Monday, 7 September 2015

Book Review: Samurai and Ninja by Antony Cummins

This is another one of those "saw in the library and had to borrow it" sort of books. And after reading it, well, I want my own copy.

Unlike the previous ninja-related book I read, The Kouga Ninja Scrolls,  Samurai and Ninja is neither a novel, nor does it take an idealistic/unrealistic view of ninja/samurai. Instead, the book tries to strip away the misconceptions that most of us hold about these two groups of warriors, and tries to give us an accurate picture of what they are.

The book is broken into four parts. The first part basically just tries to get rid of all those mistaken impressions we've gotten from movies and books (like the Kouga Ninja Scrolls, I suppose). The second and third parts, which actually make up the bulk of the book, focus on the samurai and ninja respectively. The last part is about how the author is trying to resurrect the samurai and ninja school Natori-ryu.

It sounds weird, but what convinced me that the author knows his stuff is was how he kept trying to avoid generalisations. Apart from the fact that samurai and ninja changed as time went on, he also took great pains to emphasise that not all samurai and ninja were the same. Some were richer than others, some were hired in plain sight, and some were hired in secret, etc.

Since I'm not very familiar with the samurai and ninja world, a lot of this was new to me. I found the skills of the ninja interesting, and the translations of the Japanese texts were fascinating (and also, I still can't read them. I guess it's a sign to study ancient Japanese?). But the most surprising thing I learnt was that the samurai were headhunters. And that heads could be used to divine the future. The section of head-hunting was pretty detailed, like how they cut of the head, what they did with it, the five types of heads, etc. I was reading it on the train, so hopefully no one thought I was planning to revive that particular aspect of the samurai.

Basically, this book is very accessible, and I think a really good introduction into the world of samurai and ninja. If I ever write a story featuring them, you can bet that I'll buy this book as reference. Or maybe I'll just buy it because it's interesting.

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