While ninjas existed in Japan centuries ago, they didn’t enter international pop culture until the 1980’s thanks to the movies of Sho Kosugi. Eventually, Hollywood was making their own ninja movies and the notion of ninjas in media expanded. Naturally, anime and manga would eventually have their own ninja stories. There are some that are more mature and violent, and there are others that are child-friendly and contain comedy. Everything about the ninja is intriguing to fans such as their speed, agility, costumes, and their arsenal of weapons to make their kills deadly and yet silent.
So who are some characters that embody the popular notion of the ninja in the pages of manga? Maybe our list can be the answers to what you’re looking for.
10. Kagetora from Shinobi Life
- Authors: Shouko Konami
- Genres: Action, Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Martial Arts, Romance, Shoujo, Supernatural
- Volumes: 13
- Published: Feb 6, 2006 – Apr 6, 2012
Kicking off this list is Kagetora (meaning Shadow Tiger) from Shinobi Life, the protector of the princess of his clan. He is originally from an era of ninjas but as he was carrying out his duties protecting his princess by hiding in a lake, he finds himself transported to modern day Japan. In the present, he manages to find the descendant of the princess of his clan and continues his duties in protecting her since she gets kidnapped a lot for ransom money.
For many ladies that want their own personal ninja as their servant, Kagetora is exactly who they’re looking for. He is very loyal to a fault and obeys all orders. He won’t fight or kill unless he is ordered to, and when he is given the order, he is unstoppable. In addition, his way of contextualizing kanji is very hilarious. For example, he thinks of the kanji of egao, or 笑顔 as “cracked face” as opposed to “smile.” Even so, he does his best to adjust to the modern era of Japan while still carrying out his duties in protecting the princess of his clan and even falling in love with her.
9. Tenka Kumo from Donten ni Warau
- Authors: Kemuri Karakara
- Genres: Action, Supernatural, Historical, Shoujo
- Volumes: 6
- Published: Oct 15, 2010 – May 15, 2013
Taking place at the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1878, the samurai and the class system as a whole was abolished in Japan. Unable to accept these changes, a good number of samurai rebelled but the prison system wasn’t enough to contain them. Instead, the Japanese government builds their version to Alcatraz in the middle of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, which is outside of Kyoto. So who has the responsibility of transporting these groups of thugs, the Kumo brothers led by Tenka, the eldest of the brothers, to this new prison? While he may look rather feminine, don’t let those looks fool you. All he needs is a harisen or a traditional paper fan to put down some unruly prisoners. His main motivation in life is providing for his two younger brothers since his parents have passed away.
Though friendly and easy to get along with, Tenka is a ninja who was truly forged in trials by fire throughout his life. He still retains a scar on his back from an earlier battle and his love for his brothers can easily be exploited as well as motivate him. In addition to being a great fighter and brother, he’s overall just a nice guy who really cares about the people around him. He is always willing to put others first to the point where if he feels he’s a danger to others, he turns himself into the authorities. Being touched by his kindness, the highest at the top refuse to take him in and let him live free.
8. Kagetora Kazama from Kagetora
- Authors: Akira Segami
- Genres: Action, Comedy, Harem, Martial Arts, Romance, Shounen
- Volumes: 11
- Published: Nov 20, 2001 – Sept 20, 2006
No, this is not the same Kagetora from Shinobi Life but a different one with his own self-titled series. In this story, Kagetora Kazama is given the responsibility to teach Yuki, a female daimyo the dark arts of ninjitsu, only that she lacks any natural ability to gain concepts of the basics. Beyond being a ninja, Kagetora is just like any other young man. He is capable of falling in love and he happens to fall in love Yuki, who he is also forbidden to love.
Other than having the same faults for a youth his age, Kagetora is still an elite ninja with all the skills to back it up. Kagetora is a great example that ninjas are ultimately human and are capable of having feelings that we can’t control regardless of training and/or upbringing.
7. Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi from The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls (Yagyu Ninja Ninpouchou)
- Authors: Fuutarou Yamada (story), Masaki Segawa (art)
- Genres: Action, Martial Arts
- Volumes: 11
- Published: Nov 2005 – Jul 2007
Unlike most of the ninjas on this list, Yagyu Mitsuyoshi is actually based on a real-life ninja, who in turn came from a long line of ninjas. In The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls, Jubei has left his position of being an instructor to the Shogun to become a wanderer, and is hired to train a group of women at the request of the Shogun's sister so they can rebel against an oppressive daimyo. Initially requested to teach only basic sword tactics, he knew the women would be outclassed every way possible so he changes his instructions to a pure military boot camp.
