A while back I wrote about Baian the Assassin, one of any number of samurai-era TV shows that Japan created for itself rather than an international audience. Times have changed, and what Japan once considered insular and wholly theirs has since filtered out and become part of the larger galaxy of cinematic and storytelling tropes. You don’t need any particular background in Japanese history to find Baian enjoyable; most of the period details either explain themselves or exist solely as exotica for their own sake.
I was vaguely aware that Baian had been adapted from a series of novels by Shotaro Ikenami, whose mainstay was samurai adventure stories. They not only sold well but lent themselves to being adapted: Hideo Gosha filmed Ikenami’s Hunter in the Dark (starring Tatsuya Nakadai and Tetsuro Tanba, two of the most dependable and charismatic Japanese actors of the last few decades), and when Baian was filmed for TV it featured Ken Watanabe (Last Samurai, Inception) in the lead role. The movies proved easier to find than the books, so when a copy of Ninja Justice — a Kodansha paperback reprint of an earlier offering in hardcover — turned up relatively cheap I pounced on it.
If you’ve already seen Baian, you’ll find Justice completely familiar. The titular Baian works by day as a doctor and acupuncturist in Edo-era Japan, but has a shadow life as a hired killer, murdering his targets with specially-sharpened needles. He along with his cheery friend and co-conspirator Hikojiro do their best to maintain their parallel lives, but after most every assignment — which inevitably involves someone, or a whole bunch of someones, dead at their hands — they’re reminded all the more grimly of how their own existences are likely to be just as ephemeral. Yes, these men are killers, but they have a code of sorts and stick with it, and are disturbed by the possibility that sometimes their intended targets do not seem to be people who have it coming. Or if they are, killing them hardly seems to solve the underlying problem of how such people come to be in the first place. “Evil — it’s a kind of disease that even I can’t cure with my needles,” Baian ruminates in the final installment. And in the first story, Baian reflects rather grimly on his perceptions about women after killing one. (Hint: he doesn’t think much of them. Ikenami’s modern outlook helps temper somewhat the misogyny that sadly seems to be a staple element of any period tale.)
Like the TV show after it, the stories are put together with a canny eye towards period detail — not just place names, but intimate little details that don’t often show up in reference books. Bowls of fish soup are garnished with orchid blooms; the Iseya in the town of Mekawa is where grilled tofu with sweet bean sauce was first cooked up. It’s spare, precise detail that complements Ikenami’s unpretentious writing style, which is in line with many other Japanese authors: there’s nothing there that doesn’t need to be there, and over time that becomes more effective than the tell-all-and-then-some approach that’s used for period fiction in the West. It all makes for a fast and enjoyable read, which is over entirely too soon and makes me wonder if any of Ikenami’s other work will see print in English. Not likely, but I hold out hope that work like this can find new audiences in this increasingly outward-directed age.