Japan has spawned two of the most adored historical characters that fiction and pop culture love to romanticize: the samurais and the ninjas. The samurais are archetyped as versatile warriors, faithfully living a life in accordance to a strict code of honor, who are graceful and adept katana-wielders, capable of drawing their swords with lightning fast swiftness and slashing opponents with deadly elegance. Ninjas, on the other hand, are archetyped as stealthy, elite assassins who possess nigh superhuman agility and dexterity as well as exceptional mastery in concealment and misdirection, covert and silent movements and attacks, and a variety of unique and mysterious techniques and weapons. It is not unusual for the two kinds of warriors to be pitted against each other.
In this list, I would be listing respective 10s for samurais and ninjas (just as what I’ve did with my list on anime protagonists and antagonists). And, yes, since samurais and ninjas are from Japan, a lot of those that made the list are from manga or anime. But take note that to qualify on this list, the characters should have been explicitly introduced as samurais and ninjas and not just because they are samurai-esque or ninja-esque. So no Deadpool here. Moreover, Ronin (masterless samurais) characters are also considered during evaluation for the ten picks for samurais.
Let’s start with samurais…
10.) GOEMON ISHIKAWA XIII
Goemon is the gifted samurai member of the gang of Lupin III, the charming master thief. With his katana, Goemon is depicted as capable of cutting through anything, even metal. He seemingly has near superhuman speed and reflexes, since he can catch an arrow with his bare hands and slice bullets shot at him in half! Moreover, he is also proficient in several martial arts and is capable of staying a long time underwater without the help of an aqualung.
9.) SILVER SAMURAI
The Silver Samurai is arguably the most famous samurai-themed comic book character in Western comics. He has been both a villain and a hero, changing allegiance from time to time. He is a mutant and is capable of charging anything with a so-called “tachyon field”; he usually charges his katana, allowing him to cut through almost anything. He also has a ring that allows him to teleport.
8.) MIYAMOTU USAGI
Being a rabbit ronin, Usagi has the advantage of being simultaneously adorable and badass. Thus, this cute but combat-competent critter easily makes the list. The setting of Usagi’s adventures is during feudal Japan, where anthropomorphic animals instead of humans are living. Usagi travels the land, freelancing as a samurai bodyguard.
7.) SAMURAI JACK
Jack was a prince during feudal Japan. He traveled the world and trained to become a legendary warrior with the aim of destroying the demon Aku, to avenge the destruction of his father’s kingdom at the hands of the demon. Jack and Aku fought with Jack winning. However, before Jack can deliver the killing strike, Aku created a time portal to send Jack to the future, with the intention of buying time to grow more powerful and defeat Jack once he arrives in the future. Jack arrived in a dystopian future where Aku ruled the world. Jack travelled the world, fighting Aku’s minions along the way, in search of a time portal to send him back to his own time so he can destroy Aku before the demon can conquer the world.
Afro Samurai has an interesting premise. The setting is a sci-fi feudal Japan in which whoever wears the Number 1 headband has the title of being the greatest warrior in the land. Anyone who desire to become “Number 1” should first defeat the current holder of the headband in combat. However, the only one who can challenge the “Number 1” is the one who holds the “Number 2” headband. Anybody can challenge the holder of the “Number 2” headband. In the first series, Afro holds the “Number 2” headband and many challenged him for it for the right of fighting “Number 1”. He was able to defeat all his challengers. Afro’s own purpose in challenging the “Number 1”, Justice the gunslinger, is to avenge his father, the former “Number 1” who Justice (as “Number 2”) killed to obtain the title for himself. Afro succeeded with this and becomes “Number 1” at the end of the series. However, in the sequel, it was revealed that Afro refused to wear his “Number 1” headband, thus, a mysterious vengeful woman named Sio obtained it. Sio forced Afro – by cloning his father’s corpse and threatening to torture the clone – to search for the “Number 2” headband so that he can challenge her. To make things short, Afro got back his “Number 1” headband in the end.
Being able to win the “Number 1” headband shows Afro’s excellence as a warrior: he is basically the strongest. He is a powerful swordsman, and though he gets tired of killing, he has no hesitation in doing so when it’s required. Afro has an imaginary friend named “Ninja Ninja” who is the opposite of Afro in character and personality.
