the Bushido Mystique. Kanagawa, US: Tuttle Publishing.

Dawson, Chester. (2000). Exit the Ninja. Far Eastern Economic Review 163 (20) 58-61.

Fujibayashi, Y. (2016). 1676: Japan. Lapham’s Quarterly, 9(1), 80-82.

Man, J. (2013). Ninja: 1,000 years of the Shadow Warrior. HarperCollins.

Morganelli, J. (2011). Ethical warrior: how the fighting philosophy of Ninjutsu expert Jack Hoban influenced the United States Marine Corps. Black Belt, (6). 54.

Tsuki ga Kirei – As the Moon, so Beautiful

As the moon, so beautiful follows the romantic relationship between Kotaro Azumi and Akane Mizuno, two junior high classmates. You won’t see world shattering events, or much in the way of melodrama. The plot centers squarely on everyday life, teenage conflicts with parents, stress of school and extracurriculars, and two young souls trying to find their way around romance. The story struck me as realistic and grounded. For once, the male protogonist isn’t a hothead or total dunce. He makes mistakes and often simply doesn’t know what to do. Likewise Akane isn’t overly sweet or combative. She, too, misreads Kotaro and makes mistakes.

I only found myself mentally calling Kotaro an idiot once throughout the 12 episodes, which is quite a feat for an anime such as this. Most of the time, male protogonists frustrate me with their foolish and superficially dense behavior. You don’t see such here. The fumbles Kotaro and Akane make are realistic and, even better, they realize they screw up and work to fix it. The story is filled with awkward, endearing moments of silence between them as they just don’t know what to say. But at the same time, the silence is never cold. It reverberates with the developing feelings they have for each other. They simply lack the vocabulary. Their feelings lack an overt sexuality too. They simply like each other for who they are. While some may view the innocence as unrealistic, I found it refreshing. Sexuality is overemphasized. Love can exist without sex. While sex may reinforce such feelings, we often confuse its hormonal drive as love.

I mentioned how As the moon, so beautiful feels realistic. In one scene, both use the Internet to research dating ideas. This realism extends toward a key element that Kotaro and Akane use to develop their relationship: a messenging app called LINE. Throughout the story, they use the app to keep in touch. They even comment in a scene how its easier to talk over the app than in person. This details captures modern dating culture well. Many people are more comfortable texting and sending online messages than talking in person, particularly at the start of a relationship. It can help people who are naturally quiet and, perhaps, a little shy–as with Akane and Kotaro. It also allows people to stay in touch when schedules refuse to cooperate, which is another detail the anime shows. In fact, LINE becomes essential to the Akane’s and Kotaro’s relationship as their schedules force them apart. Through LINE, they support each other’s efforts and cheer each other on. Akane with track and field. Kotaro with writing.

As the moon, so beautiful builds on the idea that people don’t need words to show their feelings. Akane and Kotaro act in little ways that cements their bond–little gifts, gestures, and even glances across the classroom. There is a great scene where Akane is running in an important event, but says she doesn’t want Kotaro to watch–even though she actually does. Kotaro picks up on this and goes to the event without her knowing (he messages his support over LINE) and then leaves before she could see him. Later Akane finds out he had done this, and it makes her happy. He had both supported her wishes of him not watching (which she says would fluster her) and her quiet desire for him to be there. Small actions like this shows an attentiveness to unspoken desires, which shows love. Granted, it’s easy to miss such things and expecting a partner to always realize what is unsaid can cause problems.

As the moon, so beautiful struck me as unabashedly Japanese.  Kotaro pursues traditional dance at a temple and takes part in traditional festivals. The festivals and temples play key roles in the course of the story–providing important moments such as Kotaro’s confession to Akane on temple grounds. In many school-related anime, Japanese culture is downplayed for the safer, and more accessible, secular school scene. Sure, there are Japanese elements even within this, but they are the typical mainstay of anime: culture festivals, kimono, and the like. As the moon jumps into the elements usually ignored or glossed over, but it doesn’t seek to make them exotic or anything. Like LINE, the cultural elements and festivals are just a part of everyday life.

The normalcy of the story and the delicate handling of romance–the awkward silences, the online messages, the clashing schedules–sets As the moon apart from most other romantic anime I’ve seen. Too often, such stories use comedy and superficial cluelessness to create a blunt, stereotype-laced stories. As the moon uses many of the same tropes, such as love triangles, but it handles them with subtlety and care. The English version of the title has a poetic feel, and the story throughout holds the same feeling as the title. It has a crisp beauty to it and avoids feeling saccharine. The soft animation matches its realistic, understated focus.

Some viewers may grow frustrated with its quiet, realistic pace. For many episodes, apparently little happens. That is, unless you pay attention to the subtext. Behind the slow pace, much is going on: commentary about the role of the Internet in relationships, the effects of others’ opinions on relationships, and how love affects friendships. But all of the messages are subdued and remain a part of the environment the romance develops within. There isn’t any fighting or action scenes. There isn’t any fan-service or sexual comedy. The awkwardness and the silent scenes may prompt some viewers to yell at the screen. But for those who like character-focused stories, stories of two people awkwardly learning about each other, stories based on realism, check this one out.

