3d. Shirato Sanpei’s Reinvention of the Ninja – Kamui-den

Toyotomi Hideyoshi as represented in Capcom's Sengoku basara

Toyotomi Hideyoshi as represented in Capcom’s Sengoku basara

Though the vast majority of Shirato Sanpei’s manga fall into what might be called the “ninja genre” (as if SasukeIga no Kagemaru, and Naruto were at all similar creatures), it is important to pay attention to precisely when they are set, as the political and social conditions of the given period are key to understanding how Shirato is using the ninja idiom.  Even though the time periods in which Ninja bugeichō and Kamui-den (Legend of Kamui) are set differ by less than a hundred years (1558-1588 vs. 1624-1662), those intervening years constitute a wholesale reorganization of the Japanese polity from a system where there was some movement between warrior and peasant/farmer classes into the four classes of the Edo Period that functioned in practice if not in principle as castes.  As I noted last week, NB ends with Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s infamous “sword hunt” of 1588 that led to an overall disarmament of the peasants and began the process known as heinō bunri or “separation of warrior from farmer.”  Throughout the Sengoku period, the peasants had been a thorn in the side of Nobunaga’s and later Hideyoshi’s attempts to “unify” (read “conquer”) Japan, because they had both risen up against their lords spontaneously and been used as militia by those regional warlords who sought to resist “unification.”  By disarming them and creating them as a separate class for whom fighting was theoretically forbidden, Hideyoshi robbed the regional warlords of their power to resist.  Later, following the establishment of merchants and craftsmen into their own classes, the Edo period, under the Tokugawa clan, had achieved a class structure that would last until the “restoration” of the Emperor in the latter half of the 19th century.

Shōsuke muses to his father Danzuri about his hope for an egalitarian future - Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 3 p. 134

Shōsuke muses to his father Danzuri about his hope for an egalitarian future – Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 3 p. 134

Shōsuke: Y’know, I’ve been thinking… there will certainly come a day when there will be no distinction between warrior, peasant, genin, and hinin.

Danzuri: Perhaps there will.

The Confucian hierarchy known as shi-nō-kō-shō (士農工商 – warriors, farmers, craftsmen, merchants) was a strict one, wherein the warriors were compelled to live in their lords’ castles, the peasants in villages with their fields, and the craftsmen and merchants in the emerging towns and cities that swiftly became the centers of commerce and entertainment.  Travel was tightly controlled and movement between classes all but unheard of.  This is important to keep in mind with Kamui, because, whereas the ninja of NB were presented as liminal figures dispossessed of status who could, nonetheless, pick whatever side they wished, the ninja of Kamui are a means of parsing the underclasses of the Edo period’s rigid social hierarchy.  If Kagemaru et al. are somehow between social states, Kamui and Shōsuke, to differing degrees, are outsiders to the official hierarchy.  As Shirato says of the period in which the first series (which ran from 1964 to 1971) of Kamui was set, “the warriors [bushi] hold farmers [nōmin] in contempt, the farmers hold the genin in contempt, and the genin the hinin.”  If the watchword of NB was solidarity (which side do you choose in the class war), then in Kamui it is discrimination (where has society stuck you).

Call of the Wild


The opening pages of Kamui-den, ser. 1 vol. 1 pp. 8-9

p. 9 – “This year, in this particular place, for human and animal alike, was a year of great plenty.”

As one comes to expect from Shirato’s work, Kamui begins enigmatically, though there does not seem to be anything too mysterious about this pastoral landscape with voles picking flowers.  What could be cuter than that!  Of course, the reveal is on the following page, when a ferret comes out from behind a rock and snatches one of the voles; in its triumph, the vole is then snatched from the ground by a hawk who was there from the very beginning, a few lines in the open space at the top of page 8.  These scenes of sequential predation are quite common in Shirato’s work and typically culminate, as this one does, with the predatory activity of humanity on the animal world.  Our first glimpse of a human being in Kamui is a dark, feral man in an animal skin who bludgeons a cute little bunny to death.  He lifts up the dead rabbit and yells, again enigmatically, “Kamui!!”

Previously, in NB, the animal world had been used rather consistently as an amoral (and thus more moral) alternative to the repressive and hierarchal society of feudal Japan.  Not only that, but an animalistic existence was in many ways preferable to the life of starvation and exploitation that awaited the peasantry.  For instance, the boy who would later become Kusare of the Kage-ichizoku, was raised by a badger, which Shirato uses to explain his particular ninjutsu of being able to burrow and conceal himself in tight places.  Initially, Kusare is separated from his family, and to survive he hides in the badger’s den.  At first, the badger and Kusare are suspicious of each other, but over time, she teaches him how to live underground and comes to regard him as a replacement for the offspring she lost due to starvation.  When later, Kusare and his new badger mother are discovered by his biological parents, Kusare explicitly rejects them and goes to live permanently in the animal world.  Most of the Kage-ichizoku share some affinity with an animal, and it is from that affinity that they draw their strength.