In this series, he shows that he is not only a ninja but also a competent military tactician and trainer. He doesn’t take it easy on the ladies and on the surface, doesn’t really care about their rebellion, but feels that his contribution would make for something interesting and cares about justice and equality. He knows how to exploit strengths and weaknesses, which is why the Hori women were right to hire him.
6. Banjin Inui from Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Kenkaku Romantan (Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story)
- Authors: Nobuhiro Watsuki
- Genres: Action, Samurai, Historical, Drama, Shounen
- Volumes: 28
- Published: Apr 12, 1994 – Sept 21, 1999
Banjin Inui is a member of Enishi’s band of thugs who have a personal grudge against Kenshin from the criminally unanimated final story arc of the Rurouni Kenshin manga, the Jinchu arc. On the surface, he joins the fight for revenge against Kenshin for killing his master in the Boshin war when in fact, he thought of his master as weak and is only fighting for his own personal glory. While the manga series takes place in the 1880s, Banji’s camouflage style can work in a modern day manga to the point you can think of him as Stallone’s Rambo if he were more martial arts oriented. As a means of defense, he wears gauntlets that are bulletproof but are also a clever way of concealing that he is a glass jaw fighter.
While he can brawl, he has a personality that is very comparable to that of Kenshin’s own comrade-in-arms, Sanosuke. While he may not be a ninja in a traditional sense, you can say he is more of the equivalent of a modern day special operations operative. While he has a great grasp on advanced martial arts techniques, we don’t really get to see much of him using his other abilities that a ninja is traditionally known for (notably stealth), but the fact he could go toe-to-toe with Sano is enough to put him on this list.
5. Kojiro from Fuma no Kojiro
- Authors: Masami Kurumada
- Genres: Fantasy, Martial Arts, Shounen
- Volumes: 10
- Published: Dec 22, 1981 – Nov 8, 1983
Some of you hardcore Saint Seiya fans can instantly recognize Kurumada-sensei’s distinct art style in this series. For those familiar with Kurumada-sensei’s work, the designs of Kojiro and in turn with Seiya from Saint Seiya is done with a unique intention. Kurumada-sensei tends to recycle his character designs because he thinks of them as actors he casts in different roles. In addition to sharing Seiya’s design, Kojiro shares a lot of Seiya’s confidence and isn’t afraid to back down from a fight. While he does have his vulnerabilities, he never gives up and vows to find a way to win, which he almost always does. Even when he loses, he still manages to gain some sort of moral victory and the respect of his opponent.
While he is a ninja, he always wears a traditional gakuran or the Mandarin collar schoolboy uniform (though he keeps his coat open). It shows a symbol of his youth and that it is easy for readers to identify that. After gaining the Furinkazan holy sword, he becomes an almost unrivaled ninja. In addition to his agility and sword fighting, he is also an expert on the basics that ninjas need to survive on the field such as disappearing, concealment, and replacing oneself with straw dummies when hit with sharp weaponry.
4. Kakashi Hatake from Naruto
- Authors: Masashi Kishimoto
- Genres: Action, Adventure, Super Power, Martial Arts, Shounen
- Volumes: 72
- Published: Sept 21, 1999 – Nov 10, 2014
The titular Naruto had to learn from some master, right? That master happens to be Kakashi Hatake, who happens to be a former pupil of the fourth Hokage (and Kakashi would later become the sixth), who in turn was Naruto’s own birth father. While Naruto’s personality and design have been criticized for being non-traditional to how ninjas look, readers don’t have to worry about that with Kakashi as his lower face is almost always covered for a good majority of the series and his outfit is both functional and fashionable as a ninja. In addition, his father was also a famous ninja who had a mixed reputation that affected Kakashi’s moral compass of following the rules vs. valuing your teammates. While he is not an Uchiha by birth, due to an incident from his younger days with his former partner Obito Uchiha, he takes his Sharingan eye and is capable of using its abilities.
Unfortunately, he cannot turn off the Sharingan so he has to cover it so it won’t drain his strength. Even without the Sharingan, Kakashi was already an accomplished ninja. By age 6 (half the age of Naruto and his teammates at the beginning of the series), he was already a chunin and highly respected amongst his peers. The guy even invented his own move, the Chidori where he can summon his energy into lighting in his hands. Due to the loss of his teammates and learning the truth about his father, Kakashi learned the value of teamwork and tries to pass it onto his students.
