Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

4.0 out of 5 stars Astounding art

Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

“Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” took me by surprise. I thought the premise sounded cool; Judge Bao is a historical figure from China who, like Robin Hood and King Arthur, has spawned his own folklore. Judge Bao the character has appeared in numerous books, TV shows, and films, wandering ancient China, investigating crimes, and dispensing his own brand of tough-but-fair justice that does not discriminate between people of different classes.

Storywise, the book lived up to my expectations for the most part. It is like the best of Chinese historical films, with intrigue, action and mystery. Judge Bao is like a Chinese Sherlock Holmes, with ninjas. (Or perhaps Nero Wolfe would be a better analogy, with Bao’s right-hand man Zhan Zhao making a capable Archie Goodwin.)

But what I wasn’t prepared for was art so brilliant it leaps right off the page and smacks you in the face. Seriously. I can’t remember the last time I saw art this beautiful in a comic.

Chongrui Nie is phenomenal. Looking at “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix”, I have no idea why he hasn’t been recruited by one of the major comic companies. I imagine it takes him a long time to create artwork this detailed, but that is no reason not to hire him for a graphic novel project or something. I really don’t know how he pulls this level of artwork off.

I assume he uses some sort of photo-reference , although there is nothing stilted or lifeless about his work like I have seen in other photo-reference heavy artists. His lines are fluid and show an easy hand, while all of his surfaces are dense and rough as if they were scratched onto a board. There is fluency and attention paid to even the smallest detail. This is the kind of comic art that makes you re-think the potential of what comic art can be.

Archaia Comics has also put together a pretty little package to contain that art. It is a canvas-bound hardcover that is smaller and wider than your typical Japanese comic. “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” was originally a French publication, so I don’t know if Archaia simply reproduced the original or came up with a new design, but either way this is a very well put together book.

Unfortunately, what keeps the book from being perfect is that the story falls away towards the end. The all-important denouement, where Judge Bao reveals his hand and shows that he has seen through the tangled weave of the crime—just doesn’t play out. I am left with plot threads untangled. (Who really killed Red-Cloud?) and some unsatisfying dispersions of justice. I don’t know if the story continues in the next book, but it is dissatisfying for a first-time reader.

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The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan

3.0 out of 5 stars The Ancient and Modern Ninja

The Ninja: Ancient Shadow Warriors of Japan

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.

Kamui Gaiden

4.0 out of 5 stars Social politics and ninjas

Kamui Gaiden: Movie

From its very beginning, the story of the renegade ninja Kamui has been political. Created in 1967 by leftest-artist Sanpei Shirato, Kamui was a symbol of Japan’s rigid social classes and rules, and the woes that befall those who try to rage against the machine. Sanpei used Kamui to tell tales of discrimination, oppression and the exploitation of workers. Since the characters first appearance in Garo magazine, Kamui has been adapted into anime and continuing manga series, but this 2009 movie is I believe the first Kamui live-action film.

Directed by Yoichi Sai (Quill, Blood And Bones), “Kamui Gaiden” (translating as something along the lines of “A Supplemental Biography of Kamui,” to distinguish it from Sanpei’s original “Kamui Den”), this version of the Kamui story retains the political nature of the character while thrusting him into an action-packed ninja spectacular. In this film, Kamui is not only an outcast ninja but a member of the hinin-caste. Hinin, which translates as non-human, were the Japanese equivalent of the Indian Untouchables, a caste so low that they had no legal rights or dignity. Discrimination against the hinin caste continues even today, known by the term burakumin.

From birth, Kamui (Matsuyama Kenichi, Death Note) faces horrendous abuse and discrimination, like all of his caste, and his experiences causes him to harden and dedicate himself to becoming strong. He is adopted into the Iga ninja clan, where as a young boy he takes part in the assassination of Sugaru (Koyuki, The Last Samurai), a woman seeking to escape the clan. It is one of their rules; no one leaves the shinobi. Years later, now a ninja of some strength himself, Kamui finds the hunter/prey role reversed as it is Kamui who flees the shinobi and is pursued. He fights and fights, and eventually finds some sort of shelter with a fishing village on an island far from the known cities. There he meets a man Hanbei (Kobayashi Kaoru, Princess Mononoke), who offers him a life of peace and the hand of his daughter in marriage However for a man like Kamui there can be no peace, as Hanbei’s wife is none other than Sugaru, still alive, and both Sugaru and Kamui find that there is nowhere they can run from their troubles.

