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Honestly, what is the fascination with ninjas? Moving away from manga; the image of a shinobi, shrouded in shadow while carrying out assassinations, is extremely common in both games and movies. Although some of the more famous modern warriors of the night, like Ryu Hayabusa, are about as realistic as Batman, shinobi definitely form part of Japan's history.
A ninja existed to not be seen. This does not necessarily mean that they would put on their blackest garb to lurk in the shadows, as hiding in plain sight can be more effective. After all, most of them were not trained assassins but spies who specialized in the collection of information. The majority did not fight with samurai swords, or shuriken, but instead utilized the latest available technology of the time.
Although the upcoming mangas might not be all that accurate, we cannot deny that they are a blast to read. Here are the top 10 Ninja Manga.
10. A Bat in a Blue Sky (Souten no Koumori)
- Mangaka: Arakawa, Hiromu
- Genre: Action, Historical, Martial Arts, Seinen
- Volumes: 1
- Published Date: 2006
A one-off manga, A Bat in a Blue Sky expertly tells a complete story within a measly 63 pages. The shinobi warrior, Henpukumaru, awakens in the mansion of a powerful lord and is introduced to his son, Chiyozuru, who will be the next master. As this is such a short story, adding any further information would spoil it. In lieu of that limitation, it can be said that Souten no Koumori successfully incorporates an intrigue back story for the protagonist, a capable antagonist, and enough character development for the majority of the cast.
As Arakawa includes so much content in such a short page count, the frantic pacing does not allow for any degree of subtlety. The vivid art style, while not necessarily flashy, presents the few violent sword fights with grit and clarity. Honestly, A Bat in a Blue Sky is the perfect entry level manga, as it encapsulates the majority of the themes and elements seen in most long running series.
- Mangaka: Koyama, Yū
- Genre: Action, Drama, Historical, Martial Arts, Mature, Seinen, Tragedy
- Volumes: 48
- Published Date: 1994 – 2009
Set after the Sengoku civil war, Azumi follows a young woman who forms part of an elite assassination team. They are tasked with disposing of warlords that might threaten Japan's newfound peace. The relatively long manga chronicles the various missions that the group, and Azumi herself, carry out. This is a violent and unflinching series, one that raises moral questions about the justification of murder. This is all brought to life with an art style that does not shy away from depicting the assassinations in painstakingly clear detail.
Azumi herself is a rather dull character, as she rarely struggles with the dilemma of whether her actions are right or wrong. Although she might not be the most interesting person to follow, Koyama has managed to create a truly unique protagonist. Azumi has no desires or attachments, she exists to go on missions and she goes on missions to be allowed to exist. Yet, she continuously survives perilous situations while passionate men, and women, with something to protect are the ones discarded.
8. Be Heun
- Mangaka: Youngchan, Hwang (Art), Jaehan, Jung (Story)
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Historical, Martial Arts, Seinen
- Volumes: 1
- Published Date: 2009 - 2013
Released as a webtoon, Be Heun is set in the aftermath of the Three Kingdoms of Korea war, which saw three factions battle it out for the rule of the entire country. Once the bloodshed had ceased, the nation of Silla reigned supreme and only remnants remained of the Goguryeo and Baekje armies. Be Heun, also known as The Black Wolf, operated away from the front lines and carried out missions for the Baekje nation. With the war now at an end, this deadly assassin attempts to live in peace under the watchful eye of the Silla empire.
Youngchan's manga deals with smaller scale stories, as the immediately likable main character jumps from one gig to another. Since it is a webtoon, the art style is simplistic, clean, and colorful; with artist Jaehan making good use of exaggerated facial expressions to add an element of comedy. One of the main themes is the need to accept your current situation and to be able to move on, so the majority of the story deals with characters that are either attempting to run away from their past actions or trying to craft a new way of living.
