Making a Name: “The Ultimate Ninja”

“Soon, all will know my name!  I am…”

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Written by:Mike Ryan
Original Air Date: February 7, 2004
Teaser Narrator: Leonardo
Characters and Concepts Introduced: The Ultimate Ninja; The Gyouji (Unnamed); The Daimyo (Unnamed)
Gargoyles episode I could make a very unforced comparison to: “Ill Met by Moonlight”

The Beats:

  • A masked ninja teleports on a rooftop.  Using some sort of water based magic, he spies on Leonardo.
  • Inside the lair, its various residents are killing time.  Leonardo is working on his oral hygiene, and is annoyed at the fact that April appears to have taken over the lair’s bathroom.  Splinter gushes to April about how her hair conditioner and its effects on his fur.  Donatello tinkers with the Utrom skiff stolen during the T.C.R.I. mess, while Raphael watches the news.  Michelangelo, meanwhile, prepares popcorn in preparation for movie night.
  • Casey arrives at the lair with that night’s feature, Rio Gato, a western much-loved by himself and, coincidentally, April.  Despite some initial skepticism by the turtles, they by the end all agree that it was a fantastic film.
  • The turtles, Casey, April, and Splinter, head out for ice cream.  As they eat their noms, they talk about Rio Gato‘s ending, where Sheriff Bart, the good guy, defeats the on-paper superior gunslinger, known only as The Kid.  Splinter posits that the reason Bart defeated the Kid was due to his nobler motives, or perhaps to avoid a bummer ending.  This is what we in the business call thematic resonance.
  • The ninja from earlier throws a knife at Leonardo, which the  turtle catches.  Splinter, surprisingly, announces that it knows it significance, and it’s not “someone wants Leo dead”.  Rather, it means that Leonardo has been challenged to a duel.
  • The ninja reveals himself and explains the situation: in accordance with the traditions of his people, he challenges Leonardo to mortal combat.  If the turtle does not accept, his family will be killed.  Leonardo, not seeing much of a choice, accepts.
  • The ninja uses a tiny drum to summon a ghostly being to serve as referee.  Splinter asks this newcomer to allow him and the other turtles the right to observe the battle, which is granted.
  • Leonardo and the ninja are transported to Central Park, where the duel begins.
  • Fight fight fight.  The bout makes its way to the top of a suspension bridge tower.  Splinter asserts his rights as an observer, and asks that the referee  move them all there, which the referee complies with.
  • The turtles watch as the fight continues, the momentum of the battle shifting several times between combatants.  Eventually, the ninja gains the advantage and causes Leonardo to fall to his apparent doom in the waters below.
  • The ninja, elated over his apparent victory, asserts his supremacy over all other fighters on the planet.  He gives himself a name which reflects his new status: The Ultimate Ninja.  Before he can celebrate for too long, he is surprised by Leonardo, who has managed to use the claws taken from the ninja to climb back up the tower.
  • Leonardo presses his momentary advantage and defeats, but doesn’t kill, his challenger.  He is declared the winner.
  • A sore loser, The Ultimate Ninja decides that he’s okay with killing the witnesses to his defeat. He uses a magic powder, which takes the form of a giant serpent.  Before the snake can do much of anything, though, it is cleaved in half by a sword belonging to another masked warrior, who identifies himself only as The Ultimate Ninja’s father.
  • The Ultimate Ninja’s father publicly berates his son and praises Leonardo, whom he grants a gift: the turtle’s lost swords.  He displays obvious familiarity with Splinter, which is very much reciprocated by the rat master.
  • After the Ultimate Ninja’s father leaves along with his retinue, the turtles all head back home.  Raphael asks Splinter for an explanation for the night’s events, but the rat master explains that that is a story for a later time.

Continuity and Mythology Notes

—-

TMNT, particularly early on, was not a show terribly interested in delving too deeply into its characters, or in painting them with shades of gray.  While there’s a pleasant cognitive dissonance to the turtles’ actions–they don’t kill Foot Ninja in self-defense, but have no problem assassinating the Shredder–this is mostly accidental, a result of having to mix   the Mirage turtles’ story with acceptable-for-kids morality.  When it came to intentional character beats, the moral lines tended to be rather defined.  The Shredder is evil, even when capable of altruistic behavior (Karai).    The turtles are good, even when planning and executing a revenge plot.  The most morally complex relationship, at this point, is between Nano and Harry, and that’s hardly terribly nuanced.

