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Why Ninjas Don’t Wear Purple

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In “Practical Cats: Reflections on the Catwoman Costume,” I tried to illustrate how those calling the black goggle costume “practical” are underrating the bottom-line value for a practicing thief in Gotham City to look so pulse-poundingly sexy, she can make Batman swallow his tongue.

With Rocksteady games having just revealed Catwoman to be a player character in Batman: Arkham City, in which she will be a practicing thief, as she should be, but is still wearing the unfortunate goggle costume from recent years’ comics, and with Anne Hathaway’s costume in The Dark Knight Rises still a closely guarded secret, it seemed a good time to return to the question of practicality for purring cat burlars daring to ply their trade in Batman’s city.

Turns out the Balent-bashers are not only underrating the true practicality of the purple, they’re also dramatically overrating the practicality of their chosen color.  They imagine black is preferable to purple for cat burglars because they think it’s harder to see.  On this one, we can at least follow their logic, flawed as it is.  Most people have never seen a real cat burglar, a French resistance fighter, or a ninja.  They draw their ideas from movies like… well, like Batman Begins, where these figures are always shown in head-to-toe black.  Solid black, we are left to conclude, is the way the most invisible assassins in history achieved their invisibility.

In reality, ninjas are depicted that way because of Japanese theatre.  Seriously.  The puppeteers in traditional Bunraku puppetry and the stagehands in Noh and Kabuki theatre all wore head-to-toe black.  The Japanese word for stagehand, “kuroko,” literally means “black clothes,” and in the case of Kabuki kuroku, they even wore the hood and mask we know as the signature costume of a ninja.  They weren’t camouflaged; the audience simply knew to ignore them.  That’s what the black signified.  They could stand on the stage and move around in plain sight, coming and going as needed, rearranging props and set pieces, and the audience tuned them out, they simply didn’t see them—just as we don’t see that stack of NetFlix DVDs on the top of the television when we’re watching our favorite program. 

So, in a Kabuki play calling for an assassination, the ninja would enter in black because he was disguised as a stagehand.  The audience ignored him because they were conditioned to.  When the moment came to strike, he ripped off his mask to put off his disguise, killed his victim, and masked himself again to vanish once more into the ranks of faceless stagehands.  He was invisible before and after he struck… psychologically, but not literally. 

In reality, the only place solid black offers camouflage is, paradoxically, against a predominantly white arctic snowscape.  Anyone who’s looked through a telescope in the city and in the country can tell you, city nights aren’t black.  The amount of ambient light is staggering, and a cat burglar in the stock black-on-black get-up would stand out like, well, like this… 



Or like this…




Or this…




Whether you accept the practical value in shorting out Batman’s ability to operate as a fully functioning crimefighter or not, the fact is a purple form broken up with those black thigh-high boots and over-the-elbow gloves, with long dark hair flowing out the back, darkness moving over color, would offer much more discretion against the lights, neon, and shimmer of an actual city sky.

Batman can get away with it because, while black is poor camouflage, it is a very good color for scaring the living hell out of people, and that’s his other objective with the batsuit.  A big black blot of vengeance coming at you fast out of the sky to beat you to a bloody pulp, great!  A big black blot hanging off the side of the Waldorf Towers, not so much.

In the original “Practical Cats,” I tried to show that those calling the Darwyn Cooke goggle costume “practical” are a bit like Vizzini, the Sicilian played by Wally Shawn in The Princess Bride.  They keep using the word, quite emphatically, but they don’t seem to understand what it means.

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