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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fuma no Kojirou: Before Naruto... Before Ninku... There Was...

The year is 1981. Masami Kurumada is a superstar mangaka in Weekly Shonen Jump because of the massive success of Ring ni Kakero, his second series. It helped bring the readership to over 3 million (which is where it hovers around nowadays), helped revolutionize the way sports manga (& later action manga in general) operated, and publisher Shueisha gave the manga the very first full-color final chapter (something that has only been duplicated in Jump three times since, most recently last year with Naruto). Naturally, hopes & anticipations were high for what Kurumada was going to debut next in the magazine, and what would come was something completely different than what came before. Instead of another sports manga, it was a tale of ninja. From what info I could find, this follow-up manga was in fact popular with readers as soon as it debuted in the beginning of 1982, but the title was not to last nearly as long of RnK. Though it seemed to remain popular throughout its run, Kurumada would end his third serialized manga at the end of 1983, after only two straight years, leaving it at a total of 10 volumes. Since then the series would become Kurumada's least known major work; I've even deemed it "Masami Kurumada's Fourth-Most-Well-Known Manga." Why did it end so (comparatively) early? Was it any good in the first place? I'm going to try to give an answer to both of those questions.

This is Fuma no Kojirou/Kojirou of the Fuma.

The story focuses on the titular Kojirou, a young ninja from the Fuma Clan, and is split up into three arcs: The Yasha Chapter, where Kojirou & his Fuma brethren are called in to save Hakuo Academy by Himeko Hojo, a descendant of the clan they protected back in the Sengoku Era. Her school is on the verge of closing due to rival school Seishikan, which has recruited rival clan the Yasha to help steal students & make Seishikan the only school in the area. Following that is the Sacred Sword War Chapter, where Kojirou, fellow Fuma ninja Ryoma, & for-hire warrior Musashi Asuka (who previously fought for Seishikan) become involved in the revived battle between the forces of Cosmo & Chaos after two of the ten legendary Sacred Swords (Kojirou's Fuurin Kazan & Musashi's Ougonken) are uncovered during the Fuma/Yasha conflict. Finally, there's the Fuma Rebellion Chapter, where the remaining Fuma from the battle with the Yusha must now fight a civil war within what remains of the Fuma Clan, while trying to figure out who leads the "New Fuma Clan" & for what purpose.

When it comes to Masami Kurumada's major works, Fuma no Kojirou may be his most interesting in some ways. There are a lot of neat ideas at work in this manga, and though it's only 10 volumes long it still has a lot housed inside. In fact, each story arc has a fairly different feel from the other two, so I'll be covering each arc & what it brings to the table. Starting off, the Yasha Chapter is easily the most dedicated to the theme of ninjas. While it does start off with a focus on helping Hakuo Academy out by having Kojirou compete in a few sports (baseball, soccer, tennis, etc.), as it's the forté of the school, after the third chapter the story switches completely over to the ninja battles. To the arc's credit, once the Yasha's Eight Generals (plus Musashi) are fully introduced the story goes at a brisk pace. A member of the Fuma almost always fights a Yasha ninja in each chapter throughout this arc, and it helps really showcase the variety of ways the characters fight. For example, Kojirou is your traditional, bullheaded, Kurumada lead character, twin brothers Kouu & Shoryu utilize a variety of feathers that each have different tricks (movement tracking, stealth attacking, etc.), & the stoic Kirikaze uses fog to hide his tracks & create fakes to fools his enemies.

Sadly, the biggest flaw with the Yasha Chapter is that its dead-eye focus on the battling removes a lot of chances for character development. While Kurumada has been known to not always give his villains lots of development, he at least makes them visually appealing or gives them some sort of instant memorability, but very few of the Yasha Generals are like that. Early on you have someone like Byakko, who has the most interesting showing by disguising himself as Kouu after he falls in battle, but that's probably the most you get from that group. In fact, almost as if poking fun at himself, Kurumada even kills off one of the Yasha, Shiranui, without ever showing his face or having him say anything aside from his own name! Sadly, this also stretches out to the Fuma ninja, as only Kojirou, Kouu & Shoryu, & the one-eyed Ryoma actually see any sort of character development in this arc. Among the villains, only Musashi is given anything to really chew on, and even then most of it is in the latter part of the arc when his sickly sister Erina is introduced in a chapter. Unfortunately, Erina comes in a little too late to really make a major impact, and she only has an impact on Musashi, exclusively. Essentially, you don't read the Yasha Chapter for strong character development; you read it for the various ninja battles & the spectacle of it all. If you want more "character" in this arc, then watch the live-action TV adaptation from 2007, as it improves heavily on this arc.

