Book Review: The Ninja, by Eric Van Lustbader
Here we go.
My buddy Jeremy (of A Brew to a Kill), is pretty much the best friend a guy could ask for. As we were hanging out a few weeks ago, and he hits me with “I got you a present from the thrift store.” Dude’s got mad Goodwill skills– he once gave me boxed G1 Galvatron he found at a Goodwill for six bucks(!) for Christmas. And, once again, Jeremy delivered. Check it.
And he gave me a fancy beer, too! And it wasn’t even my birthday!
So yeah. If you’ve been paying attention, you should know that a book like this is quite relevant to my interests. And why not? Ninjas are freakin’ sweet, and there aren’t enough ninja novels out there. What makes Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja more interesting, however, is that it was released in 1980. This puts it well before the TMNT (1984), the famous Frank Miller run on Daredevil that brought us Elektra and The Hand (1981), or even the classic Cannon film Enter the Ninja, starring the great Sho Kosugi (1981). According to my intarweb research (read: wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt), The Ninja was released in April 1980– while the Chuck Norris flick The Octogon (which can be seen as one of the first films to really feature the Hollywood Ninja) didn’t come out ’til August of the same year.
Of course, ninjas feature prominently in the 1967 Bond movie, You Only Live Twice, and also in James Clavell’s Shogun novel (which got turned into a miniseries), but Van Lustbader’s The Ninja is arguably the first spark to ignite the ninja craze of the 1980’s.
I have a vague theory that the Hollywood obsession with ninjas is somehow connected to the zeitgeist of the time, in that there was a vague idea that the booming Japanese economy was going to result in Japan literally buying out America. Which … didn’t happen, but hey, people were doing a lot of cocaine back then. Of course, to follow this economic anxiety theory, we should be flooded with wuxia flicks on account of everyone being afraid China’s gonna buy us out, buuuuuut it doesn’t quite work out that neatly. Which is a shame, as I dig me some wuxia flicks.
But I’m rambling. Let’s get back to the book.
The Ninja is about a dude named Nicholas Linnear, who is, spoiler alert, a ninja. Described as “Half Oriental, Half Caucasian” (he’s actually a quarter Chinese, a quarter Japanese, and half British-Jew), Nick is apparently the only dude in all of New York who’s lived in both Japan and the US, as Van Lustbader makes a big deal about how he has a unique view into both Eastern and Western culture. It’s to the point where, after Nick quits his generic advertising job within the first few pages of the book, he’s randomy offered a lecturer’s position at a local college for their “Oriental Studies” program. Yeeeeah.
The whole college lecturer thread is soon forgotten once Nick meets a woman named Justine, and the two commence to boning right away. But, this happiness is not to last, as there’s another ninja (from Nick’s past, of course) who starts running around New York City throwing shurikens into people, and soon enough there’s a whole convoluted plot going on with Justine’s father being the target of ninja assassination and so on. And, since only a ninja can stop a ninja, it falls on Nick to swordfight the bad guy.
When you get down to it, The Ninja is basically a horror novel along the lines of something Grady Hendrix would write about. Only instead of a vampire or a haunted tank or whatever, the monster is … well, a ninja. The Ninja is a very 80’s novel, with tons of lurid sex and gore. Pretty much every female character that’s around for more than three pages is defined by her sexuality. Justine’s a masochist who’s read too much de Sade, Nick’s ex-girlfriend Yukio from his days in Japan is a raging nymphomaniac. The real ‘winner,’ however, is Justine’s sister Gelda, a pill-popping, hard-drinking nihilist who sidelines as a lesbian hooker to movie stars just for kicks. Oh, and Gelda was raped by her father as a kid, too. Hell, even the evil ninja is a depraved, heroin-smoking pedophile who drugged and raped Nick back in Japan.
This was not what I was expecting from a book called The Ninja, let me tell you. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t discover this book back when I was a kid first getting into TMNT.
Kinky sex and sword-murder aside, The Ninja doesn’t really deliver on the promise of ninja mayhem until the last chapter or so, in which Evil Bisexual Heroin Ninja goes up against a bunch of cops before having his final showdown with Nick. Until then, the book’s like 400 pages of various subplots, including:
Various flashbacks to Nick’s childhood in Japan
Something about Nick inheriting a magic emerald necklace?
A gritty police detective investigating the ninja murders (and calling Nick in as a consultant).
A medical examiner who was a medic in WWII reminiscing about how he was captured by a ninja during the Pacific campaign
Various musings about differences in Eastern and Western thought, with how “mysterious” Japan is.
Van Lustbader spices things up ever 50 pages or so with either a kinky sex scene or Evil Bisexual Heroin Ninja murdering somebody … but even then the bad guy’s plot doesn’t make much sense. Supposedly he’s targeting Justine’s asshole millionaire father, but he doesn’t get around to going after him ’til the end of the book. Which … I guess makes it vaguely equivalent to a really crappy 80’s ninja movie that doesn’t get interesting until the last 15 minutes or so?
As a novel, The Ninja feels unfocused, and never really reaches the heights of WTF mayhem that the best ninja flicks reach. Still, it’s interesting to see Van Lustbader trotting out various tropes that would become hallmarks of the ninja genre, such as the idea of a westerner trained in ninjitsu for whatever reason. Still, I’m glad that the various ninja movies (and video games, and cartoons, and so on) I hoovered up as a kid (and still do today) focused more on the swords and throwing stars rather than the heroin and magic necklaces.
Oh, and it looks like Van Lustbader wrote a whole bunch of sequels to The Ninja, which … well, I may have to track them down now, just to see how ridiculously sleazy they get. It’s good to have goals, I guess?