When Tokyo Shinobi Squad first began publication in Weekly Shonen Jump back in May, it got a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons.
By virtue of its setting, the series echoed the messages of hateful, far-right nationalist groups by framing mass immigration and ‘globalization’ as the downfall of society, which isn’t exactly something you usually see in Weekly Shonen Jump. Plus, you know, that’s not exactly correct.
Even so, all this controversy meant that I went into Tokyo Shinobi Squad for this review with fairly high expectations. Surely a series with such a bombastic and daring, if dangerous, set of messages couldn’t be boring?
Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The Political Bit
For those not in the know, I’ll outline here the setting of Tokyo Shinobi Squad and why it ruffled so many feathers.
In the distant future, the Japanese government constructs a series of ‘hyperloops’ that connect Japan to the rest of the world via near-instantaneous travel (think those things in Futurama).
This brings about the so-called ‘super-globalization’ of Japan, as it is now ever more closely connected to the rest of the. But this also brings with it, according to the series, mass immigration and a high crime rate – stemming from the massive amounts of foreigners that now live in Japan, thanks to the hyperloops.
As many people immediately remarked, the setting of Tokyo Shinobi Squad has dangerous connotations.
In the first case, it suggests a link between immigration and crime that simplifies and blatantly ignores the broad range of socio-economic factors that affect the crime rate of any given country, as well as demonizes immigrants themselves.
That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily expect a Weekly Shonen Jump series to offer up a treatise on immigration and crime just to justify a dystopian setting. It’s just for fun, right?
Well, not quite. The fact that author Tanaka Yuki invokes the word ‘globalization’ and uses it to describe the effects of mass immigration as glimpsed in the series echoes, worryingly, the same way that many far-right nationalist groups use the word as a cover-up for their hateful, racist agenda that is far removed from the actual reality of globalization.
However, I am not suggesting that the author of Tokyo Shinobi Squad, Tanaka Yuki, is a racist or maintains any sort of hateful ideology. Far from it. It seems more likely that he used the word and its characterization of immigration as a sort of shorthand to create a dystopian society more closely linked to our own society, where the term has become a buzzword of sorts.
Yet, Yuki is still responsible for the word, it’s usage and its connotations as an author, especially when he is serialized in a magazine such as Weekly Shonen Jump.
The thing is, a series with such connotations probably wouldn’t do much harm in a magazine with an older audience, such as Jump SQ. But Tokyo Shinobi Squad is serialized in a magazine that is, for all intents and purposes, meant for children – who, as an audience, can’t critically evaluate and analyze the content of the media that they consume.
What many fear, including myself, is that putting a series such as Tokyo Shinobi Squad in Weekly Shonen Jump, children will end up absorbing and inadvertently echoing hateful ideology in their everyday lives, which would be quite scary.
The crazy thing is, though, none of this even matters.
The Facade of Meaning
And no, I’m not dismissing the importance of everything I just outlined above. Far from it. People are right to be worried about some of the connotations of the series’ setting and should be taking Shueisha and Weekly Shonen Jump to task for it.
What I’m talking about is the fact that creators Tanaka Yuki and Matsuura Kento seem to have largely discarded much of the series’ setting as of right now, 15 chapters in.
Many of the details to do with how Tokyo became the crime-ridden metropolis it is in the series are never brought up again, and we never do get to see how those ‘hyperloops’ actually work.
Furthermore, what’s strange is that many of the series’ story arcs thus far don’t seem to have much to do with the series’ dystopian setting. Sure, there’s some high-tech terrorists who take some hostages at one point, but that’s fairly standard sci-fi stuff. One baffling arc comes when our characters have to protect a supermodel from assassins, who ends up modeling a fairly normal outfit at the end despite the vast political, economic and cultural changes that the series’ setting implies.
Of course, there are some ways that these effects are glimpsed, however small. The fact that the shinobis have been resurrected from historical obscurity to act as guns-for-hire (but with superpowers) in the crime-ridden metropolis of Tokyo is one such way, but there’s also the fact that some of the characters do pay literal lip service to Tokyo’s newfound cultural diversity by speaking in different languages.
In fact, our point-of-view protagonist in the form of En is actually a Thai immigrant, which is pretty cool. Most manga, and especially shonen manga, don’t tend to include many cultures or settings beyond Japan, which actually makes Tokyo Shinobi Squad into a bizarre flagbearer for cultural diversity in the manga industry.
Given this, could the series be forgiven for its past digressions and worrying connotations? The authors seem to have largely disregarded them, after all.
Unfortunately, it’s a no from me. That first chapter with all of its connotations is still out there and will, in fact, reach more people than ever when the series’ collected volumes start to print very soon.
There’s also the fact that, once you strip away all of the interesting dialogue surrounding politics and ideas from the series, what you’ll find left is nothing but a very muddled and mediocre action series.