Manji is the protagonist of the manga Blade of the Immortal. As what is implied by the title, Manji is an immortal samurai. He obtained his immortality after being stuffed by an 800-year old nun with bloodworms to save him from certain death. His notorious nicknames “The Hundred Man Killer” (for the amount of opponents he had killed) and “Mr. Twelve Blades” (for the number of weapons he has) just show how an awesome badass Manji is.
4.) NOBUNAGA HAZAMA
Nobunaga is a member of the ruthless and powerful criminal organization known as Phantom Troupe or “Genei Ryodan” (antagonists of Hunter X Hunter). What makes him stand out from the rest of this list is he’s probably the quickest one here. Whenever he uses his katana to attack, the smooth progression (Iaidō) of drawing, slashing, cleaning, and replacing the sword back to its scabbard is so extremely fast that the human eye can’t follow it. Through the human eye, it’s as if the sword never left its scabbard at all. Anyone who is within his attack range is sure to be cut. Nobunaga’s full power, though, has not been revealed yet.
3.) SHISHIO MAKOTO
The top three spots in this list belong to characters of Samurai X, which is, not only the anime that features the most exciting samurai action I’ve ever seen, but one of the best anime series I’ve ever encountered. Of the three, let’s start with Shishio, who’s a very menacing, intelligent, and compelling villain, making him one of the best anime antagonists there are. Aside from his ruthlessness and fearlessness, what’s makes him a very dangerous swordsman is his sword that ignites during combat – because of the blade being soaked in the flesh and fat of all the victims he had killed through the years – and his ability to intelligently read his opponents, that he can neutralize their techniques after just seeing them just once.
2.) SAITŌ HAJIME
Despite of not having the appearance of a samurai anymore, since he’s not wearing the stereotypical kimono of a samurai but a police officer uniform (since it’s now his profession), Saitō still carries the air of a samurai. And wearing a police officer uniform actually adds dimension and charisma to the character. Besides, when he was still a samurai and dressing like one, he probably has the best samurai look among those in this list:
“Badass” is the first thing that comes to mind if asked of what I think of Saitō. The word is being thrown a lot these days but Saitō really possesses the quality. He is extremely skilled, tough, and capable of being ruthless. He’s indeed a very skillful swordsman since he was even able to fight in equal standing with the number one of this list at one time. His best technique is unique for a samurai, since instead of slashing targets with his katana, as what is usual with a samurai, he instead thrusts it forward. Even without a sword, Saitō is very dangerous with his bare hands since he has excellent boxing and close combat skills.
1.) HIMURA KENSHIN
Copied word for word from my entry on Kenshin in my “Top 10 Anime Protagonists” list:
Not only is he my most favorite samurai in fiction, but he’s my most favorite fictional character that wields a sword… The way he fights is such a joy to watch, there’s a beautiful mix of grace and lethality in it… After being known as a legendary and dangerous assassin “Hitokiri Battosai” during the Meiji Revolution, he grew weary of killing and found appreciation of life, thus, he vowed never to kill again. In his personal path for self-redemption, he now uses his skills to help those in need and fight for the weak that are oppressed by wicked people. With the use of a “reverse-edged” sword, Kenshin manages to fight utilizing his awesome sword skills without having to break his vow of non-killing.
Because he doesn’t intend to kill his opponents, he’s not actually able to fight in his best form, that is, by projecting the infamous “Hitokiri Battosai” killing persona. He consciously or subconsciously holds back. Considering this, that he’s always on a disadvantage on his fight, it’s quite impressive that he still overcomes opponents – who, on the other hand, have no hesitation in killing him – without taking any life. Such is the awesomeness of the titular Samurai X!
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And now, for the ninjas…
Those who were in contention for this tenth spot are Strider Hiryu and Gray Fox the Cyborg Ninja (of Metal Gear fame). But what made me pick Ninjzz over such kickass characters? Simple, I just believe Ninjzz is cooler. Ninjzz is the only one among the Boyzz – robots created by the Botsmaster, Ziv “ZZ” Zulander – that is specifically designed for combat as ZZ encoded all of the world’s martial arts on Ninjzz’s programming. Best ninja thing about Ninjzz though is his voice and speech pattern – perfectly ninja-like. His preferred weapons are his sword and nunchucks but he’s also equipped with a laser gun.
