Last week I made the point that the ninja of Shirato’s manga are liminal figures, neither properly warrior nor peasant, meaning they are free, more or less, to side with whomever they choose, if anyone at all. Next week I will have more to stay about the increasingly rigid stratification of Japanese society in the latter half of the 16th century, but for now, it should be noted that one genuinely could move from being a peasant (hyakusei) to a warrior (bushi) and vice versa in the period in which Ninja bugeichō (NB) is set (1558-1588). The story ends with Toyotomi Hideyoshi‘s infamous disarmament of all peasants, the “sword hunt” (katana-gari) of 1588, which effectively ended peasant uprisings and paved the way for (an enforced) unification of domains and provinces as well as “peace” among them. I point this out because, though Shirato wrote numerous ninja manga, they are all, as a consequence of their settings, quite different from each other, which we will see when I later consider his Kamui-den (Legend of Kamui).
Given this liminal status, it is important to note that two of the ninja who appear most frequently throughout the text are women–women who manipulate expectations of feminine fragility as part of Shirato’s larger implicit argument in nearly all his ninja manga about the ways in which those who truly have power over others are ultimately always also subject to it. It is a common narrative trick that Shirato abuses by playing off a reader’s expectations of how manga narratives typically progress. Jūtarō trains and trains and trains until he finally masters the sword technique Mufū has been trying to teach him. He then returns to Fushikage Castle to confront Shuzen and avenge his father. He confronts Hotarubi, Shuzen’s sister, and rushes her ready to dispatch her with his newly mastered technique. She… quickly cuts off his arm. All that training… for what? to be beaten by a girl…
Akemi, who art in Heaven
Though Mufū demonstrates the sword technique that Jūtarō is trying to learn, it is Akemi who, in fact, teaches him to master it. Shirato makes quite clear on several occasions that Akemi is an accomplished fighter, perhaps more accomplished than most in NB, due in part to the transient nature of her existence, wandering across the land in search of her brother Kagemaru at a time when it would have been suicide for a woman to travel alone. Yet, she does, and she is presented as the model ninja, conditioning her body for hours every day so that she can be faster than everyone who might do her harm. Though the reader already knows this, because of the persistent misogyny of (not just) Japanese society in the mid 20th century, he can, in the seventh volume, still play off expectations of a woman’s supposed weakness. Akemi has just picked a handful of persimmons and stuffed them into her tunic when she runs into a group of bandits on the road. She starts to run, and in the proceeding panel, all we see are Akemi’s and the bandits’ feet along with a “kyaaaa” to let us know that someone has struck. On the following page, we see a hand lying limp on the ground beside three persimmons. One would be forgiven for believing that Akemi had been killed, if it weren’t for the following panel in which the bandits’ bodies lie dead on the ground.
Akemi is the closest NB comes to a pure, innocent soul–which is saying something, considering the fact that she’s a killer. That said, of all the characters in Shirato’s text, she acts most selflessly, is the least tied to a particular ideology, and is thus best suited to “save” others, particularly from their own self-destructive behavior.
Just after the episode with the bandits, Akemi is wandering with a convoy of peasants who are set upon by what the text calls jibashiri (地走り). This word can refer to a variety of things, but in the context of NB, it means basically two things: 1) the ability of a ninja to run much faster than an ordinary human being and 2) a massive swarm of rats who eat anything and everything in their path. As the rats approach, the members of the convoy leave their things behind and immediately head for high ground. In the chaos, a woman drops her baby and is compelled by her companions to leave the child and save herself. Akemi sees this and quickly runs out to the baby, grabs it, and is about to make it clear of the swarm when it overtakes her. The rats pass, and the peasants begin to sob at the double loss, but Akemi emerges from a pile of dead rats relatively unscathed, with baby in tow. Reverting to emonogatari mode, Shirato explains how Akemi was able to accomplish this feat.
