From toad wrestling to Teenage Mutant Ninja Frogs? It might sound like a leap of logic, but it's absolutely true: today's ninja susperstars have some decidedly slimy origins.
Hiroko and I were conducting research in the Sackler Gallery archives for an upcoming project when we stumbled across a cache of 18th century frog and toad related prints.
They weren't the first we'd ever seen, but they reminded us of the love-hate relationship Japan has enjoyed with the creatures over the ages. Sure, they're warty and bumpy and hang out in slimy dark places, but there's something about those beady little eyes that demands a certain amount of affection.
The Japanese actually have a word for this type of cognitive dissonance: it's called kimo-kawaii: cute and gross, all at the same time. It's something Japanese designers have a real knack for; you can see it in so many mascots and characters today that it can be easy to mistake for a recent trend. It isn't.
Long before Japanese had a word for it, frogs and toads were the ORIGINAL "kimo-kawaii."
In spite of being totally common sorts of animals (you can even find them in the midst of the Tokyo metropolis today, if you know where to look), they're often portrayed in decidedly uncommon circumstances: marching alongside yokai, acting as familiars to ninja sorcerers, even cutting loose and staging impromptu wrestling matches when pesky humans aren't lurking about.
Now here's where things get interesting.
The following prints show Tenjiku Tokubei (1612- 1692), a real-life adventurer who traveled extensively in Southeast Asia at a time when very few Japanese were allowed to leave their country.
His name translates into "Tokubei of India" -- I guess you could call him a sort of Japanese "Lawrence of Arabia."
After his death, his legend continued to grow. In 1804, Tokubei became the subject of a kabuki play called Tenjiku Tokubei Kokubanashi. It portrayed the adventurer as a wizard-like master of magic gleaned from the Asian continent.
His secret superpower involved casting spells on the large stones used to make pickled vegetables, transforming them into... giant toads. Which would then attack his enemies. (Yeah, toads. C'mon. When you think about it, is this really that much stranger than the powers the X-Men and other modern superheroes are supposed to possess?)
In an amusing twist, the kabuki play's producer promoted his show by fueling rumors that the actors used "Christian magic" to effect their super-quick dress changes during the show. Perhaps one could say frogliness is next to Godliness?
Toyohara Kunichika, 1883.
Utagawa Toyokuni, 1809.
As the sheer number of pieces of art produced for it attest, the play was a huge hit -- the contemporary equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster.
They influenced a writer by the name of Kanwatei Onitake, who borrowed (some might say "swiped") Tokubei's signature attack and fused it with tales of a legendary Chinese burglar to create Jiraiya, who is widely considered to be the very first ninja character in Japanese pop culture.
Jiraiya (who not coincidentally gets a big profile in Ninja Attack!) first appeared in an 1806 illustrated book that could be called the ancestor of the graphic novel. He's a thief with a heart of gold and the ability to conjure up giant phantom frogs. Where Tokubei's powers were said to come from foreign lands, Jiraiya's were good old-fashioned Japanese ninjutsu.
The tweak to the story seems to have hit home, because Jiraiya is far more well known than his predecessor today. In fact, he's a positive superstar among a certain set. He lives on as one of the main characters in the Naruto anime series.
Kanwatei Onitake's Jiraiya
Update 02/2012! You can see the 1921 silent film "Jiraiya," considered the ancestor of both ninja cinema and tokusatsu (special-effects) films in Japan, here on YouTube! The frog-versus-samurai battle at 12 minutes in is a must-see.