Saturday, November 19, 2016

5 Anime I Like That You Should, Too - #3. One Outs (2008)

Based on: the manga by Shinobu Kaitani. 1998-2006.
Claim to fame: Insanely homoerotic opening credits.
Dubbed: Sadly, no.
Subject: Baseball.

Not since the high school football anime Eyeshield 21 have I ever felt so cheated about not getting a proper adaptation of a series. I'm still undecided on which was worse: that Eyeshield 21 had 145 episodes of censorship + watering down Yusuke Murata's artwork + long, drawn-out filler-rama that progressively meanders to Nowhere'sville; or that in 145 episodes the Devilbats never fulfilled their goal of getting to the Christmas Bowl even though they get there, totally win, and their journey there is fuckin' sweet. (Come on, that's not even a spoiler at this point.)

"Wait, what are you doing, Beck?" you ask as you look back at the title of this post. "What about One Outs?" Similar to Eyeshield 21, the characters of One Outs also play a sport hugely popular in America (American football vs. baseball); have a seemingly impossible end goal championship game (Christmas Bowl vs. pennant); and are also comprised of a group of generally low-ranked underdogs (Deimon Devilbats vs. Saitama Lycoans). They have one super-talented semi-stoic dude (kicker Musashi vs. ace batter Kojima), a kind-hearted naive catcher guy voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi (Monta vs. Ideguchi), and a wicked fan-favorite motherfucker with crazy bleached hair whose underhanded schemes improve the performance of the players as well as keep the team whole and running (quarterback Hiruma vs. pitcher Tokuchi). And like Eyeshield 21, the manga version reaches the end game while the anime ends prematurely.

"So, why would I want to watch this?" you say. "Also, why do you keep writing dialogue for me?" Well, One Outs--even partially adapted--is still bad-ass. The fact that this is only a partial adaptation means you have no excuse to not watch it. It's like watching The Matrix and saying "well, he didn't liberate all mankind yet so fuck this movie." And like The Matrix taught us, sometimes it's better not to continue shit. Anyway, it's not as if I'm recommending Eyeshield 21. There's only 25 episodes of One Outs. And another benefit of only being 25 episodes means every episode progresses the story. Like one of my other recommendations--Initial D: First Stage--One Outs still feels like a full story with a beginning, middle, and end. Only someone who knows zilch about baseball would expect them to win the championship at the conclusion of 25 episodes. Now that I'm three paragraphs in, maybe I should write about the show itself, eh?

Kojima and Tokuchi chillaxing in the dugout.

I know I keep making Eyeshield comparisons, so let's get to where they differ. Firstly, what this and actually every show on my "5 Anime" list have in common is that none of them are centered on high school kiddy bullshit. Initial D had high school kids in high school, but it centered more on the racing and had several adult characters. We never had to sit in class with the main character or go to a school festival or something shitty like that. Akagi starred a young boy but every other character is an adult, including Akagi himself once the timeskip kicks in. The Saitama Lycoans are a pro baseball team. Ace hitter Kojima has been on the team for 21 years. Even if every show on my list primarily focuses on younger men (several racers in Initial D are in their early twenties, Akagi is 19 after the timeskip, One Outs' Tokuchi Toua is 20, and characters in the last two shows on my list are also early twenties), that's a small price to pay to not be in a damn high school.

Secondly, there is no stammering doormat protag in the form of a Sena counterpart. The star of the show is undoubtedly this guy: Tokuchi Toua. Tokuchi's not a baseball player. He knows the game and he can throw deceptive pitches, but he is a gambler at heart and uses his pitching talents to earn illegal wads of cash. The funny thing is that his pitching isn't even that spectacular. His batting is passable but not great. He's not a super-fast runner. His stamina for an actual game is shit. But Tokuchi uses his sharp wits and smart mouth to make things go his way and I love him for it.

Let's get to the meat: One Outs starts out with two guys from the Saitama Lycoans pro baseball team looking for a replacement pitcher after one of them hurts his widdle finger while training in Okinawa. They meet a woman called Big Mama (nice name) who takes them to a bunch of--mostly American--dudes gambling in the dark of night at a baseball field. They then proceed to gamble. This is not a great start.

I bet you can't guess which one's Big Mama.