Thankfully, the manga improves immensely with the Sacred Sword War Chapter. A big part of that is the simple fact that exactly 50% of the manga is dedicated to this arc, which means that it's given the most room to breathe. While the anime adaptation of this arc cuts straight to the chase, the manga originally establishes a link between the Yasha fight & the "War for Sacred Swords", as the anime promo material translates it, by having Yasha-hime (the leader of the Yasha) ask for sanctuary from Hakuo's Himeko & Ranko, who she was originally trying to take out. Turns out that the Fuma/Yasha battle was planned out as a way to not only destroy the Fuma (for the Yasha), but to also help discover some of the Sacred Swords (for Chaos); things obviously didn't work out as planned. The power of Chaos & is also showcased by introducing Cruz Ryuoin & the Hida, a rival ninja clan, who are summarily trounced by Chaos member Rasha & the power of the fanged sword Raikouken. All of this leads into an epic battle between the strongest of Chaos & their destined enemies, the forces of Cosmo (lead, naturally, by Kojirou). The greatest thing about the Sacred Sword War is the sheer power that the other eight Sacred Swords showcase. The Raikouken can summon lightning. The Genmu Hishouken controls ice. The Shikouken utilizes deadly rays of light. The Jyujiken creates cross-shaped chasms that foes are forced to fall to their death in. The Swords themselves are also varied in look & style, making each of them highly memorable & awesome.

Beyond the visual spectacle, however, is possibly the best aspect of this second arc: The overarching theme of destiny & if it can truly be denied. While I'm not sure if I would go as far as calling Masami Kurmada an atheist, he is definitely not beholden to religion & faith. At the same time, however, he obviously has a strong love of using various mythoses in ways that allows him to showcase his love of the human spirit. Whether it's fighting against the Greek gods in Ring ni Kakero (figuratively) & Saint Seiya (literally), the use of Bible-influenced characters & themes in B't X, or simply having the Welterweight Boxing Champion of the World in Ring ni Kakero be a Monacan named Jesus Christ, Kurumada is no stranger to utilizing various religions & belief systems, all so that he can say "screw it." Fuma no Kojirou's system of choice for the Sacred Sword War is Buddhism, specifically the concept of Saṃsāra, which is the constant cycle of birth, life, & death/reincarnation as determined by karma. In essence, the war between Cosmo & Chaos is something that happens every 4,000 years, and the chosen for each war are merely the reincarnations of the warriors of the previous war. The battles between each Cosmo & Chaos warrior really do give a sense that they are merely pawns of a larger scheme, with their actions having a feel of "Is this really what they want to do, or are they simply following their preordained destinies?" Kurumada really pushes this concept very well, with even one-sided victories coming off as going against what's supposed to happen according to the will of the gods. In fact, Chaos warrior Nero explicitly states that his side is fighting for the sake of Saṃsāra. Quite honestly, Fuma no Kojirou's Sacred Sword War Chapter might be the most effective example of Kurumada's common theme of walking your own path & breaking destiny. It's fun to simply have characters go up against godlike enemies, or even the gods themselves, but it's awesome when the very actions of the characters feel questioned, as if destiny is something that shouldn't, or even can't, be fought. All of these men are fighting battles in which they don't fully understand what's at stake or even how they're meant to fight, simply because it's what they were meant to do. The sense of futility is great, as odd as that sounds.

