Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Path of the Assassin

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CXVI: Path of the Assassin

It takes a lot of guts for a manga publisher to release a title in which both the main characters are completely bald. Of course, as I discovered from reading this manga, they're bald because they shaved their heads to look bald—that was the style for men in Japan's Sengoku Era—but when you put a bunch of bald guys on the cover of your manga, it's obvious your target audience is middle-aged men. Path of the Assassin ran from 1976 to 1984 as a side feature in the weekly men's newsmagazine Weekly Gendai (standard formula for Japanese men's newsmags: softcore porn in the front, news in the rear, like British tabloids with their page three girls). It's a densely written, rambling historical novel, packed with crude humor, sex, sexism, strategy and manliness. IT IS THE ANTI-BISHONEN MANGA.

Of course, it's also a collaboration between Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, so that's probably why Dark Horse published all 15 volumes of it, despite the lack of anime hair. Path of the Assassin is the third long collaboration of the two famous gekiga creators, after their megahit 1970-1976 Lone Wolf and Cub and the somewhat less megahit 1972-1976 Samurai Executioner. But although Lone Wolf and Samurai Executioner are both basically episodic story franchises about made-up heroes, who deal with a new problem each chapter, Path of the Assassin is a lengthy historical fiction about legendary ninja Hattori Hanzo and his master Tokugawa Ieyasu. It's about Hanzo's path to become a great ninja, but it's also about Ieyasu's path to become shogun of all Japan.

The story begins in 1557 Japan. Hattori Hanzo Masanori is the third son of his father, heir of one of Japan's fabled ninja clans who serve the Matsudaira clan. When his father tests his three sons by asking them to steal a heavy vase from a shop—without killing the owner or damaging the shop to create a distraction—the first two sons give up. "The vase is too heavy for one man to lift." "I'll have to come back later and break into the shop at night." But Hanzo, the smallest son, just goes into the shop and steals some smaller items instead of stealing the vase. "I'll sell them elsewhere, and with the money I make, I'll go buy the vase. I believe it's no different from stealing it."

His father is impressed by Hanzo's cleverness, and gives him his life's mission: to become the right-hand man of Masadaira Motonobu, heir of the Matsudaira clan and the future Tokugawa Ieyasu. There is one slight problem: since childhood, Motonobu has been a hostage of the Imagawa clan, a prisoner kept in luxurious surroundings in the Imagawa castle. Using his super stealth, Hanzo sneaks into the Imagawa castle and announces his presence to Motonobu. ("I am serving in the dark, beneath the floor. Do not be alarmed.") At first, Motonobu is freaked out, but then he comes to accept his secret ninja sidekick. Hanzo is always by his side, always hidden, never sleeping, hanging from the ceiling like a bat, surviving on special ninja food pellets, waiting for his master's command. Soon, by Motonobu's cleverness and Hanzo's ninja skills, Motonobu stops being a mere captive and becomes the leader of an army of his own. Together, they fight against cunning opponents, such as Oda Nubanaga and Takeda Shingen, to protect their clan and to bring peace to Japan (by uniting it under Motonobu's rule, of course—how else?).

It all sounds really epic and serious when I put it that way, but the thing about Path is: it's not. Perhaps a completely 'straightforward' historical adaptation would be too boring, so just like Nanae Chrono's Peacemaker Kurogane had to dress up the Meiji Era with a lot of bishonen and sexy catboys, so Kazuo Koike has to add some fanservice and comedy, Koike-style. When we first meet our heroes, Hanzo is a scrawny kid and Motonobu is a fat, goony-looking teenager who can't grow a proper mustache. Furthermore, the future shogun is lazy. ("I wish I could live my life in quiet idleness, like the tranquil ocean. Eating lots of tasty food, having a beautiful woman at my side, staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer, sleeping whenever I want and immersing myself in composing poetry…I wish I could live that way my whole life!") Hanzo worries if this man is truly the master he must devote his life to. ("How can my lord be so relaxed under these circumstances? He can't even go back to his own territory, yet he talks as if he rules Iga!") But too bad; a ninja has to be loyal. Pretty soon, Motonobu gives Hanzo his first mission, and the manga shows what it's REALLY like: "Masanari…I don't know women. I have no idea how to handle them. I must take Sekiguchi Yoshihiro's daughter as my wife in two days! Help me! Using your spy's technique, show me what men and women do!"

