Jan. 11th, 2017

aadler: (Pain)

Some weeks ago, I read the Last Adventure of Constance Verity which, while not (nor aspiring to be) great literature, was fun and entertaining, with lots of good lines and lots of good moments. A continuing theme was … not exactly the subverting of adventure tropes, but the weary recognition of them as a continuing pattern. The title character’s having experienced fantastic adventures since she was seven years old — occasionally, more than one on the same day — meant she had lots of experience in detecting patterns and repeating themes.

One of them that particularly stuck in my mind … I’m very loosely paraphrasing here, since I no longer have the text at hand: Connie had fought ninjas before. She could take them on five, six at a time, sometimes dozens at a time. When they only sent one ninja after her, though … yeah, one could be a problem.

Haven’t we seen that over and over? Our hero has to be an extraordinary person, so he does great against teams of generic ninjas, yet the single ninja who has been designated as his nemesis … that one makes for an epic fight, regardless of how easily he handled the hordes preceding. There was even a (very different) example in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the Turok-han was presented as the ultimate vampire, beating the crap out of her in their first encounter and requiring a long Thunderdome-type showdown for her to finally defeat … yet, in the last episode, a few dozen brand-new Slayers are fighting hundreds of Turok-han (with thousands more awaiting their turn), and basically holding their own.

Buffy fandom, particular the fanfic section, found itself having to offer a number of hypotheses as to how this could be so. Hence, the trope that the book cited above was able to point out for comedic effect.

It’s a trope, a familiar and even slightly silly trope. At the same time, is it really all that unrealistic?

Documentation on the ninjas of classical Japan (except back then they were identified as shinobi) identify different levels or rankings: jōnin (“upper man”) was the highest rank, with various chūnin (“middle man”) serving as assistants to the jōnin, and genin (“lower man”) the ‘commoners’ who actually carried out missions. This accords with experiences of my own. When I was watching movies as a kid, a black belt in martial arts designated someone as a total bad-ass, an expert fighter, all but unbeatable … but when I began studying the arts myself there were black belts all over the place, and some were good and some were really good and some were fantastically good, and some made you go I wonder where he bought that belt, because he sure as heck didn’t earn it? Likewise, during my time in the Army I occasionally found myself associating with various special forces troops (sometimes from different nations), and they were definitely not uniform in caliber.

So, if you think about it, it makes sense. Need to hit an ordinary target, send a ninja. More difficult target, a team of ninjas, or one to three high-level ninjas. A seriously formidable target, send the best you have, which is usually one person. In that context, smaller numbers definitely would indicate increasing deadliness.

It was still funny, though.