Issue 16.2: April/May 2013

The Rise of NinjaHinja

Story by Sonny Ganaden
Photos by Sue Hudelson

Ryan Higa is a bona fide twenty-first-century superstar. At 22 he is already the most famous Asian-American entertainer in a generation. You might know him if you’ve ever logged onto the Internet or visited a site called YouTube.

Standing behind a camera before an expanse of grass dotted with fresh duck droppings at Hilo Bayfront Park, I watch that Internet sensation fall flat on his face. Of course, he means to do it. Ryan sprints from off camera to the center of the frame in his now-trademark ninja suit and dives into a face-plant, heels over his head, scorpion style. It’s his comic riff on parkour, the French extreme sport of negotiating obstacles (which he pronounces “park hour”). He’s spent the past few hours jumping off of rocks, kicking off of coconut trees, falling, rolling and tripping on the grass.

This is familiar stuff to those who’ve watched some of the several hundred videos Ryan’s posted on YouTube over the past seven years. He is playing one of his many alter egos, NinjaHinja. In a 2011 video called “The Life of a NinjaHinja,” he sings about jumping over rocks and taking the long way around simple obstacles. At one point in the video, he climbs up to the roof of his Las Vegas home in a style not unlike Harold Lloyd in the classic silent film Safety Last!, the one where the hero dangles perilously over a lethal drop. 

“How was that, guys?” Ryan asks, wiping mud and duck poop off of his ninja gi. “Looks like you ate it pretty hard,” his cameraman says. “Perfect,” Ryan says. “Let’s do it again, then try another location.”

Ryan’s biography is well known to the now 6.7 million subscribers who have watched him grow up on YouTube. The Hilo boy began filming his friends doing skits while attending Waiakea High School. After graduating he attended the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, majoring in radioactive medicine, all the while continuing to make videos with increasing sophistication. He has posted nearly twice a week for several years, expanded to doing live performance and guest-appearing on others’ videos, created a second YouTube channel and created a universe of characters played by himself and his friends, like a continually updated reality show. According to YouTube, his videos have been viewed nearly 1.5 billion times.

At first I didn’t get Ryan’s videos. The scenery-chewing histrionics, the blindingly quick jump cuts, the barrage of dialog were too much shtick for my taste. Maybe part of my resistance also had to do with the name of his YouTube channel, Nigahiga, which sounds like a racial epithet. Initial viewings had me pondering the big questions about contemporary art such as, “Really?” But by my third video into the Nigahiga oeuvre, I was cracking up and clicking away.

The Nigahiga YouTube channel exploded in popularity in 2007 with a trilogy of goofy, slapsticky short films Ryan shot with his childhood friend Sean Fujiyoshi, each of which has been viewed more than thirty million times. In “How to Be a Gangster,” “How to Be Emo” and “How to Be a Ninja,” the scene opens with Ryan beating up a whimpering, bespectacled Sean. Ryan then steps behind the camera and asks in a smarmy salesman’s voice whether Sean would like to stop getting beat up by becoming a gangster, emo kid or ninja. When Sean replies, “Uh, OK,” a DVD case comes flying from off camera and smacks him in the face. In “How to Be Emo,” Ryan and Sean, with mascara circling their downcast eyes, demonstrate how emo kids fight: by cutting their own arms with plastic knives and grimacing at each other. Terrible, right?

Any adolescent lack of political correctness or silliness in those early videos has more than been made up for by his later videos like 2012’s “Bromance,” a legitimate R&B number in which Ryan raps poetic about male friendship. Ryan’s buddy Chester See croons the hook while Sean and Ryan push each other on swings and have slow-mo pillow fights. That one attracted seventeen million views.

What’s notable about Nigahiga videos is what they lack. They’re packed with slapstick, odd cutaways and pop culture references, but there’s nothing vicious, nothing vulgar. When he rants to the camera, he bleeps out the curse words. When he fights a friend, they slap each other like puppies. In the 2012 video “Violence” he asks, “Could you imagine what entertainment would look like with no violence?” He proceeds to convince his friend (played by himself) to play a video game called “Street Hugger,” and engages in a rap battle where the refrain is, “Ay dog, I think I love you.” YouTube comments can be notoriously vitriolic—so much so that YouTube had to crack down recently. Not for Nigahiga; he’s adored by his fans, who post responses like “love it cnt stop singing” and “best song ever omg,” as well as thousands upon thousands of “LOL!”s. (And in case you fans are wondering, “Of course I read the comments,” says Ryan.)

