In the Afro Samurai (2007) mini-series by Gonzo, Ninja Ninja is a figment of Afro’s mind that has partial existence in the real world. He is connected to the Number 2 Headband and acts as a narrator of the silent hero’s thoughts and fears.
Ninja Ninja’s mysterious origins
Ninja Ninja appeared in an intense moment of Afro’s life: the moment he took the Number 2 headband from his sword master. His friends and adopted family were slain by the small army that came after the precious piece of cloth. However, Afro was the only one to survive. Now, Afro is all alone, wondering the landscape with this wisecracking entity.
The mythology behind these sacred headbands is a driving force in the story. Our hero lives in a seemingly post-apocalyptic Japan. A mixture of robotic technology and old-world feudalism paints a strange world with its own rules. The headbands were supposedly handed down to humanity from the gods, with the Number 1 headband granting god-like powers. However, only the wielder of the Number 2 headband can challenge the holder of the Number 1 headband.
At first, it seems that headbands are simply symbols of power in a lawless world. In some ways, they are, especially with Afro’s nemesis, Justice, who took the Number 1 headband from his father. The metaphor is clear in this sense—power painted as justice to justify itself.
However, the headband carried a strange secret. Suddenly, an entity made of Afro’s subconscious become partially real. Most of the time, other characters don’t pay him any attention. Then, he seems to directly interact with the world to help Afro.
Duality is a major theme in the series.
Influence from East Asia exploded into American culture in the 1970’s. This influence would inspire hip hop artist The Rza, who worked as a collaborator for the anime series, and the legendary Wu-Tang clan. Naturally, this east-meets-west collaboration included Eastern concepts like duality.
Ninja Ninja seems to be Afro’s total opposite. His black clothing and white afro are opposite to Afro’s black hair and white clothing—a subtle nod to yin and yang. His personality is loud and outgoing, opposite of Afro’s stoic samurai persona. Plus, he’s a ninja, a classic enemy of the honor-bound samurai warrior trope.
Afro is not only on a quest to avenge his father, he’s on a quest to find internal piece. Therefore, this conflict is represented by the strange entity. Ninja Ninja voices fears, anxieties and desires Afro may have in a given scenario. In a way, he acts like Afro’s ego. His story comes to a full circle when Afro faces off against his old friend, Jinno.
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Subtle Ninja Scroll inspiration
Finally, I couldn’t help but notice the influence of Ninja Scroll (1993) within Afro Samurai. Though its creators bring a multitude of inspiration and influences to the project, Ninja Ninja reminds me of another funny, old ninja character: Dakuan.
In Ninja Scroll, a lone, talented swordsman finds himself facing a clan of terrifying mercenary ninja called the 8 Devils of Kimon. Naturally, he’d rather continue his roaming ronin lifestyle, but a certain spy won’t let him walk away. Dakuan is mysterious, with strange abilities in which he mastered over a lifetime of spy work. The old man is funny, clever and sometimes antagonistic toward the lone swordsman.
Obviously, this isn’t exactly the same as Ninja Ninja. However, the character dynamic between ninja and young, brash swordsman is something fun. It points to interesting dynamics between experience and natural aptitude. Both old ninjas grant their respective hero’s insight and warning to unfamiliar situations. Therefore, as odd and antagonistic as they could be, their relationship with the hero is important.