With the reveal of a "Masami Kurumada Project" from Toei Animation looming over at Jump Festa 2011 this upcoming weekend I've decided to start taking a look at some of the anime adaptations of Masami Kurumada's mangas earlier than I had planned on doing. Let me say this right away, though: I most likely will not cover Saint Seiya. Seiya is Kurumada's most well-known creation, and even in North America that title has had penetration, though it admittedly has been very rocky; ADV's release of the anime only covered the first 60 episodes due to DiC only licensing that many episodes of the show, not to mention DiC's shame of an adaptation called Knights of the Zodiac giving Kurumada's works a horrible first impression in North America, and Viz's release of the manga, though completed early this year and a fine-enough release, is only going to get tougher to buy all of due to low sales. Still, Saint Seiya is a little too well-known to really cover in detail on this blog, not to mention that the anime is really long. Maybe in the future I'll give a look over at how hard of a time his works have had in North America, and that would mostly cover Saint Seiya, but that's for another time. For now, let's take a look at ninjas...
Fuma no Kojirou, or Kojirou of the Fuma when translated, is easily best described as "Masami Kurumada's fourth-most-well-known title". It doesn't have anywhere near the same popularity as Saint Seiya, Ring ni Kakero, or B't X, but at the same time it isn't one of his one-shots or canceled titles. In fact, the manga's original run in Weekly Shonen Jump from early 1982 to late 1983 gave the title a total of ten volumes. Back in 1982 this title was highly anticipated, as Ring ni Kakero was a giant hit for Weekly Shonen Jump, and Shueisha in general. Before that title Weekly Shonen Jump didn't exactly have a "mega-hit". Also, before 1977 Jump's biggest name was Go Nagai's Harenchi Gakuen, and that was only because the title was so "dirty" that the PTA was trying to kill it off! Finally, though Jump legend Kochikame debuted in 1976 and is still running in the magazine to this day, the title didn't seem to become the legend it would be right away. Anyway, after creating such a popular manga, Kurumada's next work was definitely going to be looked at with high regard.
I'm not sure if the manga was canceled or if Kurumada just planned it to be this short, but Fuma no Kojirou didn't last as long as Ring ni Kakero. In fact, the manga wouldn't get an anime adaptation until 1989, after Saint Seiya became a big hit in both manga and anime form. Kojirou got three anime adaptations, one for each story arc that comprises the manga: The six-episode Yasha-hen (Yasha Chapter) OVA, the six-episode Seiken Sensou-hen (Sacred Sword War Chapter) OVA, and the feature-length Fuma Hanran-hen (Fuma Rebellion Chapter) movie. Unfortunately, I've only seen the Yasha-hen OVA and I have no idea if I'll be able to watch the rest, so I'll only cover the first OVA.
The story in this part of the story focuses on Hakuo Academy, which is on the verge of closing down to a number of their students transferring over to Seishikan, a rival school that Hakuo is feeling is forcing students to move to. In order to protect the students and find out how Seishikan had taken over all the other schools Himeko Hojo, the head of the school after her grandfather died (though she herself is a student) tells her friend and second-in-command Ranko Yagyu to find the Fuma, an old clan of ninjas who might be of help to them. The Fuma agree to help out and lend to them Kojirou, a younger member of the clan. But once it's revealed that Seishikan had recruited the Yasha, the Fuma's eternal rival clan ever since the Warring States Era, Kojirou gets help in the form of his fellow clan members.
It looks like a lot, but the when you get down to the "nitty-gritty" the main idea is that this story arc is about the last battle between the Fuuma and Yasha clans with the whole idea of the schools being the backdrop mostly. I will give credit to where it goes and say that the fights are pretty nicely done in this OVA. Each of them does seem different from the last, so it never really seems like you're watching the same thing in each episode. However, once you consider that both sides of the fight are made up of 8 ninjas you do realize something: Six episodes is not enough time to fully develop all of them.
And that is probably the biggest flaw of this OVA. Out of the Fuma, only four of them get any real character development (Kojirou, Ryoma, and the twins Kouu and Shoryu), and out of the Yasha only the ninth member of the group, Musashi Asuka, is given a major focus... And he's not even a real Yasha but instead is a ninja-for-hire of sorts. But at the same time it is understandable that not everyone is given character development once you realize that these fights are to the death, with the main objective being the complete destruction of one side. Also, you do have to remember that this is only the first arc of a three arc story, so you can't get everything here. Oh, and these ninjas mostly fight with wooden swords... Before complaints come in, just remember that Naruto stars a ninja who wears an orange jumpsuit and very few of the ninjas in that title are actually very "ninja-like".
The music is appropriately fitting for the OVA, but the best songs are the opening and ending themes. Both are performed by a group called NIGHT HAWKS, who don't seem to be around anymore... And that's a shame as this group is probably one of the best Japanese hard rock groups I've ever heard. "Don't Go Away" and "Good-Bye Marry", the opening and ending theme respectively, are both excellent songs that really compliment the style of the show (it's ninjas by way of Kurumada, of course, so hard rock is really fitting) and are really addicting to listen to. The animation studio behind this OVA actually isn't Toei, even though Saint Seiya veterans Shingo Araki and Michi Himeno did the character designs, but rather it was J.C. Staff... Or maybe it was Animate-Film... Or maybe it was Toei afterall. For some reason I can't get any real indication on what company made this OVA as well as the other two.
[3/7/2012 ADDENDUM: Turns out Animate-Film was the main studio behind the OVAs, though J.C. Staff did help out with production]
I can't really call this title "Saint Seiya with ninjas", as it doesn't quite feel like Saint Seiya, and it shouldn't really since the manga came before Seiya. There's an obvious precursor to Seiya in the form of Kouu and Shoryu's special attack Byakuujin (replace the feathers with chains and you get Shin's Nebula Chain), but Kojirou himself is nothing like Kurumada's other leads. In fact, he's more like Ring ni Kakero's Ishimatsu Katori, who is normally the comic relief but can be truly serious when the need arises. As for availability I had to watch this OVA "raw" (a.k.a. Japanese with no subtitles), though apparently the entire OVA series was subtitled back in the days when fansubs were distributed on VHS tapes and had to be bought or traded for rather than simply downloaded.
Overall, I can only recommend Fuma no Kojirou: Yasha-hen for big fans of Masami Kurumada's works. When compared to his three more well-known works it definitely does suffer a bit in depth, but it still is enjoyable to an extent. If you do want to watch Fuma no Kojirou, then I definitely recommend watching the live-action tokusatsu/drama adaptation from a couple of years back. It tells the Yasha Chapter as well, but it's thirteen episodes long so therefore it allows for more character development, including a lot that wasn't even in the original manga. Yeah, it also puts a lot more "drama" into the story, but that comes with the territory when you're dealing with the genre called "J-Drama". Still, the live-action adaptation is one of those few times where it's the superior product overall, but the OVA isn't half-bad either.