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House of Ninjas’ Dave Boyle and Kento Karu Want To Revitalize The Ninja Genre

What if ninjas still walked among us? This central question was the original spark that inspired star and co-executive producer Kento Kaku to conceive what would eventually become the Netflix series House of Ninjas.

The Tawara family wants you to believe they are an ordinary family. Despite living in an old and huge mansion, they have the same struggles as everyone else. Six years ago, after losing their eldest son, Gaku (Kengo Takara), after a battle to the death, the family decided to completely wash their hands of the Shinobi. Their father, Soichi (Yosuke Eguchi), runs a sake brewery, a family business and his mother, Yoko (Tae Kimura), is now a full-time housewife. The eldest daughter, Nagi (Aizu Makita), enjoys campus life as a female college student, and the youngest child, Riku (Tentaka Banke), is the only one who does not know the family’s secrets, has grown up to be a curious and energetic boy. And her grandmother Taki (Nobuko Miyamoto), who has long since retired as a Shinobi, calmly watches over the family.

While their second son, Haru (Kento Kaku), stubbornly refuses to take over the family sake brewery works part-time to replenish vending machines, living a lonely life with no close friends or lovers. But Haru is still suffering from the trauma of the past.

In a way, they’re all suffering. Soichi, who can’t drink a drop of sake, struggles with the unfamiliar management of a sake brewery, and Yoko, who is tired of her ordinary daily life, secretly shoplifts supermarket products just to feel something aside from daily boredom. Nagi, spends her time as a seemingly ordinary female college student, is still faithful to the Shinobi teachings she received from Gaku, and is obsessed with a dangerous mission to restore the stolen goods that she once stolen.

House of Ninjas is an intense high-stakes drama about a disconnected family who is forced to face their realities in order to save others. Filled with mystery and an array of characters, it is refreshing in its depiction of the Shinobi lifestyle, dysfunctional family dynamics and letting go of past traumas in order to become the person you were always meant to be.

In celebration of House of Ninjas, The Koalition spoke to series creator Kento Kaku and director Dave Boyle to learn more about reclaiming how ninjas are portrayed, how Haru expanded Kaku’s acting skills, the brilliant cinematography, building a family and the many themes of the show.

During the height of the coronavirus lockdown, Kaku ideated remotely with frequent collaborators Yoshiaki Murao and Takafumi Imai on a tale of a dysfunctional ninja family in modern day Japan. The trio’s project proposal was put into development by the Tokyo based Netflix creative team, who then engaged Los Angeles based writer-director Dave Boyle to further flesh out the world of the show.

Noting the rigorous rules historically observed by ninjas — including restrictions on alcohol, meat, and sexual relationships — bore a close resemblance to his own Mormon upbringing, Boyle took a personal approach to crafting a story both poignant and packed with action and suspense. In addition to the original story by Kaku, Murao and Imai, Boyle incorporated elements of real-life ninja history into the show bible.

“When I first came up with this project, the idea obviously was about ninjas. [House of Ninjas] is about this traditional culture but this is a family story. [I consider it a] rebirth of the story family [which] is a very universal theme globally. We really wanted to neatly portray this element. Even in the script when we were working on the structure of the show, we really gave a lot of attention to portraying this as a family story [first by creating] a family that was believable. For me, the number one theme of this show is family,” said Kaku.

For Boyle, who was the lone non-Japanese crew member during production of House of Ninjas, he relocated to Tokyo for the 18-month production process. Early on, the decision was made to forego an interpreter and conduct production entirely in Japanese to allow for direct engagement between all team members.

“This project came my way because this is something Kento came up with and took to Netflix and then Netflix asked me to come in and help develop it. Kento’s inspiration was a revival of the ninja genre. It’s been so long since we’ve had a great ninja show or a great ninja movie. Some of the places I drew inspiration from are the Shinobi series from the 1960s. The ninja genre has been down so many different paths over the years. There’s been ninja comedies, there’s been like ninja action shows, there’s been all kinds of different flavors and I wanted to take it back to getting to the heart of what it means to be a Shinobi and the internal conflict that comes into play. In a lot of ways that was the starting place, that was just the inspiration behind ‘What does it mean to be a Shinobi? What does it mean to be a Shinobi in the modern world?'”

“One of the great things I thought Kento came up with in the original concept was just the fact it’s a ninja family. They’ve passed these traditions down for ages and ages and it was interesting to have a family living in modern times but they’re living by a very very ancient kind of code of conduct that’s been that’s been passed down over the generations.”

Attracted by the opportunity to tackle an original non-IP based project on an epic scale, a team of veteran crew members assembled on the Toho lot to create the world of House of Ninjas. In his very first action-heavy role, Kaku plays the lead role of Haru, the Tawara Clan’s second son whose kindness makes him uniquely unsuited to the path of the ninja.

“In the past something bad happened to him and he is a pretty introverted person who has built a wall around himself and has his own inner struggles. He’s unable to communicate with his family members and on top of that he carries this trauma that he has to force himself to open up. When portraying him, I had to be very careful because he’s a character who doesn’t really speak much. I had to have a more nuanced performance to express what he was going through [using] facial expressions or different [emotions]. Even though I am the originator of this concept, this was one of the most difficult [roles] I played,” said Kaku.

