I’ve always been a sucker of sorts for shinobi or ninja-based series. Rurouni Kenshin was my first love in that regard, as I quickly fell in love with the weird, diverse cast of characters, Kenshin’s code of honor and ever-present desire to help and protect those in need, as well as the flashy swordplay and sword arts, moves, and styles. For a young Tofu, it was absolute heaven. Other series caught my eye similarly – Naruto was an early favorite, for instance. Between the hype that came from watching it as it aired and the ever-present escalation and new uses of interesting and powerful jutsu, the show had me hooked. As I grew older and branched out beyond the shonen genre, I found myself deep in the throes of shows such as Samurai Champloo, which took the idea of warriors embodying the idea of the samurai I had come to love and re-positioning it in a way I had up until then not seen.
Not all first loves last, though.
For a long time, I can’t really say that I watched many shinobi/samurai/ninja-themed anime. I had watched many of those shows because they were what I grew up with, and what was readily available on Toonami or shady streaming sites in the early to mid 2000’s. But having shows like Rurouni Kenshin and Naruto be my gateways into anime pretty solidly set my watching trajectory going forward – I ate up the other contenders in the Big 3, Bleach and One Piece, as much as I could, and if I caught wind of some other shonen battle anime, I’d sink my teeth right in. While it was things like swords, jutsu, and other flashy battle bits that brought me into anime as a whole, it only sustained me for so long. Eventually, everything felt like it was bleeding together for me, and before I knew it, I had dropped off of anime, for the most part. I hadn’t been all that deep into anime through the latter years of high school, largely because my love of video games had been keeping pace with – and eventually surpassed – my love of anime.
Around 2012 or so, I got into watching seasonal anime, and everything I thought I knew about anime changed. I found shows like Psycho-Pass, Hyouka, Kill la Kill, and Silver Spoon – it was a glorious, diverse field of new possibilities for anime, and I was hooked. For various reasons, whether it be a lack of shows that resembled the older shows, or because I simply didn’t like what was available, I didn’t watch many shows like the ones I loved in my childhood.
Honestly, I hadn’t thought about my lack of samurai and shinobi shows at all until recently. I’d look back on my childhood favorites fondly, of course, but that’s where they stayed. However, there have been some shows that have fallen into this category and reignited my fervor for this genre of old Japanese swordplay and wild, supernatural styles of combat – Demon Slayer, for instance, is scratching my itch for wild and flashy sword styles week in and week out, and Dororo is here for all of my simple swords-against-demons needs, sans the magic blade elements. I’ve loved coming back and seeing shows like them bring the style of show I enjoyed as a kid back in style, and really, it’s interesting to consider why I liked those shows so much. Despite how different all of these shows were, old and new, I was drawn to them at different points in my life and have loved them all for their own reasons.
Part of my fascination with these shows as a child definitely stemmed from the fact that they were so unlike anything else I had been watching at the time. Although I loved staple cartoons and shows of the late 90’s and early 2000’s that aired on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, the small bits of anime that I was able to get had such a different feeling to them. Having grown up hating my home state of West Virginia (which I have since come to adore in recent years), I wanted something, anything different that would transport me to somewhere new. And admittedly, watching Naruto as it was airing, I wanted to see part of myself in Naruto, as well – a kid breaking free of his boundaries and becoming a better version of himself, even though he has a lot of personal hurdles to get over. Well over a decade after this, I find myself still watching and loving anime, but it’s a different relationship that I have with it now. Watching and reading these series has become something that I genuinely love, not as an escape, but as a storytelling form that is still unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.
About a month ago, I found myself reading two new manga in the vein of those shows I loved so much in the past have debuted in Shonen Jump in the last month – Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru and Tokyo Shinobi Squad. It was an interesting time to find these, as I had been thinking a lot about what I’ve been talking about here so far. Going into these, then, I was pretty delighted to see two new series about samurai and shinobi getting some time in the shonen limelight. Samurai 8 tells the story of a futuristic society where samurai are now warriors gifted with cybernetic bodies, and while the initial concept of the manga is somewhat interesting, what it most has going for it right now is its pedigree – it’s the newest manga venture from Masashi Kishimoto (author of Naruto), with art by his long-time assistant Akira Okubo. On the flip side of things, Tokyo Shinobi Squad is a first for both newcomers Yuki Tanaka (story) and Kento Matsuura (art), examining a dystopian cyberpunk version of Tokyo, with shinobi that are designed to match the futuristic setting. Individually, both of these series take these old warrior types that I loved so much as a kid, that of the samurai and the ninja, and have tweaked them to fit into futuristic settings in their own unique ways.
