BOOK REVIEW: Ninja: A History by John Man

Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow WarriorNinja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior by John Man
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The author, John Man, isn’t the first historian to fall for the siren call of ninja history only to plummet into a catch-22, but he’s the one I’m reviewing right now. So, while his book isn’t exceptionally bad, it’s tremendously flawed in a manner common across ninja histories. What is said catch-22? On the one hand, ninja excite the imagination and a half-way decent book on them is sure to sell. On the other hand, there’s very little known about the ninja. If the myth of the ninja is an elephant, the ninja as we truly know him is a grasshopper. [So much so that the first Westerner to write such a history, Stephen Turnbull, has now spun 180, proposing that the ninja never existed but were purely a post-Warring States construct.] While it would seem that Turnbull goes too far given the existence of manuals and vague mentions, what we don’t know about are the nitty-gritty details of ninja missions and those are the stories that the reader desires but which time and the ninja’s legendary secrecy have put forever beyond our reach.

What is in the book? If not tales of ninja stealing into castles to abscond with information or to assassinate an enemy General, and the effect of those actions on the outcome of wars? First, there’s a lot of information that is already widely available in other English language books, such as the influence of Sun Tzu’s chapter on espionage on the birth of the ninja (probably spurious given the centuries in between) and description of the seven types of disguises. Second, there’s a lot of general Japanese history that is necessary to some degree as background, but at some point one realizes the author has ventured beyond background into padding. Finally, speaking of padding, about a third of the book by page count (cleverly disguised as only three chapters) occurs long after the end of the ninja. Don’t get me wrong; some of the World War II material is fascinating, but it’s as if one were reading a biography of Blackbeard and—all of a sudden—one finds oneself reading about a Somali hijacking of container ships in 2011. (Even while you are fascinated, you can’t help but feel that you’ve been the victim of bait-and-switch.) In short, the book has a lot of repetition and padding, and not much that’s both new and on topic. (One of the reasons that I didn’t give the book too low a rating is that if it’s the first book you are reading on the subject, it’s readable and interesting.)

There’s one more flaw that comes from the dearth of information. The author cites everyone and anyone who has said something interesting on the subject, but we don’t really know how reputable said sources are. Some may be sterling and others full-of-shit. It’s easy to say something fascinating about the ninja; it’s much more difficult to say something that’s true and fascinating.

So what does the book do right? It’s well written in terms of being readable and offering frequent mind candy. The author does challenge a few statements as he reports them. My last paragraph may have led one to believe that Man just shot-gunned information out there, but he actually takes a suitably skeptical view for addressing such a murky topic. The problem is that we don’t know how serious to take claims he refutes or those he appears to endorse because he’s not an expert in the field. He is an Asianist historian with a list of books that is all over the map. [I did see just one factual error in which he refers to the companion sword of a samurai as a tanto. A tanto is a dagger, the companion to the katana is the wakizashi. But I don’t know how big of a deal to make out of that sin as I can’t say that I noticed any others (not that I necessarily would as I’m no expert either.) On the other hand, a little fact checking…]

If you’ve never read a history of the ninja before, you’ll probably find this one interesting. If you’ve read the other books out there, it’s less clear that you will. However, I did find the discussion of Iga no Ran (the battle of Iga, a campaign meant to crush the ninja of Iga) to be intriguing. At any rate, as long as you realize the last one-third of the book is off-theme and are alright with that, you should find it palatable.

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BOOK REVIEW: You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

You Only Live Twice (James Bond, #12)You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the film Casino Royale came out, it was panned by Roger Ebert, but not because it was a bad film. What Ebert didn’t like about that movie was that it looked and felt a lot more like the lead should have been named Jason Bourne rather than James Bond. In other words, Daniel Craig portrayed the super-suave secret agent with a license-to-kill as a gritty brawler and not the superman who could take on a swarm of SPECTRE henchmen without getting dust on the labels of his impeccable Armani. The latter is the archetypal James Bond.

The problem for film-makers is that the old Bond hasn’t aged well and seems a more suitable basis for Austin Powers’ style parodies than gripping thrillers.

