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Comics & Games Retailer

The Latest Samurai

By Oliver Chin

Debuting in theaters near you are a number of high profile flicks sporting a samurai theme. Their production shows how Hollywood has taken fifty years to ingest the work of Akira Kurosawa and recycle this genre of feudal feuding for its own profit. But they also prove how audiences continue to be entertained by these timeless scenarios of honor, weapons and warfare.

Quentin Tarantino courts controversy again in his bloodfest Kill Bill, where golden girl Uma Thuman slices and dices dozens of opponents in her quest to disembowel David Carradine. Many critics mistakenly described this film as anime (even though it does showcase an animated sequence), when Tarantino simply indulges in a post-modern homage (or rip off, depending on how you look at it) to Bruce Lee, the TV show Kung Fu, and Asian martial arts movie madness.

On another screen, Tom Cruise gets into risky business in The Last Samurai. A "gaijin" (foreigner) visting Japan in the late 19th century, Cruise exchanges his identity as a Civil War captain for the traditional garb, cutlery, and bushido of the warrior class in the futile attempt to fend off the onslaught of westernization. Directed by Ed Zwick, hopefully Cruise's performance will be more like those in Glory and less than those in Days of Thunder.

Surely samurais seem like new kids on the block all over again. But this cinematic "in" thing is old news to anime and manga fans. Simply put, Americans continue to go head over heels for "foreign" products, unaware that these properties were popular overseas for years before they got licensed for Western exposure. But that the nature of the international merchandising business, and it is fitting to recap how far the saga of swordsmen have permeated the fields of comics and animation during the past decade.

Manga Mayhem

2003 was a year of going back to the future. Older readers cherished the mammoth re-release from Dark Horse of the long out of print classic Lone Wolf and Cub, and newer ones were exposed to this series' modern reinvention in the year of 2100. The original epic takes up an entire row on the bookshelf, as Ogami Itto reclaims his honor as the shogun's former court executioner by exposing the explosive machinations of the shadow government of ninjas. Now relocated by writer Mike Kennedy and artist Francisco Ruiz Velasco to a dusty dystopia, Itto is recast in the new American comic as a wandering cyborg who must protect a young girl against a menacing corporation and human caused epidemic.

Smack in the middle of the timeline, Dark Horse also continues the series Blade of the Immortal, which is a modern reinterpretation of the waning samurai age, where bandits and mercenaries roam the countryside as a new world order is waiting to be born. Hiroaki Samura slashes and burns the formal conventions of emotional restraint and ritual, and constructs a new type of tale built on passion, impulsiveness, and unfettered rage.

Balancing this out is Dark Horse's Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, where animals take the place of humans and the ronin is a rabbit. Its long-running popularity is due to its simple depiction of complex intrigue and how it is acts as a primer in Japanese cultural traditions while maintaining a serious mien toward the subject matter.

On the other side of the aisle is Viz's anti-hero Vagabond. Created by Takehiko Inoue and set in Japan's Tokugawa Era, Takezo goes AWOL after being soured on the painful reality of battle, and then must fend off those who want the bounty on his head. Drawn in an unglamorous and stark style, this title simultaneously demystifies the romanticism around war while reveling in the brutal nature of human spiritual and physical combat.

Ninjas are for Kids

However, the latest generation wants heroes that they can identify with as well. Therefore, Viz has adapted the popular Japanese magazine Shonen Jump and its anthology of series that cater to teenage readers. Two of these specifically update the samurai archetype to the present day, complete with adolescent humor and a video game mentality.

The first is Naruto, which involves a young boy is enrolled in training school to be the best ninja ever. However, he is a goofy truant at heart plus being the incarnation of a mega fox demon which had terrorized the village. Burdened by this history, Naruto has a lot to overcome in the eyes of his teachers as well as his classmates. Creator Masashi Kishimoto demonstrates a talent for blending wacky gags with fierce and frenetic action to hold the audience's attention.

In the second series called Shaman King, another teenager convinces the spirit of a long dead samurai to be his bodyguard. Knowing his vocation will be a shaman, Yoh displays a skill for communicating with ghosts that others can't see, and resolving problems that force them to haunt the world of the living. Having befriended the infamous warrior Amidamaru, Yoh must combat other youthful shamans and their protectors to see who deserves to be the rightful king.

Animated Adventures

On the living room screen, anime samurais continue to make headway. Cable television's The Cartoon Network has popularized its own production Samurai Jack, but also gotten kudos for airing the real thing with Rurouni Kenshin. With VHS and DVDs available from MediaBlasters, this story starts with the Meiji Revolution that spelled the demise of the Shogun and the samurai. Kenshin is a master swordsman who teams up with the fencer Kaoru and battler Sanosuke to uphold honor in a society whose values and structure are being turned upside town.

Of course, in 21st century adaptations, women are allowed to be samurais too. Therefore, Bandai's Tsukikage Ran is a skilled swordswoman in the Edo period who teams up with the Lady Myao to enforce their own brand of justice as the wander through the land. Traveling from one misadventure to another with a mild blend of comedy and drama.

But true to the retrospective theme comes the 10th year anniversary edition DVD of Manga Entertainment's Ninja Scroll. It is worth noting how well this title has held up, not just in terms of animation quality but also in narrative. Even though hundreds of similar titles have been released afterwards, the gripping account of Jubei remains one of the touchstones of the genre.

Meanwhile video games continue to reinvent the interplay between samurais and ninja, whether in recent titles such as Activision's Tenchu series, and the upcoming hits like Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden. But as viewers continue to flock to stories that cross the boundaries among comics, animation, video games, and film, samurais will continue to be stalwart subjects that galvanize the public's imagination.

Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide is the USA's longest running magazine about comic books. Every month it features new comic reviews, nostalgic retroviews, interviews and a price guide. Oliver Chin reviews anime, manga, movies, videos, graphic novels, comics, and books.

Comics & Games Retailer provides news to comic and games retailers about practical how-to tips on selling comics and keeping up with industry and market trends. Monthly issues include Oliver Chin's column "Going Global" and other articles that give a national overview of the market.