The Kouga Ninja Scrolls by Futaro Yamada

Kerry Kumabe

Secret warfare, mystical powers, political turmoil and two ancient, feuding ninja families: it's no wonder that Futaro Yamada's classic Japanese novel still endures.

The Kouga Ninja Scrolls

Publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 0345495101
Author: Futaro Yamada
Price: $13.95
Length: 336
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2006-12
UK publication date: 2006-12

Secret warfare, mystical powers, political turmoil and two ancient, feuding ninja families: it's no wonder that Futaro Yamada's classic Japanese novel, The Kouga Ninga Scrolls, still endures. Geoff Sant, a Chinese and Japanese language scholar, provides the first English translation of Kouga, first published in 1958. Sant's rendering is unfortunately clunky and awkward, but Yamada's core story retains an outrageous charm nevertheless.

In 1614 the Tokugawa Shogunate was poised to take control of Japan, but a furious internal struggle over the Shogun's successor threatened to weaken the family. In Futaro Yamada's imagining, patriarch Tokugawa Ieyasu orders two warring ninja families, the Iga and Kouga, to help him decide which of his grandsons will succeed as Shogun. The Iga and Kouga families must select ten of their most brilliant ninjas to serve as champions for Ieyasu's grandsons. Using fiendish stratagems and secret attacks, the ninja will fight to the death. Each also hides a spectacular individual talent that makes the conflict even more bloody and ruthless. At the end of the covert battle, one ninja will remain, and the grandson he or she represents will become heir to the powerful Shogunate.

The Kouga Ninja Scrolls inspired an award-winning manga and anime series, Basilisk: The Kouga Ninja Scrolls. This comes as no surprise. Yamada's conception of the fierce ninja battle is definitely cartoonish. The Kouga and Iga families, through generations of geographic isolation, in breeding and militant training, produce ninja that have "completely broken through the limits of human knowledge." I was incredulous as I read about the ninja Shougen and his deadly talent of shooting globs of "extremely thick and sticky" mucus from his nose. Even more outlandish is the beautiful female ninja Kagerou, whose ninja powers activate only when she is "sexually aroused."

These plot elements must seem even odder because of Sant's rather poor translation. The novel opens with a face-off between the Kouga and Iga ninja champions and Sant translates, "In the blaze of the sun, the men's bodies turned transparent. Clouds dropped their shadows upon them, shifting the men into hazy shadows as well. They nearly faded into nothingness." Huh?

Despite the shortcomings of the translation, there is something about the covert vendettas and secret ninja powers in Kouga that, perhaps against my will, captivated me. Next time, however, I will probably just read the manga.

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