Still, the arc isn't exactly perfect. The biggest offender is in the two Cosmo warriors who only appear in this part of the manga: Soushi Date & Sigma. Soushi more or less appears in front of Kojirou & Musashi after they meet up, and immediately after he appears the three are confronted by the goddess that they are fighting for, followed by fights with three Chaos members, Arthur, David, & destined warrior Shura. There is absolutely no development given to Soushi whatsoever, making it tough to really care for him when he's fighting for his life in the war. As for Sigma, he's at least given the explanation as being someone who fought in the previous war 4,000 years ago; it's not much, but at least it gives the character some sense of importance & experience. Likewise, none of the Chaos warriors are given much in terms of development, relying mostly on their steadfast dedication to their Emperor & the cycle of life that the Sacred Swords are attached to. Any hints of differentiation are subtle, like Shura coming off like the rookie of the group or Jackal being a crazed battle freak (and the black sclera his eyes have help portray that). I guess the lack of development does help showcase the fact that it doesn't really matter what lives they've lived or what their future dreams are, because all of their destinies converge upon the Sacred Sword War; they're just cogs that spin the wheel of fate. What makes Kurumada's villains notable is the style & instant memorability that they can have. It may just be me as a Kurumada fan, but I do remember the names & looks of the characters in this story arc. Even though someone like Oz doesn't have much to him, outside of his forehead chakra, he still comes off as memorable by way of the sword he uses, the Jyujiken, & his fight with Ryoma. Well, I guess there's also the fact that the characters in this arc feature some crazy kanji due to Kurumada's heavy use of ateji.

For those who aren't familiar with ateji, it's the use of symbolic characters, including Chinese-only ones, to give a Japanese word a kanji "spelling", even though the kanji don't have any direct relation to the word. A great example would be Konami's Gradius spin-off Salamander, which in Japanese is written not via katakana normally, but by the ateji 沙羅曼蛇. The kanji themselves don't have any relation to the actual title & instead are only used because they can be pronounced as "Sa-Ra-Man-Daa." When it comes to the new Cosmo & Chaos warriors, most of their names are not Japanese or even Asian in origin, yet are written with ateji. Above is a list I made of the characters introduced in this arc, their ateji spellings, & the direct translations of said ateji. Of them all, the only one that kind of works as an actual, descriptive name is Hida ninja Cruz Ryuoin, though the fact that "Cruz" is written out via furigana in kana showcases that it's not a distinctly Japanese name. It's the most wild with Arthur & David, which rely almost completely on kanji that aren't even used in Japanese, all so that they can be pronounced as "Aasaa" & "Dabide", which are how those names are pronounced phonetically in Japanese (especially since Rasha & Arthur both use two of the same characters). Even Chaos is written in ateji, while Cosmo is written in katakana, which is a little odd; "Cosmo" would be given ateji in Saint Seiya, however. It's not a negative, per se, but rather an odd detail that I just feel is worth bringing up in this review.

As for the Fuma Rebellion Chapter, it's the shortest arc in the manga, lasting only six chapters; that's still close to 300 pages total, however. It's a comparatively simple & straightforward arc, which is easily its strongest aspect. It doesn't try to add in a major reason for why it's happening, that's quickly glossed over, nor does it try to be laden with some sort of underlying theme about religion. This is simply about a renegade group of Fuma ninja who, due to the destruction of their home & leader by Chaos, decide to rebel & make a new clan, though the reason why they want to do so isn't exactly noble by any means. It also gives other major Fuma ninja Shoryu, Kirikaze, & the giant Ryuho some focus once again, as they had no real importance in the previous arc; the most they did during the Sword War was try to figure out where Kojirou & Ryoma disappeared to. Another neat little twist in this last arc is that Kurumada went all out with the death quotient. Major characters do die in this arc, a couple of which in very effective & even surprising ways, with everything feeling a good bit like a Yoshiyuki Tomino-esque "Kill 'em All." It may only last a few chapters, but the Fuma Rebellion is a very valiant attempt to follow up the extremely strong & ponderous Sacred Sword War.

Still, it's that very shortness that winds up hurting the arc, and it may even hurt the manga as a way of ending it. Even more so than in the prior arcs, the antagonists have next to no development, but here it's even worse. With the exception of the leader Shimon, & a quickly-disposed of Raien, all of the antagonistic "New Fuma" ninja are draped in bandages that cover their faces, making them all look really similar. A similar concept was done previously in Ring ni Kakero with Team Germany, but in that title there were only three of them & they at least had some time to fight & feel slightly memorable (the fact that they were named after famous Nazis also helped out). Granted, Shimon is an effective enemy who has an appropriately dangerous power (mind control), but this arc just can't quite match up to what came right before it. Finally, the ending is a bit sudden, happening right after the final battle; there is absolutely no falling action. As a finale, it does end the entire manga better than if it had climaxed with the Sword War's more ambiguous end, and it may be slightly better than the Yasha Chapter simply because it was much more focused, but overall the Fuma Rebellion is something that could have been really awesome if given more time to work with. As it is, however, it's only okay.