As befits the character, “Kamui Gaiden” is a pretty dense story. Those looking for some light ninja action might find themselves with a little more plot than they bargained for. You can enjoy the film without the political background of the hinin and Japan’s Edo period caste-system, but some of the finer points might be lost, as well as some of the motivation of the characters. Especially at the beginning, when a young Kamui rages against the children who pelt him with rocks asking “What is so different about me?” and in classic Shakespeare style shots “Prick me, will I not bleed?”

But the film does a good job of lightening its heavy moments with some over-the-top ninja wire-fighting. Sadly, this is something Japan has just never done as well as China, and the fight-scenes are never really more than decent. This is the first CGI-heavy film that Yoichi has done, and that is his weakness. In his films like “Quill” and “Blood and Bones,” he has shown he can do intense human drama, but he is not really an action director. There is a particular rubbery shark in one scene that ruined my suspension of disbelief.

Funimations release of “Kamui Gaiden” is superb, with other 45 minutes worth of extra features including a “Making of” and “Behind the scenes.”

Shinobi Life Volume 6

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Torn between the two Kagetoras
 

Shinobi Life Volume 6

The course of true love never did run smooth.” So wrote William Shakespeare and nowhere is that quote proving more apt than in the latest volume of “Shinobi Life” by Shoko Conami.

Beni Fujiwara is back in the past, with a fourteen-year old Kagetora as her protector. But while Beni has finally come to terms with her love for the grown up Kagetora, this young boy doesn’t know her at all, and is confused as to why Beni is treating him with such familiarity. Beni, in the meantime, is feeling emotionally conflicted as she is as attracted to this younger version of Kagetora as to the one she knows, and wants the comfort of his hand and kiss but is worried about messing around with the past that might compromise the future she knows is awaiting her when she returns. It’s a time travel dilemma. Can you cheat on someone with a past, younger version of themselves?

Meanwhile, in the future (present), the adult Kagetora is proving his unswerving love for Beni by jumping over and over again into the time portal, trying to find his time-lost love. The time portal is not targetable, and Kagetora constantly finds himself in the wrong time, and returns to the present in order to leap again. He will never stop trying to find Beni, unknowing that she is currently with him even now. Rihito, Beni’s chosen fiancé, is shamed by the Kagetora’s devotion and forced to confront his own feelings for Beni, knowing that he lacks the drive necessary to hunt for her as relentlessly as Kagetora.

“Shinobi Life” always delivers some good romance, and I really enjoyed Volume 6’s further complications of a complicated relationship. Some things are explained here, like why Kategora found Beni familiar when they first met (because he had memories of meeting her as a young boy) and the depth of Kagetora’s feelings for Beni are shown by his constant time-leaping to find her. There are some really great scenes in Volume 6, and the reader is as torn between the two Kagetoras as Beni is herself.

Artists Shoko Conami manages to keep the human element on the forefront of all this time-travel and ninja adventures, and that is really the strength of the series. The story could easily be lost in all of its random and fantastic elements, but because the characters are so believable even the most outrageous scenario is grounded in human emotion

Shinobi Life Volume 3

shinobi

 
4.0 out of 5 stars Torn between two ninjas
 
The saga of Beni sama and her dark ninja protector Kagetora continues in volume three of “Shinobi Life.”

After returning from the past, where Kagetora confused Beni sama with her great grandmother, Beni Hime and found himself in a dual with fellow ninja Hitaki, the two find their idyllic interlude shattered when Beni sama’s father introduces Beni sama to her chosen fiancé, Iwatsuru Rihito.

Rihito only wants to marry Beni sama because of his father’s commands, who tells Rihito to control her and bend her to his will. On Rihito’s side is Hitaki, who has captured Kagetora, and twists a promise from Beni sama to marry Rihito in order to save Kagetora’s life. Beni sama, still confused as to whether or not Kagetora actually loves her or only loves the image of her he sees in her face, the face which so resembles Kagetora’s time-lost love Beni Hime.

“Shinobi Life” subtitles itself “Ninjas and Romance,” but it definitely leans on the side of romance. With all these ninjas running around, there is no combat to be seen and the only use of physical prowess seems to be when Kagetora and Rihito use their skills and charms to lay a kiss on the weeping Beni sama.

The story gets tense at times, such as when Rihito’s father steps on the scene and shows the absolute cruelty that lies behind his pleasant smile. Kagetora’s simpering makes him seem like a bit of a wimp, but towards the end it seems like he might just be preparing himself for a showdown to take what is his and defend Beni sama from Rihito’s plans.

Artist Conami Shoko draws some pretty pictures, especially of the weeping Beni sama who is torn between her love for Kagetora and her duty to her father and promise to Rihito. For a shojo comic, the guys look good as well and don’t come off as your typical primping bishonen character.

