More than anyone else I could name, Futaro Yamada is responsible for the fantasy mythology of the ninja as expressed in popular culture. Certainly more than anyone else who has yet been translated into English, and now that The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is at last available in a finely-wrought, officially sanctioned translation, it’s possible to see at least some of how all of this got started. Scrolls was the basis for the live-action movie Shinobi and the anime and manga Basilisk, but it preceded both of them by many decades, and in that intervening time the number of other things influenced by it — and most of the rest of Yamada’s popular fiction to boot — could be compiled into a catalog.
I’ve written before, with great enthusiasm, about the material derived from Yamada’s other works. The mythology of the ninja has been fodder for any number of books and stories, but Yamada gave it the form we have come most to know it in today — codified it, popularized it, and identified himself with it. His Makai Tenshō was the basis for a 1981 Sonny Chiba movie, a 2003 remake, an incomplete OAV, a direct-to-video pair of feature-length films so awful I could not bear to review them, and endless imitations and parodies. Scrolls, like Tensho, draws on both existing Japanese history and extant mythology to create a violent, wildly stylized fantasy. He was also known as a thriller/mystery novelist and cast plenty of influences right there; his novel Etsuraku (Pleasures of the Flesh) was filmed by Ream of the Senses director Nagisa Oshima and compares favorably to many of today’s non-linear thrillers.
The story is actually not all that complicated. The shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, having unified Japan, now faces a problem in which of two possible heirs will succeed to the country’s throne. His solution is to pick two rival ninja clans — the Kouga and the Iga — have each clan send ten of their best fighters forward into combat, and whichever clan is left standing will represent the winner. The two clans were sworn to a nonaggression pact centuries ago, however — Ieyasu’s plan is to trick them into warring with each other without actually telling them of the duel. Worse, there’s a Romeo/Juliet romance in the works between the two clans — Gennosuke of the Kouga, and Oboro of the Iiga. Their potential wedding plans are cast aside when members from each side begin turning up dead, and soon they are faced with the prospect of having to kill each other in cold blood. The two of them also happen to have the most remarkable sets of powers among their respective clans, and it’s only a matter of time before said powers are turned against each other.
Yamada hits the ground running with his story (the whole thing’s a brisk 300 pages) and doesn’t look back. Right from the start we’re given a taste of how the story will unfold — a grotesque duel between the sinister Yashamaru of Iga and the bestial Kazamachi of Kouga, staged for Ieyasu’s benefit. Yashamaru’s weapon is a rope forged from magically-treated hair; Kazamachi’s, his glue-like mucous, which can trap an enemy or suffocate him outright. The other ninja are outfitted with equally outlandish abilities — like Hotarubi, who can summon and command animals (like storms of butterflies, or Okoi, the “human leech”, or Nenki, the man whose hair “has its own nervous system” and can become like porcupine’s quills on demand.
Yamada describes all these powers and their blood-spattering uses with lurid fascination; he lingers on their deformities and their inhuman power at such length that after a while you realize he’s making an entirely separate point about them. Their power — created by “aggressive inbreeding” — has isolated them from the rest of the human race in more ways than one. If they weren’t “ninja”, they would be unacceptably freakish by anyone’s standards as well. This way, at least they can be among others who respect them, even if that respect simply manifests as honoring your opponent before killing him in a particularly brutal and gory way.
Scrolls is not meant to be anything except fast-moving entertainment, but it’s fascinating for other reasons: not just for how broadly and massively influential it’s been, but for how it still feels fresh and contemporary. Like the Vampire Hunter D novels, it lends itself to the kind of action cinema of the mind that we no longer have to only experience on the page. The live-action adaptation of this story was so soggy and deviated so broadly from the source material — the ending in particular, which is a disgraceful mess — that it’s a real pleasure to see it for what it was originally meant to be. And like the D novels, the mere fact that it’s been published in English is another step in the direction of many other such works seeing the light of day. I await them eagerly.