There are some really cool references & homages to be found within Fuma no Kojirou. Kojirou & Musashi are specifically named to reference Sasaki Kojirou & Miyamoto Musashi, two legendary swordsmen from the Sengoku Era. Soushi's last name of "Date" is likewise a reference to Date Masamune, also from the same era. Continuing the Sengoku references is the name of Kojirou's Sacred Sword, Fuurin Kazan, which is based on Sengoku daimyo Takeda Shingen's battle standard, taken from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, which translates to "as swift as wind, as silent as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakeable as mountain." The shortened "Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain" version is likely taken from Yasushi Inoue's 1953 novel of the same name, which popularized the contraction. The Fuma/Yasha rivalry is based on the fact that both clans protected Sengoku daimyo, with the Yasha being Takeda's ninja & the Fuma being the Hojo clan's; stories based on the era commonly have the legendary Fuma Kotaro take on Yasha ninja. Rasha & Shion are likely references to the Lasya of Hindu mythology & Zion of Christian mythology, David may be named after King David of Israel, & Arthur might be referring to King Arthur (especially since he wielded a Sacred/Holy Sword, ala Excalibur). Admittedly, some of this is nothing more than conjecture, especially the previous sentence, but none of them are without merit, & Kurumada is definitely no stranger to naming characters after people, ideals, & the like. As for references made to FnK, the easiest one would be via The King of Fighters' Benimaru Nikaido, whose super move Raikouken may be a reference to Nero's Sacred Sword of the same name (only the last kanji is different, too); his Raijinken may also be a reference to Shadow Sousui's superblow from RnK. Jhun Hoon's Houou Tenbu Kyaku may also be a reference to the Houou Tenbu, the Sacred Sword of the Chaos Emperor himself.

As for what Masami Kurumada himself would re-use from FnK, that's an easier answer. Probably the most obvious one would the use of the word "Cosmo", which is originally used to represent the opposite of Chaos before being refitted as the source of energy & strength for the characters in Saint Seiya. There's also the re-using of the name Shura, first for one of the Chaos warriors & then later as the Gold Capricorn Saint (though his name is in full katakana). Keeping with the character of Shura, the use of the term Seiken/Sacred Sword would also return in Seiya, this time in reference to the spirit of Excalibur that Shura, & later Dragon Shiryu, can wield. The use of Buddhism & Saṃsāra would also be brought back in Seiya, though this time it would be in the form of Virgo Shaka, a reincarnation of a buddha who uses an attack based on the six realms of Saṃsāra. Hell, Kurumada even copies the style of image he made for Volume 6 of FnK for use as a Seiya cover! Combine all of this with the carry overs from Ring ni Kakero, like the use of the Greek pantheon & the re-using of Venus' superblow Lightning Plasma as an attack for Leo Aiolia, & it's easy to see that Saint Seiya was very much a way for Kurumada to re-use names, themes, & even attacks in new ways for audiences that may not have read his prior work. It's almost as if Masami Kurumada subscribed to Osamu Tezuka's Star System not just via the re-using of characters in new ways, but also in other ways. While that can be argued as simply being lazy & re-using what already worked once, the fact that all of these elements are used in varied ways keeps it from feeling lazy & unoriginal.

Kurumada's artwork here is generally good, showing none of his early roughness & being more in line with how most view his artwork. Backgrounds are a mix of continually showcasing the environment everything's happening in & Kurumada's more common use of things like speed lines & other mood-establishing methods, though there is a stark change once the Sacred Sword War begins. Once the Cosmo & Chaos warriors wind up on the "Holy Land" where the Swords were created, Kurumada almost always showcases the environment in some fashion. It is admittedly somewhat simple due to it's stark black airspace, but it does add to making everything feel as epic & mysterious as the War itself is. As for the use of the Star System, FnK does mix things up a little bit. Kojirou does have elements of RnK's Ryuji Takane, who would be the main inspiration for Pegasus Seiya, but there are also bits of RnK's Ishimatsu Katori in the lead as well, both in design & his more sarcastic & quickly agitated attitude. Musashi does look a little like Jun Kenzaki, with both being confident warriors in terms of attitude, & the face generally attributed to Andromeda Shun in Saint Seiya actually first appeared in FnK by way of Kirikaze (though their personalities are completely different). Ryoma actually comes off as a real one-of-a-kind design by having his scarred eye, & it's interesting to see a giant like Ryuho be one of the main recurring characters in a Kurumada manga; he sadly doesn't do much, but it's more than most Kurumada giants ever get.

