With a gruelling shoot that spanned April 2007 to September 2008 after its leading man’s injury on set, filmed in the sub-tropical heat of Japan’s idyllic Ryukyu island chain, Kamui: The Lone Ninja recreates a lost world of fishing villages on the Inland Sea, a time when the samurai wars were done, and the people of Japan returned to their fields and their boats. It also evokes a savage era where all unwelcome influences were ruthlessly suppressed, and plays with the notion that the Japanese peasantry of the 17th century had formed secret societies of semi-magical assassins.
The son of a renowned left-wing artist, Kamui’s creator Sanpei Shirato (1932- ) was one of the last of the kamishibai painters, making panels of artwork for Japanese “magic lantern” shows. A narrator, or benshi, would tell a lively story to a crowd while pushing pictures through a lit frame. Soon after Shirato’s first kamishibai work, Mister Tomochan (1951), the advent of television destroyed the medium, leading Shirato to transfer his skills into comics. His early work included adaptations of the animal stories of Ernest Seton and works for girls, but it was as the creator of Ninja Bugeicho (Chronicle of a Ninja’s Martial Achievements, 1959-1962) that he achieved true fame. Even in his early days, Shirato was notable for his insistence on an external narrator, a voice outside the story itself that would comment on the action and steer the viewers like an old fashioned benshi.
His first big success in the TV world was Shonen Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru (Fujimaru the Wind Ninja, or Ninja the Wonderboy), broadcast in 1962. His original comic was called Ninja Clan, but in a tense compromise for Shirato the committed socialist, the show was renamed to establish a link with its sponsor, Fujisawa Pharmaceuticals. Each episode of the rollicking boys’ drama would open with a Fujimaru theme song that transformed into a jingle for Fujisawa. Notably, it would close with a live-action sequence in which a breathless interviewer would quiz Masaaki Hatsumi, an accomplished martial artist who claimed to know the secrets of the ninja world, and who imparted them to an entire generation of Japanese boys.
The Legend of Kamui (Kamui-den) ran in the avant garde adult comics magazine Garo from 1964 to 1971. Simultaneously, Kamui: The Untold Story (Kamui Gaiden) ran in Shonen Sunday, a magazine for teenage boys. The latter was then resurrected in Big Comic, a magazine for adult males in 1982 to 1987, running across 116 chapters and spanning 18 story arcs. The combined sales for both Kamui serials top ten million copies in Japan. Kamui has hence passed through a number of transformations, from adult comic, to teen comic, and back to adult again. The Big Comic tales of Kamui’s untold adventures included “Wind on the Black Hill”, “House of Thieves” and “Blood Sucker”, but perhaps the best known was the 15-chapter arc known as “The Isle of Sugaru.” It was this story, running from April to October 1982, which was snapped up by the American publisher Viz Communications and translated into English, confusingly under the title Legend of Kamui. The story was one of the first manga to be translated into English, and served a valuable purpose in introducing foreign audiences to the concept of manga as more than mere kids’ comics. Subsequently, editions appeared in many other languages – mention Kamui Gaiden to a non-Japanese manga fan, and the 1980s retelling of “Isle of Sugaru” is likely to be the only one of dozens of Kamui stories that they have actually read.
Japan at the time of Kamui has locked itself away from the rest of the world in a consensual time warp, with the Shogun ruling in the name of an unseen emperor, and all foreign contacts forbidden on pain of death. The narrative is placed squarely in the 17th century, shortly after Japan was united after centuries of bitter civil war. The victorious Shoguns of the Tokugawa clan began a relentless programme of new laws, designed to kick away the ladder by which they had first ascended. Samurai who had supported the Shogun were given prime positions; samurai who had only defected in the last days, some even switching sides in the last battle, were shunted into minor provincial postings. Firearms were collected and locked away in castles. Christianity, a foreign cult with links to gun smuggling and intrigue, was ruthlessly stamped out, along with any other foreign influences. The mandolin we see Ayu playing in Gumbei’s castle is a rare foreign artefact doomed to disappear – there will be no replacement strings when those ones break. So, too are the glass wine goblets Gumbei clutches, and the glass lanterns dotted throughout his throne room.
