Brain Diving Ninja Wrap
by Brian Ruh, Jul 12th 2011
It's pretty much a given these days that new anime are going to be adapted from something that came before, like a game, a manga, or a novel. There are of course plenty of examples of anime that stand on their own, but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. It's not like this is a particularly recent phenomenon, either; it's been the case from the very beginning of the TV anime industry. After all, Tetsuwan Atom had been running as a manga for over a decade before it became the first half-hour anime TV program in 1963. If you stop to think about it, this approach to anime makes perfect sense; an anime series with a crew of talented professionals is orders of magnitude more expensive than an author toiling in isolation to craft the “next big thing.” Once a manga or a novel comes out and proves that it can attract some sort of an audience, the costs involved in making an anime series become more easily justified. Unfortunately, anime is no longer in the 1980s OVA heyday when money could be thrown at productions that sounded interesting in the hope that something marketable would come out of it.
As Mike Toole wrote a few weeks ago, these anime antecedents don't have to come from contemporary Japanese culture – they can come from older tales hundreds of years old. Old Chinese legends have made for some particularly ripe pickings when it comes to anime adaptations. There are also those that aren't quite that old, but may initially seem dated by today's standards. Take Eiji Yoshikawa's novel Musashi, for example. Originally serialized in the mid-1930s, this fictionalized account of the life of famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi became the defining way that people thought about and understood the noted warrior. Yoshikawa's conception of Musashi was adapted again and again as the hero of countless films, stories, and theatrical productions. Even Takehiko Inoue's Vagabond manga carries the credit “Based on Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi,” even though it sometimes takes the story in a different direction than the original. (On a side note, the English translation of the Musashi novel is pretty accessible and I definitely recommend it. Even though the book is nearly a thousand pages, it reads pretty quickly and is perfect for sporadic reading since it was originally written as a serial.)
The Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Futaro Yamada is another older novel that has been adapted into film, anime, and manga fairly recently. Although the book originally came out in 1958, it didn't begin to make its way directly into multiple media until nearly fifty years later. A manga version of the novel called Basilisk: The Kouga Ninja Scrolls began publication in 2003 in Young Magazine Uppers, and won the Kodansha Manga Award in the general category in 2004. Its popularity seems to have triggered a small boom, as an anime version of Basilisk came out in 2005, as did a live-action film starring Joe Odagiri called Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. Fortunately for us, all of these versions of the story are available in English. Funimation released the Basilisk anime in 2006 and Shinobi in 2007 while the five volumes of the manga were released in English by Del Rey from 2006-7 along with the previously-mentioned translation of the original novel (complete with a cover illustration by Masaki Segawa, the writer of the Basilisk manga). Apparently aiming to build on this ninja momentum, in 2007 Del Rey also began releasing the eleven-volume manga series The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls, also originally based on a story by Futaro Yamada. However, they never made it all the way through the series and it was unfortunately not one of the titles later picked up by Kodansha Comics USA.
Just as Yoshikawa's Musashi laid the groundwork for the many samurai stories that came after it, it seems like Futaro Yamada's The Kouga Ninja Scrolls and his other novels set the stage for strange ninja tales of intrigue. While the existence of ninja are a historical fact, I highly doubt they ever were like the ones depicted by Yamada. These ninja in his stories are not just master spies with supreme athletic skills, but are rather mutants with special powers such as prehensile body hair and the ability to exhale poison when sexually excited. (At various points in the story Yamada tries to explain how his characters’ peculiar abilities developed naturally, but this is never really convincing.) Such supernatural ninja skills are depicted in screen adaptions of some of his other works, such as the live-action Makai Tensho: Samurai Reincarnation (1981, dir. Kinji Fukasaku) and the 1997 anime OVA series Ninja Resurrection. However, reading through The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, many readers will be reminded of the exploits depicted in Yoshiaki Kawajiri's 1993 masterpiece Ninja Scroll. This makes sense, since the film is reportedly an “homage” to Yamada's novels – although one of the nice things about homages (as opposed to adaptations) is that you don't have to give the original source credit or royalties.
The story of The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is one of loyalty, revenge, love, and blood-feuds – in other words, all the standard excellent stuff we might expect from a tale of ninja warfare. It is set in 1614, barely a decade after the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan. The famed Battle of Sekigahara had taken place in 1600, after which the victorious Tokugawa Ieyasu was able to begin to rally the rest of the country under his rule. By the time of The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, though, Ieyasu is an old man concerned with future lineage of the shogunate. His son Hidetata is the current shogun, but he has two young sons who could succeed him. Takechiyo, the elder, would be the obvious choice, but he often seems to freeze up in public and seems “dazed and vacant.” Kunichiyo, the younger, is much more “lovable and talented,” but he has the pressures of succession working against him. Ieyasu has noticed that many of the Tokugawa family members and generals have started taking sides, supporting one boy or the other. In order to forestall a civil war in his new regime, Ieyasu is forced to make a decision about who the new shogun will be. However, even if he makes a swift decision, he knows that one of the sides will not accept it.
