Ninja Throwing Star (Various designers)
From the curators: The term “ninja star,” sometimes also referred to as a “throwing star,” is a colloquial appellation for certain types of shuriken, a family of Japanese weapons designed to fit in the palm of a warrior’ s hand and to be deployed in close combat, often by throwing them. Ninja stars are specifically termed shashuriken, connoting their streamlined, wheel-like metal shape, which rotates in the air en route to a target. According to Serge Mol’s Classical Weaponry of Japan (Tokyo: Kodansha, 2003) it was during the Edo period in Japan (1615–1868) that metal “ironstones” (tesutsubute) forged into geometric shapes replaced more organic materials like rocks and large stones for use as missiles in military combat. It is from this that the shashuriken evolved, though reliable facts have been superseded by the ninja star’s fictional romanticization as the ninja assassin’s weapon of choice. Ninja throwing stars have often been depicted in popular Japanese- and English-speaking films (such as the classic Shinobi no Mono films of the 1960s—the series was known as Ninja, a Band of Assassins in English—or Quentin Tarantino’s schlocky 2003 action thriller Kill Bill). In recent years, manga, movies, and other popular cultural formats have seen the ninja star in action—dipped in poison for a slow, lingering death, or deployed dexterously to fell an unsuspecting opponent. The unattributed design included here is cheaply available online as a prop for role-play rather than for fatal use—although its spikes are still sharp enough to prove lethal in the wrong hands.
Silent. Sharp. And oh so deadly. That’s the shuriken, or ninja star, of the popular imagination. “Shuriken” (手裏剣) literally means “sword that’s hidden in hand.” It is just one of the many weapons in the ninja’s vast repertoire, which also includes bows and arrows, smoke bombs, an array of blades, and even magic. But during the 1980s, few things captured the attention of kids like these lethal projectiles.
While ninja lore has long been popular in Japan, the cloaked assassins experienced a popularity boom during the Reagan years in the United States, a natural evolution of the martial-arts movie craze. While the 1970s saw Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973), the 1980s ushered in a glut of B movies like Enter the Ninja (1981), which worked throwing stars into its box art, and Pray for Death (1985), with a poster that featured a ninja cloaked in a face cowl with a shuriken stuck right above the brow. These flicks were eager to thrill martial-arts hungry American audiences with ninja assassins. We saw shuriken flung in comic books and cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We even chucked virtual ones in video games like Ninja Gaiden (1988). It was no accident that one of the most desired G.I. Joe figures was the ninja Storm Shadow, who proudly displayed two shuriken in his waist sash.
By the time I was eight or nine, I knew one thing for sure: I must have a ninja star. I wanted one just like the by-then iconic throwing stars I saw in movies and video games. Sure, I was young and naive. I didn’t know about the shuriken’s true history. I didn’t know that the ninja star actually came in an array of styles, from square to x-shaped. Not all throwing stars were even, well, thrown; some were used for slashing and stabbing. Historically, shuriken were used more often for slowing down enemies at close range than for killing them at a distance, like in American Ninja 2 (1987). I didn’t know that so much of ninja iconography had been created as late as the 19th century by Japanese artists and writers—despite that ninjutsu, the art of the ninja, had existed for centuries prior. Artist Katsuhika Hokusai, for instance, is often credited with first depicting ninja in their iconic black outfits—a costume apparently inspired by the dark clothing of kabuki stagehands. So much of what we know about the ninja, and in turn shuriken, is intertwined with fantasy, which explains why these stealth assassins continue to capture the imagination.
My parents wouldn’t let me buy a metal shuriken, fearing, perhaps smartly, that I’d accidentally slice myself. Not disheartened, I saved up my allowance for a practice set of foam stars. “Practice” entailed my jumping on the bed and tossing the stars around my bedroom. I thought I was pretty badass. That is, until a friend procured what he called a “real” ninja star. By “real,” he meant it was metal and could injure.
The silver metal glistened when he took it out of the black velvet box. The star was stabby-stabby sharp, and we did what any kids would do: we took it outside to throw at a tree.
The shuriken felt heavy in my hand, and I was already visualizing how it would slice through the air. I remember awkwardly rearing back in a wind-up to let it rip, flinging my wrist forward and watching the shiny star flop down in the dirt in front of me with a thud. I felt slightly embarrassed. This sort of thing didn’t happen to martial artist Sho Kosugi in Revenge of the Ninja (1983). Heck, this wasn’t even like chucking those foam stars around my bedroom. My friend’s effort wasn’t much better. We ended up jabbing the star in the tree’s bark, pretending that we’d unleashed a magnificent throw—just like we had seen in the video games we played and the movies we watched.
Perhaps I wasn’t throwing the star correctly. Perhaps this particular model needed to be used at close range. Perhaps I didn’t know what I was doing. What I did know was that reality could be such a letdown.