The best word to describe Path of the Assassin is "bawdy." There is always something sexual going on in this manga, and not in a romantic teenage lust way; this is low-down dirty oyaji sex. Ever the faithful servant, Hanzo helps his master learn how to get it on by raping a young fisherwoman, who asks to marry him afterwards. ("I raped you. You must loathe me." "That's why I won't leave you for the rest of my life. You violated me, and I can no longer be with any other man.") After learning technique by watching Hanzo, Motonobu marries the devious Lady Tsukiyama, but as a running plot point, he is unable to satiate her sexual appetites, leading to the greatest manga chapter title ever, "Chapter 4: Oppressive Night of Ass." Motonobu learns that Lady Tsukiyama had previously had sex with another nobleman, the repulsive Lord Ujizane, so he sends Hanzo to report on Ujizane's technique and penis size. Hanzo calls on all his ninja techniques to help with his master's sexual problems. ("This is a virility drug. This powder will enable a man to sleep with seven women at a time!") (But if there's ninja Viagra, why not ninja Rogaine?) Still later, Kikkô, a female ninja, comes to Hanzô to sleep with him so they can make super-ninja babies together and revitalize her clan. Plot twists hinge on vagina hair and dildos. Another plot point involves that "horrific nighttime habit", something SO AWFUL that our heroes can only bring themselves to do it as a last-ditch ninja super-weapon…ORAL SEX.

In brief, Path of the Assassin is a mix of historical drama with kinky shenanigans designed to 'humanize' these historical figures; Tokugawa farted and couldn't satisfy his wife, and Nobunaga had toothaches, and so on. But the true core of this series is bromantic, not sexual. At first Hanzo worries that Tokugawa is "chubby and clumsy," but gradually they become true friends, and Hanzo, like the rest of Tokugawa's men, is inspired by his master's leadership. The gawa in Tokugawa means "river": thus the tagline "Lifelong friends, with the same dreams, striving to grow into a rising river." Hanzo teaches out-of-shape Tokugawa to fight a little and to move around on the battlefield. Tokugawa, who has lived his youth in captivity and never spoke to his own clan members until he escaped, must work hard to prove himself as a leader. There's nothing like the loyalty between a lord and his ninja. In one touching moment, Hanzo delivers the cremated bones of a dead ninja in an urn back to his master, and watches as the ninja's master eats them, crying all the while. ("'If he died, would Ieyasu eat his bones?' Hanzo wondered.")

Ieyasu treads a delicate path of diplomacy and military strategy, while sending Hanzo (and later, Hanzo's ninja-wife Tsukumo) out to kick ass when needed. But Hanzo isn't the only ninja in Japan, so thus comes this manga's second kind of fanservice: EPIC NINJA BATTLES. The other would-be shoguns of Japan have their own ninja, all gifted with incredible swordsmanship, stealth, poison and strange weapons. In Path of the Assassin, like in other classic ninja manga such as Sanpei Shirato's Legend of Kamui, ninja powers are skill and trickery, not magic, but ninja are still super-badass, and they prefer to fight one on one. Many of them attack Hanzo. Hachiya Sekiun is a puppeteer who manipulates clay puppets. Kite Katô, a wizened 80-year-old ninja master, can summon snakes and perform a thousand other tricks; he challenges Hanzo to an epic battle which takes up most of volume 5. Hiyoshi, the jester-like ninja servant of Oda Nubanaga, is one of our heroes' few ninja allies. There are non-ninja who have incredible skill too, such as the savage Akechi Jubei Mitsuhide and the principled Takenaka Hanbei. Nume, one of the female ninja, has a tragic past of sexual abuse; when Hanzo realizes her backstory, he tells his wife Tsukumo they must immediately have sex right in front of her. ("We must show her how wonderful love is, right now! She needs to know how beautiful it can be!")