There's nothing more grating than a show that begins with what are basically throwaway characters and makes us spend too much goddamn time with them. Now, these guys aren't true throwaways in the sense we never see them again. I'll call them Nakane and Glasses, because I'm pretty sure one of them was named Nakane and I'll be damned if I remember the name of the one with glasses. Neither one is all that important. In retrospect, we should've had Kojima and catcher Ideguchi as the ones who look for a new pitcher because Kojima and Ideguchi are the two members of the team that kinda become Tokuchi's boys. They keep secrets with him and strategize privately with him and it just seemed like having them meet Tokuchi first makes the most sense. If I recall correctly, the anime even improved on the manga because I don't think Nagane and Glasses were even on the main team and the anime made their roles stronger. To make another Matrix comparison, it'd be like opening the movie with Apoc and Switch instead of Trinity and Cypher. The latter two were waaay more important to the story so using them made the most impact and the most sense. But I digress.

This is the part of the show where it'll probably lose you if you didn't already leave while Tokuchi was flying around shirtless in the OP. Nagane, Glasses, and Big Mama have all sorts of conversations which just sounds like a bunch of prattle. "This is why you Japaneseses lose at teh gamblings. Blah blah blah." This show can get so damn verbose and over-explainy that your brain tunes it out automatically. It is heavy in the beginning and just when you think you're out of the woods, someone's explaining something else. Sometimes even with diagrams.

Explanation of the One Outs gambling game.

In rewatching the show, I can absorb what they're saying and it makes sense but upon my first viewing, it just felt like characters were talking just to hear one another speak. It's a problem that resurfaces and if you're not a viewer that can handle wordy explanations, this might not be for you. The good thing about the explanations tho' is that they definitely guide the baseball novices. The viewer certainly can't complain that the show never told them what's what.

Another reason the beginning might lose you is that it takes too long to get to the damn point, the point being getting Tokuchi Toua on the team and playing his special brand of baseball. Nakane and Glasses lose a bunch of money, Kojima comes to defend their honor or whatever, Kojima loses, Kojima rechallenges Tokuchi and only then does Tokuchi join the Lycoans.  All that shit takes three episodes with things not really up and running until episode 4. It's not boring by any means but it's the weak part of the series and when I rewatch this show, I typically start with episode 4 for that very reason.

Episode 3 is still important for first time viewing since it does a lot of the set-up. Tokuchi joins under strange conditions: the One Outs contract. He makes an arrangement for compensation with the team owner by using the number of outs, with the contract getting alterations as the games progress. While the anime unfortunately doesn't get the point where this all explodes spectacularly in the owner's face, we still get to see that bastard lose his shit.

One quality that really makes the show a favorite of mine is that sometimes Tokuchi resorts to deceptively simple trickery to get results. It almost felt like he was teaching me something to use in my everyday life. A single heard sentence or a single white bandage can completely change the outcome of a game. It was this show that got me jonesing for anime that use psychological solutions but Akagi was the only one that came close to what I was looking for. (Coincidentally, or not, Tokuchi, Akagi, and Kaiji are all voiced by the same guy: Masato Hagiwara.)  

Maybe it's just me but a lot of the time when a show or movie (anime, live action, whatever) tries to be "smart," it turns out to be this over-elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque mess of a plot.  From Episode 4 onwards, we got into game after game. Can the Lycoans beat the Mariner's awesome clean-up roster?  Can the Lycoans overcome Dennis Johnson's godlike speed?  Do the Lycoans have any hope against an entire team of dirty cheaters that will use every trick in the book? Of course, but the fun is finding out how, so pick this series up and enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

5 Anime I Like That You Should, Too - #2. Akagi (2005)

Based on: the manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto. 1992-present.
Claim to fame: Is this the only thing selling Kindai Mahjong for the past twenty-four years?
Dubbed: Nope.
Subject: Japanese Mahjong.

So... some preliminaries to get outta the way here. This show is technically called アカギ 〜闇に降り立った天才〜 which translates into "Akagi: The Genius Who Descended into Darkness."  Or at least this is what Wikipedia has told me. That's one long-ass name. The guy in the picture is Akagi Shigeru and he's the star of this shindig. Is he a genius? That's probably up for debate. I mean, if he were a genius, I'd think he have better things to do than keep courting that death wish he's had since puberty. Also, being a "genuis" has neither relied on luck and coincidence as much as it does here. However, he's a smart cookie and plays some psychological games, so he gets to keep the genius title. I saw a review or two that didn't like that he's not above cheating but cheating's a pretty genius thing to me. It certainly beats relying on luck. As for the whole "descending into darkness" thing, I mean, meh. He's already a dark kid before any sort of descent occurs. He "descends into darkness" the way my teeth descend into those pumpkin pie bagels at Panera Bread. Goddamn, those are delicious.