In order to try to solve this problem, Ieyasu decides to let a battle between ninja decide the shogunate's fate.
Luckily, there are two clans of ninja, the Kouga and the Iga, who have happened to despise one another for hundreds of years. However, Hattori Hanzo, an official in the shogunate who is the head of both ninja clans, has mandated for years that the Kouga and Iga be at peace with one another. Even though warfare between the two clans had ceased, there is still a deep-seated hatred between the groups, just waiting for an excuse to be released. At the beginning of the novel, Hattori Hanzo has called the heads of the clans to Ieyasu's castle for a demonstration of ninja prowess and to inform them that he will be lifting the ban on warfare between the Kouga and the Iga by making an official pronouncement on two identical scrolls. In order to settle the succession, the two clan heads are to choose nine other ninja from their respective sides as official combatants, and each clan will be randomly assigned to represent one of the Tokugawa grandsons. The two sides have one month in which to fight, after which the side with the most survivors must bring their copy of the scroll back to Ieyasu's castle in order to be declared the winner.
I could easily see how such an intro could make an English-language reader not delve much further into the book. All of this political posturing seems like quite a setup for the story, and to fully understand the relevance of what's going on requires a bit of knowledge of Japanese history. I must admit that I was a bit put off when I started reading – before we even get into the story, the reader is presented with maps, a five-page cast of characters, and then a two-page summary of which side all of the characters are on. I've never been a big fan of expansive books that require a massive cast and a brand-new vocabulary. I mean, I'll give it a pass if we're talking something like Dune or Neal Stephenson's Anathem, but in general I think that if the reader can't tell who is doing what from the prose alone, maybe the author should think about simplifying things. I did find myself referring back to the character summaries from time to time just because they were there, but thankfully I didn't find them to be critically necessary.
Once you get past the exposition of why the two ninja clans are now fighting with one another, the book actually becomes fairly straightforward – it's ninja killing action all the way. In fact, it is no sooner than the truce between the clans in broken that the ruling elders of both clans end up killing one another. From then on, and for most of the rest of the book, the two sides try to devise schemes to kill the opponent's remaining ninja while trying not to fall into any on the enemy's traps themselves. And to be honest, until the end there's not a whole lot more to it than that. Which isn't to say it's not interesting – all of the ninja's special abilities are fascinating to one degree or another, and there's no lack of bloodshed and severed limbs. Although Yamada never dwells too long on the gory details, he also doesn't shy away from describing the graphic violence of the ninja battles.
In addition to the clan rivalry, however, is a love story between young heirs to each clan. Kouga Gennosuke and Oboro from Iga are a pair of young lovers who are planning to wed at the beginning of the story, possibly cementing the tenuous peace between the two groups. However, with the resumption of hostilities, their love is threatened along with their very lives. Since their names are both on the list of ninja from their respective clans, they realize that they may eventually be forced to fight one another. In many ways, this tragic love tale is Shakespearean in its scope – a fact that does not go unnoticed by Yamada, since the second chapter is titled “Kouga Romeo and Iga Juliet.” I certainly don't want to give anything away, but needless to say you probably shouldn't expect a happy ending after that comparison (especially if you know anything about the Japanese fondness for tragic romantic longing).
Although The Kouga Ninja Scrolls seems like it was written more for entertainment than to make a social point, it wouldn't be hard to see a criticism of Japanese society in its pages. Regardless of which side emerges victorious in the contest between the Kouga and Iga ninjas, the real winner will be neither clan but rather the continuity of the shogunate. The book could be seen as a metaphor for how people in power manipulate the lower classes to keep them fighting with one another to keep them distracted. In this way, Yamada's novel bears some similarities to another late-1950s ninja phenomenon – Sanpei Shirato's Ninja Bugeicho. (Although Viz released a couple volumes of Shirato's The Legend of Kamui in the 1990s, he remains a critically under-translated artist when it comes to understanding the role manga has played in Japanese society.)
In anime fan culture, it sometimes seems that anything older than a few seasons ago is considered “old” and not worthy of attention. However, I think that this is often just a matter of perception. I doubt that anyone reading The Kouga Ninja Scrolls would have guessed that it's over fifty years old. Its cast of fantastic characters keeps things going at a rollicking pace and makes the story seem contemporary. It's a quick, fun read, and definitely worth the time in order to see how far some of the ninja archetypes have come.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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