This sex-in-the-middle-of-a-fight sounds like fanservice (and it is), but actually it's part of a recurring theme in Path of the Assassin, and in Kazuo Koike's work in general.Essentially, the enemy ninja are creepy loners and bitter, sexually frustrated men and women, but Hanzo has a wife and a family and a sex life and he's a better ninja as a result of it. Both he and Tokugawa are family men. When other ninja talk about how the highest honor is to die for their lord, Hanzo reminds them that it's also a vassal's duty to have kids who will serve their lord and keep the cycle of life going. They're loving husbands and fathers, although neither of them are faithful to their wives. After reading this manga, along with Crying Freeman and Wounded Man, I think I've figured out Kazuo Koike's "Principles of Manly Monogamy":

(1) The hero must have a soulmate to whom he manfully declares his undying love ("She's not just a woman. She's my wife! Nothing can replace my love! Love is not to be sold or bought. It is not to be pillaged, stolen, or replaced!")

(2) However, the hero must ALSO be so manly that women are constantly throwing themselves at him, and it would be unmanly to refuse, so the hero also gets to sleep with lots of random women. No one, least of all Koike, will ever call the hero on the hypocrisy of this, nor will the hero ever suffer any consequences for doing so.

I don't buy it, but anyway. Hanzo's "The Joy of Sex" attitude to swingin' family life isn't the only way he's a ninja of his times (i.e., the times 1976-1984). He also eagerly uses modern weapons, gladly whipping out a pistol to blast enemies in defiance of ninja tradition. ("The era in which the suppa techniques ruled is about to end. It's about weapons now…times are changing. It's weapons that determine the victor!") He sings the death knell of the whole age of lone super-ninjas, heralding a more collectivist era, which could be a reference to Communism or corporations, you decide. ("The era in which a suppa could force his will upon the world is gone. This is a time of collective power, not the individual!") Midway through the series, one old ninja makes a prediction about the future: "I can see what's going on within our nation very well, but I can't see what lies beyond the sea…Eventually the entire country will be ruled by a warlord of our time. The problems will come afterward." Afterward, like the 20th century…? 'Beyond the sea', eh…?

Path of the Assassin is a manga that's difficult to get into, but rewarding if you like long oldschool manga: I think I've written enough for you to figure out if this is your cup of ribald historical-ninja-melodrama tea or the kind of manga you wouldn't piss on if it were on fire. There's lots of clever strategy and interesting history: one of Tokugawa's first big challenges is to deal with a rebellion when he accidentally offends the followers of Ikkôshû Buddhism, a reminder that Buddhists, too, can be violent fanatics ("Ieyasu is the Buddha's enemy. Destroy him and defend the teachings of Buddha!"). Kojima's artwork is beautiful as always, but much sketchier and looser than in Lone Wolf and Cub, with much more talking heads and less Lone Wolf-style National Geographic-esque historical details. Textwise, it's a dense read; Dark Horse provides a helpful glossary, but with so much discussion of Japanese provinces, some maps would have been useful for Western readers. (There's also lots of confusing terminology; for the first several volumes, the ninja are called suppa ("spies") instead of ninja, and even Motonobu doesn't get his familiar name, Tokugawa, until midway through the series.)

Another problem of Path of the Assassin is that Koike kind of drops the ball at the very end; the ending in volume 15 is so abrupt, I had to read it twice to realize it was actually over. Perhaps that's just Koike, though; just as he likes to begin an epic historical manga with a kinky bedroom tale rather than dramatic thunder and prophecies, he ends it in an offhanded, funny way, rather than with some grand climax. Anyway, I know how this manga, the story of the ninja who founded the Tokugawa Era, really ends. It ends a few hundred years later when the main character of Lone Wolf and Cub kills everyone.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete GuideKing of RPGs and H.P. Lovecraft's Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. He also reviews manga for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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