The whole “Beni sama / Beni Hime” thing can get a bit linguistically confusing at times, and there was one important scene where I couldn’t figure out why Beni was crying until I re-read it and found out that Kagetora had called her by the wrong name.

All in all a decent shojo romance comic with some historical connections, and some depth and heart.

Shinobi No Mono 4: Siege

ninja

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Exit Goemon, enter Saizo
 
One of the unique strengths of the “Shinobi no Mono” series is how the emphasis is put on the stars. The characters change even though the same actors are appearing. What this means, is that if a character’s story arc completes, the actors simply take on a different role in the next film. It is a not entirely unheard of practice in the West. Actor Bruce Spence appeared as the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior, and then again in the sequel Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome as a different character entirely.

In the fourth entry in the “Shinobi no Mono” series, the ninja Goemon steps off the stage, having walked to the end of his path of vengeance, and actor Ichikawa Raizo steps into the new role of Kirigakure Saizo. Saizo is a ninja charged with spying on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s forces as Tokugawa lays siege to Osaka castle in 1614. Tokugawa has his own ninjas, and Saizo and the Tokugawa ninjas wage silent ninja warfare with each other in a deadly game of cat-and-cat. Saizo is assisted by the Lady Akane (Isomura Midori, Zatoichi Challenged), who is a love interest for Saizo as well. And for a ninja, love is never a good idea.

Ichikawa is joined in his new role by Wakayama Tomisaburo (Lone Wolf and Cub) who played the warlord Nobunaga Oda in the first three “Shinobi no Mono” films, but now returns as Saizo’s lord and mentor Yukimura Sanada. Saburo Date (Revenge of a Kabuki Actor), who played Hattori Hanzo in the previous films, returns as well in a new role, as do several other actors from the previous series.

Even with the new storyline, the feel of “Shinobi no Mono” is carried on, with the deep political intrigue punctuated by realistic ninja action. These are not your typical Hollywood ninjas, but the real deal with stunts designed by Masaaki Hatsumi, a Grandmaster of ninjutsu and one of the greatest authorities on historical ninja.

“Shinobi no Mono 4” is a typical Animeigo DVD, which means it blows away most normal DVD releases. There are history lessons, a clickable map detailing the locations in the film, still galleries and a whole bunch of other goodness. The black-and-white transfer is beautifully done.

Shinobi No Mono 3: Resurrection

shinobi no mono 3

 
5.0 out of 5 stars Hideyoshi vs Tokugawa, June 11, 2009
         

When we last left our hero, Ishikawa Goemon, was in some pretty hot water. His wife and child cruelly murdered, he revenged himself on Nobunaga Oda, but was betrayed by the nightingale floors in Hideyoshi’s castle and was captured and sentenced to execution. Things were not looking good.

“Shinobi no Mono 3: Resurrection” (“Shin Shinobi no Mono”) picks up right on Shinobi No Mono 2‘s cliffhanger ending. Of course, Ishikawa survives his execution (otherwise he couldn’t complete the remaining films in the eight-film series!) and does so in a ninja-spectacular style. Now in hiding, he resumes his course of vengeance against Hideyoshi Toyotomi. As partner’s, Goemon recruits his old allies Hattori Hanzo and Nobori no Inuhachi.

Meanwhile Hideyoshi, secure in his position as Taiko and essentially ruling Japan, takes a little too much delight in the birth of his first natural son, Hideyori. Although he had promised succession to his adopted son, Hidetsugu, Hideyori’s birth to a concubine changes everything. Seeing a chance for true vengeance, Goemon plots to teach Hideyoshi what it feels like to loose an innocent wife and child that one loves in the same way that his own wife and son were taken from him.

So far, “Shinobi no Mono 3” has been my favorite in the series. There is less ninja skills at work here, and more political intrigue, but the political maneuvering between Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Hidetsugu and Goemon more than makes up for the lack of action. Tono Eijiro (Battle of Okinawa) is particularly effective as Hideyoshi, the low born and ugly thug who fights to a position of power but still worries about his inferiority next to the noble born and handsome Tokugawa Ieyasu (Mishima Masao from “Zatoichi 14: Zatoichi’s Pilgramage”).

Not to say that there are not some spectacular scenes. One in particular has Goemon and Inuhachi using the tatami-mat flooring to defend themselves from a rifle barrage that was very cool. Ichikawa Raizo (Sleepy Eyes of Death) is the cool hard-man of Japanese film, and even though he doesn’t get so much screen time in “Shinobi no Mono 3” he fills up every inch of it with dynamite.

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