‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in manga

Depending on what school of thought you believe, the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is either pure myth propagated by popular media or martial tradition traced back centuries in Japan. Well, if EITHER of those is true, then you’d think the short, straight bladed sword with square guard would show up in manga once in a while. But it doesn’t.

Depictions of ninja swords in manga are a mixed bag over the decades, but a lot of what you see are short, curved blades of the less-decorated variety, worn as often through the belt as they are on the back.

This might be little more than artistic preference. I think illustrators like Mitsuteru Yokoyama (above) and Shirato Sanpei liked drawing the curved blade, as it adds a sense of dynamic movement not necessarily there with a swinging straight blade.

It’s also important to keep in mind manga artists work on insane deadlines, so consistency of blade style can vary from panel to panel. One can find an isolated drawing or two with what looks like a straight sword, but that doesn’t exactly constitute a deliberate statement of sword preference.

Here’s a few samples of the manga ninja sword (or lack thereof):

WAIT! Osamu Tezuka‘s I Am Sarutobi (circa 1960) has a short, shealth-less, apparently straight blade! It also has a lead character with stubs for feet and eyes the size of grapefruits, so you can’t exactly lean on the exacting design here…

Kagemaru of Iga‘s curved blade (starting in 1961) seemed to change length depending on the panel layout and dramatic effect intended. This was one of the most influential properties of the 60s Japanese craze, but Yokoyama never made that strong a statement about sword style. The 1963 film adaptation used a standard katana.

Sanpei, however, was much more of a realist, especially later in his career. However both the mid 60s and early 80s incarnations of Kamui saw the character use nothing more exotic than a dressed-down wakizashi, although it was slung in the small of the back in a signature style. These panels are from the 80s Eclipse reprints, and may be partly indicative of why this superb, heady series never fully connected with mainstream ninja fans in the America. No black suit for the hero, no regulation ‘Ninja-To,’ so less visual shorthand to attract otherwise Kosugi-crazed shinobifiles.

Takao Saito‘s hit ninja properties also featured short, curved blades for their ninja. The 1969 shinobi massacre known as Kage Gari (The Shadow Hunters) is again all short curved swords, sometimes with square guards and worn on the back, but there is variety in there as well. Again, you also see some quickly rendered blades that’ll look straight at first glance.

Zanpei Kumotori (1976-78) dispensed with the sword entirely, in favor of a long tanto cribbed in the small of his back. LOVE that minimalist statement, reminiscent of Sasuke’s commando kit in Samurai Spy.

Goseki Kojima stuck to curved blades as well in the 1970 Lone Wolf and Cub series. These panels are a perfect example of perspective and speed of delivery making a curved sword look like straight for a second. This is why I don’t put a whole lot of faith in the “evidence” of old book illustrations pointing to the existence of the straight sword.

And here’s a similar look three decades later, a Kunoichi’s blade from the same team’s Path of the Assassin (Hanzo no Mon).

Now, I don’t have the most complete library of vintage ninja manga in north America or anything, but what I do have samples most of the significant series and stages of development, and the only thing I have that actually embraces the stereotypical ‘Ninja-To’ is this 1993 series called Mujina by Aihara Koji. In an example of the snake biting its own tail, his ninja use the western craze-era notion of the regulation ninja sword, complete with catalog stock picture for reference. Eeewww…and it’s the long bladed, small guarded variety, too. This book is trying way too hard to be shocking and edgy, and the catalog ninja sword may be part of that misguided effort.

So, it wasn’t Japanese comics that cemented the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ into the our mindset, NOR did manga artists for the past half-century embrace the alleged martial arts history that should have been apparent in their own country.

FILM though… as we’ll see next post… is a lot more partisan an art form.

Christmas with Kamui and a Decade of Digital Ninja (Part 1)

Just before the holiday, I got a screener of Funimation‘s 2-DVD release of Kamui Gaiden, allegedly the most expensive ninja movie ever made, and one that has received about as wide an array of responses as I’ve ever seen. Epic. Masterpiece. Fun action film. Laughable silliness. Boring failure. CG so bad it’s good. Faithful to the classic manga. Failure to capture any spirit of the classic manga. There was a classic manga??? Really all over the place.