Embedded within this valorization of animal life, though, is a muted critique of human society that comes more clearly to the fore in Kamui.  For animalistic “society” is present not merely as an alternative but as an allegory for the true nature of human society, despite its pretense toward hierarchy, order, and progress.  The mysterious man who appears and kills the rabbit is not separate from them but in line with them, which means not only is human society no different from that of the animal world but that humanity’s “dominance” is illusory at best, for the universal truth of Shirato’s wildlife is that they are all subjects of predation/power, meaning they are always equally capable of preying on others and being preyed upon.


Woodcutter: “wahahaha, y’all are becomin’ close friends!” – Kamui-den ser. 2 vol. 1 p. 442

This re-imagining of the relationship between human and animal domains is taken to an extreme at the outset of the second series of Kamui-den (1988-2000), where Shirato tells the story of a group of monkeys who occupy a dilapidated, deserted temple on the mountainside.  Their society is just as hierarchal and oppressive as “ours,” as a result of which one of the “bosses” (Shirato in fact uses the English word) named Hakkake (Toothy) becomes injured and is separated from monkey society to be cared for by the peasant who finds him.  Shirato imagines the relationship between human and animal not as domestication but as an unspoken recognition of being equally subject to the cruelties of life.

The Darker Side of Class Struggle


Ninja bugeichō vol. 7 p. 139

Shinsuke: However, warriors are warriors; peasants are peasants.  We cannot violate a law [sadame] bequeathed to us from Heaven…


Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 15 p. 33

Yokome: Get it, you bastards?!  Hinin are just hinin.  For good. / Warriors are warriors; peasants are peasants.  The laws [sadame] of the world don’t change!

The first series of Kamui too culminates in an uprising (ikki), and, though both are failures, while Nconcludes with a sense of hope that the peasantry have gained an awareness of their situation, Kamui more or less ends in despair.  Though above both Shisuke and Yokome are saying essentially the same thing, context renders them very different.  For one, Shinsuke is a warrior [bushi] himself and is in the process of questioning the ideology part and parcel of his social class.  Yokome, on the other hand, is a hinin and is there not to question the social hierarchy but to reinforce it, to, in a sense, wake his fellows of the underclass up to the realization that they cannot meaningfully buck the system. Second, the ends of NB (1962) and Kamui (1971) come at radically different times in modern Japanese history.  The first is at the very beginning of a protest movement that would question Japan’s role in the world and military relationship with the United States, whereas the latter comes after the failure of those protests and the brutal suppression of the student and Marxist movements by the Japanese government.

There is a skepticism about solidarity that is present in Kamui from the very beginning, and it is encapsulated in Shirato’s statement above about the warriors hating the farmers hating the genin etc.  Kamui is himself a hinin, literally a “non-person” (非人), a non-person because he, his family, and others like them are outside the official class structure, either as a result of fleeing from some criminal offense or due to the perception of being unclean that would underpin discrimination in modern times against the eta or burakumin.  The term hinin is originally a Buddhist term for someone inhuman, i.e. outside the Dharma or fundamentally opposed to it.  In Japan, this carried over to those who performed certain tasks, typically involving butchering animals or burying corpses, and justified treating them in a manner inconsistent with Buddhist teachings about compassion, because they were technically “not human.”

Genin (下人), in the level just above hinin, are right on the cusp of the boundary between inside and outside the official social order.  The word typically refers to any apprentice, but in the technical terminology of Japanese social classes in the Edo period, it refers to those who are officially in the “farmer” category but are basically day laborers and servants who might not perform any agricultural labor at all.  A true peasant is a subsistence farmer who, like serfs throughout the medieval world, provides a portion of his yield to the local lord (who technically owns everything) while keeping the rest for himself and his family.  A genin is of the same class as a real peasant but clearly different; what distinguishes a genin from a hinin (and justifies the contempt of the one for the other) is the possibility, however slight, that a genin might escape the servitude of occasional labor for the real life of a peasant, as if that were much better.

Kamui (right) showing Jinsuke (left) who's boss - Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 1 p. 274

Kamui (right) showing Jinsuke (left) who’s boss – Kamui-den ser. 1 vol. 1 p. 274

Kamui: Shit–

I realize I have said little about Kamui himself and the narrative that bears his name, but I needed this long and yet still only perfunctory explication in order to get around to a seemingly simple point about where he begins his life as a ninja.  Kamui, holding his fellow hinin in contempt, has separated himself from them and lives alone in the wild.  He is angry with himself for his weakness in the face of the bully Jinsuke, and goes further into “nature” to toughen himself and to, as he says, “get stronger.”  This may seem admirable enough, but Kamui’s desire to become a ninja and his drive to train his body every day derives not from a noble will to self-actualization but a palpable contempt for who he is and where he comes from.  In becoming a “genius ninja,” Kamui both succeeds and fails–succeeds in becoming stronger but fails to realize the contempt the society he enters has for him.  Far from being recognized for his skill and ascending, Kamui is manipulated by those in power, forcing him to flee from the very ninja clan that will hunt him for the rest of his life.

Next week: a tale of two ninja; Naruto, Kamui, and the forced assimilation of “outsiders.”

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] I said last week that the peasant uprising in the final volumes of Shirato’s Kamui-den was a failure, I was […]

  2. […] Next Week: little children, squirrels picking flowers, and other Kamui horrors! […]


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