2 Steps for Better Anime Blogging

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You, the anime community, are great. I’ve seen a lot of positive things in my time with you, and its time we extend some of these positive aspects to other parts of the Internet. Lately, the Internet suffers from vitriol and low-leveling writing: crudeness, profanity, and bad writing. Yet, most of the anime blogging community I’ve seen is helpful and avoids excessive crudeness. The writing quality is decent too. Let’s be clear. I’m not saying other sections of the Internet blog world are worse than the anime community. Nor am I saying the anime community doesn’t have problems. However, much of what we see online–misinformation, political bias, excessive crudeness, personal attacks, slander, and other problems–can be reduced if all of us work at it.

I’ve written against excessive profanity and other writing issues in various articles. I won’t beat that drum again. Other than to tell you to stop it! It really does make you look foolish. Ehem. Anyway, there are two specific issues affecting blogging communities. I’ll address both of them and offer simple solutions to fix them.

Monetizing Blogs with Advertisements Hurts Blogging

Who doesn’t want to make a living with their blog? I tried using advertisements here on JP to make a buck or two. However, a few years ago I realized I was a hypocrite. I hate advertising. I don’t merely find it annoying or dislike it. I passionately hate the level of advertising found across the Internet. Yet I was also contributing to the problem. So I took down all the advertisements.

After I dropped the ads, I saw my traffic increase. I’m not sure if removing ads helped that, but I like to think so. I will promote my books time to time, but I try to keep my book promotions to a minimum. I dislike seeing authors over-peddle. However, not all advertising is bad. Some is needed, but it should be kept to a minimum.  Ironically, if advertisers would reduce the number of ads by, say, 98% they would likely see more people paying attention to them. Rarity creates interest. When a room of people are talking, no one can hear what is being said.

In any case, the level of advertisements used on the Internet chokes access. Ad blockers are required to be able to load many websites. Not to mention it is very difficult to blog for a living. The best way to do that is to write quality books (not that I claim my books are quality) and freelance for magazines. A blog is a way to reach out to people who may find your content interesting or useful. And it all comes down to being helpful to your readers. Blogs that splash advertisements everywhere do not have the reader in mind. They don’t try to give to the reader; they want to take from the reader.  These blogs and websites are self-serving rather than other-serving.

So the first step of our blog movement: reduce advertising. Remove most ads from your blog and kill all those terrible pop-ups, including those that ask the visitor to follow your blog. If they want to follow you, they will. Place the RSS feed or email someplace visible but out of the way of your articles. I refuse to follow blogs that beg me to follow them. But if I like a blog, I will hunt the sidebar for a subscription box.

Also be sure to install adblockers on your browsers. Maybe if people stop seeing pennies come from ads, more will take them down. I don’t know about you, but I long for the day when advertisements are rare but useful.

Return the Social to Blogging

One of the biggest problems blogs face is the immigration to social platforms. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media have stolen the conversations blogs used to enjoy. I feel like I am railing against the inevitable, but most blogs starve for comments and discussion. I’ll admit social platforms are more convenient for discussion. After all, blogs are fragmented. You can talk to many bloggers on Twitter, but you can only speak to a few (or one) on their blog. However, this is akin to having a private conversation. Social platforms are noisy places, full of asides and interruptions.  Blogs provide spaces for more specific, quieter conversations. Blogs have more in common with friends getting together at a bar than Twitter or other social platforms do. They are closer to meeting at a busy city square.

Perhaps the most important part of commenting on blogs deals with the author. Many bloggers labor in isolation. They feel as if their little blog, which sees little traffic, is lost in the void. They grow discouraged and think about quitting. Just when they are about to order the blog to commit seppuku, a comment pings. Someone has read an article and liked it! They really liked it enough to comment! Comments light a fire under bloggers. Comments encourage, even the argumentative ones.

Bloggers can also encourage each other by writing responses to posts on their own blogs. For example, you can write a response about this article and rip at me for being way off base. Article responses between bloggers help readers discover new authors. It also helps create a better community by feeling like a community. Instead of a blog floating in isolation, it responds and adapts to the conversations of its community. It joins those conversations. The anime community does a great job of this. Not to mention these response posts help you keep writing. It can be tough to come up with ideas week after week.

So the second part of our blog movement is to comment on posts and write response articles. If you like a blogger, let them know you support them. They may well return the favor! But if they don’t return the favor, don’t worry. You contributed to the health of the Internet as a whole.

Small actions add up. While these two solutions are relatively easy (outside of losing advertising income), they improve your small bit of the Internet. Taking your conversation to a blog encourages the author to keep writing. It also helps blogging feel less isolated. Remember, blogging is the original social media. And bloggers need to help the conversation by replying to comments and writing good, useful articles in the first place. Blogging can’t be self-serving. It has provide value to the reader in order to succeed.

This is where most bloggers, and websites for that matter, go wrong. They try to take from readers (usually money) instead of give. Writing is a relationship. There has to be more giving than taking for relationships to succeed. If you give quality writing and information to readers, many will give you their friendship, interest, and (sometimes) money.