This X-Man used to be bland. But after getting brainwashed by the Hand (criminal ninja organization in the Marvel Universe) and obtaining ninja training, she underwent a dramatic make-over, propelling her amongst the elite characters of the X-Men. She had effectively combined her mutant psionic abilities with her ninja fighting skills, making her one of the X-Men’s most deadly fighters.
Another spot on this list is taken by another hot and dangerous kunoichi (which roughly means “female ninja”. Side thought: why aren’t there any male ninja superheroes in Marvel and DC? Or if there are, it means they aren’t as awesome as Psylocke and Elektra since I have forgotten about them). But unlike Psylocke, Elektra has no super powers at all. Nonetheless, that’s exactly the reason why she’s ahead of Psylocke in this list: despite the fact that she has no powers at all, she can beat or at least hold her ground with the best superpowered individuals out there. Elektra is a coldblooded assassin and the coolest user of the sai as a primary weapon (sorry Raphael but this is true). She is best known as the most famous among Daredevil’s exes (that says a lot considering the amount of former flames that Matt Murdock had). She is currently a member of the present Thunderbolts roster.
6.) & 7.) SCORPION & SUB-ZERO
Definitely the top two most popular characters in Mortal Kombat are these two ninjas. Both are terrifyingly competent martial artists and possess thrilling powers; ice abilities for Sub-Zero, and flame abilities and shooting out a kunai-tipped rope (originally thought to be a snake-like creature) out his palm for Scorpion. In the MK storyline, the two are mortal enemies and hated each other with passion. Though neither of the two is my most favorite character from the MK franchise – Johnny Cage is – the two of them follows Johnny. I find Scorpion a little bit more interesting than Sub-Zero (so the former has the 6th spot and the latter has the 7th spot).
Almost everybody of my generation is familiar with and had loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles during childhood. But even though the turtles all shared the same appearances – just difference on the color themes – Leonardo stands out the most. It definitely has something to do with Leonardo’s trademark weapons, his two katanas. Katanas are preferred over sais, staffs, and nunchuks. Katanas are the coolest. When I was still a kid and playing some Ninja Turtles pretend with other kids, each one of us wanted to be Leonardo. Nobody wanted to be Raphael, Michaelangelo, or Donatello. Everybody wanted to wield the two katanas, even if it was just pretend.
4.) UZUMAKI NARUTO
The manga/anime Naruto has greatly innovated the ninja epitome of pop culture. The titular character wears a loud orange color scheme, which is kind of out of character for ninjas who make an effort to conceal their presence and movements (that’s why they are usually portrayed as wearing black). But, as I’ve said, the anime is all about reinventing the ninja typecast. Orange is lame and silly. Still, with that against him, Naruto still managed to prove himself to be a very interesting ninja character.
His character development has been long but worth following. He was first introduced as unremarkable and the least of his peers. His childhood was spent as an outcast and looked down by others. Nonetheless, in spite of all these, Naruto maintained a strong will and a bubbly nature, pursuing his goals with enthusiasm, cockiness, and a lot of heart. As the story progressed, he would gain friends (some of them, his former adversaries) and admirers for his loyalty, optimism, resolve, and seeing and bringing out the best of those around him. Moreover, he would also grow in power, knowledge, experience and skill as a shinobi, making him eventually one of his village’s strongest and most important ninjas. He would even save his entire village from destruction and be celebrated as a hero (see Invasion of Pain Arc). And it just keeps getting better with him and his manga.
2.) & 3.) SNAKE EYES & STORM SHADOW
Both attended the same ninja school and had been former comrades – “sword brothers” – but after the murder of their master (by Zartan), of which Storm Shadow was implicated, they took separate paths and became bitter rivals. Snake Eyes would join the G.I. Joe while Storm Shadow found himself with Cobra. The two would clash many times, whenever the G.I.Joe and Cobra clash. But after Storm Shadow learned the truth that Zartan was the one who killed his master, he would ally himself with Snake Eyes and the G.I. Joe.