Now you're thinking "this show's about a genius? And he descends into darkness? That sounds pretty hardcore for a show about a game best associated with little old Asian ladies like in the Joy Luck Club." Okay, yeah, I hear ya. This is the other thing that I need to get out of the way. This is Japanese Mahjong as played by a young sociopath against yakuza and, later, a fuckin' murderer. This makes it intense high-stakes gambling, which brings the tension and makes this shit fun.

Now I tried this show and the anime based off of one of Fukumoto's other works, Kaiji, at around the same time. It's very difficult to find a bad review of Kaiji. At least it was for me. I wanted something a bit brainy to watch. Not really "brainy" as in book-smart but "brainy" as in "plays mind games." In my opinion, Kaiji didn't deliver on that. I was sick of seeing the main character cry like a bitch and he was kind of an idiot that lucked into "not dying." I was going to say "lucked into life" but nothing about that guy's life other than not dying could be considered lucky. At one point, his survival is enabled by the fact a naked guy taped valuable jewels to his shoulder instead of sticking them in a condom and shoving them up his @ss like a smart person in that scenario would've done. I dumped that show and moved on to Akagi trepidatiously. I was not hopeful it would be that different and very happy to be proven wrong. Akagi pretty much gives me everything Kaiji could not.

We never learn much about the character of Akagi, but at least Akagi never relies on some naked asshole to save him. Maybe Fukumoto had Kaiji cry so much because Akagi doesn't. If it weren't for his enjoyment in seeing others squirm and wallow in defeat, sometimes I'd swear the guy has no feelings at all. We first meet Akagi when Akagi's thirteen years old but he doesn't look it. Or, rather, he doesn't look different from when we see him again at 19/20. He never undergoes any dramatic shift in personality or any great catharsis either. We never learn what makes him tick.

He's fucking crazy. Even as a child, he's just fucking nuts. In the first episode, we find out he drove off of a cliff. That's frickin' cray and this show never tells you why he's wired this way, so don't go looking for it. Frankly I prefer it this way. I don't need his edgy fuckin' origin. I can imagine an American remake of this shit starring Benedict Cucumber-batch (gotta whitewash that cast, y'all, 'cause Hollyweird says so) where two thirds of the movie is Akagi's tragic, abuse-laden origin and subsequent life as a street urchin and "omg, it's so sad." In other words, shit nobody gives a fuck about. Don't get me wrong, the viewer cheers on Akagi but Akagi doesn't feel sorry for himself and neither should you. At the end of the day, we just wanna see him cream his competition. Not knowing shit about him is part of his appeal.

Anywho, after playing lemming, thirteen-year old Akagi stumbles into a mahjong parlor where some poor, indebted sap named Nangou is about to cark it. The dude's losing bad. If he doesn't win, the yakuza are gonna kill him and collect his insurance payout. Nangou is desperate for a miracle and Akagi Stu becomes that miracle. Wait? "Stu?" Yes, because he's never played mahjong in his life yet he becomes a fuckin' master in, like, two seconds.

My bad: five minutes. Not to mention I just told you Akagi drove off a cliff and later just walks into the fuckin' mahjong parlor. The narration likes to hype him up a lot, too. We're pretty much told Akagi's legendary over and over again. I mean, sheesh.  At least, in terms of my stu-meter, Akagi's pretty low on it. While he does have some huge luck that comes into play, he's not above cheating or tricks to win when that luck's not on his side.  And it's not as if all the women want him and all the men want to be him. Well, one guy wants to be him but not in the way you're thinking. I don't even recall a single female character in this show. It's a sausage fest if I ever saw one.

The artwork is a mixed bag. Most characters look decent from the front but the profile shots will kill you. It really threw me off when I watched Kaiji so at least by Akagi I was used to it.  This guy below's not even one of the weirdest ones in the show.

Unlike your face.

Now, I don't know anything about mahjong, but I've never been so invested in guys going "Pon!" "Chi!" "Ron!"  I looked up rules and can't begin to tell you what the fuck some of it means. This show explains very little and you rely on the character's narrations, reactions, and expressions to tell you everything else need. And there's a lot of reactions. A lot of shock and maniacal laughter.  Even with fansubber notes tho, it almost doesn't feel like enough sometimes.

And a hey nonny-nonny, coo-coo cah-choo.

