~written by Fūtaro Yamada
~translated by Geoff Sant
The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is the first book in a series of novels about supernatural ninja written by Fūtaro Yamada. The novels have inspired numerous other stories and adaptations by other creators. In the case of The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, it is the basis for Basilisk, both the manga and the anime series, and the live action film Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, as well as other adaptations. The cover art for Del Rey's 2006 release of the novel, translated by Geoff Sant, happens to be the work of Masaki Segawa, the artist for the Basilisk manga. Although the edition of The Kouga Ninja Scrolls on which Del Rey's release is based was published in 2005, the novel was originally written in 1958. The Kouga Ninja Scrolls and the following novels became immensely popular in Japan. Yamada, who wrote mystery novels in addition to books featuring ninja, won a number of awards for his work.
The Kouga and the Iga ninja clans' blood feud has lasted for four hundred years. After the Tokugawa shogunate was established, the ninja were forced to stop their fighting. But when a dispute over the succession threatens to tear the Tokugawa apart, the dictated truce between the clans is lifted. Ten Iga ninja and ten Kouga ninja, each group representing one of the potential successors' factions, will be pitted against each other in a clash to the death. The surviving clan will determine who the next shogun will be. But even though the clans' rivalry has persisted for centuries, not every ninja still has the desire to fight--in particular, Gennosuke, the heir of the Kouga clan, and Oboro, the heir of the Iga. Torn between their love for each other and their loyalty to their families, they would do anything to end the feud. But Oboro and Gennosuke's destiny has already been put into motion; they have no other choice but to meet each other in battle.
After four hundred years of secrecy and inbreeding, both the Kouga and Iga clans have produced ninja with incredible skills and abilities. In some cases, they are barely recognizable as human anymore. Often the capabilities that make the ninja so powerful are also the cause of their ultimate downfall. The ninja's individual abilities border on magic, but Yamada has a pseudo-physiological explanation for each and every one of them. Their powers are extreme but natural extensions of what the human body is capable of. Some of the ninja's peculiar abilities are rather disgusting even if they are effective, while others are just plain cool. My personal favorite was probably Kisaragi Saemon and his unique way of being able to impersonate another person.
The story of The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is frequently described as Romeo and Juliet with ninja. Personally, I find the comparison somewhat superficial. The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is definitely its own story. On the surface it appears to be only a set up to allow Yamada to write fantastic and thrilling battles, but the story also addresses deeper matters of loyalty, responsibility, duty, and passion. Yamada makes great use of historical figures in The Kouga Ninja Scrolls and also incorporates historic documents and poetry into the novel. I particularly appreciated that the control of information was give such an important role in the story--an aspect of ninjutsu often overlooked in popular culture. The tone of the narrative is told from a modern perspective. I did find this to be slightly distracting from the setting, but it does read well. I enjoyed The Kouga Ninja Scrolls and wish more of Yamada's work was available in English.