There are several ninja characters in the G.I. Joe franchise, but Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are the best and most iconic among them. It can even be argued that the two of them are the best and most iconic above all other G.I. Joe characters. Whether that is true or not, personally, they are my most favorite characters as a G.I. Joe fan. In the comics (which have the best G.I. Joe stories) and the animated series, they superbly stand out. They are even the best thing about the G.I. Joe movies.
Both are awesome ninja characters but Snake Eyes slightly edges Storm Shadow in my personal ranking. Making the former number 2 and the latter number 3 in this list. It all comes down to their initial allegiance (since Snake Eyes has been part of the good guys right from the start) and choice of weaponry. While Storm Shadow has been portrayed as occasionally using a gun, the weapons he mainly carries are his katana and traditional ninja weapons (knives, shurikens, etc.). Guns, however, are a staple of Snake Eyes’ arsenal along with his katana and knives. Guns give an additional layer of kickassery on ninjas.
1.) HATAKE KAKASHI
The top of this list goes to another one of my most favorite anime characters. Naruto is an interesting ninja, but he’s not the most interesting character of his own manga/anime series. Kakashi is. Possessing a Sharingan and capable of limitedly accessing its powers, Kakashi is able to easily copy others’ techniques. That’s why it was said he’s a ninja that has an arsenal of one thousand techniques. He is both an intelligent pre-battle strategist and on-battle tactician. He was a prodigy in childhood and had grown up into one of Konoha’s most powerful and legendary shinobis. He’s currently next in line for the position of Hokage (top ninja). Despite of his fame and superior abilities, Kakashi maintains a cool, patient, and humble attitude and puts emphasis on friendship and teamwork above anything else.
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I’ve mentioned a while ago that I find a lack of male ninja superheroes. The closest to such is the Avenger, Ronin (the second one). The word “ronin” means “masterless samurai.” But the superhero Ronin donned a ninja outfit instead of going with a samurai look. Ronin has neither samurai nor ninja background at all, thus, the reason the character wasn’t included in the two lists. Still, the character is quite fascinating.
The first Ronin was Maya Lopez a.k.a Echo, who was first known as a former enemy and eventual ally of Matt Murdock a.k.a. Daredevil. She is deaf but get by by reading lips. She has the skill called “photographic reflexes” (the same ability as Taskmaster’s) which allows her to duplicate any physical movement or action after only witnessing it once, including fighting styles.
The original intent by the writers was for Matt Murdock a.k.a. Daredevil to be Ronin when serving as an Avenger. Matt Murdock was continually refusing Captain America whenever Cap attempts to recruit him to join the Avengers (though he would eventually join an Avenger team in the future). It was the time when Daredevil was being portrayed with notoriety by the media and Matt thinks it would damage the Avengers’ image if he joins. The solution would have been for Matt to adopt another superhero identity as an Avenger (as what suggested by Cap). That would have been cool, Matt would be Daredevil whenever he’s going solo and he would be Ronin whenever he’s on a mission with the Avengers. Unfortunately, the concept was in conflict with the storyline that the Daredevil series was doing that time. Thus, it was decided for Echo to become Ronin (sent by Matt to aid the Avengers) – which everybody thought prior the revelation of the identity was Daredevil, as what was being hinted earlier. Matt as Ronin would have been more awesome. Bummer.
The second Ronin was Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye, the archer with trick arrows and phenomenal accuracy. There was a time he “retired” his Hawkeye persona and became Ronin for some time. He would first wear the Ronin costume during the Avengers’ rescue mission for Echo (who has been captured by the Hand) since it’s the only costume available then. After the mission, Clint offered to return the costume and identity to Maya but she rejected it (she went back to being “Echo” after her rescue and return to the Avengers), thus, Clint chose to continue carrying the Ronin identity, trading his bow and arrow for katanas and nunchucks.
Clint is back to being Hawkeye now, but during his run as Ronin, he displayed his versatility, that he is a valuable superhero even without a bow.