I mean, I don't know half of what they're saying.  I had to go look up Japanese mahjong rules to help me out on some of this. I enjoyed Akagi enough that I didn't mind doing this and rewatching stuff, but I see the complication of mahjong as probably the biggest hurdle folks will have with this show.  "Why wud i watch muh-jzong wid ROOLS when i can see dragon ball super instead?"

Music and voice acting is pretty good. Nothing stood out as bad in that regard. There's an interesting set of characters but no one sticks around consistently. Akagi doesn't have a mentor, sidekick, or anyone in that role. He interacts with Nangou, a crooked cop, and later on a naive co-worker from a toy factory.  All of them participate in their own way in the story but we can't exactly pile them together and call them Team Akagi or something. Meanwhile, any opponents of Akagi's just take the train to Fucked Off Land. We never see them again with the exception of one who finds his ass on a slab in the morgue. It would've been nice to see some of them come back for a rematch or become friends or allies with Akagi. But alas, Akagi is a dark genius and dark geniuses don't have friends. Lose a mahjong match to Akagi and you might just go crazy.

Guy in purple lost so badly at mahjong he can't stand up without help.  [Not a joke.]

For just being mahjong, the matches are actually kinda thrilling.  If anything, there's too few matches despite this being a 26 episode series. While the first batch of episodes keeps a decent pace, the latter half of it is focused on a single match with no end. Why doesn't it end? Because it's still going on in the manga today. Seriously. Not only has Akagi not won yet, we already know he doesn't lose because this entire series is a sorta-prequel to another of Fukumoto's worksTenwhich has an older Akagi as a character.

So, uh, why was I recommending this again?  Oh, yeah, cause I liked it.  But, really, was it necessary to name one character Ichikawa and another Ishikawa?  I almost got as lost with that shit as I did the mahjong.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

5 Anime I Like That You Should, Too - #1. Initial D: First Stage (1998)

Based on: the manga by Shuichi Shigeno.  1995-2013.
Claim to fame: Dated CGI cars and uptempo Eurobeat.
Dubbed: Yes.  Twice, actually.
Subject: Illegal street-racing.

I first heard of this show over ten years ago while taking a Japanese course at my local community college. Several of the other students loved it but I didn't get the hype. I was initially (ho!) put off by the artwork and subject matter.  The characters looked goofy and, well, street racing?  Why would I want to see a show about street racing? Then, during the 2015 Super Bowl, I wanted something to watch. (Texan that doesn't do football: ho-ho!)  I noticed three seasons of Initial D were available dubbed by Funimation on Sony's Crackle service. (It's not there anymore so don't bother. Crackle's really—ahem—cracked down on their anime offerings.  Ho ho ho!) Having nothing to lose and wanting to drown out my neighbors, I turned up the TV and started the show. Less than half an episode in, I was hooked.

The main character is this guy: Takumi Fujiwara, the meh-faced teenaged son of a local tofu shop owner. He makes tofu deliveries up and down the roads of Mt. Akina (fictional stand-in for Gunma prefecture's Mt. Haruna) for the family business using his father's Toyota Sprinter Trueno a.k.a. dat hachi-roku. That the car's an AE86 apparently means something in their universe but not in mine since I'm not a car person. No, you don't have to be a car person to watch this show. The characters explain all the important shit for you. While Takumi initially (ha!) has no interest in the local street-racing scene, his natural mad drifting skillz end up catching the eye of twenty-one year old Keisuke Takahashi.

Keisuke's a member of a visiting rival team—the Akagi Red Suns—and the younger of a pair of good-looking, rich, popular and uber-talented racing brothers. The show tells us the Takahashis are also called the Rotary Brothers but then exactly no one ever refers to them as such. They also have a cute female cousin who is sadly cut out of the show.  Anyway, the Red Suns planned on wiping the floor with the local racers the Speed Stars, but tofu-schlepping Takumi is someone Keisuke can't immediately beat.

"No fucking way, y'all!"
The dynamic between these two is probably what I enjoy the best and I wish First Stage had more of it.  Takumi's general apathy clashes wonderfully against Keisuke's firey personality but they don't interact nearly enough.  The series then follows Takumi's emergence onto the street racing scene which includes multiple battles with various challengers, a bit of showboating, and a bit of love in the air, too.  And also a singular panty shot.  Oh course, that was the scene my dad walked in on.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Now "First Stage" refers to "Season One."  I love First Stage and it really feels like a complete story. It even got re-adapted a couple of years back as three movies with completely different voice actors. Along with the two English dubs that were done, that means each of the main characters has four different voice actors. (Not counting other language dubs, of course.)  If you're a viewer that follows Japanese and/or English voice actors, there's someone for you in each version and you'll probably recognize a bunch of the names here without me listing their other credits.

