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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #6 (February 7, 2006), page 12.
Murderous, mythic animal terrorizes small town
Village of the Vampire Cat
By Lensey Namioka
Tuttle Publishing, 2005
Paperback, 224 pages, $7.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Lensey Namioka’s intrepid ronin Zenta and Matsuzo return in Village of the Vampire Cat, investigating a series of mysterious attacks in the village where Zenta’s former master lives. While the writing is lively and the imagery vivid, this engaging story deals with mature subject matter that might put it beyond the grasp of younger readers, or the values of conservative parents. Nonetheless, Namioka is a skilled storyteller, her plots well crafted and packed with surprises, and older samurai enthusiasts will surely be pleased with her effort, the fourth book of her previously published six-book series.
Zenta, the elder of the two masterless samurai (ronin), has never been forthcoming about his history, not even to his protégé, the sometimes hotheaded Matsuzo. So when Zenta suggests a New Year’s visit to Ikken, his former teacher, Matsuzo is intrigued by the possibility of getting a peek into his friend’s hazy past.
Laden with traditional gifts, the two arrive at a village shrouded by snow and haunted by something more sinister — the legendary Vampire Cat. Young girls have been dying after attacks in the forest, the scratches on their necks testimony to the claws of the beast that killed them, which the superstitious villagers think is the Vampire Cat. When he finds that a band of ruffians have been selling medicine as protection from the Cat, Zenta suspects that they may be behind the attacks and begins to investigate.
In the process, he finds that the fortunes of Ikken have fallen along with those of his village. Once a respected samurai and master of the traditional tea ceremony, Ikken is now virtually penniless, and his son and only heir Shunken (Zenta’s one-time training partner and tormentor) is gone, having died in battle several years ago. Sifting through his own memories along with the scant clues he can find, Zenta discovers that Ikken’s hardships and the forces behind the Vampire Cat are related, although not for the reasons that he first suspects. Solving the mystery will bring Zenta face-to-face with the ghosts from his past, as well as dangers from the present, and will require the best of both his brains and his swordsmanship.
Namioka once again proves herself a gifted writer, bringing the snowy landscape brilliantly to life, and revealing her vast knowledge of historical Japan. Ikken presents an interesting figure, as he excels in both swordsmanship and the tea ceremony, an example of how samurai often practiced more peaceful, cultured arts. Ikken’s isolation is a surprise to Zenta, because he imagined the wise man would have gathered students and travellers — not for his martial arts knowledge, but for his mastery of the intricate tea ceremony. The ceremony itself is featured at several points in the story, serving as a way for Zenta and Ikken to put aside the tension of their current situation.
Namioka offers other realistic touches, as with the social machinations involved in the marriage of Ikken’s niece Asa (once betrothed to Shunken) and in the disposition of Ikken’s estate to his sister-in-law Toshi, Asa’s mother. Issues of propriety, tradition, and superstition, so important to Japanese culture then and now, influence these subplots, as well as many others. For example, the battle that killed Shunken took place in the village; after the battle, many villagers looted the corpses, angry with the samurai who tore their lives apart. Many of them now believe that the Vampire Cat was visited upon them as punishment for this desecration of the dead.
Namioka’s realism reaches an extent, however, that some readers (or their parents) may not be comfortable with. One cannot write about samurai without including swordfights and battles, of which Vampire Cat contains several; all are well written and exciting, but they are characteristically bloody. Another feature of samurai culture, the face-saving ritual suicide known as hara-kiri, also becomes an inescapable plot element, and may be disturbing to some younger readers. And, lastly, conversation about the missing girls twice centers on their possible rape, an issue perhaps beyond the ken of the ten-year-olds who make up the youngest readers of the book’s intended audience.
While these issues do not significantly detract from the overall quality of the work, and appear for logical, not sensationalistic, reasons, they will still be points of concern for some. Those readers who are mature enough to handle the subject matter, however, will find a marvelously exciting mystery, and will discover many interesting facts about sixteenth-century Japan and the samurai culture. Fans of the Zenta and Matsuzo series will be excited to learn more about Zenta’s mysterious past, even if the characters themselves have not developed appreciably.
Although it was originally published in 1981, Village of the Vampire Cat has lost none of its luster, and sophisticated middle readers will certainly lose themselves in this absorbing mystery-adventure from the talented pen of Lensey Namioka.