3. Gennosuke Kouga from Basilisk
- Authors: Fuutarou Yamada (story), Masaki Segawa (art)
- Genres: Action, Martial Arts, Romance, Historical, Drama, Seinen
- Volumes: 5
- Published: Feb 4, 2003 – Jun 14, 2004
Like all entries on this list, Gennosuke didn’t choose the ninja life, the ninja life chose him as he is in next line to inherit the historical Kouga ninja clan. In the old days, ninjas were believed to have special abilities beyond their concealment and assassination prowess. For Gennosuke, he has the ability to look into the eyes of a person with killer intent, and use it against them thus killing themselves. And thanks to his training, should in the event he cannot use his eyes, he can rely on his other senses when necessary. Putting aside his amazing abilities that are both natural and supernatural kind, Gennosuke is truly a man of peace.
What ultimately defines Gennosuke’s quality as both a great ninja and a great man is his devoted love to Oboro, a maiden from the rival Iga ninja clan. While their marriage was initially arranged, he feels a genuine love for her beyond the notion that a marriage could bring peace. However, he is willing to show no mercy against the Iga if in the event they attack him and feels that if in the event he must kill Oboro, then he might do so. While he may have his feelings, he knows where his obligations truly lie when the time comes.
2. Kamui from The Legend of Kamui (Ninpuu Kamui-den)
- Authors: Sanpei Shirato
- Genres: Action, Martial Arts, Historical, Seinen
- Volumes: 21
- Published: Oct 24, 1964 – May 24, 1971
If Japan had a version of The Fugitive, it would have to be Kamui from The Legend of Kamui. No longer wanting to be part of his clan and the feudal system, Kamui leaves to travel the country but is unfortunately branded a traitor and marked for death. Ultimately, Kamui is a survivor because of the life he now has to live. Consequently, his journey takes a toll on him and realistically becomes paranoid due to living on the run.
Much of the character and the series is an extension of Sanpei’s personal left-wing views shaped by his personal upbringing. It gives readers not only a quality action series but dwells more into the philosophical aspects of the way of the ninja and the feudal system, and how it relates to both Edo and modern times. While Kamui is strong, he is still human. He knows when something is wrong he is willing to act, but due to his rather own seclusive lifestyle getting the better of him, he eventually breaks and lashes out at innocent people. Through this character, readers can understand not only how we can take responsibility for ourselves and for others, but also how to trust one another.
1. Rekka “Recca” Hanabishi from Flame of Recca (Rekka no Honoo)
- Authors: Nobuyuki Anzai
- Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Romance, Comedy, Shounen
- Volumes: 33
- Published: Mar 22, 1995 – Oct 30, 2002
Ever since his birth, Recca was destined to become a ninja. Originally from a ninja village 500 years in the past, his mother transports him to the present, (and in turn, she becomes immortal and can no longer touch her own son) and is adopted by a fireworks maker. While he isn’t initially aware of his ninja heritage upon his introduction to the story, he is fascinated by ninjas and is already knowledgeable in martial arts, acrobatics, and using techniques such as substituting his body with a straw dummy. He’s also a cocky trash talker and can back it up. After reuniting with his mother, he is given the power to shoot fire from his arm that is uncontrollable to the point he needs an armband to limit its bursting power.
Recca is not only a great fighter but someone who truly cares about his friends, most notably Yanagi, who he refers to as his princess. While he initially has antagonistic relationships with his classmates Domon, Tokiya, and Fuko, they are willing to put aside their differences and fight the bigger evil led by Kouran and Kurei, Recca’s brother from another mother. By the end of the series, Recca fulfills his destiny, gives up his powers so he can embrace his mother again.
Many of the characters we listed come from various walks of life that are ninjas for different reasons. Some enjoy it as a hobby, and others see it as their religion and way of life. In the end, their job is to get information and if necessary, kill. So who do you think embodies the bushido of the shinobi? Please give us your thoughts in the comments.
And last, if you ever want to train to be a ninja, there are places in Japan where you can learn this ancient art. There is an actual school in Nara prefecture (not too far from Osaka and Kyoto) where you can learn to use swords, shurikens, and blow darts.