Original (1998) Tokyopop Dub Funimation Dub New Initial D (Movies)
Takumi Fujiwara Shinichiro Miki Dave Wittenberg Joel McDonald Mamoru Miyano
Keisuke Takahashi Tomokazu Seki Steven Jay Blum Todd Haberkorn Yuichi Nakamura
Ryosuke Takahashi Takehito Koyasu Lex Lang J. Michael Tatum Daisuke Ono

Takumi's racing friend Iketani is voiced by Crispin Freeman in the Tokyopop dub. Ayako Kawasumi (Saber, Fate/Stay Night) and Wataru Takagi (Eikichi Onizuka, GTO) voice Takumi's love interest Natsuki and one his friends—Kenji—in the original Japanese version.  Fans of Funimation dubs gets the duo of Colleen Clickenbeard and Monica Rial voicing the female racing team Impact Blue and Vic Mignogna voicing Shingo Shoji.

I actually prefer more of Tokyopop's casting choices—except for Takumi's dad, I mean, were they trying to pretend to voice a muppet or what—but they really fudged things up with all of their dumb changes.  As was standard with lots of 90's era dubs, Tokyopop tried to make Initial D more marketable by adding weird lingo, completely changing the originally poppy music into wannabe rap/hiphop junk, visually altering the races the way your kid brother would, and giving a bunch of the characters new or altered names.  Takumi, Keisuke, and Ryosuke become Tak, KT, and Ry. Those are the names they went with: they renamed them tack, Katy, and rye. Why not just go with Terry, Keith, and Ryan or something like that? It's like they wanted to keep their names but not keep their names, I guess. In one scene, Iketani—renamed "Cole" or all things—even refers to "KT" as "Keisuke Takahashi." So his name's still Keisuke Takahashi, he just doesn't go by, uh, his name? Bwuh?

Also, the altering of the races and music just takes a bunch of the tension and suspense out of it. Show me someone who doesn't get hyped when "Get Me Power" starts up before Takumi drifts (♫ Do it, baby. Get me power! ), and I'll show you a fucker without a soul. You know how Rocky IV is pretty much a bunch of music videos strung together? Now let's cut out all the music and re-edit all the montages! Tragic, amirite?

As a result of the above bs, there was a mostly negative reception for the Tokyopop dub and it makes me think maybe I got into Initial D at the right time: when Funimation had already picked up the license and put out a faithful dub and sub release. Bear in mind that if you poke around the Internet for an English dub, you might end up with the older dub. Unless you go to YouTube where Funi has the entire First Stage subbed for free. If dubs are your style, you'll find four free dubbed eps to try out as well. Funimation's version, as of this writing, is available on DVD for $17 and change over at Amazon.

Now, there are subsequent stages of Initial D after First Stage: Second, Third (which is an ova), Fourth, Fifth, and Final along with two Extra Stages and Battle Stages. You'll notice tho' I specifically list First Stage as my recommendation. Honestly, the quality declines in each subsequent stage. First Stage really feels like a full story with a beginning, middle, and end. Everything that comes after just feels like sequelitis even though the story continued for a long-ass time in the manga. I mean, Takumi comes into his own as a street racer so what's left in the other stages? Lots of neat folks we meet in First Stage really get pushed aside later. I wanted to see those guys improve or at least provide further racing commentary and interaction with Takumi, but the show proceeds to care about them less and less. There's also a radical art shift.  In Second Stage, the character of Ryosuke actually becomes a doppelganger to the main character of Takumi. It's super creepy!

The first two pics are Ryosuke Takahashi and the last one is Takumi. What-what. Why did they mess with the first design? It was perfect! Meanwhile, his brother Keisuke becomes more and more Super Saiyan. And they aren't the only ones that get changed. Shigeno's original artwork, as dopey as it can be, is most faithfully adapted in the First Stage. I do wish the show went even further will making the characters visually as expressive as Shigeno does. I really came to like the duck mouths, the smug faces, and the beady eyes. Shigeno can render a smug face like nobody's business.

