Disappearing in a puff of smoke, the legendary skills of the ninja! Fuelled by superstition and propaganda this way of dealing with multiple attackers to create an avenue of escape had some innovative and common sense origins.
Firstly the underlying principles of ninjutsu and ninja warrant re-stating. Their primary role was one of intelligence gathering, misdirection and misinformation. Only on rare occasions would they be called to carry out aggressive operations – i.e. burning stores, hostage rescue, general arson, and rarely assassination. The reason for this is a well concealed intelligence operative is an invaluable asset to any army. To reveal them in combative operations and risk losing that resource was not a decision taken lightly. Being such a valued resource meant they would do anything to conceal their identities, including disguises (Hensojutsu) and the use of metsubushi.
The most apt translation of metsubushi is ‘sight removers’. Their purpose was to obscure the vision of an attacker – temporarily or permanently. They would be used when cornered, outnumbered or disadvantaged. This would help affect an escape with the loss of vision so that their exit and identity was unobserved. Like the principle of throwing an opponent – i.e. a throw should always follow a distracting move (strike, taking of balance, painful kyusho) – metsubushi was only cast after strikes, wrist locks etc so as to conceal its application.
Metsubushi was carried in a variety of ways. Most common was egg shells, they used the eggs of native birds and chickens which were easily concealable. They also used paper packets and hollowed out walnut shells. The metsubushi was also packed in the end of the ninja-to scabbard, and cast by flicking the open end of the scabbard at the opponent. By using egg shells, walnut shells and paper packets the ninja would be able to safely carry the metsubushi concealed inside their clothing.
With egg shells the top was pierced and the contents evacuated from the intact shell. It was then left to dry for a day or two. After this contents were added.
The walnut shells were similar, the internal nut removed and contents added. With the egg shell once the hollow shell was filled a piece of rice paper or wax would seal it up. The walnut halves were also sealed with wax.
The paper packets were effectively envelopes containing metsubushi – rather aggressive origami! This then gave the ninja a reasonably robust container which, at the same time, would be easy to break and fragment (if needed) before throwing. The containers would also be painted a dark grey, not black, as this was harder to see in low light conditions.
The contents of these hollowed out containers varied depending on need. Most common were mixtures of irritants, pitch, and fine powder. The finer the powder the greater the cloud effect would be. This mixture was designed to temporarily obscure the opponents’ vision so the ninja could maintain his cover and escape using taihenjutsu and shoten (ninja parkour). Other contents had more permanent effects. The use of iron fillings or metal shavings was to permanently blind an opponent and would be used more in a one-to-one situation where the target was to be permanently disabled. Ground up glass wasn’t commonly used as glass didn’t come to Japan until the 1800’s from trade with Europeans. There were also incendiary devices where the container was filled with black powder and sealed with a fuse. This was then lit from a place of concealment and thrown intact to create distractions and start fires. These particular types were called nagedama.
The most common use though was the fine powder irritant. This reflected the need to stay concealed and avoid combat. The ninja was usually outnumbered and looking for an escape. Metsubushi provided them with this opportunity. The ninja would have pockets inside their clothing easily accessible where they would have a small supply of metsubushi containers. When needed they would be hidden in the hand, either crushed (in the case of egg shells), cracked open (walnut shells), or eased open (paper packets) to fill the hand with the powder (and any fragments) and then cast at the opponents. The technique for throwing the contents is basically the same as throwing shuriken. Thrown either direct into the eyes of the opponent or cast in an arc in front of a group of opponents, the resulting confusion and incapacitation would provide opportunities for escape. This also meant the ninja had to be innately aware of his surroundings, especially which way the wind was blowing! To cast this substance into a strong wind could cause the technique to backfire and have a rather poor ending for the ninja.
As the opponent(s) struggled to see the ninja would either use the opportunity to escape; re-conceal themselves in either surrounding foliage, parts of the building(s) (stairwells, loft spaces, under flooring, inside containers); or they would then use shuriken to further incapacitate the opponents. Escape was done by the most expedient manner… running. This could also include taihenjutsu (leaping, rolling) and shoten (running up walls, across rooftops, up trees). These skills were as essential as the combative skills of the ninja, if not more so.