- Mangaka: Shirato, Sanpei
- Genre: Action, Historical, Martial Arts, Seinen
- Volumes: 21
- Published Date: 1964 - 1971
Admittedly, this comic is near impossible to find nowadays, but the original Kamui-Den remains a vital release that spawned a variety of sequels over the years. Besides a direct follow-up series entitled Kamui-Den Dai 2 Bu, the well known Kamui Gaiden is a continuation of Kamui-Den. Set in 17th century Japan, Shirato incorporates a large amount of social commentary and Marxist teachings into a historical narrative about a low-born ninja who attempts to flee his clan.
Due to the original series never receiving an English translation, it has largely been forgotten. Still, it is worth studying as an example of the Gekiga art style, which gained prominence in the 1950s. Manga was largely used for comedic purposes, with the term literally translating to humorous pictures, so Gekiga provided an adult alternative for the time. The stories published tend to present the struggles of the common man, with realism being the preferred art style.
6. Shinobi no Kuni
- Mangaka: Banno, Mutsumi (Art), Wada, Ryou (Story)
- Genre: Action, Historical, Shounen
- Volumes: 4
- Published Date: 2009 - 2011
Shinobi no Kuni might not offer a lot in the way of surprises, but few series can match the glorious over-the-top ninja mayhem seen in this manga. Adapted from a novel by Wada Ryou, the action takes the reader back to 16th century Japan; right in the middle of Nobunaga Oda's rampage through the country, as he aims to unite it under his rule. The only remaining obstacle, and one that even the great Nobunaga fears, is the province of Iga and their infamous ninjas.
Shinobi no Kuni starts off as a relatively straightforward shounen series, with a strong main character and a heavy focus on humor and destruction. The crisp art style makes it a pleasure to read, even though some panels do have a bit too much going on. About halfway through, there is a twist and the story opens up to allow for a few other points of view to emerge. Suddenly, what originally was a black and white narrative, begins to ask considerably grayer questions.
Unfortunately, a rushed conclusion ends the series on a slightly negative note. Still, while it lasted, Shinobi no Kuni was one hell of a ride!
- Mangaka: Kishimoto, Masashi
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Martial Arts, Shounen, Super Power
- Volumes: 72
- Published Date: 1999 - 2010
Of course, Naruto is here. No article listing ninja-based manga, or anime, can avoid mentioning Kishimoto's juggernaut series. Love or hate it, Naruto is synonymous with shinobi. It defined the genre and will be remembered as one of the biggest comics of all time. Its popularity outside of Japan rivals Dragon Ball Z, and only One Piece eclipsed it within its home country.
Detested by his fellow villagers and not the greatest of ninjas, Naruto dreams of one day being crowned the Hokage for the Hidden Leaf Village. Partnered with the aloof Sasuke and the popular Sakura, Naruto undergoes many trials and tribulations, as he learns the art of ninjutsu and slowly begins to uncover the hidden secret behind his upbringing.
Kishimoto is, obviously, a capable artist and a fantastic storyteller. Despite the incredible amount of released volumes, it is only towards the end of the series that the plot begins to lose some of its momentum. With a fantastic array of colorful characters, Naruto definitely earned its impressive reputation.
4. Lone Wolf & Cub (Kozure Ookami)
- Mangaka: Koike, Kazuo (Story), Kojima, Goseki (Art)
- Genre: Action, Historical, Samurai, Seinen
- Volumes: 28
- Published Date: 1970 - 1976
In the world of manga, Kozure Ookami should require no introduction. Although many well-loved series have been published, some gaining worldwide recognition that surpasses this grim tale about a wandering samurai and his son, none can match the literary importance of Koike's manga. With the original Japanese version being published in the 70s; in 1987, First Comics started to distribute an English adaptation. After the company went bust in 2001, Dark Horse took up to the mantle to bring over the entire story of Lone Wolf & Cub. Legendary western artist Frank Miller even lent his hand to illustrate a cover or two.
