All Quiet on Ninja Street

Growing up is so dangerous that every year it turns thousands of people into lawyers and real estate agents. But when Andrew Beattie was growing up, he chose differently. He chose to be a ninja. Oliver Downes tells us why.

Ninjitsu

It’s a chilly but clear day at the concreted expanse of Olympic Park. Outside the conference buildings I can see various costumed figures have gathered for the Sydney leg of the 2009 Supanova Pop Culture Expo, “Where the adoring public comes face to face with the creative talent that inspire their imaginary worlds”.

It’s an odd scene. Ink-blot-masked Rorschach impersonators from the Watchmen mingle cheerily with various Final Fantasy characters, members of Sailor Moon’s coterie dodging the odd Sonic the Hedgehog sidekick. To one side of all this two knights and a samurai stand guard, their armour glinting in the wintery sunlight, posing for photographs and handing out fliers.

More surreal is the fact that unlike the kids in the videogame get-up, the samurai’s costume is actually real. His name is Andrew Beattie, and he’s here handing out flyers for a jousting exhibition he’s doing in a few weeks time, wearing genuine Japanese armour from the Edo period. He reckons he’s handed out over 1000, and I can tell that if it were me I’d be tired by now.

It’s not easy being a samurai in this day and age - there are some difficult rules to get around, like the fact that you’re carrying a real sword, one that could easily have been used in battle in Japan. I get the feeling that from a legal point of view this is a bit of a grey area. For that reason the weapon is tied tightly to his armour, making it practically impossible to get out in a hurry - sort of like those gun safes the Government makes gun-owners keep their rifles in these days - except probably not as effective.

Another obstacle to being a modern suburban samurai is that you don’t really get a lot of opportunities to put what you know into practice. Not even in tournaments. But that doesn’t stop people wanting to learn. Andrew takes classes in Bujinkan koryu, a particular form of ninjitsu in which he has been training since the late 80s at a gym in Meadowbank. Growing up around Ryde in Sydney, Andrew spent his teens practising Taekwondo competitively before gravitating towards Ninjitsu. “I was very lucky” he explains, “there’s a lot of fakes and bad teachers about. The fellow who first accepted me was the ex-kick boxing, ex-judo champion of all Japan. He was one of those ranking shihan [10th level exponents] in Japan at the time and he said “Ok, you’re mine,” and sort of brought me with his hand on my back into the dojo. I was maybe 18 at the time. It’s such a blur now.’

It sounds like he would have been a pretty intense 18-year-old. “I never learnt Japanese properly, ” he continues, “just enough to train and live and get by. All I’d do was come back to Australia and work - I was working for Parks and Wildlife [as a ranger] at the time - then I’d gear up, go back over to Japan, spend three months, four months living there and just training, 14 or 15 sessions a week.” Eventually he became so adept that he began training directly under the man who founded Bujinkan as a distinct school of Ninjitsu in the early 70s, Masaaki Hatsumi, and who remains its Soke, or Grandmaster (although Andrew simply refers to him as “the boss”).

As with many martial arts, Bujinkan uses a dan or belt-based ranking system. Over the years Andrew has worked his way up to tenth dan, becoming a shihan or Master Instructor in ninjitsu’s ranking system. Getting there doesn’t sound easy. The test to reach fifth dan is as follows. The student kneels with his eyes closed. The Grandmaster stands behind him with his feet squarely planted. He lines up his sword, a lightweight practice weapon consisting of wood wrapped in rubber, before raising it above his head. The Grandmaster closes his eyes. Time passes, both completely focussed on the moment. Then the Grandmaster cuts with killing intent. The student is not allowed to move until the sword begins its descent. If the student gets out of the way, he passes.

The test marks a student’s maturity, demonstrating their ability to perceive and avoid danger, while also qualifying them to teach beginners. “When I was sitting the test” Andrew says, “Hatsumi was on a bit of a roll to try and prove that people needed to lift their skills. And so he was cutting to the ground, and if you didn’t move out of the way, you’d have a hell of a headache or, like some people, just get knocked unconscious. And I passed. Either I got lucky or I felt it. And you can’t describe it, you’ve got to train to feel it.” He chuckles - “Or you’ve gotta be hit to feel it.”

The whatever-it-takes spirit of Andrew’s chosen discipline is a big reason why there’s no legal tournament for Bujinkan. Andrew has an explicit way of talking about the violence of his art. “If I’m going to punch, I’m not punching just to bob you on the nose or hit you in the chest to score a point. The last two guys that I know that competed in any sort of open tournament are now banned for life. One guy threw another guy by his groin and eye sockets - it’s just standard practice to shift into another point so you can reverse a throw. And so he did.”

I find the thought of so much physical force being trained into a person’s muscle memory disturbing. As he dryly puts it, “ it’s about taking it to the very last final step. It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s very matter-of-fact.”

Although it is important, fighting isn’t all there is to Bujinkan. Andrew explains that the emphasis is as much on infiltration, intelligence gathering, the ability to read and respond to situations as they unfold and the development of personal ethics about fighting. I look around, and notice that, indeed, while I stand out in this company, with his samurai gear Andrew blends in with the Supanova crowd perfectly.

I look up and see a sign the expo’s organisers have erected, apologising for the absence of Stanislav Ianevski, the Bulgarian actor who played the scowling Viktor Krum in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Hostel: Part II. I forgive them, and wonder what it is that makes all of the interests on show here overlap so frequently - sci-fi, fantasy, the associated film genres and the film buffs who go with that.

What does Andrew reckon? Rather than answering, he tells me that aside from being a master ninja he’s also a qualified stuntman who has worked on Farscape and Star Wars, as well as a dedicated medievalist re-enacter who organised the joust he’s here today to advertise.

“I did a lot of riding when I was little” he says by way of explanation, as though the act of riding a horse at another human being with the purpose of knocking them down with a lance is a breeze. “I pretty much just do this [for a living] now - teach Bujinkan and do the stuntwork,” he says. “It’s kept me in good stead, that 20 years training in Japan. I’ve done a little bit of riding over there as well, some Yabusame archery.”

I ask if that’s the one where you shoot arrows at targets while riding a horse at high speed.

He laughs, “Yeah, I do silly things. It’s awesome.”