How do you combine family drama, ninjas, time travel and romance in a way that isn't completely ridiculous? Well, I don't know if today's selection is the perfect way to do so, but it's certainly a good start.
SHINOBI LIFE (Shinobi Raifu), by Shoko Conami. First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2008.
Hundreds of years ago, Kagetora was a loyal ninja serving Princess Beni. During an attack on her home, the two are separated by an explosion and Kagetora finds himself flung through time and right onto another, modern day Beni. She's a rich girl with a seething hatred of her greedy stepfather and she sees Kagetora as a new way to spite him. Soon enough, she comes to care for him, but helping Kagetora won't be as simple as just taking him back to his time.
You know, for as much as ninjas are associated with Japanese pop culture it's hard to find good manga that feature them. I fully expected Shinobi Life to simply blend in with the rest of that thoroughly mediocre pile of books. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that it had a few nifty tricks up its sleeves.
The interplay between Kagetora and Beni reminds me a lot of Sousuke and Kanami from Full Metal Panic!. It's not a perfect comparison, mind you, as Kagetora's obliviousness isn't played for comedy and Beni's anger come not from being your standard tsundere but instead is fueled by paranoia and regret that she uses to lash out at everyone. Still, there's a lot more give and take between the two than merely bodyguard and client right from the start and it doesn't take long before the two of them start to drop their guards a little. This make the eventual shift towards romance feel natural and well-earned.
The rest of the plot is kind of all over the place. At first it seems like the story is going to be Kagetora and Beni against the world...or at least, against her skeezy dad who may or may not be hiding the truth behind her mother's death and is most certainly trying to set her up his very creepy advisor. Then Beni figures out how the wormhole that brought Kagetora to her works and they end up jumping back and forth from his time to hers trying to straighten things out. I'm glad they don't milk the situation for fish-out-of-water jokes, but it seems like Conami didn't plan things out very far. It's fun thus far, but if she just making things up from chapter to chapter then it's hard to say how long those good qualities will win out.
Much like the story, there's some interesting stuff going on just below the otherwise mundane facade. The character designs are nothing - if anything, they're a little gangly - but Conami makes them look better through some smart framing, subtle expression, and the occasionally artful pose. Maybe they stand out more because the backgrounds are pretty vague. On the other hand, she tends to pack the panels on the page pretty tight, so busier scenes tend to devolve into visual chaos.
It's not often I have cause to compliment a Tokyopop translation, but it's also not often I recognize someone in the credits. In this case, it's Ysabet McFarlane, a translator who these days does a lot of work for Seven Seas on books like The Ancient Magus' Bride and The Girl From the Other Side. Her adaptation lends Beni's dialogue a lot of bite and gives Kagetora's speech just the right amount of old-fashioned formality without going the full Rurouni Kenshin route.
Shinobi Life is a bit of a mess plot-wise but it's saved by a decently written romance, some decent art skills, and a translation that lends it charm.
This series was published by Tokyopop. This series is complete in Japan with 13 volumes available. 8 volumes were published and are currently out of print.