Samurai 8’s emphasis on the mix of both samurai and technology as a mishmash of cultures and ideas is pretty dang cool, conceptually speaking. I loved watching this young kid who was confined to a medical machine be reborn as a cyborg samurai and try to find his way in a weird world he has not had the opportunity to enjoy before, and the general ideas behind future samurai codes of honor, how they factor into the lore of the story’s universe, and his weird seeming liminal space between the past and the far future fascinated me as I was reading the first few chapters.
Tokyo Shinobi Squad also had me interested in its techno-future version of shinobi in the first two chapters or so, though instead of it being a far-flung future in space, the series instead takes us to the not-too-far-off future of 2049, where shinobi act as peacekeepers of sorts to combat the rising seedy underbelly of Tokyo. The ninja arts are still very much considered an art in the way that you would consider them as such in other ninja-centric series, though many of these abilities synergize with the futuristic setting of the manga, resulting in abilities like the manipulation of gravity, or the pulling of iron from one’s blood to suit a variety of purposes. In short, it’s less like creating clones of oneself or abilities that manipulate the senses, but more like weaponry to suit a futuristic urban battlefield. It definitely feels as though it’s borrowing from its shonen battle predecessors, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Reading through those two series, I do find myself enjoying them, but there’s nothing about them that have really captured me. They’re kind of fun, and they’re goofy at times, and they both definitely feel like they belong in a shonen manga magazine, which is all well and good, but they’ve also got some clear issues, or at least points that, to me, does not have them settle well on my palate. For instance, while Samurai 8 is a good romp of fun to read, it’s incredibly exposition-heavy from the get-go, and much of the art in the initial chapters, while fascinating in style, feels cramped at times. At the same time, it’s also difficult to not feel like I’m reading a weird imitation of Naruto (though I know that this is, in large part, due to my own sense of nostalgia getting in the way). Tokyo Shinobi Squad suffers from a few heavy infodumps, as well, in addition to some unsettling, isolationist assertions about foreigners bringing crime, drugs, and other unseemly things into Japan. On the point of the infodumps, though, I’m more than willing to give both of these series a pass on it, as they’re new manga with a lot of time and space to develop – I’ll chalk these up to growing pains that some new series must go through.
Part of me wonders if I would have really taken to Samurai 8 or Tokyo Shinobi Squad as a young Tofu in the same way I did Rurouni Kenshin, Samurai Champloo, or Naruto. Genuinely, I really wanted these series to be fun and exciting, and to see some interesting stuff come out of Shonen Jump that might someday be a new entry into the Big 3, but I think that, more than anything, I saw these manga, and hoped that somewhere within them I’d see a flash of what I did as a kid. Of course, these are unrealistic expectations that these series could not possibly meet, particularly because I’m really not engaging with anime and manga in the same way that I did when I was a kid. These stories aren’t ones that I go into hoping to find a sense of escape, or an attempt to identify with someone or something.
There are definitely a lot of people that do love these two series and are on the edge of their seat for each new chapter – a quick Google search or a look in the comments on the chapters themselves on Shonen Jump’s website will tell you as much – and I’m happy that they have found something that they deeply enjoy in these stories. I guess that, as a whole, it’s just odd to see the torch of these shows I loved as a kid be taken up by series that resemble them, but are decidedly not them. But that’s part of how these things go – people who grew up with one particular version of entertainment or popular media often approach newcomers to the scene with apprehension, or a sense of confusion. It’s things like this that make me remember the obvious: I’m literally reading series in Shonen Jump. I am not the target demographic here. I am not a middle schooler borrowing the physical issues of this magazine from my friends at school when they had finished reading them because my parents wouldn’t let me get a subscription to it. Were I a young tween reading these series, I wouldn’t be thinking about the deeper ideas of isolationist rhetoric or about the concept of info-dumps and heavy exposition – a younger Tofu didn’t even know what the word “exposition” meant.
So honestly, I might not be on the edge of my seat for these new series, and that’s okay. Sometimes, you find that your first love really was a fleeting memory, and that the past is where it will stay.
And that’s okay.