The look and tone of NANBAKA is bright and colorful–and the episodes are mostly full of crazy overblown antics by a larger-than-life cast of misfits. Despite this, it can still surprise viewers by suddenly hitting the brakes and shifting to a little more of a slow pace in order to take a reflective character introspective.
The character of Tsukumo was introduced in episode three, as is an inmate in Namba prison who dresses, speaks, and behaves like a ninja. Our first impression of Tsukumo, then, is of a bumbling buffoon who is unconvincingly pretending to be a stealthy operator who has it all figured out. In episode seven, however, we are exposed to another side of him that opens up our eyes to another plane of dimensionality to the character–as well as a deeper, more thoughtful theme within NANBAKA that goes way beyond the craziness on the surface.
Tsukumo gets a call that he has a visitor who has come to see him in prison–his manager. It is thus revealed Tsukumo is, in fact, not a ninja at all, but rather an actor. Tsukumo’s manager tells him that his imprisonment has been covered up with a story about him going missing, and so, when he returns, it will be a triumphant comeback story. Tsukumo is not interested.
At this point, the first interesting tidbit appears. Hattori Hanzō, his manager, shares his name with a real historical figure–an actual ninja who is said to have once saved the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu. It sets up a dichotomy of sorts: Hattori is the real ninja, while Tsukumo is the false ninja.
Tsukumo’s reluctance to return, however, channels something of an identity crisis within him. He spends most of the episode recounting his childhood, idyllically recalling how he used to train to be a ninja, even though he had little skill.
An actress-turned-director on the search for a real ninja found him as a boy “training” in the woods one day. She sought to take him under her wing, but not before convincing him that she was his real mother. Her performance seemed so sincere that Tsukumo believed that he was at last reunited with his mother. He then became a child actor playing a variety of roles.
Tsukumo realized eventually that he had been tricked, and ran away to start over. Hattori, however, makes a point which really resonates even beyond the scope of the episode. It is the idea that even if he was indeed tricked, and used… What is the difference if she is not his real mother? At the end of the day, he was taken care of. He got a roof over his head. In fact, he got much more. Just as she played the role of a mother to him, so did Tsukumo play roles: Not only did he become a ninja, but also a rock star, a boxer, a basketball player, and many more. Living the life of an actor meant living dozens of parallel lives. He could be anything he wanted. Is that not a more fulfilling life?
It certainly is a concept which carries heavy undertones, depending on how deeply one wishes to explore. The idea that we are all putting a face on for others–that we have a public image and a private image–is familiar to most modern cultures, not least of which is Japan. The tatemae (outside expression/attitude) and honne (inner sentiment) duality is ingrained in the culture and inherent in almost every interaction in Japanese society, from business meetings to casual discussions with neighbors. In essence, we are all acting, always.
The heart of the conundrum lies in the confusion that it causes for the individual caught in the struggle to find who it is he/she wants to be, while juggling all these other identities simultaneously. This theme is explored in anime every so often: Macross Frontier was a breakaway hit a few years back with many varied elements, from fantastic music and intricate costume designs to frantic robot battles, that made it popular amongst a wide range of fans.
However, one of the themes perhaps often overlooked is the idea that the main character was a kabuki actor tired of the stage. In the 2011 movie, his commander motivates him with a lecture on how we all play roles: the brother, the soldier, the brat… again, the lesson being that this is something we all do, and that worrying about what is genuine–and what one’s true identity is–is a luxurious worry that has little place in the real world.
Both NANBAKA and Macross Frontier seem to suggest, however, that the search for yourself is simple. You are who you are. At the end of the episode, Jūgo tells Tsukumo that he is who he is. Similarly, Ranka in Macross Frontier tells Alto the same, that he is who he is, and nobody else. The message is clearly “be true to yourself.”
At the end of the day, I think it is fascinating to explore the idea of multiple roles in the medium of anime, since technically everything you see is created from scratch anyway. That is to say, these characters are just drawings. They do not exist, and yet they manage to give us these genuine emotional responses, to the extent that we keep tuning back in to find out what happens to them.
NANBAKA is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.