A Few Words for a Ninja Master: Futaro Yamada

Matt Brown (Editor in Chief) — August 1st,2011
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Sometimes, the stars seem to align so as to make a topic more relevant than it otherwise would have been. I was reading The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, a 1959 novel about two supernatural ninja clans at war and a pair of star-crossed lovers inescapably tangled in the affair. If it sounds like a ninja Romeo and Juliet, it's because it is, albeit with a few adjustments that lend a darker character to the work. Instead of a tragedy of reckless youth, it's more of a tragedy of circumstance, wrought by the fickleness of an aging shogun.

The author is Futaro Yamada, born Seiya Yamada in 1922. Over the years he published a large body of ninja-themed novels, as well as a handful of non-ninja works like Kan no Naka no Etsuraku (or "Pleasures of the Flesh," made into film by Nagisa Oshima). The 28th of July was the tenth anniversary of Yamada's death, and yet, Western exposure to his work is still in its infancy. Unfortunately, this not uncommon with even the most popular Japanese authors. There are a handful of classics and early modern works you might be able to dredge up in university libraries, but good luck with that — and English translations of the more recent works go out of print with lightning speed, if they even make it past Europe in their journey west. The world has opened its doors more widely in acceptance for manga, but the courtesy of that hall is lessend, of late. Still, manga remains popular enough that we're more likely to get translations of a manga adaptation of a Japanese novel than the novel itself (See: The Girl Who Leapt through Time).

Kouga is one of Yamada's earliest and best-internationalized works. We have a direct translation courtesy of Del Rey, as well as Basilisk: The Kouga Ninja Scrolls the latest manga adaptation of the novel, by Masaki Segawa; the Gonzo-produced anime adaptation of Segawa's manga; and Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, a film adaptation of the novel that, to be blunt, is dreadful. Yoshiaki Kawajiri's Ninja Scroll is understood to be an homage to Yamada's works. In addition, selected film adaptations for Makai Tensho (Ninja Resurrection) and Iga Ninpocho (Ninja Wars) made it overseas, and a manga adaptation of Yagyu Ninpocho (The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls: Revenge of the Hori Clan). While it's great to be able to experience a adaptations of his ninja works, Kouga is the one source we have for getting familiar with Yamada's own work. (To be perfectly frank, Basilisk is such a faithful adaptation of the novel that you're not missing a thing by reading the manga or watching the anime.)

Yamada showed us a world of highly secretive, highly specialized fighters, with an anything-goes code of ethics about battle. His ninja exhibit traits that seem almost cliché, now, like the lightning speed with which they run, jump, and throw stuff, their effortless navigation of treetops, the uncanny ability to sneak up on people, and so on. I don't know about you, but I'd to see more! There's about 25 of these ninja books in the Yamada bibliography, many of which have seen film and/or manga adaptations. I'm sure the market of anime and manga fans alone could absorb at least a few of these stories well enough to make it worth the while, so really, someone should get on that.