Muddled and Mediocre
This might sound strange, but I’m almost disappointed in Tokyo Shinobi Squad.
As someone who has lived in Japan as an immigrant thanks to ‘globalization’ myself, the series’ implications hit home quite hard, perhaps harder than someone who hasn’t had that experience.
Even so, I’d much rather read some interesting that I disagree with than something boring that I agree with – that’s why I go out of my way to read almost everything new that launches in Weekly Shonen Jump.
Yet, it was to my disappointment that I discovered that Tokyo Shinobi Squad was, at its core, very much the former.
Firstly, let’s discuss the characters. Our point-of-view character is, as discussed, a Thai immigrant named En, who is being hunted as he somehow got his hands on one of the more powerful ability-granting ‘scrolls’ that the series’ titular shinobi squads use.
As a character, En is clearly intended to be the vehicle for the audience due to his overseas origins that literally situate him as an outsider to the future Tokyo’s crime-ridden society, which necessitates exposition and explanation for both En and the audience’s benefit.
This is why I can forgive En for being quite a bland character, as the onus clearly falls on the other members of the ‘Narumi-kai’ squad that En ends up joining at the end of the first chapter.
Unfortunately, neither of his fellow squadmates are very compelling. On the one hand, we have Jin Narumi, a young, talented shinobi who loves nothing more than justice and protecting his friends. Pretty average shonen protagonist stuff.
But even Jin seems to have some semblance of a personality when compared with Papillion, the final member of the ‘Narumi-kai’ squad, who seems to exist for no reason than to be a woman. I mean, the series barely gets started before fanservice of her is shoved into our face.
Good characters are integral to a shonen series, which is why so much of Tokyo Shinobi Squad is so unengaging.
Even so, I’ll admit that interesting action scenes and an interesting power system can often be enough to carry even the trashiest of action shonen series for me, so I’d hoped that Tokyo Shinobi Squad might be able to redeem itself in this aspect.
When we’re first introduced to Jin, we find that he has control over electricity and can use it in various ways – reminding me immediately of Killua in Hunter x Hunter. From this, I assumed at least the powers in the series would be interesting, which unfortunately didn’t turn out to be the case.
There’s no underlying logic or system to the powers of the series, other than the fact that they belong to different schools of technique. There’s no advantages or disadvantages, no way for the reader to engage with the battle on an intellectual level like so many other great shonen action series. We’re just supposed to wait until our heroes, usually just Jin, save the day and look badass while doing it.
To be honest, a lot of Tokyo Shinobi Squad’s problems with mediocre characters and muddled characters are of it’s own design. We come into the story at a time where most of the characters already have a very powerful, developed set of powers, meaning that we can’t experience the catharsis of seeing them grow or learning to use their powers as the series goes in – something which can stand in for, or simply strengthen character development and growth as a whole.
The only character with room to grow in terms of powers is En, as he’s only just got his hands on his memorization powers. Yet, the nature of his powers necessarily condemn him to a support role, not an active role, plus he already seems quite powerful – he can already memorize a petabyte of data in a matter of minutes.
Tokyo Shinobi Squad‘s Future
Even so, it seems as if author Tanaka Yuki is undergoing a sort of epiphany as the series goes on. Not only is he moving the series away from its setting and its implications, but he’s also attempting to shift and shape the narrative in a way that offsets the inherent structural problems outlined above.
Essentially, the series has shifted very quickly from episodic to arc-based storytelling. By doing this, Yuki no doubt hopes to introduce more compelling characters than the main cast, offset the problems of the central narrative by creating new ones, and generate anticipation and expectation on the part of readers week-to-week as the arc develops.
Unfortunately, this hasn’t been working out that well. By distancing the arcs from the setting, the most interesting part of the series is removed and each arc becomes entirely generic. As outlined, most of the arcs don’t even seem to take place in a dystopian future.
Furthermore, the series has been languishing in the back pages of Jump ever since it launched, meaning that it’s reader survey results aren’t that good. No doubt it will get the axe sooner rather than later. The sale of it’s first collected volume could provide a little bit of a boost, but this will most likely only be temporary.
In a way, I’ll be sad to see Tokyo Shinobi Squad go. Not just because Matsuura Kento’s art has gone entirely unappreciated due to the problems of Tanaka Yuki’s writing, either (I’m guilty of this, too).
I’ll be sad to see the series go as it was one of the few controversies surrounding the modern Weekly Shonen Jump, as distinct from the Harenchi Gakuen days of the 1960s. In a way, it was one of the few series that really merited talking about from a moral perspective – as distinct from the meritless Beast Children.
Tokyo Shinobi Squad may have been dumb and dangerous, but at least was interesting for doing so.
You can read Tokyo Shinobi Squad as it releases in Japan via VIZ Media’s free Shonen Jump service.