A Little Nonsense Now and Then Isn’t Bad

The cover of the first volume of Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu.

The cover of the first volume of Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu.

There is a debate among ninja fans as to who the better ninja was, Sasuke Sarutobi or Hanzo Hattori. What I want to know is which of the two was the funnier ninja.

There are manga series that are painful to read, not because they have a dark story, the artwork is grotesque, or what have you, but because one volume can take an extremely long time to read. These series tend to comically examine the minutia of everyday life, but there are others that find themselves outside this genre. One such series was Ryoichi Koga’s work Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu (ニニンがシノブ伝 Ninin ga Shinobuden). To be clear, just because this series took me an exceptionally long time to read doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun. In fact, this was a rather funny manga series. The issue, though, lay in how many of the chapters felt similar to one another due to the repetition of the jokes and the situations the characters were placed in. The repetitive nature of the narrative also meant the characters’ personalities remained static throughout the series. Yet, because they remained static, the characters stood out in very unique ways. Moreover, there was a solid cast of characters from the beginning with no more than two more added later in the series. The set number of characters alone was beneficial, as many authors of the slice-of-life genre of manga tend to add one too many characters to keep the content fresh for readers.

While I like to espouse how a strong narrative can ultimately determine the strength of an anime or manga series, truth be told, if the characters aren’t interesting, even the best story can fall flat. As such, even some of the narratively weak anime, manga, films, TV series, novels, and the like can be incredibly entertaining if the characters have magnetic personalities. This is especially true if the work in question is a comedy. Consider a Mel Brooks work such as Space Balls or Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Arguably some of the best parody films ever made, the reason many of the comedic moments worked was because even the minor characters had something about them that drew us in. By comparison, think about any of the lesser parody films made in the last decade. Aside from having a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the source material work and manipulating it as such, the characters are almost always flat. Thus, what should be funny moments in those films fall short. However, even if the storyline has long since been exhausted, so long as the characters are interesting we can still find the humor inherent in a work. This is why American cartoon strips tend to have such long syndications.

How does this apply to the anime and manga industry then? Well, there are a number of manga series that are certainly played out but have characters who are appealing to readers. In fact, the mid-2000s saw a rise in popularity of one such series, Lucky Star. Although I claim those characters were intriguing, there wasn’t much there to keep readers engaged for too long. The same can be said for the characters of Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu, but this had less to do with the characters’ personalities and more with the setup of each chapter in the series. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the contrary, the characters had remarkably distinct personalities that worked off each other quite well. This kept the characters engaging in their own right, and in a certain sense kept the series from becoming too dull. Granted, there were elements of the traditional Japanese double act inherent in the characters, but what made them charming was how they represented one or two facets of a person’s personality. Thus, when looking at the core cast of characters, we found innocence and a bit of lust in the heroine, Shinobu, general lewdness in her partner, Onsokumaru, a comedic center and straight man in Shinobu’s friend, Kaede Shiranui, and an amalgamation of geekiness and easy manipulation in Shinobu’s classmate, Sasuke.

By having these clear-cut personality types, it was easy to find the center of each story as well as see how the characters played off each other. For example, when looking at the dynamic between Onsokumaru and Sasuke, we saw the latter playing to the former’s weaknesses and creating chaos in different chapters. However, had those two been the center of each story, there would have been no closing to the joke and just randomness throughout. Thus, we needed a character like Kaede to focus the hectic nature of Onsokumaru and Sasuke’s relationship into a cohesive chapter. One of the best examples of this phenomenon came in the twenty-eighth chapter of the series when the characters were out picking wild mushrooms. Yes, this was a simple setup for a chapter, but because it was entirely predicated on Onsokumaru getting the other characters to eat a poisonous mushroom, we saw the hectic nature of his character. Therefore, with a character like Kaede to focus the humor every so often, what would have been no more than pure randomness became at the very least centered on what the female characters were facing. But, herein lay the major issue with this series.

Onsokumaru causing a ruckus in the top panel and Kaede acting as the straight man in the bottom.

Onsokumaru causing a ruckus in the top panel and Kaede acting as the straight man in the bottom.

