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Blade of the ImmortalBy Oliver Chin
There is something alluring about a man on a mission. Especially if he is hiding an arsenal of swords up his sleeves, defying death, and racking up a body count in quadruple digits.
Such is the street cred of Manji, the brusque anti-hero of Hiroaki Samura's Blade of the Immortal. Yet another samurai story, you say? Those who have taken a look know better. Even in a manga field more crowded than ever with reissued classics, B titles, and American imitations, Blade unabashedly cuts its own bloody, stylish, and passionate swath.
Back in June 1995, Dark Horse began publishing the first of what now are over 60 issues and 9 trade paperbacks with no end in sight (the most recent, The Gathering II was in December 2001). Flaunting convention, Samura whips a number of genres (action and mystery, drama and comedy, history and fantasy) into an intoxicating whirlwind that keeps readers off balance, but always surpasses their expectations.
The Lesson in Vengeance
Cursed to be immortal, Manji can be sliced and diced by foes, but his "bloodworms" can always stitch his body back together again. His only out is to kill a thousand evil men. That shouldn't be a tall order in feudal Japan. Subsequently, this sword for hire becomes the bodyguard of teenager Rin, whose parents were brutally murdered by a rouge school of samurai. Together they uneasily embark on the path of vengeance, tracking the infamous Ittö-ryü and the baby faced killer Anotsu Kagehisa, while confronting their true natures along the way.
For the uninitiated, Blade slices apart civil sensibilities like a knife stroke…unexpectedly, irredeemably, and unrepentantly. Are incredible amounts of pain (self-inficted and otherwise) dished out for simple sake of shock value? Dark Horse's Shawna Erwin Gore notes the underlying irony:
"For all of the series' incredible violence, it is rarely ever gratuitous. The true horror of man's inhumanity to man is revealed in every one of Samura's highly-detailed fight scenes, but there are also complex portrayals of human emotion tied in with the violence. Characters realize the toll violence has taken in their lives, or they're so completely lost within the violence that their humanity is shown as slipping (or having slipped) away. There is no black and white, so to speak, as the characters are all so complex that to call even the arch-villain Anotsu "evil" would be very misleading, as he has proven to be a thoughtful person, capable of virtuous choices."
Wielding a distinctive slashing, woodcut style, Samura crafts swordfights that are kinetic blurs, where speed lines convey not only motion but also emotion - fear, surprise, and grief. However, many chapters are time outs from the heat of battle, miniature set pieces within the larger than life adventure. With a deliberate theatrical style, he composes plays within the broader narrative, to create intimate moments along an epic journey.
Submerged in the Samurai Spirit
In this vein, many fans gladly take the next step to immerse themselves in the samurai environment via video games. A well-mined topic for Japanese game developers who've made a killing porting titles to western audiences, "samurai-dom" spawns more titles than ever. The latest generation of software promises even greater cultural simulacrum, interactive storytelling, and electronically induced adrenaline rushes.
Recently, Crave Games has produced a slew of choices. On the X-Box is Kabuki Warriors, which pits acting troupes against each other on stages across the country. Choose among two dozen characters in one-on-one duels, where popularity can matter as much as panache. On the PlayStation 2 is Kengo, another 2-player fighter that incorporates the tenets of bushido, the samurai's code of bravery, honor, discipline, and simplicity. From dojo to tournament, you clash to ascend rank in skill, spirit, and reputation. In the word of one its characters Soho, "Conquer the self and you will conquer the opponent."
Lastly, on the PC is Battle Realms, which extends the legacy of real time strategy games like Warcraft and Command and Conquer. Here you shepherd the development of your clan against attack, building a secure foundation of agrarian resources to create a magically enhanced military. Following a storyline or just engaging in multi-player skirmishes, you protect your peasants and pit your warrior classes against the far-flung enemy.
Fomenting Popular Uprising
But on the printed page, there is no title that supplies the equivalent level of vicarious thrills that Blade does. Despite it's mature content, Blade has found a receptive and growing audience. Erwin Gore comments that many readers are female, "I think this is directly related to the fantastic, true, and strong depictions of female characters in this series. This isn't to say that the female characters have all of the answers or are fundamentally better than other characters, but they're not treated as novelties."
Such is the case with Rin, who begins the tale as a frightened girl, blinded by rage but acutely aware of her own helplessness. Determined to improve her combat ability despite Manji's apparent disdain, she soon realizes that the actual act of killing is not what she desired at all In addition, is the depiction of Manji's doppelganger, the geisha assassin Makie. Despite her impeccable beauty and fighting prowess, she hates her dead end life.
In many arcs, there is an intentional avoidance of violence and vigilantism. At one point, to sneak across an enemy border by herself, Rin assumes the identity of a local wife with a husband. But is she also the mother she claims to be, the regional magistrate wonders. To be sure, he demands evidence...that only revealing her body can prove! Both sides know the consequences if she fails this test.
I doubt any US comic has ever covered this theme before. This episode is highly unusual even for this series: there is no hallmark swordplay, Manji is off-stage, and the drama is set almost exclusively within interior scenes. This series is nothing if not daring, and succeeds in taking the reader beyond the ordinary and into the excitement of the unfamiliar. Here psychological tension is built masterfully. You feel the trepidation that Rin feels at being interrogated and the dread that her cover will be blown.
A recent Eisner Award winner, Samura transforms a period piece into a character study. As you sense each bead of sweat, furtive glance, and blade cut, you watch how Rin gradually discovers her own strength and mettle. On a journey that will inevitably lead to more personal suffering, the reader can't help but to wait for more.