Before I get into my thoughts about this book let me just be very clear that the author of this translation, Eric Shahan is a friend and colleague. When I first heard about this project I was super excited as I own an original version of this book and have never seen a translation of it. That said, I will offer the clearest review possible of this book, with absolute honesty.
When you put this book down, you will be left wondering... Let's just start there. To get the role this book may serve in your understanding (or reformulating previously held misconceptions) of what Ninjutsu is, one must consider the time this book was first written and what the ambition of the author, Gingetsu Itoh may have been. During the first part of the 20th century, Ninjutsu was popularized in story books as a form of illusion, sorcery or hypnotism among other skills. Folks of the time had quite a different meaning of what Itoh Sensei clearly defines as the meaning and purpose of Ninjutsu. Accordingly, his first chapter is titled, "Correcting misunderstandings regarding Ninjutsu" followed by six sections regarding the truths behind the history and purpose of the craft.
Once the reader has a new formation of what Ninjutsu truly was about, Itoh Sensei begins a thorough study of methods used by the Ninjutsu-sha, while continuing his seemingly underlying message of "this stuff is no real mystery, it just takes understanding."
An example may be that the use of a rat to scare the hell out of an unsuspecting room to create a sudden distraction is no real mystery, yet the application of it combined with goal acquisition takes skill. I should point out that Itoh Sensei does happen to let the reader know there are a few little secrets he's not sharing.
At this point, I'd like to bring attention to probably the most brilliant aspect to this book for the western reader and that's Shahan's footnotes. Nearly every page in this book is accompanied with highly detailed notes, as though you were reading the book with Shahan right next to you, answering questions before you even ask them. He clearly explains the different ways of understanding the Kanji Intoh Sensei uses and often times goes into peculiarities with Itoh Sensei's choice of terminology.
Without Shahan's notes, most western readers may not find themselves lost per say, but would glean nowhere near the amount of quality detail from this book were these notes not included. Shahan also assists those lacking in historical knowledge with detail on just about every figure Itoh Sensei mentions in his writing and exactly how each figure's historical relevance plays into Itoh's point.
Cheers to Shahan for helping make great sense of this translation.Back to the content. Prior to the table of contents, we are given 5 charts that Itoh Sensei offers as a clear overview of his research. The book pretty much follows this framework of explaining what Ninjutsu is.
Without getting into 'what ninjutsu is' as that is not my goal in this article, I would like to make a clear suggestion that if your understanding of Ninjutsu centers around slow-mo fist fighting techniques in black skinny jeans held up by frayed judo belts... you are far off course skipper and should give this book a thorough read.
Itoh Sensei breaks the divisions of Ninjutsu down with precise clarity, yet the amount of information used in training of the Ninjutsu-sha can be heavy for the reader. The good news is that you will find the book to be organized in a way that allows the reader who gets lost (and you will get lost trying to follow the Goton and Ura Goton) to easily reference meanings and such.
More kudos to Shahan on what I thought was a risky use of his own illustrations in this book. The traditional Japanese martial arts community is generally snobby when it comes to this type of work and more so when putting out something to the public that claims Japanese martial authenticity.
As most of us know, this type of project (especially one garnished with the word ninja) is scrutinized thoroughly and often times quite harshly by loud mouthed keyboard kyoshi. Surely a work like this with the out-of-step use of illustrations not found in the original work would constitute a big red dot on Shahan's chest. Not so, and certainly not from me. I found Shahan's artistic approach to this book an entertaining pairing with the classical content of Itoh Sensei's research, versus the option of it being a mere photocopy in english.
With the amount of work he put into delivering this content to the western reader, I think Shahan is certainly welcome to add his own flavor to his work. Every five pages or so, the reader will find an illustration that is somewhat on topic with the Itoh Sensei's writing, yet offering a blast of visual excitement to the pages.
As a final perspective, I'd like to offer my own take-away as a martial artist who has dedicated a large portion of my life connected to the topic of this book, Ninjutsu. Were one to read this book as well as witness the original version and the illustrations found within, one with experience in the arts will most certainly raise a brow of new found skepticism. Understandably, to some this may be unwelcome.
It would almost seem that much of the information found within Itoh Sensei's decade long research that led to the publishing of his book, is oddly echoed within the teaching of what is boasted as the only surviving Ninjutsu system popular today. Upon my second completion of Ninjutsu no Gokui, I have found myself with over twenty pages of notes, both from the book and from discussions I have had pertaining to the book with historical experts. What a fantastic opportunity for clarity, confidence and discovery! I thank Shahan Sensei for that.
For the student, teacher or historical enthusiast of Ninjutsu, I cannot recommend this book more. To those who would rather glossy pictures of old men in tights wearing claws, save your money. It is a must for a library of those willing to learn. But be warned, as Itoh Sensei points out, there is no mystery to Ninjutsu, just misunderstanding - some readers may find sand below their feet.
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