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  • Ninja
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3.2 out of 5 stars
3.2 out of 5 stars
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on 19 January 2013
Straddling the line between historical excavation and travel writing, John Man's book Ninja is initially beguiling, in sections intriguing, but also a little frustrating in its attempts to weave a cohesive narrative around the historical Ninja and its exoticised Western counterpart. Because the actual historical records surrounding Ninjitsu are seemingly thin on the ground, originating around the 14th to 16th century, Man opens his book by considering several 'Ninja-like' escapades from early Japanese history, then seguing into an analysis of the actual historical Ninjas, before closing on the actions of the 'Ninja-like' spy schools in the early 20th century and the 'Ninja-like' actions of Hiroo Onoda, a WWII Japanese intelligence officer who carried out asymmetric warfare in the Philippines until the 1970s. Man's thesis is that the history of Ninjitsu is obscured by the modern 'myth' of the Ninja, and this historical Japanese faction embodied an ethos for survival, warfare, and a life philosophy that is missed by the cultural tropes enshrined in pop interpretations such as Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (characters that get something of a short shrift in the book).

Having bought a book ostensibly about the real historical Ninjas, I found the initial 'scene-setting' of the embryonic Ninjas of Japan's past to be quite interesting, but some of the later chapters set after the demise of the historical Ninja seem to me to be linked only by the author's assessment of what might or might not count as the inheritors of the mantle of true 'Ninjitsu' (certainly, Hiroo Onoda's discovery in the Philippino mountains by a college dropout hippy who was looking for him, a panda, and The Abominable Snowman seems most un-Ninja like, to my undoubtedly biased western eyes). In addition, the latter chapters spend some time discussing the Western cultural tropes of Ninjitsu as popularised by the Bond movie You Only Live Twice [DVD] [1967], but do a rather haphazard job, completely missing out the role that studios like Cannon films had in cementing the Ninja myth in the pop culture of the 1980s (indeed American Ninja [DVD] has a character loosely based on Hiroo Onoda). I appreciate that Man wasn't focusing on these cultural myths exclusively, but a book purporting to tell the story of a 1000 years of the Shadow Warriors missed out a large part of why Western readers may be interested in the book in the first place: because of the (hundreds of) Ninja movies of the 1980s.

Finally, the modern Japanese claimants of the Ninja mantle, including Masaaki Hatsumi (and his master Toshitsugu Takamatsu) appear and disappear over a few pages, and whilst it seems uncontroversial to assert that their claims to authenticity are disputed, it would have been good to have spent some time with the Bujinkan Organisation and explored the appeal of their brand of Ninjitsu to their followers. (The post-modern cynic in me wondered if the only thing separating the historical stories of the past and the alleged fairy tales of Takamatsu was a large period of time, or put another way, it is easier to check the accuracy of the more up-to-date accounts of the adherents of Togakure-Ryu than it is to verify the historical veracity of the manuscripts of 500 years ago.)

Ultimately this book is not a PhD thesis or a martial art manual; it is book that means to entertain as well as inform, and Man largely succeeds on this front. In the end though, I suspect that the historical Ninja has remained mostly invisible to scholars and authors like Man, requiring them to infer their shapes in the shadows.
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on 2 February 2014
Apparently John Man doesn't speak Japanese, although he does have some of the Far Eastern languages. This is perhaps why this book felt stilted (to me). I felt I was constantly awaiting a revelation which never came. There is some interesting material on Ninjas. And some interesting history about the Shogun period of Japanese history. But somehow the Ninjas were never central to events.

His Ghenghis Khan is fab.
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on 4 June 2014
My copy, a paperback has 272 pages. Roughly 30 of which actually concern Ninja.
The remainder are a travel writers attempt at narrative of Japanese history at the time when the Ninja were most productive.

As an example, each chapter begins with a short phrase from the Bansensukai, a Ninja instructional manual, but the chapters lead us on an ephemeral trope through episodes of Japanese history which are neither well researched or emotionally captivating.

If you want to read about Ninja, I would not recommend this book.

If you want to read about Japanese history, I would not recommend this book.

If you want to read about Japanese historical sites for the purpose of obtaining travel information, I would not recommend this book.
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If there's one factual author out there that for me does not only cracking research but brings the subject matter to the reader in a friendly and accessible way, then that author is John Man. Here in his latest outing he delves into the myths and legends of perhaps one of the most fantastical sects to ever walk the earth, especially when you look at the myths that still ride high in today's films and fiction.

Within the title he explores the truth, brings it together with stories to help back up the viewpoints and adds another layer with a realistic bent to the often misaligned warriors. It's addictive reading and when rediscovered through modern eyes brings the whole thing vividly to life as you see the acorn from which the great oak sprang from ancient times right up to the second world war.

All in a cracking read and one that I'll be dipping into time and again. Great stuff and if you're an author a wonderful research material that will have you brimming with idea's time and again.
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on 8 June 2013
A knowledgeable and sympathetic work by an author who has gone to great lengths to discover what he knows:and freely share it.
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on 15 April 2013
How can you take seriously, a man who claiming to be a historian, does not even know what a kusarigama is, and states it out loud on a major radio station?

That was enough to put me right off this book.
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