Sometimes, however, the writing is sparse enough that narrative gaps are left in place–details that maybe should have been elaborated upon aren’t, and thus enough space is left for multiple valid interpretations, which in turn can make things seem to be more complex than they were perhaps intended to be.  Karai’s motives in season 3 probably represent the best example.  While Karai never really makes her feelings clear, the idea, I think, was to portray her as someone who has conflicted loyalties–“Same as it Never Was” explicitly has Leonardo demand that she make a choice–and yet, that’s not the only, or even the most interesting, reading of her arc.  One could just as easily argue, as I have, that Karai wasn’t conflicted at all, and had a precise and defined goal: run the clock until the Shredder left to the stars, leaving her in control of the Foot Clan and allowing her to honor her deal with the turtles–an interpretation that is not only perfectly supported by her onscreen actions, but also has the benefit of making her more complex, capable of both good and evil.  Something like that happens here: while the episode can be taken at face value, there’s an undercurrent that feels too consistent to be unintentional, and that allows for a more complicated reading the titular character.

Initially, the fact that  the Daimyo’s son had no name annoyed me. The name he chooses for himself, The Ultimate Ninja, is clunky and pretentious as hell, and even when I realized that his lack of name is because, actually, no character from the Battle Nexus has one–they go by their positions, i.e.: “the Daimyo”, “the Gyoji”, etc.– it still bugged. It wasn’t until rather recently when it occurred to me that this particular detail wasn’t accidental or happenstance: it’s the entire point.
The episode says so itself: The Daimyo’s son is out to make a name for himself. This is usually meant figuratively,  but here the meaning is also literal: the ninja has no name, and, in defeating Leonardo, he hopes to accrue enough cred to establish an identity for himself other than “Daimyo’s son”. Given that he comes from a culture defined by battle, what better way to define himself than as the one who defeats the best? While a cheating asshole, he is a cheating asshole defined by his culture, and with a motive I find shockingly sympathetic, even as it’s not actually acknowledged in “The Ultimate Ninja” itself.  It also makes the episode far more interesting: instead of just being about a random challenger, it is also about identity, and about how societal expectations can warp a person and their sense of morality.

Is this reading too much into things?  Possibly.  And yet, it all hangs together well enough, and given that The Ultimate Ninja is eventually granted a redemption arc, it’s not  out of tune with where the show takes the character.  It would have been the easiest thing in the world to turn this particular bit of subtext into text.

Would that have been preferable, though?  Putting aside the fact that a more detailed examination of The Ultimate Ninja’s motives would undermine the story–this particular episode is all about keeping characters and viewers off-balance, meaning there’s not a lot of space for elaboration about who these new characters are–I’m not sure the show’s writing is strong enough to handle the more complicated story.  By keeping it at arm’s length and in effect leaving viewers to do all the work, the show allows the story to remain precisely as complex or as simple as one wants it to be.

“Icebergvania” is a term used in certain videogame-related circles to refer to a hypothetical game where a normal playthrough would only allow you to see about ten percent of the game–which would be a complete experience in and of itself, and the one that would be sold to the audience–but whose true depths are secret, normally inaccessible, and preferably found only years after the game’s initial released.   Where the original The Legend of Zelda merely suggested that every bush could be burned to reveal a secret, an Icebergvania would actually deliver, with entire swaths of game that, for example, could only be accessed once, at a certain time, under a specific set of circumstances that would normally be obtained only accidentally.

While the idea of Icebergvania is somewhat quixotic, it speaks to the appeal of the hidden depths.    The  original Star Wars trilogy referenced things like the Clone Wars, which wasn’t really a factor in the film but gave the brand-spanking new universe heft that it would not have otherwise possessed.  Early Nintendo games like the original The Legend of Zelda overcame their technical deficiencies to suggest worlds full of secrets, by training players to believe that every bush could be burned away to reveal a dungeon.  Gargoyles is still discussed today in large part because of the way Greg Weisman continues to tease the world that we’d get if it ever comes back.

Still, the keyword here is “hidden”; something like Pokémon is not usually considered an Icebergvania, because its optional content, while plentiful, is also both more or less in plain sight and expected.  You’re told about the totality of the iceberg from the star, and so while catching them all may require rare dedication, it doesn’t require going off the beaten track, and thus it inspires some rather different feelings.  Imagine Pokémon, however, if we didn’t already know which or how many of the beasties were actually around in any particular installment–the game would feel drastically different.

