During the Christmas holidays, wandering around different shops looking for gifts for other people, this book caught my eye as a nice present for myself. Always fascinated by ninja but never known where to start about learning the history behind them. Reading the blurb of Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai and Outlaws by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt felt like a great starting place to find out more about the reality of this part of Japan’s history. Typically, bought around Christmas only to be put on the shelf, not touched until lockdown began. Finally time to read it, what was it like?
Before going into any detail, it’s important to note this review is based on the revised edition which made a couple of changes to the book. Beyond the 16 new pages of content, the order of the book was changed to be more chronological, grouping the figures by a time period. It helps add context to the conditions of the historical figures, helping to retain and better compare those who operated in similar times, then take in how things changed after each period as techniques and such are developed. Between every time period, there are a couple of pages based on more general knowledge, going deeper into specific aspects such as ninja tools, techniques, etc. It provides a nice break from historical figures, mixing it up and keep up the pace. The last part of these more factual pages even offers insight into the locations in Tokyo where you can find historic ninja places. Of course, the book does mention places across Japan as it goes, but these are specific and it is nice to have an extensive guide in one area. Ninja Attack! finishes off with an insightful reflection on how ninjas are portrayed in films not only from Japan but across the world and how it changed over time. Despite its outside appearance, it is an academic book through and through, with a reference section at the end (spilt into Japanese and English) allowing you to further your own research after the book.
As previously mentioned the bulk of the book revolves around profiling historical figures, which the eagled eyed of you may have noticed in the sub-title, is not just ninja. Hiroko and Matt spilt the figures into categories, one of which is “ninja rivals” who were people that fought against ninja but weren’t themselves ninja. Each profile, despite being 3 pages and an illustration, is packed full of information. Provided by a consistent structure, starting with the background of where they possibly trained or how they grew up, moving to their greatest moment, and ending with their… Well end. Extending this information with boxes outside the bulk of the text containing information on tangents and at times with related photos, such as historic Japanese art, artefacts, etcetera., it creates a real feel of research notes. Not only that, but the sheer passion that has gone into creating this book. Each historical figure has an awesome illustration provided by Yukata Kondo, helping to truly bring them a light and frankly is awesome to look at. In a way, makes it a manga textbook on ninja history.
Whilst it is very much laid out as an academic book, the writing is more casual and laid back with some jokes sprinkled in for good measure. This helps make it an easy read for those who aren’t used to heavy academic books and adds some real life into the content. From this alone, it would be easy to assume it is shallow, however, the content is incredibly deep as mentioned with the structure. Despite the loss of many historic documents in Japanese history due to various reasons, Hiroko and Matt ensure there is a balance from the different speculations and theories regarding how certain events played out. Giving similar attention to both, a narrative to both possibilities is delivered to enriches your horizons on what could have been. This is even to the extent of when it is unsure whether a historic figure truly existed or was just folklore lost in time due to lack of preservation. Even so, these stories are worthy of a mention as they are incredible, like what you would see in an anime and personally do hope they are true. Towards the end, when it is more known if it is a fictional character, their appearance is justified as the book explains the influence on pop culture. A highlight of this is one of the first instances of manga, and the manga/anime Naruto has characters based on these fictional ninjas. Knowing their origin behind the character design is cool and surprisingly adds depth to the character.
All in all, if you love the concept of ninja, or Japanese history in general, then this book will be for you. It is filled will endless facts and interesting stories to share with friends and family and goes a long way to help understand where some of the pop culture references come from. The structure of an academic book with a more light-hearted writing style makes this incredible amount of information, easy and accessible for all. This book cannot be recommended enough.
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt (with illustrations of Yutaka Kondo)
Number of pages: 208