You Only Live Twice is an entertaining read, but it’s best described as delightfully campy. However, it wasn’t meant to be camp when it came out. That being said, the film–which bears only a superficial resemblance to the novel–made changes specifically to make the storyline make more sense (that’s an odd twist for Hollywood.)Specifically, the arch-villain’s motivation doesn’t seem to make much sense in the novel. We are supposed to accept that the fact that the man is mad and evil to the core is sufficient for him to do something randomly quasi-evil, even if it offers him no benefit.

The synopsis is as follows: At the beginning, we find James Bond in turmoil. His wife died in the last book (within 24 hours of their marriage), and Bond has taken it hard. Since then he’s botched a couple of missions. He’s called into M’s office and thinks he is about to be canned. (He’s almost right.) Instead, M sends him on an assignment to Japan. It’s a challenging mission, but–theoretically–one of a diplomatic nature. Bond is to get Japan to turn over information from a code breaking technology they’ve developed. The Japanese only give this information to the U.S., and America is spotty at passing on relevant information to Britain.

Bond strikes up a friendship with “Tiger” Tanaka, who has no use for the bargaining chip which Bond has to offer. However, Tanaka agrees to hand over the information if Bond will take care of a delicate situation for Japan. In the country’s remote south, a European has set up a “toxic garden” of poisonous plants, animals, and insects. This garden has become a Venus flytrap for (the apparently infinite waves of)suicidal Japanese people.

Bond agrees to the proposal, and latter finds out that the European horticulturist is actually none other than the arch-nemesis who killed his wife, one Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Bond spends a couple of days in a fishing village reconnoitering and establishing the book’s romantic interest in the form of Kissy Suzuki–a pearl diver who was for a brief time a Hollywood starlet.

Bond makes his ninja-like infiltration of the Blofeld castle. I won’t get into how the climax of the book unfolds, but needless to say our hero wins the day.

The most thought-provoking part of the book may just be what happens after Bond finishes his mission. At the mission’s end, he develops amnesia as a result of a head injury. This amnesia makes the book’s title apropos.

There are some interesting themes addressed in the book. For example, there is considerable discussion of the difference of perspective on suicide between the West and Japan. Japan retains some of the samurai era notion that suicide can be used to restore honor, while Bond defends the Western view that suicide is a cowardly out. Still, while the Japanese attitude toward killing oneself when added to the stresses of a Japanese lifestyle (e.g. salaryman living) has resulted in a somewhat heightened suicide rate, the issue is greatly exaggerated to make the premise of Blofeld’s “Death Garden” seem remotely credible.

There’s also a great deal of discussion of Britain’s decline and America’s rise. Great emphasis is put on the fact that the Pacific is “America’s domain” and that the Brits have to be sneaky to operate there–lest they be at the mercy of their former colony.

This novel (and its film) introduced many exotic elements of Japanese culture to an audience beyond the Japanophiles for whom they were no surprise. This exotica includes ninja (spies of medieval Japan), fugu (poison blowfish–a potentially lethal delicacy), and Geisha (female entertainers and escorts.) It’s clear Fleming put some research into these matters. However, it also seems like he picks every element of Japanese history and culture that Westerners would find odd and unusual. At some points, one wonders what stereotype Fleming will next exploit.

There are a lot of patently ridiculous happenings in the book. At one point while Bond is hiding out on the grounds of the garden in a manner reminiscent of the ninja of old, biding his time, he decides that he simply must have a cigarette. Now, I’m not going to get into the plausibility of someone with that bad of an addiction having been able to swim a mile through waters with treacherous currents after having spent a few days rowing out to pearl dive. However, the notion that a special operative would light up in the middle of a covert operation is pretty far-fetched. It’s like saying, “I don’t care if this mission succeeds or even if you kill me, I’m going to have my Marlboro moment.” Some readers may think I’m engaging in hyperbole, but not those of you who’ve been in the military. The scent of cigarette smoke is extremely potent, and then there’s the glow. You don’t get out of boot camp without learning that you don’t smoke on LP/OP (Listening Post / Observation Post,) let alone into Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Bond’s transformation through makeup into a person who looks passably Japanese is another point at which credulity is strained. This make up survives ocean swims, fights, and even after the mission when Bond has amnesia, he can’t recognize that he, himself, looks nothing like the villagers of his hometown hamlet. (Tiger Tanaka has a card printed that says that Bond is deaf and dumb to get around his inability to speak the local language. [Props to Fleming for not going the Hollywood route and making his spy fluent in every imaginable language.])