This goes to the core of TMNT‘s appeal, to me: for whatever reason, the show tends to be rather successful at suggesting depths beyond what we see.  Where Gargoyles tends to be more specific about motivations and the character beats it is trying to explore, and shines in large part because it is intent on building over ever piece of dramatic real estate it has at its disposal if only it gets the chance, TMNT, in its greater focus on set pieces and action and interaction, left large swaths of that same real estate open to fan development.  And while a lot of that development is  100%-grade fanwank, existing only because a glorious fan thought it up, sometimes it’s the result of somebody seeing the tip of the iceberg left behind by the show, and imagining what lay underneath.

Random Thoughts:

  • The Daimyo and the Ultimate Ninja form the second non-turtle Father / Child relationship in the series, and one with abusive overtones, which will inform the two characters’ actions in subsequent episodes.
  • If The Ultimate Ninja is defined by his need to win, Leo is defined by not being defined by the same.  This context will become important in season 4.
  • One thing I’d like to note is that I’m actually a rather big fan of th e Battle Nexus and its characters, and really like The Ultimate Ninja as an antagonist.  He’s very solidly built.  I like the he uses a shit-ton of weapons.  I like the way he teleports.  I like his mask.  I like that he appears to have a prosthetic hand, for which no explanation is given.
  • The film the turtles are watching during the first act is fascinating from a production standpoint, because it appears to break several of TMNT‘s rules when it comes to acceptable content. A few episodes ago, I talked about how the closest thing the show could come to depicting a realistic firearm was to create one that could be plausibly denied. Here, however, we see not only realistic revolvers, which are then shot, we see a man getting killed. Now, it might be that the fact that the killing is shown in a story within the story adds enough abstraction to things to allow it to pass muster with Broadcast S&P, but it’s also worthwhile to note just what exactly was and wasn’t shown–specifically, the actual moments when guns are shot, or a moment one someone is actually hit with the actual bullets.  It’s a very specific staging, and yet and effective one–it doesn’t feel like the writer and storyboarders are writing around content restrictions, which is rare for this season.
  • Speaking of Rio Gato, it always bugged me how the original version of a film old enough to be remade a gazillion times is in color. It’s not super-unlikely or anything–The Wizard of Oz can be considered super-old–but having it be black and white seemed like it would have been more appropriate. Or maybe just expected.
  • It’s hard to know what to make of Leo’s impatience with April’s continued presence. On one hand, it’s understandable to get annoyed when a familiar home dynamic is altered. On the other hand, dude, she’s not any worse than you guys were when you were staying at her place.
  • One interesting bit of symmetry is that both here and with Leonardo’s duel with the Shredder, Leo wins while wielding the enemy’s weapon.
  • In addition to the structural and plot similarities with “Ill Met by Moonlight”, “The Ultimate Ninja” features several elements that make it one of the more Gargoyles-like TMNT episodes.  Most obviously, there’s Rio Gato, which bears many similarities to Showdown, the western briefly seen in “Deadly Force“.  More subtly, there’s the fact that the film, as I mentioned before, is meant to thematically resonate with the show’s main plot, which is a technique Gargoyles used quite a bit, but is considerably less common in 4Kids’ show.  Finally, there’s the fact that the episode introduces a culture in which people are not given names.
  • Head-canon: Those chosen few the Daimyo refers to as the first recipients of the gift of Ninjitsu were the four members of the Ninja Tribunal.
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4 Responses to Making a Name: “The Ultimate Ninja”

  1. Isaac says:

    Definitely enjoyed your analysis here. I never thought much of this episode, other than it was one of those episodes that didn’t have much going for it, but was a lot of fun. I think you may be on to something with what you have to say about the Ultimate Ninja, in particular the idea of “making a name for yourself”.

  2. “Head-canon: Those chosen few the Daimyo refers to as the first recipients of the gift of Ninjitsu were the four members of the Ninja Tribunal.” My headcanon has been that the first (pre-?)demon Shredder once fought in the Battle Nexus, based on that Shredder helmet that falls into Leo’s lap during his and Usagi’s fight against the assassins. Then Leo throws the helmet away in disgust, having dealt with enough Shredders to last a multiverse of lifetimes.

    Excellent review as usual, Ian. Thank you for clarifying the potentially awkward lack of naming the Ultimate Ninja. (I appreciated how this show, like so many comics, just rolled with the idea of larger than life personas having seemingly absurd names–not every Galactus needs their name to have any deeper origin story.)

  3. Ian says:

    Thank you for the kind words, Isaac, dereksmcgrath. I’ve really wanted to review this episode for the longest time, because it’s one that really benefits from analysis, and I don’t think anyone had quite interpreted the episode this way, which is like catnip for me.

    Derek, I’ll will definitively be talking about that helmet when we get to “The Big Brawl” Part Two.

  4. Pingback: Mount Everest: “City at War” Part One | Monsters of New York

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