Nick Lake is the author of Blood Ninja and Lord Oda’s Revenge, two novels set in 16th Century featuring vampire ninjas. I recently reviewed Blood Ninja on the site, and thought Nick’s influences and inspirations would be particularly interesting.
Luckily, he was able to write a piece, which I can share with you all here.
[Nick has also agreed to an interview, so check back next week for more.]
For a long time I’ve been obsessed with the Japanese story of Hoichi the Earless. So obsessed in fact that, in a way, it ended up in Blood Ninja, my unashamedly mashed-up novel of ninjas, vampires, Zen Buddhism and, mostly, cutting off people’s heads with swords.
Blood Ninja is, bar some flagrant liberties with real history, set in 16th century Japan. The characters in it know all about Hoichi the Earless – it was a famous story even then. In condensed form, this is what happens:
Hoichi is a blind musician, a biwa player, who specializes in singing long-form ballads, and who lives in a monastery near the straits of Dan-no-Ura (this is important). In particular, he is famed for his rendition of the Ballad of the Heike, which tells how the Heike family was destroyed in a great (and real-life) sea battle against their rivals the Taira, resulting in the death of their boy emperor, and the transfer of regal power in Japan. That sea battle took place on the straits of Dan-no-Ura. (I told you it was important.)
One night, Hoichi is approached by someone who leads him to what seems to him a palace, where a large audience entreats him to sing the Ballad of the Heike. He does, and they love it, and there is much weeping. This goes on for some nights, until the head priest at the monastery notices that Hoichi is wasting away – and realizes that his blind charge is being preyed upon by Hungry Ghosts (a creepy idea in itself, this Japanese notion of ghosts who leach the life from the living). We see, suddenly, that the palace Hoichi was taken too, which he took in his blindness to be populated by an appreciative audience, was only the cemetery of the Heike, populated only by their dead.
The priest acts quickly: so that the Heike can no longer see Hoichi, he paints on Hoichi’s body certain Sanskrit words of the Heart Sutra – the passage which says that “all form is emptiness, and all emptiness form”. This makes Hoichi invisible to creatures of darkness, such as Hungry Ghosts. The next night, though, the priest comes down to the garden to find Hoichi, weeping, not daring to raise his hands to the terrible wounds on the sides of his head: wounds from where the Heike ripped off his ears. The priest had forgotten to paint them: and that’s how Hoichi became Hoichi the Earless.
Hōichi-dō (Hōichi’s Shrine), Akama
In Blood Ninja, I stole and adapted the idea as part of the back-story for my protagonist’s ninja mentor, Shusaku. Like all ninjas, Shusaku is a vampire – this is why ninjas are so stealthy, so quick, and so comfortable in darkness. (See, it makes sense!) But unlike other ninjas, Shusaku has – in order to rescue our hero Taro from other ninjas, as it turns out – paid for the Heart Sutra to be tattooed all over his body. Since ninjas are vampires, and since vampires are spirits of darkness, this means he is invisible to any ninja – a handy skill to have. Though it becomes less handy once he is forced to turn Taro into a vampire, too, in order to save his life.
I don’t know why this story lodged in my mind the way it did, like a hook in a fish. I think it’s something to do with the Japanese-ness of it. This isn’t a story with a happy ending. It isn’t even, as in the later version of the Achilles myth, a story about hubris. There is no obvious moral. The priest simply makes a mistake, and Hoichi, already blind, pays for it with deafness too. It’s a dark story (literally, because we stumble around with Hoichi for most of it), and oddly elliptical, in the manner of a koan.
A Stage Performance of the Hoichi the Earless Story
Mostly, though, I think I’m just captivated, intellectually and emotionally, by the idea of protection through writing. We’re used, in the West, to stories of spells, of spoken incantations, but here it’s actually written words that protect Hoichi (imperfectly). I’m an editor and a writer – I find something extraordinary about that notion. Clearly, too, there’s something about the underlying idea here that even people who don’t know the story of Hoichi feel – you only have to look at the number of people with phrases, Latin mottos, even lines from books tattooed on their skin. There’s something about the concept of the body as a book, as a sheet of paper, that’s incredibly powerful and atavistic. Hoichi is a medium of writing, as much as he is a character – same for Shusaku. I don’t quite know what that means, what it implies, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. So that’s the intellectual fascination.
I said emotionally too, though. We’ve all of us been hurt, at some point in our lives. How attractive, then, the idea of writing something on our body that will keep us safe from harm. I think we’d all like to be decorated with the Heart Sutra, and therein lies the seduction of the tale of Hoichi the Earless – who knows, maybe if we were, it might protect us. Even if imperfectly.
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You can read a prequel to Blood Ninja (“The Spider-Woman of Mikawa”), the first chapter, and also Nick’s retelling of the Hoichi the Earless by going to the Atlantic Books Blood Ninja page.
Blood Ninja and Lord Oda’s Revenge are both available now.