Dr. Kacem Zoughari took on a difficult task in “The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan,” He attempted to combine in one short book two aspects of ninja; the historical spy and castle-breaker of ancient Japan, and the modern spiritual warrior path of Hatsumi Masaski. But the two halves are not given equal treatment. Zoughari is himself a martial artist, a licensed instructor of ninjutsu, and his bias towards the martial arts aspect of ninjutsu is readily apparent.
The first three chapters deal with history. Zoughari defines ninjas, then writes about the public and private histories of Japan’s most mysterious and legend-shrouded figures. His efforts here are the least successful part of the book. Even in their own time, it was hard to separate fact from fiction regarding ninja, and Zoughari doesn’t even attempt it. Instead, he just presents details without nterpretation, gives lists of dates and names that are soon read and soon forgotten. I really had to slog through this part of the book, and almost gave up due to the bland and lifeless writing. Zoughari uses lots of one-sentence paragraphs and gives dates and names without context. The writing was so poor that I wondered in perhaps Zoughari was not a native English speaker and perhaps this book was just a poor translations.
But then with chapter four, “The Essense of Ninja,” Zoughari opens up, showing us where his passion truly lies. The prose becomes fluid and almost poetic as he talks about ninjutsu as a martial art, as the battle of ego against body, and compares the strict kata forms of karate and judo with the adaptability of ninjutsu’s kamae poses. Clearly, this was the book Zoughari wanted to write, not the dry, factual accounts of historical ninja.
One of the big problems is that both aspects of ninja, the historical and modern, have been written about better. Historian Stephen Turnbull’s Ninja: The True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult is a fantastic account of the historical ninja, one that diligently separates the fact from fiction and accounts the creation, evolution, and eventual destruction of the Iga and Koga tribe of assassins and spies for hire. Turnbull’s account of historical ninja is superior in every way to Zoughari’s brief chapters. One the topic of the modern ninja and the martial art of ninjutsu, Hatsumi Masaaki has written his own books (The Way of the Ninja, Ninja Secrets from the Grandmaster), which detail the philosophy, training and tradition that he represents.
Another problem is that Zoughari also devotes about a third of “The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan” to a detailed appendix, written in tiny print that is difficult to read. An academic, I understand why Zoughari used this method but for a popular book on ninja he would have done better folding the appendix notes into the main text, telling us the story of ninjas rather than just lists of facts.
There is good information here, and when Zoughari gets writing about Hatsumi’s teacher Takamatsu Toshiitsugu the book really comes alive. I found myself wishing Zoughari had written a biography of Takamatsu rather than a book about ninja, and judging from the way the writing changes Zoughari probably thinks so too.
Unfortunately, this is the book he wrote. “The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan” does fill a need I suppose, for those who know nothing about ninja and want a crash course in the ancient and modern. But anyone looking for a solid, throughout historical account of ninja would be better off with Turnbull’s book, and anyone looking for insight into modern ninjutsu would be better off with one of Hatsumi’s books.