Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader (1980)

Ever wanted to see a ninja sodomize a young boy while being rimmed by a prostitute? No? No. Me neither! Unfortunately, this is one of several such things that Eric Van Lustbader wants to show his readers in his De Sadean martial arts mega-seller The Ninja. How this unusual book was such a success at the time may seem strange to readers now but the recent success of 50 Shades of Grey proves there’s always a market for dodgy, overwritten sex and, much as it pains me to say it (and it pained me even more to actually read it), the book has some historical importance to the 80s ninja boom.

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The plot is risible but provided a template used time and time again throughout the decade. We have an occidental ninja master named Nicholas Linnear. He was raised in Japan but has moved to New York where he struggles to enjoy a successful career in advertising. While wrestling with his mid-life crisis, his friends and acquaintances get bumped off by a mysterious black-clad assassin and there are no prizes for guessing what he is. Despite the motivations of this evil ninja being tied in to a convoluted web of political and economic maneuvers, that’s pretty much the extent of actual plot. If you’re familiar with the adage that “only a ninja can defeat another ninja”, you’ll be able to predict where it’s leading from about 10 pages into its weighty 525.

This length is a big problem for this book. Epic tomes were popular in the early 80s but Lustbader essentially stretches a compact pulp tale into something altogether less palatable by overwriting everything and dragging where he should be sprinting. A character can’t even look up at the sky without a paragraph’s worth of description that lets us know exactly what it looked like at that given moment (I’d estimate maybe a tenth of the book is about the sky). Very occasionally this language is enjoyable but, for the most part, it’s total cringe. Sometimes, he gets so carried away, it’s easy to imagine Lustbader typing one handed:

“Hidden, the sun slid downwards to the earth as if too heavy to sustain its own weight. The sky was like grey ribbons fluttering across an excited girl’s breast, parting at the soft advance of her love. There was a brief flash of gold, stonework in flickering torchlight, then it was gone.”

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This overheated tone is consistent throughout the book and the almost-constant stream of sex is some of the most bafflingly bad I’ve ever read. Characters seem to exist in a state of perpetual horniness and even something as innocent as laughing can make breasts shake in a “sensual” way and lead to yet another torrid coupling. Again, it’s worth bearing in mind the trends of the time for saucy fiction but The Ninja’s sex feels inappropriate, gross, lecherous and weird. Jackie Collins, this ain’t.

Lustbader never seems to have a handle on what kind of a book he’s writing. Is it pulp action? Soap opera erotica? Socio-economic historical lecture? Bad sixth form poetry? He touches on all these but the crossover effect (while it obviously made the book appeal enough for millions of readers to buy it) is messy.

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Maybe it could’ve worked better were it not for the characters being so one-note and cartoonishly severe about everything. There’s not a moment of light relief in the whole book. When Nicholas first meets Justine – the “love interest” – they have intensely over-emotional sex within minutes and then get into a blazing row. He slaps her, she submits to his violence because she has issues with her father and then they have sex again and talk existentialism. These are the protagonists and they spend the whole story grimly abusing each other before, ultimately, falling into each other’s arms against a sunset and declaring their undying love. Which brings me to the fact that Lustbader has major problems writing women. Every single one of them here is portrayed as a broken nymphomaniac; insane, vulnerable, volatile but always described (over many paragraphs, some of which use the dread word “creamy”) as beautiful. It’s a lazy, cruddy stereotype but also tedious in that this is apparently all a woman can be in Lustbader’s world. I don’t think there’s one female character in the whole book who isn’t raped at least once as well.

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If the abject misogyny wasn’t enough for you, there’s some terrible racial stereotyping too. While I’ll admit that Lustbader has gone to impressive lengths to research Japanese culture (indeed, half the book is dry regurgitation of his research), there is an uncomfortable “noble savages” feel to some of it. I’d be happy to overlook some of this due to the nature of the genre (the occidental master – for example – is too common and complex a trope to write it off completely) but Lustbader’s portrayal of black characters is so horrific, it puts the whole thing in a worse light. We get two of these: a vice cop called Vegas who pops up to holler “shiii-iit!” and jive talk about prostitutes, and a black marine who appears in a flashback scene where he enters a theatre and stands in such a way that his crotch is visible through his jeans. Nicholas Linnear’s Japanese girlfriend spends half a page looking at “the large bulge of his crotch” while Linnear himself narrates : “How big was he? How big could a man be? Was that a criterion for sex appeal, the way Americans felt about big breasts? Did it drive women wild?”

Embarrassed yet? I am… and I’ve not even scratched the surface.

So why did I even sit and read this and why am I writing about it here? I guess it’s because the East-Meets-West plot of ninja chaos dropped into a modern American setting is the most repeated and recognisable story of the entire ninja boom. The film rights to this novel were originally sold to Fox but, for whatever reason (maybe someone actually stopped and read the book?), it never got made. While it was tied up in pre-production bickering, Cannon snuck under the radar with their own (far simpler and superior) version of the story, Enter The Ninja, and the rest was history.

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So much of what we love in 80s ninja movies does have its roots in Lustbader’s book, no matter how terrible it is. He describes the mysticism of ninjutsu in a way that’s well-studied and allows for newbies to feel instantly educated. The blending of these airy magical aspects with brutal urban violence is what’s at the heart of the boom and there’s no denying that my most beloved of these images – the shadow warrior against the city skyline – is first conjured here in Lustbader’s prose. Even the connection between Linnear and his ninja adversary – a conspiracy dating back to the Tokugawa Shogunate – is exploited in dozens of movie plots and I can’t find anything pre-dating Lustbader’s novel where the story is told in quite this way. There are precursors, sure – nothing exists in a vacuum – but this takes their fledgling ideas and solidifies them into new Western ninja tropes (which were rapidly exploited both in cinema and in paperback – as anyone who’s read Wade Barker’s far more entertaining Ninja Master series of pulps can attest to).

If The Ninja had half the pages, was less offensive and written by someone who didn’t seem to get an erection thumbing through the thesaurus, it could’ve been a classic pulp novel. Sadly, it’s a chore to read and problematic on way too many levels. But it did get there first. Perhaps it was zeitgeist. Maybe Mike Stone was already working on Enter The Ninja before he read this, maybe Wade Barker was already frantically scribbling away about ninjas and maybe someone somewhere would’ve told this story soon anyway but history being what it is, this book is pretty much Patient Zero for American ninjas. It just goes to show from small seedlings grow great cherry blossoms…

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