I first saw this film on bootleg DVD a few months back with subtitles that left a lot to be desired, then watched the official release twice over Christmas. It’s left me in a quandary. Because reactions from film festivals and now home video release vary so much, I hesitate to give an outright review here. There is a frequency humming in this film that really resonates with some, while others can barely make it through the 2-hour plus running time. So I think you all should give this movie a good watch for yourselves and see where you lie.

Not that I don’t have my opinions! Boy do I ever…

But I’m going to save my critiques of Kamui Gaiden for a larger commentary (a series of posts over the next few days) on the decade that has now passed, a decade of digital ninja.

Oddly enough, I’ll start that commentary with a look at some yellowing old pulp.

This trade ad ran in various comic book industry newsrags in the Summer of 1987. The American craze was waning and I had just graduated high school, so I wasn’t necessarily looking for a ninja comic in my life. The closest comic store was a half-hour drive and I had no car, so keeping up with a title was a challenge. I would fortunately rediscover the Viz/Eclipse co-venture, a real piece of manga history, in the mid 90’s as a ‘quarter box commando’ rummaging swap meets in Michigan.

Late as it was in the 80’s boom, or maybe American comics were always independent of the fad, 1987 was a very good year for shinobi manga in America, with First ComicsLone Wolf and Cub reprints closely following The Legend of Kamui (aka Kamui the Ninja and Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Tale). The former would run longer, with celebrity covers plus Shogun Assasin and Lightning Swords of Death all over cable and VHS rental shelves. Kamui wasn’t full of black-suited assassins and it’s politics and social commentary was thoroughly Japanese, so it didn’t connect with as huge throngs of fans as it should have. Neither title would see the 90s for one reason or another. A real shame…

Shirato Sanpei‘s “life’s work” first appeared in 1964, the marketable anchor of the cutting edge, often outré alt-manga anthology GARO. Already established as the master of ninja manga since the late 50’s, and as responsible for the Japanese craze as any other media figure, his Kamui Den (The Story or Legend of Kamui) was a monster hit that ran for eight years and spawned a 26-episode anime in 1969. It introduced a young, supremely skilled lone ninja on the run, relentlessly hunted by the clan (and life) he was trying to escape. Sanpei would reinvent the property in 1982 with the much grimmer Kamui Gaiden (The Other or New Story of Kamui), same ninja on the run, much heavier social and political commentary. The two series were thoroughly of their decades, both in art style and editorial message.

It is Kamui Gaiden that came to the U.S. in comic form in the 80’s (more recently reprinted in TPB form by Viz), and the acclaimed “Island of Sugaru” storyline that started the second incarnation is the basis for the new movie. Its 13-issue arc wove a simple narrative (Kamui flees pursuers and connects with a fisherman’s family on a small island, only to have fate close in on him with tragic results) that was rich in layered messages and complex emotions, never mind some really weird left turns.

Did the filmmakers succeed in stuffing it all into one film? Do epic comic book adaptations ever really work? And can a digital shark look even remotely real?

Find out next time…

Nice big pub images from SHOGUN ASSASSIN

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Once again I point thee towards the excellent Wrong Side of the Art, today for nice big scans of the poster and some publicity stills from Shogun Assassin.

Now, a lot of hardcore Kozure Okami fans HATE this 1980 composite of the initial two films of the series, complaining about it’s dubbed script and Moog synth score, but those are two of the very things I LOVE about what was a major building block in my adoration of foreign ninja films and chambara cinema in general.

Remember, this thing actually played in grindhouse theaters and werewolf circuit drive-ins before anyone had VCRs, and once we all had those it was a rental juggernaut. Then we learned there were six original films out there somewhere, and did we want them! By the late 90’s, guys inspired by SA back in the day were now making the corporate decisions to import the originals for DVD. Love it or hate it, no one can deny how significant a SEED movie SA was…

Today, you can own multiple versions of each film in superb quality, and thanks to Dark Horse can read the entire manga run that started it all. Life is good! Now quit being a bunch of Shogun Assassin haters…