Gotta Have 'Em All: Shinobi Life

>> Sunday, November 6, 2011

Shinobi Life by Shoko Conami was part of my Christmas experiment, where I put volume 1 of a number of prospective mangas (based on recommendations and what I read in the blurb) on my wishlist. I've always had an interest in ninjitsu (no, really, I swear) though the more accurate term is shinobi and I've read a great deal of history on them. Time travel usually does not appeal either, but, like Black Bird, I found the premise appealing.

I loved it. I loved the artwork. I loved the characterizations (which the artwork aided amazingly). I liked the story. Within twenty pages, I was sucked in and, though I've only had the series since December, I've probably read it ten times. I love it enough that, if anyone were interested in reading a manga for the first time, this is the one I'd suggest. At least, that's what I used to say before Tokyopop, that had the English-speaking license for this, went belly up, leaving this charming manga hanging with our lovely leads still separated by time if not space.

I love this story and I'm really irked that I can't get caught up on those volumes beyond seven (and I gave it to my sister, too, making her angry at ME that it isn't finished). Damn it!

Anime? No Volumes of manga: 13 (7 Eng) Status: Complete

My rating: Gotta have 'em all

Age range: Relatively tame, though with some violence. I wouldn't have had any trouble with my daughter reading it at 14+ (if she was still that age), noting that I'm pretty permissive.

Taboos and "warnings": Romance with limited sexual innuendo. Violence, some of it graphic, though certainly not as much as there could be with shinobi everywhere.

Premise: Ninja Kogetora charged with protecting Princess Beni falls (literally) into a hole connecting pre-Edo Japan and modern times, tumbling onto Beni Fujiwara, the princess' decendant and dead ringer. Rich and spoiled, Beni feels neglected by her father and blames him for her mother's suicide when she was a child. Kogetora confuses modern Beni with his princess and tries to protect her in a baffling and confusing world.

What works: Damn near everything. The premise I found interesting (and I think it was implemented surprisingly well, which is always a nice surprise with time travel numbers). The shinobi traits and actions were brilliant. Both the angst and the humor potential of time travel displacement (i.e. our Shinobi guard) into modern times (modern clothes, air conditioning, etc). There is both considerable humor and believable drama. Numero uno, are the characters, and I don't just mean the protagonists.

Not long into the manga, we get to see under the bitchy exterior of Beni to a very kind and sensitive heart left far too long neglected, desperately hurt by her mother's loss. She is actually quite sympathetic, sensitive to the pain of others, and surprisingly honorable. Smart, too, and self-sufficient despite weak joints (a failing I know quite well myself). At first I didn't find her pretty, but, again, I was drawn to her much like I was drawn to her character. We soon learn she is quite tough in many ways, taking the lead when it needed to be taken. She turned out to be a very strong woman.

The villains in this piece are excellent, too, each of them having a very sympathetic backstory which is easy to imagine, to feel for, even understand how they became as they are now (halfway through the series). Hitaki, the vicious Shinobi enemy of Koretoga, is particularly compelling to me and his supportive relationship with Rihito, who feels natural given the abuse from his childhood.

But Kagetora, damn what a character. Young and bright, talented and dedicated, he is the epitome of a character devoted to ideals and honor, but confounded by a new world and feelings for Beni that don't fit into his notion of the world. That he overcomes the rigid and unyielding conditioning of his background for her, for himself, is fascinating to watch and utterly compelling. And yet, he never wavers in his dedication to Beni, first her safety, then her happiness and eventually her part in his life. He's beautiful to look at. I love his shinobi skills. And I find his self-sacrifice for what he considers necessary deeply endearing. He is smart and intelligent without being snarky, arrogant or preachy. His character is almost perfectly balanced. I fall in love with many manga leads and I've yet to find a comparable character in the mangas I've read. In my opinion, Kogetora is brilliant and the type of character I've never fallen for before.
Which brings me to the artwork, among my favorite artwork of any manga, not because it's the most beautiful or detailed but because you can see everything Kogetora feels reflected in his eyes. The characters are gorgeous. I have never seen emotion conveyed so amazingly well with drawn eyes in my life, and it amazes me because Kogetora is largely a stoic character (and looks it). Additionally, the author does an incredible job of conveying the sense of movement and drama.
Favorite character: Beni Fujiwara is a great character, and even the villains have depth and complexity, but, yeah, I gotta love Kogetora, both in his gorgeous stalwart eighteen-year-old version and in his incredible fourteen-year-old incarnation.


Kogetora: Even at the cost of my life, I will protect her.

Beni: I like being alone. I've eaten by myself since my mom died. I'm used to it. I'm used to it, so I don't want to get used to having anyone around now. I don't ever want to have to learn to be alone all over again.

Beni: If he really came from the past, then Kagetora will be all alone in this world. All alone . . . I'm the one, the only one that Kagetora knows here, even if he thinks I'm his Beni Hime [Princess Beni]"

Beni: If I'm wrong then we die, but . . . Actually, I guess the chances of dying are pretty high. If we go together, at least we won't be lonely when we die, right?

Kogetora: The poison's effect is weakening. Good. I'll be able to feel it when I touch you.
What I didn't like: Not much. However, our romantic leads get separated in volume 5. Although the backstory we learn is wonderful and there's plenty of character development and action, the story is effectively halted there for our two people. The separation continues until Volume 10, which is a long time for a central romance. I know this because, despite the fact I still haven't master Japanese, I do have the next three volumes of Shinobi Life in Japanese. I sure hope someday I can get them in English.

Update 2013-02-18: No one has yet picked this up in English. Which stinks. But I do have all the missing volumes in Japanese AND every volume has been translated by fans on-line so the end of this charmer is available to the addicted. 


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