YouTube stardom might not be as glamorous as being on the Hollywood A-list, but Ryan’s found a measure of fame, hobnobbing with other glitterati, like basketball star Jeremy Lin. “I met him when he was at Golden State. I made a video with him, and then he made one with me. This was all pre-Linsanity.” And when Ryan’s in Los Angeles, he often stays with Jessica Alba and her producer husband. Ultimately, though, he’s still a sweet, down-to-earth kid from Hilo trying to get a laugh out of you.

Sitting in the living room that’s now famous from the “How to Be” trilogy, Luci Higa, Ryan’s mother and agent, shows me some of her son’s first videos: Ryan feeding a ti leaf to a neighbor’s cow, Ryan commenting on a cane toad that the mail truck had flattened. “Those first films were just for us,” Luci says. “We’d take them to his grandma’s and watch them together. There’s not much to do around Hilo by the time kids get to intermediate school; I think he started because he was so bored around the house.”

Unlike most artists reflecting on their juvenilia, Ryan doesn’t cringe at those earlier videos—really he doesn’t cringe at anything, even when he’s in drag. In some of those videos, Ryan and his friends play the female roles. When I ask where the girls were those years, Luci explains, “There were no girls on the street. For the parts where they needed a girl, they just put wigs on.” As Luci puts on a video of him lip-synching to a song on the radio, Ryan asks her, “Aw, Mom, why are you showing these? I didn’t start editing until the year after.”

In early 2005 YouTube went live. Ryan was one of the web site’s first viral sensations. When YouTube allowed viewers to subscribe to their favorite contributors and monetized the web site with commercials, Ryan soon had millions of fans around the world. Unlike other early contributors to YouTube, he continued to innovate, experimenting with different styles of comedy and recruiting peers who had their own subscriber fan base to appear in his videos. Making videos became his calling. “I think I definitely put in more than forty hours a week. This is a full-time gig.” As a YouTube partner who consistently uploads popular videos, Ryan makes a consistent income well into the six figures annually.

Ryan has mastered video editing on his PC, but he doesn’t have a film school background, which is both liberating and limiting. “I post whatever I want in the videos as long as it translates well to me,” he says. “A few of the people I’ve worked with have told me that I’m doing it all wrong—the way I track shots, edit, everything. What they don’t get is that we’re speaking a different language.”

Ryan’s also taken his act on the road, teaming up with other YouTube personalities to create a mock boy band and advocacy group called YTF, which stands for Yesterday, Today and Forever. Their first (and one of their only) shows at the Hawai‘i Theatre in October 2011 sold out. It was sort of a modern, family-friendly vaudeville act, replete with hip-hop numbers, piano serenades and skits.

“Nobody knows how long this is going to last,” Ryan says. “I try and mix it up and avoid getting stuck to one style of video. If you see a few other people’s newer stuff, they’re stuck doing one thing. You could be the hottest thing one year and gone the next.”

Today Ryan’s filming “The Christmas Ninja”; he’s pacing around the living room, setting up the shots in his mind. Luci assists him with his wardrobe and ideas. Nigahiga isn’t just a one-man show; it’s a family affair. “We should iron it, Ryan,” Luci says as she fits the ninja gi on her son. “Mom, ninjas don’t iron,” he replies, “but there are lots of straps. Why does this thing have all these extra straps? Ugh. Ninjas don’t like to wait.” Luci then stands in front of the camera with a water bottle on her head (to compensate for her son’s height) as Ryan lines up the cutaway shots … just a normal day in the Higa household.

For this film, Ryan, a.k.a. The Christmas Ninja, will deliver gifts to unsuspecting Hilo residents in the Macy’s parking lot and at the McDonald’s drive-through. He’ll finish the day with some parkour antics at Hilo Bayfront Park. At McDonald’s he buys fifteen hamburgers, fifteen cheeseburgers, a happy meal (for me), and he pays for the car behind us. We make quite an impression delivering those burgers to random park-goers at Coconut Island, one of Hilo’s favorite picnic sites. After being told “no tanks, ah” by a burly man playing with his daughters, Ryan makes his way to a group of teenagers on a bench. Upon seeing the most famous ninja in the world, one girl screams, “We love you!” as if Justin Bieber himself had graced her with a hamburger. The burger falls from its wrapping as she jumps in exaltation. While at the park, Ryan runs through a bunch of slapstick gags, like failed parkour moves off coconut palms and over railings. “When all else fails, go physical,” he grins.

If all this seems like a huge waste of energy for a kid with a promising future in nuclear medicine, Luci tells me as we part ways, “I’ve heard from parents concerned about their kids majoring in art or wanting to be creative. But it’s OK. It’s all about timing and passion. You never know where your kids’ interests are going to lead.”

A few days later I watch “The Christmas Ninja” on the Nigahiga YouTube channel—already at 2.4 million views.