Gamba's name is short for Ganbariya, "Battler"; but at the start of the story his fighting spirit is only shown in taking food from the larders of houses that other rats have occupied and keeping them out of his (the other rats think "Thief" or "Robber" would be a better name, but since Ganba is stronger than them, they don't press the point). He is taken out of his dull but easy life by his friend Manpuku, "Fullbelly", who wants to go visit the sea (and taste the imported delicacies to be found in the harbour). At a party in a dockside warehouse, Gamba drinks, fights, dances and brags with the ship and harbour rats who are enjoying the warehouse goods. Suddenly the party is interrupted by the appearance of a hungry and terribly wounded rat, Chuuta, who has escaped from an island where a large group of weasels has almost wiped out the rats living there. He is looking for help to save his family. One rat had already experienced the peculiar terror of these weasels, the Noroi clan, led by the charismatic and terrifying white weasel, Noroi. Despite his warning that the fight is hopeless, Gamba and fourteen others set off to fight the weasels.
|Children need role models|
The actual fight with the weasels starts in the last third of the book. But the journey to the island and the search for the survivors is itself full of adventure; and Saitou very effectively builds up our dread of the weasels. He also very skillfully deploys his large cast. It helps that a few are only characterised by one capability revealed in the name (e. g. Tenor, Bass, Jump, Holedigger); but he manages to make us feel like we know a surprising number of characters and to give many of them a personal story that interacts with the larger story. Early in the book we are given warning that not all the companions will survive.
One other aspect the book shares with Watership Down is that it is a distinctly masculine story. All the fifteen companions are male; and Gamba shows an expectation that even in a fight for survival, it is only the males that will be fighting. At least the one named female character, Shouji, shows some impatience with this attitude. As in other Japanese children's books that I have read, the hero is boastful (in a positive way) and not very introspective, except towards the end of the book as the burdens of his responsibility start to weigh on him.
There is no English translation, but it seems to have been translated into French by Karine Chesneau: Gamba et les rats aventuriers (2012).