Genre: Historical, Samurai, Action, Drama, Fantasy
What’s in it?: Hacking and slashing, Revenge, Gore, Blood, Death.
Any objectionable content?: Some casual swearing (not surprising considering the cast of streetwise toughs and sullen anti-heroes). A whole lot of slicing and dicing (which means lots of dismembered limbs and blood…lots of blood). And no nudity, although there are some suggestive scenes when it comes to sex (but nothing explicit).
In the chaotic world of eighteenth-century Japan, outlaw samurai who settle disputes with their blades aren’t uncommon. But one rônin is different: the wandering outlaw who calls himself Manji. Years ago, he betrayed his corrupt lord, and since then he’s killed a hundred men and earned a reputation as the toughest man in Japan. Of course, every other would-be tough guy who wants to make a name for himself is gunning for Manji, but they don’t know his secret: a cranky old nun has filled his body with mystical “holy bloodworms” that repair any damage done to Manji’s body. He can’t die… even if he wants to (poor thing). Tiring of the burden of immortality, Manji makes a deal with the nun – if he makes up for his past crimes by slaying one thousand evil men, she’ll remove the bloodworms from his body. When Manji is hired by an angry young woman named Rin, who is seeking revenge for the murder of her parents, his task is only just beginning!
I have to hand it to Dark Horse Comics when it comes to manga; they have a knack for consistently picking winners. In Hiroaki Samura’s sassy, stylish, ultra-violent Blade of the Immortal they’ve gone ahead and scored again with success.
The story progresses at such a swift pace that, even at 192 pages, this first volume seems too short. Samura starts us right off with the creative violence, and doesn’t waste any time thereafter introducing us to Manji and his back-story with a minimum of ado. After a shocking and brutal opening chapter, we then get into the story, wherein Manji meets an orphan girl named Rin and gets a (somewhat unwanted) focus for his mission of redemption. From that point, each episode follows a relatively simple format: Manji and Rin are menaced by some unspeakably evil member of the group that killed Rin’s parents, and after a few gruesome atrocities are perpetrated upon Manji’s immortal body, he recovers enough to dismember the baddie in a beautiful and strikingly rendered full-page panel. More on that in a moment.
The characters are an interesting mix of old and new. On the one hand, these are samurai, who speak of bushido and honour and of schools of swordsmanship just like the inhabitants of any Kurosawa samurai film. On the other hand, there’s a sneering swagger to many of the characters, especially the bad guys which makes the whole thing feel very modern. Manji himself is a fun character to read about; for all his nihilistic self-loathing and show of disinterest, what we know of his past (both distant and recent) makes him more than just a wisecracking sword-for-hire. His erstwhile sidekick, Rin, has a legitimate beef with the Itto-Ryû (the “school” that killed her parents), but she’s bull-headed and somewhat misguided, and as unlovable a character as Manji is, it’s almost a relief to know he’s around to keep Rin from getting herself killed by the next available samurai.
More so than story, however, Blade of the Immortal is a series that thrives on its stunning artwork. Samura’s imagination is a weird place, coming up with a slew of images that are sometimes gorgeous and sometimes grotesque, rendered in a mix of pencilled panels and fully-inked ones. The pencils-only panels are kind of odd to see at first, but the more of them I saw the more I liked them. They somehow manage to convey a hurried feeling that is perfect for conveying the sometimes frenetic pacing of the action. At the same time, the different range of textures they allow Samura to use results in amazing full-page and double-page images that just wouldn’t be as memorable if rendered in a traditionally inked style. Samura uses little screen tone, instead shading his drawings with crosshatching and pencil-shading, which also contributes to the unique feel characteristic of the artwork in this series. The full-page or double-page pictures that serve as climaxes to his fight sequences are works of art unto themselves, with posed heroes and symbol-laden background images and decorated borders lending a surreal sense of beauty to the creatively gruesome dismemberments that are also the focus of these spreads.
This is a samurai series with a bad attitude, a historical action drama with a hefty dose of modern street sensibility to make it stand out from the crowd. It’s not a nice story by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a relentlessly interesting one that kept me hooked from the get-go. With elements that will appeal to the adrenaline junkies, the Japanese history buffs, and the all-around-love of violence bunch of fans.