The ninja is an icon, a piece of Japanese storytelling and history that westerners seem endlessly fascinated with, even if we don’t actually know anything about them. Plain teenage mutant turtles are creepy talking animals that live in the sewer — throw in the word “ninja” and they become a media powerhouse that have been going strong for over 25 years. Even movies like American Ninja and Miami Connection can’t kill them completely, and it’s natural that someone would want to write a book that helps non-natives understand their history and place in culture.
Unfortunately, Ninja: 1,000 Years Of The Shadow Warrior isn’t a text that achieves that purpose. John Man’s rambling look at the ninja in Japanese culture fails to establish an interesting narrative, despite literally having centuries of amazing stories to use as fuel. In fact, the book is so poorly structured that I wonder if he shuffled a deck of index cards with chapter titles and then put the sections in that order. The first two-thirds of Man’s book jumps wildly from subject, probably in an attempt to engage readers who might be lost by page after page of Japanese history but instead ends up disjointed and unpleasant.
After this, however, it seemed like things might pick up — I’m always fascinated by how modern cultures internalize (and profit from) their past — but for every interesting look at something like the Nakano Spy School and the Japanese survivalist soldiers who outlived World War II, there’s a frustratingly myopic look at other aspects of the ninja meme. As someone who learned of the ninja through the western interpretation of it, I was hoping for some sort of dissection of why ninja became as huge as they did, but the book fails utterly in this aspect. There are several pages devoted to You Only Live Twice (likely because of Man’s being British), but nothing about how Sho Kosugi and his ilk brought the ninja-as-lead to life in the West.
Overall, I’m going to say that instead of reading Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior, one shoal instead pick through its bibliography. Man did a lot of research for this book and it’s likely that you’d be able to rifle through his sources and create a more entertaining and complete look at Japan’s greatest non-Godzilla export.
A review copy of this book was provided by Harper Collins.