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In the spring of 1642, as the Tokugawa Shogunate solidifies its control over the clans of Japan, a rebellion in Aizu province led by second-in-command Hori Mondo against cruel and decadent lord Kato Akinari is brutally crushed. While marching Hori and his surviving followers to their execution, the elite Aizu Seven Spears detour to a convent where the women associated with the Hori faction have sought refuge. While forcing the men to watch, the Seven Spears violate the women-only sanctity of the convent and slaughter the women and any nuns who get in the way. Only the timely appearance of Princess Sen, the shogun's sister, saves the remaining seven, who swear to sacrifice their lives and chastity towards the cause of vengeance against the Seven Spears. Such formidable targets require a wily and formidable teacher and leader for the women, so Princess Sen calls upon the services of the monk Takuan Soho and his associate Yagyu Jubei.
The popular (in fandom) 1993 anime movie Ninja Scroll was made as an homage to the ninja-themed novels written by prolific author Futaro Yamada from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls manga series by manga-ka Masaki Segawa, the creator of the manga version of Basilisk, is more a true adaptation of Yamada's novels and thus is not directly related to the anime movie of the similar name even though the stylistic similarities are unmistakable. Because of those similarities, though, one who liked the movie will probably like the manga and vice versa.
The manga series focuses on the deeds of the samurai folk hero Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi during a period of time when his exploits and whereabouts are unknown to history (and thus left to rampant speculation). It makes the common assumption that, during the period from 1631 to 1643, Yagyu Jubei was wandering the countryside performing various feats below the radar to further his combat prowess. The “Revenge of the Hori Clan” story arc, which establishes itself and just gets seriously started with the revenge schemes by the end of volume 2, seems to be based on Yamada's 1964 novel Yagyu Ninpōchō and tells a tale of bloody retribution where Yagyu Jubei, rather than being the action star, actually more takes on the role of the behind-the-scenes organizer and planner; in fact, he does not appear at all until halfway through the first volume and has considerably less “screen time” through the first two volumes than even some of the villains.
Don't think for a second that the writing will be found wanting for his lack of presence, however. The revenge plot may be fairly straightforward, but this is a story rich in period ambiance, one where even the side details of the setting are as important and intriguing as the story itself. A combination of end notes and (too) tiny between-panel notes explain the significance of items like Kyo dolls and Hannyu masks, how long a ri is, how the brothel district of Edo was set up, or what is involved with positions like kuni-garo and sometsuke. The story also tosses around identifiable historical figures like Shogun Iyemitsu Tokugawa, Kato Ikinari (who really was the Aizu daimyo at this time), Abbess Tenshu, and Senhime/Princess Sen; the claim made here about the latter being the adoptive mother of the former, who was the daughter of her husband and a mistress, is based on a legend commonly told about Princess Sen. In fact, the entire story told here is heavily ground in actual historical detail, as the real Hori Mondo did, in fact, get into lethal trouble with Akinari upon making complaints about his behavior to the shogun, did in fact secure his wife and children in Tōkeiji Temple, and Akinari did in fact send an assassin to Tōkeiji to kill them, only to be thwarted initially by Tenshu. Princess Sen did get involved in the incident, though the manga story takes some liberties here by making her involvement earlier and more direct. The reestablishment of the Aizu Seven Spears as a bunch of scummy, ninja-like thugs is an act of dramatic license which fills the role of the historical assassin, so the only story details not at least partly supported by documented history are the involvement of Yagyu Jubei and the quest of the Hori women for revenge.
The pacing and organization of the story, as presented here in manga form, focuses entirely on setting up and executing dramatic scenes, whether it be battle footage, killings, or one of the Seven Spears working out who Princess Sen actually is. Mercifully it stays light on training footage, instead preferring to concentrate more on what the Hori women do with their training and the kinds of special attacks that the Aizu Seven Spears use. The attacks may not be as outlandish as the super-powered ninjutsu seen in Ninja Scroll or Basilisk but they have a similar style and feel.
The artistry also shares stylistic similarities with both. Huge chins, caricatured features, and prominent eyebrows are the norm for the character designs, which seem intent on making the Seven Spears look as ugly and monstrous as they act; even the one with a more effeminate bishonen look still has the taint of violence and evil in his rendering. Princess Sen also has a certain harsh look which seems intended to suggest that, for all her kindness, she is a woman not to be messed with. Plentiful shading and nice use of detail gives the artistry a practiced, well-refined look and avoids the empty feel so common in manga panel art that doesn't used backgrounds. The content does not short the viewer on the promise of intense graphic violence, either, as heads roll (literally), people get brutally stabbed, and so forth. Most of the sexuality and nudity is more implied than outright shown, but between the bits that are shown, the graphic violence content, and the occasional expletive, the “Mature Content” warning and M rating are well-deserved. And a related bonus historical note: yes, people really did make the penis-shaped monuments seen in volume 2 and display them prominently, so that isn't just an affectation for this series.
Del Rey is releasing these oversize volumes with hefty $13.95 price tags. In addition to a standard honorifics explanation page at the beginning, each volume ends with the aforementioned translation notes and a brief preview of the next volume. Original Japanese sound effects remain intact but accompanied by tiny English translations, and the first volume opens with a few untranslated full-color pages done so well that they will make readers yearn for the whole thing being colored. Although volume 1 features a paper cover, volume 2 upgrades to a glossy cover, and the primary cover color changes with each volume. Due to the mature content, each volume comes shrink-wrapped.
Ultimately the first two volumes of The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls have no actual ninja in them, although the abilities put on display in them could be considered ninja-like. That doesn't prevent them from being solid and well-crafted, if pedestrian, excursions back to the bloody days of early 17th century Japan.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Excellent use of historical detail, high-quality artistry.
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