The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls Vol. 1-2 (Del Rey)

yagyu-header.jpgSeven female samurai seek bloody, gruesome revenge in this semi-continuation of the hit manga/anime Basilisk.



240 pgs. (vol. 1), 224 pgs (vol. 2), B&W; $13.95

(W / A: Masaki Segawa, from a story by Futuro Yamada)

Yagyu Ninja Scrolls opens in the midst of the action: three snarling dogs each lead a chain of seven bound, gagged men, followed by an equally fierce contingent of men on horseback bearing a nobori whose symbol is a single circle. It’s the spring of 1642 and the prisoners are members of the Hori clan, who led an unsuccessful rebellion against the brutal daimyo Kato Shikibunosho Akinari. The men on horseback are the Seven Spears of Aizu, particularly brutal members of the Ashina clan who serve as personal bodyguards and protectors to Kato, and they’re marching the Hori men to their execution in Edo.

Click for a larger image.The women of the Hori clan have taken refuge in the Tokeiji Temple, also known as the "castle of women" because it offers refuge to abused women and men are not allowed to enter its gates. Naturally the Seven Spears have no use for such niceties and proceed with the wholesale slaughter of the Tokeiji nuns and most of the Hori women, while planning a fate worse than death for the few they haven’t yet killed. Intervention of Princess Sen, the temple guardian and sister of the reigning shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, ends the killing and the Seven Spears depart, leaving seven surviving Hori women.

When "seven" appears so frequently at the beginning of a series, it can’t be an accident. Princess Sen enlists legendary swordsman Yagyu Jubei Mitsuyoshi to train the Hori women so they can become the female seven samurai and avenge both the deaths of their men and the defilement of the temple.  Most of volume 1 is concerned with setting up the context and introducing the numerous characters, while the revenge plot really gets going in volume 2:  the ladies begin their samurai training (which doesn’t go at all well at first) while the Spears are tormented by a masked ninja and mysterious threatening messages appear wherever they go, even their favorite Kyoto bordello.

Click for a larger image.Masaki likes to build scenes up gradually, beginning with small elements analogous to extreme close ups in film: the first three images in Yagyu Ninja Scrolls are a dog’s paw, eye, and teeth, which he then places in context with an establishing frame of the entire procession of prisoners. He also likes to plant images whose meanings are later revealed: the most important of these is the hannya mask (representing a female demon) which plays both a symbolic and practical role in the story. Similarly, contextual information is revealed gradually, producing the effect of being plunged into the midst of the action and having to make sense of your surroundings bit by bit.  It’s the same with the characters: they initially seem to be one-dimensional, but as the story progresses Masaki reveals more and more about them.

Judging by the first two volumes, Yagyu Ninja Scrolls is an excellent addition to the already extensive body of manga set in Edo period Japan. The series is somewhat a continuation of Masaki’s Basilisk series, also based on a novel by Futuro Yamada. There’s lot of action, sometimes extremely violent, but Masaki balances the numerous beheadings and other gruesome amputations (in one scene, Kato bites off a woman’s finger) with a skillful suspense plot and the very modern story of female empowerment. Fans of Japanese history will particularly enjoy the extensive notes and detailed depictions of daily life and customs in seventeenth century Japan.

Extras for each volume include translation notes, many between-panel notes (in extremely tiny type!) and a preview of the next volume.  Vol. 1 also includes two pages of color illustrations. The Yagyu Ninja Scrolls series is rated M (Mature Content) for ages 18+ and includes graphic violence and implied sexual situations.  Further information is available from the Del Rey web site at | Sarah Boslaugh


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