I’ll start with a fact, one which will probably make no one reading this except me bounce up and down with joy: The Yagyū Ninja Scrolls is the newest of Del Rey’s offerings derived from the works of Fūtaro Yamada.
I did indeed jump up and down and squeal with joy when I heard this title was coming out. In fact, I went to AMN Anime's editor and begged him shamelessly to ask Del Rey for a copy, because if he didn’t I was going to march out and throw down the $13.95 myself and review it here anyway.
I did the exact same jump-and-squeal back when Del Rey brought out Basilisk, the previous manga derived from a Fūtaro Yamada novel. Not only that, they went a step further and brought out the novel itself (The Kouga Ninja Scrolls) in English. I wasn’t as impressed with Basilisk as I wanted to be — the TV anime derived from the series kicks about fourteen metric hectares of butt, though — but the simple fact that Del Rey was bringing some of Fūtaro Yamada’s works out in English was reason enough for celebration and possibly worship.
So why all the fuss and bother on my part? Fandom. Yamada was one of many novelists immensely popular in Japan but for whatever reason never translated into English. His local appeal was undeniable, though. He wrote thirty-plus novels, a good number of them samurai/ninja action epics that used key elements from Japanese history as jumping-off points for some truly wild fantasies. Many of his books made it to the big screen: his Hitchcockian thriller Etsuraku, for instance, was adapted by no-less-legendary director Nagisa Oshima. The one movie and book that most people over there remember was Makai Tensho, a totally over-the-top piece of work that pitted legendary ninja Yagyū Jūbei against sixteen-year-old Christian martyr Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, freshly resurrected from the underworld after making a pact with Satan. There’s been not just one but three movie versions of that story; the best one stars Sonny Chiba as Jūbei and sports Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku behind the camera. (In my ideal Utopia, every household on the planet will have one copy of this movie.)
But, again, this is a review. And reviewer that I am, I have to be mindful of the facts that a) not everyone is, or will be, a Fūtaro Yamada fan, and b) manga are not akin to horses or royalty, and get no free rides based on lineage alone. The fact that The Yagyū Ninja Scrolls was based on a Yamada novel was more than enough to get it in the door for me, but for people who are not already fans of either Japanese historical fantasy or Yamada himself, this may be a tough sell. It’s slow to start, gratuitously ugly and violent in a lot of places, and doesn’t even really seem to give the reader anyone to root for until the first volume is nearly over. No, not things I want to say about an author that deserves as much exposure as he can get (in my eyes, anyway) — but if I can’t be even halfway honest about someone I like, then I’m never going to be honest about anyone else.
The Yagyū Ninja Scrolls kicks things off in 1642, after the Tokugawa Shogunate brought all of Japan’s various warring clans together under one banner. The whole thing didn’t come without blood and suffering, to be sure: as the book opens, a batch of samurai from the Aizu clan are being led to their executions. These poor suckers rebelled against their master, Lord Akinari, at least in part because of his unstoppably perverse appetites; we see the man here ‘n there throughout the book, and he makes Caligula look tasteful and well-adjusted. But a rebellion is a rebellion, and in this age of solidarity under one banner, the Shogunate sees no choice but to have these men dealt with as harshly as possible.
What complicates things is how the Aizu women fled for the protection of Tokeiji Temple — a haven where women from across Japan could seek shelter. The Aizu “Seven Spears,” a gang of nasties who bring to mind the scummier members of the Kouga and Iga clans from Basilisk, arrive there one fine morning with the husbands of those refugee women in tow — ostensibly to let their wives say goodbye to them before they’re executed. The whole thing’s a ruse, of course, to gain entry and massacre everyone inside as a way to serve notice that there is No Hiding From The Aizu. It almost works, too — the Seven Spears manage to slaughter the nuns, but are stayed from killing off the women themselves when the Lady Tenjuin, sister to the Shogun, steps up and offers her neck in exchange. The Spears aren’t about to kill her as well, so they back off, leaving the seven Aizu women and their new benefactor to wonder what to do next.
This scene takes up almost the entire first half of the book, and I suspect it’s a big part of what may keep people from getting into the story quite so readily. For a long time — far longer than in most manga — all we see are enemies and victims, with the former being unpalatably nasty and the latter being little more than an undifferentiated crowd that huddles and weeps on cue. Nobody really seems worthy of our attention until Lady Tenjuin steps out of her palanquin, and even then you’re wondering if she’s not just going to get her head lopped off for her trouble. A friend of mine once called this George R.R. Martin Syndrome: When you spend a good deal of time in your work killing people off indiscriminately to hammer home things like Life And War Are Random And Gory And Terrible And The Man Next To You Could Die Nastily In The Next Ten Minutes, it has the gloomy side effect of making your audience wonder if they should bother identifying with anyone since for all they know the poor slob could get ganked in the next paragraph.
With nowhere else to turn — certainly not her brother the Shogun, who’s washing his hands of the whole thing — Lady Tenjuin decides to call on the Zen priest Takuan, someone who’s spent a good deal of time in the company of soldiers and generals, and might know a thing or two about warfare without letting on that he does. And so shriveled little Takuan arrives, bringing with him someone who does indeed know a great deal about warfare: Yagyū Jūbei , son of the Shogun’s personal fencing instructor, a free-spirited and good-humored fellow who gave up a prominent Shogunate post to wander freely and test his skills against the world. “Intriguing,” he repeats over and over again when told of this whole situation, grinning and rubbing his bristly chin sidelong in what seems like every single panel. (Do it twice, it’s a “mannerism.” Do it every single time, it’s Tourette’s.)
What the women want is someone who will teach them how to go and take their revenge against the Seven Spears, but Jūbei is not starry-eyed enough to believe that he can train these girls and send them out to do anything but get themselves messily killed. “Tactics,” he declares: they will only win by superior tactics, not strength or martial proficiency alone. And in one of the more telling passages, he warns the ladies that they may have to give up their lives, their chastity, or both in order to make this happen. Their lives, they’re not worried about losing — but the look on their faces when they’re told they may lose their chastity is priceless. Cue a variant of Andrei Codrescu’s routine “Two Possibilities”, where you can choose between a) dying or b) being raped. If you die, that’s OK. If you get raped, well, you have two possibilities…
This brings me to the first major complaint about the first volume, and it’s something most any first volume of a series suffers from, but it’s pronounced enough here to be a real roadblock. There are a lot of characters present — at least nine on each side of the conflict — and it takes such a long time for not just faces but personalities to swim out of the mire that the less stalwart of us may never feel like anyone in there is worth connecting with in the first place. Jūbei , Takuan, and Lady Tenjuin are the ones I connected with most immediately once they actually step forward, but the Seven Spears are like the backing gang of freakazoids traipsing across the stage during a GWAR concert (they’re all costume and makeup, no persona), and the Aizu clan wives, with one exception, don’t get much differentiation either. The one standout is Ofue, she of the butch haircut — Jūbei ’s words, not mine — and the massive attitude problem. It’s one of those things that I’m sure will unravel itself in the coming volumes, but that’s assuming anyone bothers to stick around for them. I know I will, but you can already guess why.
The Fūtaro Yamada fan and the history buff in me are big fans of Yagyu. The more general manga critic in me is taking a wait-and-see approach. Let me put it this way: when I said “Fūtaro Yamada” and “Yagyū Jūbei ,” were you bouncing up and down, too? That should give you a hint as to whether or not you’re the audience for this title.