Always a good feeling, to open the second volume of a series and see that it’s leaps and bounds above the first volume. And I wanted that to be the case with The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls: it’s based on a novel by a criminally-undertranslated Japanese author, Fûtaro Yamada, who’s probably more responsible for the modern pop-culture mythology of the ninja than any other literary party. The first volume, though, was terribly slow to get off the ground, and reveled in a kind of fetishistic ugliness that made it really hard to enjoy. It was all set-up, and not much pay-off.
The second volume, however, leaps from set-up to pay-off in a major way. The seven women of the Hori clan now have Yagyū Jūbei as their mentor in vengeance against the sinister Seven Spears of the Aizu — but there’s only so much he can do. He’s determined to find a way to let the women take revenge with their own hands, to serve as an instructor and trainer, but not as a proxy. This will not be easy, especially since the women are not fighters by nature. (One side effect of the training and the subsequent missions is how the women subsequently differentiate themselves and stand out all the more ascharacters, not simply visual elements.)
The women do have two things that will come in handy: native ingenuity, and a bellyful of fire. The amount of fire varies widely between each woman, as does the ingenuity, but there’s the general impression that each of the Hori women will have something to give back to the fight. Jūbei himself brings to the table the kind of rakish, never-say-die spirit a project like this demands: he’s just confident enough to make us believe he can pull this off — or, rather, train them to pull it off.
One thing Jūbei can do on his own, however, is suss out what skills each of the Seven Spears has at his disposal and plan accordingly. To that end, he dons a red lacquered demon mask (nothing like a little theatricality to strike fear into your enemies’ hearts) and does indirect battle with Daidōji Tessai, the sickle-and-chain-wielding member of the Seven whose skill is strong enough to make even Jūbei break a sweat. How are the girls supposed to face up to a creature of such strength? Even a seven-against-one battle won’t mean much when the ladies have no formal martial skills.
That’s Jūbei’s next step: to instill in his charges at least some semblance of battle readiness. The Hori women may not be warriors — in their first practice combat he defeats them all wielding nothing but a simple fan — but they have a tenacity that Jūbei can build on, and they thrive further on knowing that someone wants them to succeed. Soon their first mission presents itself: Daidōji is off to the pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara, to bring back a fresh crop of women for his lord Akinari (who will most likely butcher them in various perverse ways).
This is where the ninja-hijinks side of the story kicks into high gear. One of the Hori women — the gutsy Sakura — sneaks into the building disguised as a seamstress, spies on the goings-on, and leaves behind a message deliberately designed to inflame Daidōji’s ire. What the ladies don’t have in brute strength they more than make up for in collective agility and cleverness, and they put all of those skills to work when they confront Daidōji smuggling the freshly-bought women out of Yoshiwara. It’s a finely-executed fight that shows what this series can be at its best: clever, fast-moving and joltingly violent to boot. And after the dust settles, Jūbei also enacts a little social justice of his own devising against the merchant who sold off the women in the first place. Nothing like a little hush money to fund his operation that much more effectively … and to throw that much more fear into the hearts of his enemies.
Those of you who are already fans of Basilisk or Yamada’s other works in general don’t need to be coaxed into picking this up. If you haven’t bumped into Basilisk yet, but grooved on Satsuma Gishiden, Path of the Assassin or Blade of the Immortal, give Yagyu a try. It’s slowly proving itself to be a series to stick with.