I have this fantasy wherein some Japanese historian unearths a cache of scrolls that tell us what the legendary “ninja” Yagyū Jūbei was really like. The most exotic version of this fantasy has Jūbei himself coming forward in time to the present day, and reading all the crazy mythology that grew out of people simply not having a lot of hard facts about his life. He’d probably laugh until he fell out of his chair. Or, better yet, he’d take that very mythology and twist it for his own ends. Turn it into a weapon. Use it to give the Evil Overlords of the Universe a few sleepless nights. In short, he’d do everything he’s been doing in this series.
There’s pleasures big and small alike in Yagyū Ninja Scrolls, but one of the most consistent is how Jūbei approaches everything with the same cocky little smile. This man has seen them come and seen them go, and has sent a great many of them on their way with his own two hands. He’s having a grand time of it, and that’s part of why his opponents are such nasty stiffs. It’s not just that they’re evil, but that their entire idea of a Good Time is kidnapping helpless young women for their mega-harem. They need less vile hobbies. Jūbei has one: messing with their heads.
Clearly, Jūbei picked the perfect mission to indulge in his favorite pastime. Back in the beginning of the series he ended up in the employ of the women of the Hori clan. They were looking for someone to help them exact revenge on the Seven Spears of Aizu, the harem-keeping monsters described above. Jūbei said yes — but not because he figured they’d actually get away with it. They’d probably die trying. But man, what a great excuse to put one over on those corrupt Shogunate skunks! And over the course of six volumes, under his guidance, the Hori women went from being barely able to stay in the same room with a sword to killing four of the seven Spears with their own hands. He’s helped them out — running interference, performing psy-ops — but the ultimate responsibility has always been theirs, and he’s never settled for less.
Volume seven shows us the newest kill on their tally sheet: Katō Akinari — body of a linebacker, head like a peeled egg. Weapon of choice: whip. He meets his demise after a spectacular fight sequence that seems explicitly patterned after the rope-bridge sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Rather than give us the whole thing at once, though, artist Masaki Segawa (he of Basilisk fame, another Fūtaro Yamada adaptation) breaks up the action — spreading it across several chapters and interleaving it with some additional plot.
Said intercalary sequences also serve up a plot twist: turns out the lead Big Bad, Dōhaku, has a secret twin brother to whom his fate is tied. Kill one and you kill the other, but you can’t kill either one directly. Let’s see if this helps erase that smirk from Jūbei’s face — because if it doesn’t, nothing will.
I’m still iffy about the art — always have been, probably always will be. But the story itself is straight out of one of my favorite least-translated authors in Japanese — and it’s a welcome relief for those of us who want our ninja in black, not orange.