Paramount in the social order are the samurai and farmers – the larger someone’s land holdings, the greater one’s obligation to provide arms and armour for the maintenance of the state. Merchants and fishermen like Hanbei are low down in the pecking order. But Kamui is a hinin, a “non-person”. Kamui is a ninja on the run, a clansmen who has rejected the rules and regulations of his home order, and now flees retribution on the shores of Japan’s Inland Sea. He finds brief refuge in a fishing village, only to discover that he is not the only villager living a lie…
The hinin are one of modern Japan’s most embarrassing secrets: the outcasts of bygone days, shunned by the general populace for specialising in jobs disdained by devout Buddhists – butchery, execution, leather-work and tannery. Nameless and friendless, they were “liberated” by decree in 1871, with the promulgation of a new constitution that claimed all Japanese to be equal. A mere piece of paper could not undo a thousand years of persecution, and the hinin, sometimes referred to euphemistically as buraku-min (“village people”) continued to suffer discrimination. Many left Japan for good, seeking new lives in Hawaii or Brazil, or emigrating to Japan’s new colonies in Taiwan or Manchuria. To this day, you will be hard pressed to find a Japanese citizen prepared to proclaim a hinin ancestry. Even now, marriage brokers scour a potential spouse’s family tree in search of a hinin disqualifier.
In the post-war period, Kamui’s creator Sanpei Shirato seized on the hinin as the great uncelebrated heroes of Japanese history. With the old samurai aristocracy fallen out of favour, Sanpei Shirato, and his counterpart in the world of prose fiction, Futaro Yamada, began to imagine a different world order. If the ruling class had duped the population into WW2, perhaps there had been other lies in the past. Perhaps, argued the pulp authors of the 1950s and 1960s, there was a whole forgotten underclass in Japanese history – the people who did the real work in the samurai wars, gritty, tough tricksters with gadgets and athletic abilities to match those of TV spy thrillers. Ninja are largely a creation of the 20th century – black-clad assassins dressed like the “invisible” stagehands of the kabuki theatre. With the samurai aristocracy blamed for dragging Japan into WW2, ninja formed a new, proletarian archetype – honest, impoverished, cunning peasants, literally unseen in the historical fiction that had previously concentrated on the ruling class.
The 1960s ninja fad straddled a boom-time in the Japanese economy. Colour television ownership soared in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, and in the years that followed, dozens of samurai-era castles were rebuilt across Japan. Many had been pulled down in the 19th century, but these edifices became the new focal points for many towns, as meeting halls, local museums and tourist attractions. They were not always historically accurate – many were constructed out of modern materials like concrete. Some even added adornments that owed more to popular fiction, including ninja hiding places as an acknowledgement of a modern fad. Ninja were now part of the literal fabric of Japanese society, and “evidence” of their existence had been retrofitted to “new” old buildings.
In the publishing world, author Masayuki Yamaguchi tried something similar. His Life of the Ninja (Ninja no Seikatsu, 1965) shoehorned ninja into every historical event he could think of, twisting every off-hand mention of commoners, spies, stealth, or sneak attacks in ancient chronicles into “proof” of the heretofore unmentioned ninja clans. Yamaguchi’s book was overly, cheekily credulous and played freely with the facts, but became the lynchpin of subsequent publications, cited and quoted as if it were a work of unassailable scholarship. Apologists for the ninja presented an infuriatingly recursive argument – there had been no direct mention of ninja previously because they were a secret society! Lack of historical evidence of ninja was hence presented as further proof that they did exist, and had covered their tracks well.
Meanwhile, the ninja boom continued unabated in the world of fiction, fuelled by the tricks and gadgetry of foreign espionage thrillers such as The Man From UNCLE (broadcast in Japan in 1965 as 0011 Napoleon Solo) and Mission: Impossible (broadcast in Japan in 1967 as Spy Great Battle). In 1967, the director Oshima Nagisa adapted Shirato’s Ninja Bugeicho into a cinema feature in the kamishibai style – an “anime” without animation, comprising still images from the manga shown under a narrator’s voice. The opening sequence of this modern Kamui film is an oblique reference to Nagisa Oshima’s 1967 experiment, utilising still images from Shirato’s manga, shooting them on a rostrum camera with zooms and pans, with a voice over provided by actors.