Unfortunately, as little as First Stage adapts his artwork, the further stages do so even less. The character's faces actually get stiffer and stiffer and by Fourth Stage, it's like watching cardboard talk. This is where Funimation stopped dubbing, with the last Tokyopop dub at the end of Stage Two. Really, nothing of value is lost. You're fine proceeding as far with it as you like. For what it's worth, there's still some cool moments, some laughs, some awesome music and some nail-biting races in the later stages. None of it comes together like in the First Stage. Probably not a popular opinion, but there ya go. By the time I got to the end of Fourth Stage, it felt like enough. If you want the rest of the story, you'd probably be better served reading the manga. And certainly, if you're a viewer looking for a more modern-looking, slicker anime with trendier music, look no further than the three movies.

Okay, at first, I was really pissing on about the movies not having the original voice actors from the '98 series or any Eurobeat music. Plus, being movies, they condense a lot of material. The movies also keep the characters pretty stiff-faced. Compare a scene from episode 1 of First Stage with a scene from the movie adaptation:

Initial D: First Stage (1998) vs. New Initial D Legend 1 - Kakuksei.
The '98's artwork gets more "love points" or whatever from me. It just looks more expressive and "snug," I guess. The movie's artwork still has merits of its own: crisp, with clean lines and bright colors. I also got a better feel for the races in the movies. While the '98 version brings fun with the Eurobeat, these races felt more dramatic visually. Just look at this lighting.

And with the '98 series, it was pretty easy to forget these dudes were racing on dangerous mountain roads.  Sometimes it felt like flat, straights with nothing to them. The steepness of the mountains, the lack of proper visibility, the hairpin turns, and the spectator pov all feel more accurately rendered in the movies. Honestly, while watching some of the '98 series, I'd wonder how the hell the spectators could even see what was going on with the race. The movies are even a bit more faithful to the manga in terms of sequence of events, with the '98 version inserting a few races out of place to fill up the episode count and reach the end with the race it wanted to.

The movies really endeared themselves to me. Although different, the voice actors and music are still pretty darn good. Cliffnotes Initial D is still a cool story and probably plays better for the younger crowd and n00bs vs. the nostalgia crowd. The latter had such a hard time accepting the shift that there's actually fan-made Eurobeat editions. No complaints, but I did actually come to like the new music almost as much as the Eurobeat. Here's one of the featured songs:

Anyway, lots of personality, thrilling races, humor, and snappy tunes make Initial D a treat and one of my favorites. Definitely worth you checking it out. Either or both versions.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Book Review: The Kouga Ninja Scrolls

Wowwee, this post is actually old and moldy and was sitting in my drafts for years.  I don't know why I never published it.  I love the action and intrigue that can be found in Chinese wuxia literature like "The Book and the Sword" and Japanese ninja stories like this one. I really wish more of it would find it's way over here. I can't even think of similar story off the top of my head, but there's gotta be a whole bunch of 'em. If you know of any with official English translations, send 'em my way.

"The Kouga Ninja Scrolls" was written by Futaro Yamada and was published in the late 1950's. It is the first in Yamada's ninpou chou series and appears to be the only one as of yet officially translated and published in completion in English. The story is basically "Romeo & Juliet" + Ninjas. It's a real quick read.  Seriously, fast readers are gonna finish this puppy in one day.  Do not bring it while waiting for Jury Duty.  Anyway, the story is probably better known as one of its numerous adaptations:

The manga "Basilisk"... which is great.
The anime "Basilisk"... which is effin' awesome.
The live-action movie "Shinobi: Heart of Blade..." which I could live without since they changed too much for my liking.
But anyway... The Kouga and Iga clans have been at odds for generations and were bound by a no-hostilities pact into a forced peace. Circumstances dissolve this and force ten from each clan into combat: the side with the most survivors determines the next shogun. And the top it off, all twenty of these ninjas are pretty much freaks of some kind. One guy has super stretchy limbs while another man is like some kind of human spider. It's like going to the circus and watching the clowns kill each other. (As they should.) Admist this, Gennosuke of the Kouga and Oboro of the Iga, the future leaders of their respective clans, were in love and to be married. Any hope for their love is undermined by their own allies thirst for battle.

I love, love, love this story so I admit went into this biased. I had devoured the Basilisk anime and manga and didn't really realize they were based on a story published over forty years previously. The book version is very simple to read. Not an insult.  I like an easy read where the author doesn't yank out their thesaurus and try to use every word inside.  I don't know if this is a function of Yamada's own writing, the Japanese language, or the English translation but it works.

While not a ninja story, I think fans of this story will also love the wuxia story "The Book and the Sword" from Chinese author Jin Yong.