From the very first panel, it is near impossible to not be blown away by Kojima's gorgeous drawings. The amount of emotion shown within each frame, especially in some of the more hectic moments, immediately draws the reader into this universe. The plot follows a wrongly accused executioner, Ittou Ogami, as he wanders the country in pursuit of revenge. With his young son by his side, he recreates himself as an assassin for hire and seeks to take down the ones responsible for his humiliation.
3. Tsuki no Shippo
- Mangaka: Ueda, Rinko
- Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Historical, Romance, Shoujo
- Volumes: 15
- Published Date: 2003 - 2007
What is the typical shinobi manga? If left to one's imagination; the first image would be that of a lone warrior, as he travels around the country in search of redemption, or a reason to live. An element of the supernatural might be included, but as long as there is some bloody sword action: it's all good! Tsuki no Shippo does not meet these expectations. In fact, it is a shoujo series that centers around a lead character who could not give less of a damn about being a master ninja. No, the 15-year-old Usagi just wants to get married.
Despite coming from a prestigious bloodline and being raised in a ninja village, Usagi simply does not have a knack for it. Lazy by nature, she would often fake a stomachache to get out of training and is still considered a novice. When her grandfather realizes that this is the best she can do, he sends her off to get married to a neighboring Lord, with the crucial mission of having all of his babies. Unfortunately, she is rejected by Lord Hanzo but decides to remain as his apprentice anyway.
2. Blade of the Immortal (Mugen No Juunin)
- Mangaka: Hiroaki, Samura
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Historical, Mature, Martial Arts, Seinen
- Volumes: 30
- Published Date: 1993 - 2012
One of the more popular shinobi-related manga, Blade of the Immortal follows the adventures of a cursed samurai named Manji. After he inadvertently causes the death of a hundred samurai and his sister, Manji gains immortality from an 800-year-old nun and vows to kill 1000 criminals, as an act of redemption. His body was injected with these strange creatures, described as bloodworms, that heal any injury and allow Manji to continue on his path.
Manji is far from your typical protagonist, as his samurai skills are nothing to particularly write home about. The only reason that he has been able to survive is due to the incredible advantage he has over his opponents. Hiroaki's decade-spanning manga tackles themes dealing with the meaning of life and death, and the resulting consequences once the latter is removed. With four main story arcs and even an anime adaptation, there is a lot for action fans to enjoy here.
1. Shinobi Life
- Mangaka: Konami, Shouko
- Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Historical, Martial Arts, Romance, Shoujo
- Volumes: 13
- Published Date: 2006 -2012
It exists! A manga about ninjas set in modern Japan! Beni Fujiwara has a death wish. She blames her father for her mother's death and spends her days searching for a way to be killed so she can lay the blame on her father. Her twisted mentality reflects her disjointed personality, as somehow, she is simultaneously introverted and outgoing. At school, she can barely make a friend, but she does not hesitate to push others around and confront her father. One day, she falls off the roof of a tall building and is saved by a time-traveling ninja.
It is no easy feat to describe Shinobi Life in a way that does it justice. In most situations, you'd just recommend reading the first chapter. Yet, that might actually put someone off from continuing Konami's manga. In the beginning, the story is frankly hard to follow, as too much happens way too quickly. The character introductions are handled rather haphazardly and the time-traveling plot device is not really expanded on for the first few chapters. This is done intentionally, so the confusion experienced by the reader reflects that of the cast, but it is still a challenge to get through.
Once the manga hits its stride, this quirky shoujo quickly transforms into one of the most emotionally captivating and exciting series available. Beni and her personal ninja, Kagetora, are both fascinating characters, and Konami's unique style makes them instantly recognizable. With each new chapter released, we could not help but wonder which new time period they would visit and what adventure awaits them.
Stories centered around the ninja lifestyle are not going away anytime soon. They depict an era of history that is ripe for creative inspiration, while allowing for a great degree of liberties to be taken. Sure, some do seem to hit the same plot points or similar character archetypes, but as long as they are still done well, why should we complain?
What is your favorite shinobi manga? Or which do you believe could benefit the most from an anime adaptation? Please let us know in the comment section below.