The peasants gaze upon Akemi with such awe that they think she must be a goddess–only a goddess could have done something so extraordinary and brave. The horrible truth is Akemi is all too mortal, and at the very suggestion of her divine nature, she flees. Shirato spends far too many pages to count establishing the nobility of Akemi’s character, only so as to make the circumstances of her death all the more cruel and incomprehensible. Several characters try to get Jūtarō to give up his all-consuming desire to revenge his father; as he and Akemi fall in love, it seems that she has saved him from himself, and she is about to give birth to his child. But all is not happy in Happyland. Jūtarō is called away, and Akemi receives a message to come meet him. The message is, in fact, a trap, and along the way, she is cornered by Hotarubi and her band of ninja, the Akechi Ten. Realizing she cannot fight them all, she tries to run and nearly manages to escape, when Hotarubi emerges from her hiding spot and stabs Akemi in the belly. If this weren’t enough, the others dismember her body and leave the pieces there to be picked at by carrion beetles. Like Yukiko in Kieyuku shōjo, her death is passed over in silence, and she is, in a sense, unmourned, because Jūtarō’s only reaction to her death is another all-consuming quest for vengeance.
Hotarubi, who art in Hell
Hotarubi is a bit of a weirdo–at one point, out of the blue, she throws herself at Jūtarō in hopes of a one night stand–and it would be easy to pass her off as someone who maniacally revels in her strength and power over others. Yet, as she stands over Akemi’s mutilated corpse, she weeps. There is no way she could possibly know this, but Akemi’s death is the mirror of her own. Akemi dies because she has given up the life she knew. By becoming the wife to a highly placed retainer of Nobunaga himself, she becomes the stereotypical princess (hime) type so common in jidai-geki. She dies, because with Jūtarō she has become complacent, and it is the burden of her unborn child that prevents her from escaping Hotarubi and her band. Hotarubi begins the story as a hime herself, since her brother is the lord of Fushikage Castle, but when Kagemaru burns it to the ground, Hotarubi rises to prominence, due to her prowess, and her brother becomes a mere kagemusha (lord’s double), because he happens to look just like Akechi Mitsuhide. Hotarubi lives by her jutsu, her skill, her art, her craft, her ability to kill and deceive. What she perhaps sees for the first time in Akemi’s dismembered corpse, even as she is victorious over her, is that without her jutsu, her, to borrow a loaded Greek word, technē, she would be no more than the body before her. The dichotomy between art and death is very much on her mind as she prepares to fight Kagemaru’s band, the Kage-ichizoku, all on her own.
panel 1 – Zōroku: Why don’t you just head on home …… there’s no way you can win!
panel 2 – Hotarubi: either jutsu or death ……
panel 3 – Kusare: hehehe, if you die, it’s all over……
panel 4 – Hotarubi: a ninja lives by her jutsu …… / even if I die, if my jutsu remains, I will come back to life
For Hotarubi, Akemi’s death posed a very difficult and peculiar problem, namely that all those who wield power in Shirato’s works ultimately become subject to it, leading Hotarubi seemingly to the conclusion that one is either skilled or dead. And yet, she has come up with a way out of the power trap, for she turns her own death into her greatest ninja art, whereby she single-handedly dispatches all of the Kage-ichizoku, save one, who, nevertheless, appears to die in the ensuing fight. Zōroku is right, in a way, for Hotarubi is, like Akemi before her, unable to fight them all at once. She is similarly dismembered, and her body falls into a nearby river. Kagemaru’s comrades seem to have prevailed, but Hotarubi has tied packets of a powerful poison to her body thus tainting the Kage-ichizoku‘s primary source of water. They prepare their last meal together, a large stew, that kills each and everyone. As a corpse, Hotarubi has overcome those who would be victorious over her, thus sidestepping the inevitable reversal that the game of power seems to culminate in. The only catch is you have to willfully invite your own death. Perhaps this doesn’t matter much to her, for as she prepares to face her last opponent, she muses to herself, “Jūtarō, surely you will see me in Hell…… / ha ha ha, Akemi is too heavenly a creature” (Jūtarō kitto jigoku de au wa ne…… / hohoho Akemi wa tengoku da mono ne).
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