Fuma no Kojirou is probably the Masami Kurumada manga that I have the most conflicted feelings about. Conceptually, there's a lot to really like about it, with each story arc having at least one or two cool ideas behind each of them that manages to make them appealing in some way. The Yasha Chapter showcases some really cool ninja techniques, and the concept of ninja that don't look anything like the typical stereotype does work here by way of the gakuran-style outfits. I do think that FnK was at least some sort of influence to the idea of ninja being garbed in non-traditional fashions, especially in later Jump manga about ninja like Ninku or even Naruto. The Sacred Sword War Chapter is not just the best part of this manga, but it's one of my all-time favorite stories from Kurumada. The 10 Sacred Swords all have something cool about them & just ooze style & personality on their own, and the general feel & mood of the arc really feels like a precursor to what Kurumada would become world-renowned for with Saint Seiya. Interestingly enough, though, I don't think a story arc done in the same fashion as the Sacred Sword War could ever be duplicated nowadays, at least in Shonen Jump. A lot of what makes it work, both in terms of the fights & the themes, just seem so impossible to be given editorial approval now. It could only have been made in the early-80s by a man who likely had a lot of leeway given to him by that time, since his prior work was such a tent pole for the magazine he worked for. The Fuma Rebellion may be stymied by its short length, but it's nigh "Kill 'em All" nature makes it neat to read, if only because it, too, would likely never be given a greenlight now.

At the same time, however, Fuma no Kojirou is not one of Masami Kurumada's strongest work. The Yasha Chapter suffers mainly from thrusting all of the Yasha's Eight Generals into the fray at the same time. Unlike Ring ni Kakero before it, or Saint Seiya or B't X after it, not every Yasha is given a real, dedicated fight, making most of them feel kind of unimportant. It does feel more ninja-like in that regard, as most of the skirmishes rely on the element of surprise, but it does lessen the entertainment. The Sacred Sword War Chapter's major flaw mainly comes from the fact that it could have easily been greatly expanded upon. Soushi & Sigma could have been given even a little bit of backstory, while the Chaos warriors could have been given a little more to work with; Oz is literally introduced right before the battles on the Holy Land begin. Considering how strong this story arc is, I would have loved to have seen more done with it. As for the Fuma Rebellion, it's main flaw is its length, as it kind of felt like Kurumada just wanted to give the manga an ending that at least had some actual resolution to it. The manga does end with a sense that it could always continue, which it finally did in 2003 with the sequel Fuma no Kojirou: Yagyu Ansatsucho, but in 2006 that title went into hiatus & is effectively dead. So much for that, I guess.

Still, I do overall find Fuma no Kojirou enjoyable, though I actually do prefer it in anime form via the OVAs (& the live-action version for the Yasha Chapter), as they remove the pointless elements (like Kojirou helping every Hakuo sports team out & Cruz Ryouin's entire involvement) while adding some extra touches that improve things. There's no denying that it truly is "Masami Kurumada's Fourth-Most-Well-Known Manga," but I would still love to see this series with an English translation. Outside of the first OVA episode, which was a one-shot fansub, this series has absolutely no translation, though it supposedly was translated in some fashion during the old VHS trading days of the 90s. While it may not be quite as good as Ring ni Kakero, Saint Seiya, or B't X, though the Sacred Sword War puts up an amazing fight, Fuma no Kojirou still isn't a bad titles my any means; it's flawed, but when it hits the right notes it's good enough.

Still, why did this manga end when it did, especially if it was popular for its time? The Sacred Sword War in particular had numerous pages which indicated that they were originally done in color, which is only done for successful titles in Jump, so why did Kurumada seemingly rush through the Fuma Rebellion? Well, I think it had something to do with what came next. You see, ever since he started doing manga in 1974, Masami Kurumada had one particular title in mind that he wanted to draw, but he obviously didn't want to actually start making it until he felt he was truly ready. It would take until his 10th year as a mangaka until he finally felt ready to make it, and since he had strong clout with Shueisha due to RnK's success, he was probably allowed to end Fuma no Kojirou whenever he wanted. What followed up this tale of ninja?

A manga that would go down in Jump infamy... But that's a story for another post, later this month.

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