Nothing like seeing a series hitting its stride. The Yagyū Ninja Scrolls had a slow first volume, but picked up swiftly the second time out, and now its third installment follows nicely in the same vein. Come to think of it, even if this series hadn’t ratcheted up the way it has, I would’ve had a hard time saying no to it: me, turn down an adventure culled straight from the pen of the man who essentially created the pop-culture ninja mythos as we know it? Not happening. Seeing Scrolls work out as well as it does only enhances the pleasure of reading it.
The story so far: Yagyū Jubei has pledged to help the surviving women
of the Hori clan enact vengeance upon the Seven Spears of Aizu, the
villains who slaughtered their husbands. Under Jubei’s stern but wise
instruction, the seven Hori women begin to do the seemingly impossible:
shape themselves into a fighting force that will use misdirection,
tactics and cunning as much as old-school swordsmanship and blunt-nosed
violence. Individually, they’re no match for any one of the Seven
Spears, and they all know it — but they’ve already killed one of them
(the sickle-and-chain-wielding Daidoji) by working together, and that
alone is a major boost to their collective spirits.
Volume 3 breaks into roughly three segments: the ongoing training of the women; their assault on Aizu nemesis Gusoku Jyonoshin, who commands a pack of savage dogs as his weapons; and a retaliatory strike by the Aizu to lure Jubei out of hiding and to get him to (literally) come out from behind his mask. The first section skirts predictability — the women are maybe twenty percent cut out to be warriors, as you might guess — but the story has fun with Jubei’s use of reverse psychology. If he can’t goad them into giving their all, then maybe he can trick them into goading themselves. When Jubei suggests fleeing as a strategy, he gets a retort flung back at him: “We did not leave [the safety of] the convent to run away!” the firebrand Sakura declaims — but then learns that what Jubei has in mind is not cowardice but a cleverly refined strategy.
The second segment shows that strategy at work, where Jubei and one of the women — the plump-faced Otori — set an elaborate trap for Gusoku. The latter wields, aside from his dogs, a spear big enough to be used as a bridge across troubled water (and, in fact, it gets used for exactly that); the former are armed with little more than their wits and a couple of swords. It’s a great sequence, full of “oh man, how are they going to get out of this one?” moments, and further proof that wits and wisdom beat brawn and brutality any day. I was also going to say this scene is straight out of the craziest of Japanese swordplay movies, but then I remembered Futaro Yamada’s original novels (one of which was the source material for Scrolls) probably inspired many of those films in the first place.
The last segment of the book gives us the Aizu fomenting a little revenge of their own. Bad guys this charismatically nasty are not about to take this kind of abuse lying down, and so they hatch a plot to frame Jubei that’s as vile as anything else they’ve done. They kidnap several newlyweds on their wedding nights, and use both the husband and wife in each pair for things I’m loathe to ruin in print. It’s a great capper for this volume, and a strong lead-in for the next one as well.
Art: When I reviewed the art in the first volume of the series, I was put off by how joltingly ugly a good deal of it was — how vile so many of the characters’ faces were, which made getting through the book a bit of a chore. I’m still at odds with the art, but I’ve also started to understand how much of that is a deliberate stacking of the deck, so to speak. The bad guys have been made as revolting as possible in every way, from their scowling, deep-set eyes to their lovingly-delineated appetites for carnality. But there’s a few things that offset all this: for one, a faster-moving story (so there’s that much more to look at), and some slickly-assembled action sequences that help showcase Segawa’s designs all the better. I still think the art is an acquired taste, but I’m willing to admit that I’ve acquired it at least in part.
Translation: Del Rey get it, and they get it right the vast majority of the time. Aside from keeping the original formatting and the original on-page sound effects (annotated unobtrusively right on the frame), they do a lot of other things that make sense. They kept the original color opening pages for the first volume untranslated, because a) we get a translation for that text in the body of the book anyway and b) why mess with something that looks good? (Their translation of ×××HOLiC was designed the same way.) They also have a consistent frontispiece in all of their comics — a brief primer on the use of Japanese honorifics — some cultural notes that don’t fit in the margins in the rear of the book, some cultural notes that do fit in the margins throughout the book, a sneak preview of the 4th volume, and a terrific action shot of Otori on the back. (Hint to Del Rey: Release that image as a wallpaper download!)
The Bottom Line: I was getting increasingly good vibes about this series as of the last volume, and now my suspicions are shaping up to be justified. Despite the slow start and the deliberately grotesque look to the comic (which is there for a reason), Scrolls has hit its stride. All of you with a bent for ninja / samurai / historical-Japan stories should add this to your shopping lists.