One of the people who gets Haru out of her shell is Riho Yoshioka as Karen Ito, a reporter who covered an incident involving the Tawaras six years earlier. The first encounter each other at a beef bowl restaurant every night after work. Haru, always observant, learns Karen’s order and begins to start a relationship that develops into something more. But as the two grow closer, Karen seems to know more about the Shinobi world than Haru intended. While she becomes the first person to crack Haru’s hard exterior, can she be trusted?

House Of Ninjas. (L to R) Kento Kaku as Haru Tawara, Riho Yoshioka as Karen Ito in House Of Ninjas. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

“For Haru who’s born as a Shinobi, who grew up as a Shinobi, romance was forbidden. He never had dates as a boy, and he also carries his past trauma. [Therefore], Karen is his only hope for [that to happen]. [As] she gets closer to him, she is like a miracle to him even though she tries to use him. But eventually he realizes she is a person he wants to protect; [While] it was very short in time, [for him] it’s true love. Karen is a person who is very significant to him. The dynamic [and] the relationship of the two characters were very important. While we were on set, we were very careful and we gave a lot of detail and care into portraying the two dynamics,” said Kento. 

Boyle added, “She’s a very very important character because she’s one of the few main characters who’s not a Shinobi. She’s just an ordinary person. She’s a journalist and she’s got secrets of her own, but she provides an important storytelling perspective in the fact that she’s an outsider to that world. The relationship is a forbidden relationship but the balance of both of them having their secrets where they can’t really understand each other was something that was really important from the storytelling side as well.” 

Noting the rigorous rules historically observed by ninjas — including restrictions on alcohol, meat, and sexual relationships — bore a close resemblance to his own Mormon upbringing, Boyle took a personal approach to crafting a story both poignant and packed with action and suspense. In addition to the original story by Kaku, Murao and Imai, Boyle incorporated elements of real-life ninja history into the show bible.

Los Angeles based composer Jonathan Snipes was selected to create the score for House of Ninjas. Snipes is known in America for both his work with Daveed Diggs in the rap group clipping and for his innovative scores to films such as Room 237 and A Glitch in the Matrix. Aware of Snipes’ history as a member of celebrated giallo cover band Nilbog, Boyle sought an artist who could successfully fuse classic giallo elements with cutting-edge techniques to create a memorable score that is both playful and thrilling in equal measure. House of Ninjas is also highlighted by a stellar soundtrack of classic pop songs, including Graham Nash’s much beloved Our House. The song was used as a guidepost during production as a reminder for the cast and crew that despite all of the action and violence on display, at heart this is a tale of family. The series rendition of the song is performed by Seattle based singer-songwriter Tomo Nakayama, known as the lead singer for Grand Hallway and for his collaboration with director Lynn Shelton on the film Touchy Feely.

“In terms of genre Inspirations, I did take a lot of the music inspiration from like old Italian giallo movies and directors like Brian De Palma who really balanced suspense and great visuals. There were a lot of things I sort of borrowed from some odd places for a ninja show,” said Boyle.

Respected dramatic actress Tae Kimura also steps into an action role for the first time, performing many of her own stunts in large-scale action scenes sure to surprise anyone expecting her in the traditional “mother” role. Main cast members Kora, Makita and Eguchi also underwent months of action practice. Action director Tabuchi and his team emphasized realism, with a mix of hand-to-hand combat in close quarters (unnoticed by the bystanders nearby) and more traditional swordplay when the Tawaras face off with their clan rivals.

As the show reveals more about the individual members the Tawara family, each member grapples with their unique perspective on ninja life. Some yearn for the old ways, while others seek freedom and independence. Being a ninja isn’t just a job; it’s an intricate identity shaped by centuries-old traditions.

“I really love the idea the mom is the first one to kind of get back in on the action [while] everybody else is doing their own thing. It felt appropriate to me that a family of Shinobi [are] such good secret keepers. It just felt the most natural thing in the world for them to have all have secrets from each other as well. While Haru is very reluctant to go back to being a Shinobi. I felt like some people in the family have got to have a yearning to be back in back in action. They missed the old days; they missed the thrill of it all. Yoko play played by Tae Kimura is a wonderful actor. You know there’s a lot of darkness in some of the other character storylines, but she brings a little bit of the fun in the first part of it because she has this secret. She can’t tell her husband what she’s up to, she can’t tell the rest of her family what she’s up to, and she really wants to be back in action. She wants to be doing missions every night like they used to be in the old days and that was a lot of fun to kind of balance. You have the storylines that are a little darker and go into an introspective space, and then have somebody who’s just can’t wait to get back into action,” said Boyle.

To further highlight the style of the Shinobi, it was important the action includes elements of darkness, where ninjas are hidden in the shadows despite being in public. This also mean their fight style and their wardrobe.

“The Director of Photography is a wonderful veteran DP who I was working with for the first time and his longtime collaborator who did the lighting. We talked a lot about ways to allow [the actors] to kind of move in the darkness but still be able to clearly see what was going on [so the] action has a lot of impact. We talked a lot about designing it so there was always a touch that would let them kind of stand out in the darkness. From the perspective of the wardrobe, if you notice in some of the scenes when Haru was fighting in the club, he has a stripe down the side of his hoodie. [It] gives him enough of a light [so’ he stands out in the darkness but still cloaked in darkness, the way a Shinobi should be. There was a lot of discussions [about] how they move since they’re creatures of the night,” said Boyle.

House of Ninjas is now streaming on Netflix. To learn more about the series, check out our full interview in the video above.