Because these characters had such distinct personalities, there was only so much the author could do with them. Think about it in these terms, there were only so many times one could read Onsokumaru saying lewd things to the female characters or Sasuke talking about how he wanted to become a Casanova. Granted, the setup and themes for each chapter were unique, but when breaking down how the chapters played out, the stories became dull fast. The nineteenth and fifty-third chapters, for instance, mirrored each other in a way that can only be described as the author running out of material. Yes, the initial setup and payoff were different between the two chapters, but the core component and themes were nearly identical, which, in this case, were doppelgangers of Onsokumaru running around causing trouble. One could make the argument there was nearly a four year gap between the two chapters and as such it’s understandable there were parallels between the two stories, but there were also other times when the jokes were rote in the same volume. This is the major problem with these types of series, slice-of-life and those that explore the minutia of a character’s life, as they have to keep the characters rather static in order to keep the humor consistent.

I would say this is understandable, but I’m not the type of person who derives enjoyment from unchanging characters. Even the smallest semblance of change is better than none. For example, think about the famous bit of Garfield kicking Odie off the table in Jim Davis’s Garfield. Not only has this been used far too often, the punch line is generally the same in each strip the bit is featured in as well. However, there have been times when the formula is altered just enough to make it refreshing, such as Odie recognizing Garfield is going to kick him off the table. This toying with the reader’s sensibilities demonstrates that while the characters may be static in nature, there are times we see fleeting hints to their overall growth. In certain respects a few of the minor characters in Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu saw some growth within the series, but the major characters didn’t. As such, with the characters remaining in a relative state of consistency, there was a limited number of original stories the author could write.

One of the ways authors try to mitigate this, then, is by adding new characters every so often. This isn’t a bad practice, yet I’ve seen it backfire in many other series, as the new characters’ personalities tend to overlap those already established. However, this was not the case in Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu. In fact, the limited number of new characters that were integrated over the course of the four volumes is rather startling. To be clear, I am speaking of characters who had recurring roles and not the ones who only appeared once. The most obvious of these characters were Kaede’s parents, particularly her mother; Shinobu’s younger sister; and Onsokumaru’s colleague. However, it was actually the alligator named Devil who was used the most effectively. Consider the statement I made above about the static nature of the series. Had Ryoichi Koga used these new characters on a regular basis, their presence would have blended into the rest of the series. Yet, by having them appear only once every so often, they actually spiced up the flow of every volume in the short series.

The fourth volume actually used all these minor characters quite well, but looking at Devil and Kaede’s mother, Kaori, their appearance drastically altered the narrative flow of certain chapters. This could be seen in the stories of the fifty-seventh and sixtieth chapters. Rather than follow the trope of Shinobu’s innocence playing off Onsokumaru’s chaos, the two chapters instead played with our expectations of the characters. In the case of the fifty-seventh chapter, we saw how Devil was not only a competent ninja, but also had a backstory that was fairly funny in a tragic way. Up to that point we had an understanding Devil was intelligent, but not to this degree. The sixtieth chapter, in turn, fooled with our fundamental understanding of Sasuke and his male counterparts, not in a way that changed their personalities, but in the subtle shifts in their attitude when a mother figure was in their presence. I mean, I’m sure every person has had that moment when they hurriedly cleaned their room in order to hide all the things they might be embarrassed about from their mother—I know I have. But the best part of this was Ryoichi Koga didn’t need to create a specific character for each of these situations as both Devil and Kaori had been introduced in the first volume and had only made sporadic appearances thereafter.

In all honesty, Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu is a fine series. There’s nothing exceptionally offensive about the work, unless you’re not a fan of toilet humor. It’s just that it takes quite a bit of time to read through each volume. The characters were all funny and had unique personalities and, while they were static, it’s what you’d expect from a series of this caliber. The same can be said about the different chapters as well. But, with enough minor characters making sporadic appearances, this mitigated some of the monotony of the reading experience. Perhaps this isn’t the best series to read in one sitting—Mitsuru Adashi’s Touch or Wako Honna’s Nozokiana are much better for that—but in small doses Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu is a fantastic read. I’d suggest about two or three chapters every few days. That being said, if you’re not inclined to read the series, the anime rendition may actually be a better fit for you as many of the issues that arise with the manga series are less prominent in its anime counterpart.

Work Info
Title:
Ninja Nonsense: The Legend of Shinobu (ニニンがシノブ伝 Ninin ga Shinobuden)
By: Ryoichi Koga
Under: ACII Medial Works, Dengeki Comics
Official Site: N/A
More Info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninja_Nonsense

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