Sanpei Shirato continued to emphasise the struggle of the working class. The action in the Kamui manga ceases for page after page of pastoral scenes – fisherman at work, women gutting fish, hunters in the forest – all glorifying the mundane achievements of daily life. As in Yoichi Sai’s movie adaptation, the ninja action is often marginalised for a loving focus on the joys of a job well done, such as the manufacture of Hanbei’s hard-won fishing lure.
The original Kamui-den was written for college-age readers, but it is the “untold story” or Kamui Gaiden spin-off that has been revamped, re-released and re-imagined in the generations since. A primetime 1969 Kamui Gaiden animated TV series was aimed at young teens. Two episodes of this series were then cut into a 1971 animated movie, Kamui Gaiden: Shell of the Sun and Moon, and shown on a double bill with a teeny-bop movie starring the pop group The Drifters. Then as now, the narrative focussed on the “Isle of Sugaru” story arc as the most readily transferable to a new medium. animated TV series was aimed at young teens. Two episodes of this series were then cut into a 1971 animated movie,
But ninja had already moved past their mid-1960s peak. Born in children’s entertainment but co-opted by a knowing adult world in search of political subtexts, these creatures of the shadows had become ironically over-exposed. Their finest hour, arguably, was their appearance in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), which carried the idea of the ninja around the world, even as their lustre faded in Japan itself.
Arguably, ninja were killed by their own success, dragging the samurai themselves down to their level. In 1972, Japanese viewers sick of the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal settled down in front of their televisions to watch Monjiro, the tale of a homeless samurai reduced to vagrant status. The Monjiro series was swiftly followed by Sure Death (Hissatsu), another long series that co-opted ninja tactics into the adventures of respectable members of samurai society. In 1973, the two-year-old manga Lone Wolf and Cub was also adapted into a TV series, featuring yet another disinherited samurai forced to wander Japan righting wrongs.
The samurai had fought back, humbling themselves as scrapping, itinerant warriors, partly modelled on the roving gunslingers of American Westerns. The edifice of ninja fiction, so powerful during the 1960s, collapsed almost as fast as it had arisen, although it found new fans abroad. A last-gasp gimmick, a sci-fi cartoon starring multi-coloured ninja in avian costumes, Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman, was released outside Japan as Battle of the Planets. Meanwhile, in the wake of the martial arts boom fostered by Bruce Lee, Masaaki Hatsumi, the pundit and former stunt coordinator on several early ninja shows, found fame in the West as the author of Ninjutsu, a martial arts manual of ninja techniques.
The histories of many martial arts are shrouded in mystery. Few can trace their origins back more than a century, and lean instead on folklore and tradition. It is not all that surprising that Hatsumi would seek to codify and rationalise ninjutsu as a post-modern martial art, combining elements of the many forms he had already studied. With ninjutsu established in the public eye as a bona fide martial art, and ninja as a phenomenon not of pulp fiction but of history, the stage was set for Kamui Gaiden to become one of the first manga translated into English.
Futaro Yamada’s novels are only now appearing in English; Sanpei Shirato’s other manga remain tantalisingly untranslated. Despite, or perhaps because of the overwhelming lack of true evidence, ninja are now widely accepted as a historical fact, not only by foreigners but also by many Japanese, who do not realise how swiftly these legendary assassins sprang out of thin air to meet the demands of 20th-century authors in search of a new kind of hero. Shorn of their political motivations, Shirato’s action-adventure ninja stories have had many subsequent imitators in the boys’ and teens’ markets, most recently the best-selling Naruto. But thanks to his manga incarnation, Kamui remains one of the most recognisable, memorable figures of the sub-genre of ninja fiction. He has yet to celebrate his 50th birthday. Arguably, so has the ninja genre itself.