Table Work: The Ninja’s Theatrical History

Dressed in black from head to toe, face obscured from onlookers, moving silently in complete darkness. When they do their jobs well, the public is completely unaware of their actions. They are known as “kurogo” in Japan, but here we simply call them …


I’m sorry, did you think I was describing something else? Ninja perhaps? It turns out the two cross paths in a fascinating way. Generally, when people imagine ninja, a specific look comes to mind: black, loose-fitting garments cinched at the waist, wrists and shins to allow for a wide range of motion; head cloaked in a hood; face obscured with a mask – ninja stuff, right? In reality, you’d probably never catch a ninja in this type of outfit.

Ninja were more akin to spies than shadowy assassins. Rather than hiding in the darkness, ninja would blend in with crowds. They would wear disguises, yes, but probably nothing like we imagine when we think of them. Why, then, do we imagine that outfit? It comes from Kabuki theater.

Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater known for its over-the-top performances, costumes and makeup. As in Western theater, the stagehands move about in the background, transitioning sets and moving props in the darkness between scenes. As audience members, we know that stagehands are not actually part of the performance, so we dismiss their presence. The same goes for the kurogo, who are, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the audience.

In a mystery play, the fun of the experience is trying to figure out “whodunit,” and the best mysteries surprise you with the reveal. Imagine watching a play in which the victim is murdered by a ninja, and the victim’s family spends the entire runtime hunting down the ninja’s identity, only for it to be revealed that the murderer was a stagehand: the person you’d never think of because that person shouldn’t be part of the story in the first place. It’d be like if the killer was the usher who showed you to your seat.

It’s a genius use of metatheatricality, and it’s one that’s popular in Kabuki theater – so popular, in fact, that we’ve come to associate stagehands’ appearance with ninja themselves. It’s one of the most iconic images around, and it all started on stage.