The most ridiculous piece of the book involves an elaborate machine works that Blofeld uses to make the volcano let off liquid hot magma every 15 minutes like clockwork. He has this ready in anticipation of a need to test whether a victim can understand his instructions to get up and walk out to avoid being burned with hot lava. If Bond understands, he must not be deaf and dumb like the card says, and if he stays put–oh, well, he’s just a deaf and dumb coal miner who went sleepwalking in his ninja suit and ended up inside the heavily guarded castle retreat of the SPECTRE leader. What’s more, he puts the control for this Rube Goldberg contraption where the interrogated can see it (a fact that Bond later puts to use), and even though it’s inside a box, Bond knows exactly what it must be (he’s just that good.)

And, of course, in the most mocked device in this genre, Blofeld gives a long speech when he should be killing Bond.

You’ve got to read this with a certain mindset, and if you want a realistic, gritty thriller you’re not in the right mindset.

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As I said, the movie doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the book besides borrowing some character names and a few scenes. However, below is the trailer for the movie.

Cash Cow Disease: or, I Hope The Americans Don’t Get Lost

AmericansTVIn political economy, “Dutch disease” is a term used to describe a situation in which a nation’s windfall successes in one sector lead to everything else going to crap.

Dutch disease reminds me of a phenomenon rife in television today. A series pilot is shown. It’s wildly successful. The writers came in with a clear overall narrative arc, but now the show is a cash cow and they have to extend it out indefinitely. This is a script-writing nightmare. Writers have to give the viewer a new puzzle piece each episode but they’ve got to end the episode with a cliffhanger and they’ve got to be able to tie up all their loose ends at some undefined point when the series becomes a train wreck.

I was aware of this phenomena, let’s call it “Cash Cow disease,” when Lost came on the air. I’d been through it with the X-files.  But damned if I didn’t go and get myself engrossed in Lost. Lost started out with such promise. It seduced me, and even when it became clear that the writers and director might not know where the ship was headed, they kept feeding me tasty bread crumbs.  Then the network said, “Get us off this crazy train, quickly.” So  it was that the show that began with an atomic bang ended with the whimper of one of the worst endings ever.

Having been hurt twice thusly, I’d given up on watching television serial dramas. Then I made the fatal blunder of watching the pilot of The Americans. Why did I do this? Ironically, I probably watched it because I assumed it would be bad. It was, after all, a Cold War show in a post-911 world. Oh, the thwarted expectations. Now, I’m hooked.

The Americans is about a man and wife who are Soviet sleeper spies during the early 1980’s. The couple lives in the suburbs of Washington DC with their oblivious kids, and appear to operate a travel agency (for young readers, there used to be people who booked one’s flights and hotel before the days of Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity.)  In reality, however, the couple are deep cover spies who are attempting to get information about America’s ballistic missile shield, Reagan’s “Star Wars”, and other strategic concerns. The show depicts the cat-and-mouse game of Cold War espionage with great tension.

In an act of coincidence that strains credulity (but which is no stranger than things that actually happened) an FBI counter-intelligence agent moves in right across the street from the couple. The KGB couple and the FBI man are working at cross  purposes without the FBI agent (played by Noah Emmerich) being the wiser. (Emmerich’s character has early suspicions that he dismisses as paranoia after a close call for the KGB couple.) The male lead KGB sleeper spy (played by Matthew Rhys) plays racket-ball with the FBI agent.  This apparent friendship is to the chagrin of the female lead (played by Keri Russell) because she’s not quite sure if her husband is working the FBI man (as he says), or whether he’s facilitating changing sides. Part of the tension of the series stems from the fact that Keri Russell’s character is a dyed-in-the-wool patriot of Mother Russia, but her husband is having second thoughts–he sees himself as a family man first and a patriot second and America is growing on him. This tension is made all the more complicated by the fact that she seems to be just starting to fall in love with him, though he seems to have loved her from the early days of their planned, forced, and in some sense fake relationship.

