The word “ninja” is never explicitly used in Tree with Deep Roots. For the purposes of this post, characters dressing in black* will be referred to as “wearing ninja garb.” Characters wear ninja garb in an effort for secrecy and anonymity, or to demonstrate a lack of social ties.
The clearest reason for wearing ninja garb in Tree with Deep Roots is anonymity. By wearing black, characters in the show hide their true colors—their place within society, their allegiance to a group or leader, and their motivations. This can be seen in episode six, when Sung Sam-moon and Park Paeng-nyeon forsake their scholars’ garb and dress in black when they steal the corpses from the butcher’s shop. Though they are merely trying to satisfy their own curiosity about the murders, dressing in black as opposed to their typical scholars’ clothes denotes secrecy to the viewer and helps to disguise them from other characters in the event that they are caught.
Similarly, the masked assassin viewers first see in episode five always wears nondescript black or un-dyed clothing, much like the clothing used by Sung Sam-moon and Park Paeng-nyeon that was mentioned above. Pyung, as we find out the assassin is called in episode seven, is perhaps the only person in Tree with Deep Roots who truly functions as a ninja. (I say “perhaps” because it is still unclear how he is affiliated with Hidden Root, or if he is actually a kind of hired killer.) Because Pyung wears the nondescript black or un-dyed clothing we typically associate with ninjas, viewers and other characters are unable to situate him within the cultural hierarchy of Joseon. Whereas it is possible to distinguish scholars like Park Paung-nyeon and Sung Sam-moon from officials like Jo Mal-saeng and Lee Shin-juk based on their typical attire, it is impossible to know where Pyung belongs because his clothes do not give this away. The nondescript clothing helps Pyung remain anonymous while he carries out his killing missions, which further impedes the investigation into the mysterious murders.
When Chae-yoon is a member of Kyum-Sa, investigating the murders carried out by Pyung, he wears the traditional garb of those soldiers. After Sejong essentially gives So-Yi to Chae-yoon and set them both free in episode thirteen, Chae-yoon leaves his soldier’s garb and dresses all in black, ninja-like clothing (temporarily, before he is re-employed with Kyum-Sa). In Chae-yoon’s case, the ninja garb indicates a freedom from attachment, or a lack of loyalty to any entity. As discussed previously, clothing in Tree with Deep Roots can be used to demonstrate where a character sits within the social hierarchy, and it has also been used to demonstrate a character’s employment. Because Chae-yoon no longer wears his official soldier’s attire, the new nondescript clothes demonstrate that he is no longer affiliated with Kyum-Sa. The black, ninja-like garb would have also helped to hide his identity from other individuals in the show, though he soon returned to Kyum-Sa and donned his red soldier’s attire again.
Though ninjas are never explicitly referenced in Tree with Deep Roots, the use of ninja-like garb implicitly references ninjas throughout the show. This type of clothing is used by several characters when they want to act anonymously, unaffiliated with organizations, leaders, or social groups.
*Or similarly nondescript, monochromatic garb
(word count: 550 without) Works Cited:
Tree with Deep Roots. Writ. Lee Jung Myung. Dir. Jang Tao Yoo and Shin Kyung Soo. SBS, 2011. DramaFever.
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