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Dave Boyle on How Netflix Hit ‘House of Ninjas’ Ducked Genre Stereotypes and Deflected Cultural Appropriation


In these culturally sensitive times, having an American director and showrunner on a quintessentially Japanese series is sure to raise the issue of cultural appropriation. But the Dave Boyle-directed “House of Ninjas,” which Netflix launched in February, stands out not only as a hit, but as a seemingly happy blend of East and West.

An original story about the last living ninja family in modern times, the show ranked as the streamer’s top non-English show in 16 countries and regions, as well as reached the Top 10 list in 92 countries.
In an interview with Variety, Boyle (“The Man From Reno,” “Big Dreams, Little Tokyo”) said that surprising career left-turns brought him to the series and helped him keep the show authentically Japanese.

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At what stage did you join the project?

It all started with Kento Kaku, the star of the show, and his two comrades, Murao Yoshiaki and Imai Takafumi who started working on a ninja revival show. They wanted to bring back the whole thing. It’s been a minute since, a ninja show really broke through. They came up with this idea of a ninja family, and a 15-20 page project proposal that they took to Netflix.

Netflix was into the idea, asked me to develop that core concept and come up with something that hadn’t been seen before in the ninja genre. And so I came in and I wrote the show ‘Bible’ and the first episode, at first. Later on, I became the director and showrunner. But it all started with the three of them trading ideas on Zoom, coming up with this idea of a ninja family in modern times.

Had the three worked together before?

They had worked together before on a TBS drama. Murao was the director and Kento and Imai were both in it. And the three of them are fast friends who were kind enough to let me take the wheel. It’s not a small thing to entrust somebody else with your project. Netflix told me that the trio were fully onboard [after Boyle created the show’s Bible], and loved how it was going. So, then the team of three became the team of four.

Why revisit the well-trodden ninja genre?

Well, it is true that there has been every variety of ninja flavoured entertainment. To the point where the genre itself has become sort of self-parody. When I think of the ninja genre, I think of things like the Shinobi Nomura series from the 1960s, where it was really taken seriously. It was really about the mind of what makes a ninja.

The thing that made it relevant to modern times, to me, were not necessarily the skills or the tricks that ninjas can perform. But the fact that they live by a set of very old values.
Ninjas have all these rules that they have to follow whether it’s dietary restrictions, like not eating meat and not drinking alcohol, or restrictions about who they can fall in love with, who they can marry. And they always have a master who gives them all their commands. It was fascinating to have a family that still is bound by these hundreds of years old rules. They’re creatures of the modern times and sort of struggling to fit in now. And, also, they’re just kind of part of a dying tradition. I come from a Mormon background, so I just imagined them as a family of Mormons not allowed to drink things. The family have different feelings about this identity that they are that they are all associated with.

How do you respond to possible issues of cultural appropriation?

You always have to ask yourself, am I the right person to tell this story? It was the one of the folks at Netflix who I’d worked with on my past film ‘Man from Reno,’ who had the idea that I might be able to come up with a good story engine for the show.

It was not a situation where the reins simply got handed to me. More like ‘can you take a crack at this and we’ll kind of take it from there?’ And then, little by little, I was also asked if could write an episode? Then ‘could you direct an episode?’ Then multiple episodes. One thing that made me feel made me feel okay about that [cultural appropriation] conversation is just that I just wanted to just be part of the team. I was the only westerner on set. We made the show all in Japanese. All business was conducted in Japanese. And, so, I felt like it was a collaboration rather than rather than an appropriation. Those questions are very serious and inspire a lot of self-examination, but I felt good about what we what we accomplished.

Where does your interest in Japanese culture stem from?

From a funny kind of left-hand turn in my life. I did Mormon missionary work in Sydney, Australia, as a very young person. There, I was assigned to learn to speak Japanese. And I really enjoyed studying the language and learning more about the culture. My first couple of films were very directly based on that experience. I just kept meeting artists that I’ve wanted to work with. There wasn’t a whole lot of design to it.

How did you find the transition from film to series production?

I’ve guest directed a standalone TV show. But this was my first series. It was definitely new. I’ve never shot for six months before, for a start. In Japan, there’s a lot less sort of crossover between the TV drama world and the film world. We were mostly movie people on set, but the writers had TV experience and the producers had TV experience. A series was something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I’ve written a lot of pilots and hadn’t gotten over the over the finish line. But when it came down to it was really just sink or swim and learn on the go.

What were you aiming for in terms of look and feel and the target audience?

I was aiming for a very real family story. And having characters that people could really fall in love with. They just happen to be characters enmeshed. in this ninja world. The other thing was that there’s a lot of amazing things about ninja culture that I’d never seen emphasized. And I wanted to use and bring that culture to the world.

What are you doing next?

‘House of Ninjas’ has been a three-year marathon and I’m still catching my breath. I’m back in Tokyo to work on some other projects. And I’ve written a couple of features that I’m working on getting going again. Nothing concrete enough to announce yet.

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