The signature trait of The Americans is that characters on both sides are sympathetic  but complicated. This is part of a “shades of gray” motif that informs the show. Emmerich’s character, the FBI agent, is a loyal patriot and family man trying to do his best under the pressures of a hectic and tense job. However, we see him torment and rob a suspected Soviet information trafficker. Rhys character, the KGB sleeper, is also quite likable and sympathetic. At one point we see Rhys’s character beat up a pedophile (what’s more likable than that.) Russell’s character is not so likable, but that’s good for the tension. She’s a cold, fanatical Communist, but we can see the outlines of humanity in her character. For example, despite her jingoistic nature, she refuses to report her husband’s second thoughts.   On the FBI side, the most unlikable character is the boss (played by Richard Thomas, aka John Boy.) He’s a rash hot-head who,  in last night’s episode, wrecked an operation through his knee-jerk reaction (or maybe he’ll turn out to be a mole.)

I can already imagine how the wheels may roll off. There’s a supporting character, a mole in the Soviet Embassy (played by Annet Mahendru), that I imagine they intended to kill off to add to the angst of the Emmerich character (the FBI agent cultivated her through “soft-blackmail” and acts as her handler.) However, she’s really an endearing character. In a field of patriots that sometimes approach zealotry on both the US and Soviet sides, she seems to just want to have a peaceful life, but she’s trapped. Despite being manipulated, she’s a strong character. I can imagine her becoming a more central role–not that that’s an inherently bad thing.

I’d like to recommend this show, but I face a dilemma. If fewer people watch, I think it’s more likely to end well.

BOOK REVIEW: Secret Weapons by Cheryl Hersha, et al.

Secret WeaponsSecret Weapons by Cheryl Hersha

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Secret Weapons is about two sisters who are trained in an MKULTRA-style behavior modification program to become femme fatales. This book was a rare find. I hadn’t heard of it before or seen it in my local bookstores, but I came across a copy at the Strand bookstore in New York (the “miles of books” place) on a trip several years ago.

Like Whitley Strieber’s Communion, this book leaves one engrossed but wondering what exactly one is reading. It is written as non-fiction, and not creative non-fiction that admits to blending elements of fiction into the fact. The writers are eager to convince the reader that this is not a hoax. About a quarter of the book is supporting documents to lend the book credibility. However, while I’m well aware of the “mind control” programs sponsored by the American government, this story doesn’t ring true to me. (In large part this is because we know the programs that operated were not nearly so successful as the one in Secret Weapons would have had to have been.) [I wrote a post about such programs that is available here. If you’d like to read some primary documents on the subject, this page at the National Security Archives has many of them.]

One might think that there are two possibilities: either it’s a true story or it’s a hoax. However, it’s a third possibility that makes this book so thought-provoking. What if the two sisters believe that the story is absolutely true, when–in fact–it wasn’t? How could this be? Their father is presented as an unsavory character. One possibility is that the father abused these girls and they created an elaborate backstory in their minds to cope with the fact that the one man who should have loved them, that they should have been able to trust, neither loved them nor was worthy of their trust.

Of course, another possibility is that it’s all true. While a lot of information did come out about Projects ARTICHOKE, BLUEBIRD, and MKULTRA, a lot was also shredded. The person working the shredder might have gone after the documentation of activities involving pedophilia first. If there is any activity that would have rightfully taken the situation from one of CIA employees being sent to country club federal prisons to them being strung up on the Capitol steps, it’s what’s depicted in this book.

Of course, it could all be a hoax as well. A story like this, if believed, elicits the publicity of the news media. That’s a powerful way to sell books.

I’ll leave the reader to decide which of the three possibilities they believe is most likely.

If you haven’t concluded this already, let me be explicit: This book contains disturbing descriptions (and even sketches.) It isn’t gratuitous to the story they are trying to convey, but if you have a weak stomach for such matters, I’d recommend you steer clear.

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