The problem with being immortal is that it’s a package deal from hell. Yes, you get to live forever, but typically at some drastic cost — like, for instance, the fact that while you might get to live forever, anyone else you could come to care about typically doesn’t. And then there’s all that nasty, unwanted attention if your secret ever gets out, and the way that bad hair day you’re having never goes away, and …
That’s how it works in Blade of the Immortal, Hiroaki Samura’s widely-acclaimed, long-running, and blood-splattered manga epic about a (theoretically) unkillable rōnin in feudal Japan. The story doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming immortality is some great treasure — here, it’s a curse written in the blood and entrails of the undying, and it comes at a cost so huge that only the most wretched would ever want it. Small wonder it ends up being inflicted on Manji, a former samurai now turned freelance death merchant, whose attitude towards this very mixed blessing is to laugh in its face and spit in its wind.
I flinch at using the word important to talk about any creative work, but Blade Of The Immortal is at least as important to me personally as it is to the history of manga in the West. It was one of the first manga to receive wide distribution in comic shops when it first started appearing in the 1990s, as it was sold side-by-side with Marvel and DC titles in 32-page monthly editions. (I remember comic dealers that didn't carry a single other self-identified manga title, but had a whole shelf of Immortals.)
With the series having concluded its run after nineteen years, Dark Horse is now re-anthologizing the whole lineup in a set of three-in-one editions that just started hitting shelves the other week. There's hardly a better excuse to dive back into a series that is a personal favorite, and which I routinely point Western comics fans towards as a way to experience manga at one of its peaks: gorgeous, scathingly black-humored, fearless, as entertaining now as it always was.
Undead man walking
Maybe we could call it samurai noir. The more I think about Blade, the more it seems to share many qualities with noir storytelling by another name. It gives us an antihero — the aforementioned Manji, who would be fearsome even if he weren't nigh-unkillable. It places him in a world that is mostly black with occasional shades of gray, if even that, and it allows him to be comfortable there. Most of the evil people Manji butts heads with — and clashes swords with, and hacks off the limbs of — are scum scarcely better than him, but some arguably aren’t scum, or at the very least have their very comprehensible reasons. One of his first victims, a doshin (samurai policeman) who’s come to arrest him, turns out to be his sister’s husband … something that only occurs to him, and us, as the dead man’s head is hitting the ground. (The blackly comic behaviors of dead bodies and hacked-off limbs form a big part of Samura's aesthetic in this series.)
Manji may himself be a killer, but he's not deluded about it — he knows nobody's going to confuse him for a good guy, and he's also perpetually mindful of the motives of others. That includes those who might hire him, as he knows too well there are multiple sides to every sob story. Today's victim looking for justice is tomorrow's killer-in-training. The same rule applies when he's approached by a teenaged girl named Rin, daughter of a samurai murdered by a gang of kendo students seeking vengeance on her bloodline. Manji's unmoved when she offers her body as payment, but reconsiders. If people want her dead, that's a great way to draw victims to himself, since he needs to kill a thousand other evildoers to have his curse lifted. Plus, it's hard for him not to feel sorry for someone who looks a whole lot like his dead sister, but don't tell anyone that.
It's a familiar setup: the hard-bitten expert and the ambitious amateur, the cynic and the idealist, teaming up to go right some personal wrongs and kick acres of ass in the process. From this premise, Samura spins out a series of confrontations between Rin, Manji, and Anotsu, the leader of the sword gang, and all of Anotsu's cronies. Each of these clashes is played up for their grotesquerie, both by way of Manji's abilities — more often than not, at the end of a battle, he has to have Rin collect his severed limbs — and by way of the opponents being outcasts and oddities of their own kind. The first one Manji tangles with, Kuori Sabato, comes off like something out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky movie: a masked aesthete of death sporting the heads of two dead women preserved and sewn onto his shoulders. (The identity of one of those corpses makes for a plot point I won't reveal here.)
The next major opponent is Makie, a woman whose past intertwines with Anotsu's, and whose own skill with weapons is formidable. She knows she has the skill to be a killer, but she doesn't want that kind of life; she is willing to settle for a career as a geisha. This makes Anotsu's blood boil: the sight of such amazing natural skill going to waste is an affront to everything he believes in. Anotsu sends her after Manji, and she very nearly beats him, but it's Manji's insights into her personality — and Rin's own intervention — that get Makie to change her mind about herself. For Manji, it's that he can't stand the idea of being beaten by someone — and a woman, at that — who isn't even doing this with the whole of her heart into it. With Rin, it's that her own conflicted feelings about the mission she's put herself on make Makie realize the two of them together have an integrity that she can't bring herself to come between.
What Samura brings to the material, and what has kept Blade consistently above and beyond the pale, are two things — one essential, the other optional but welcome. First comes something I've been detailing throughout the above paragraphs — the way motivation, character, and personality are the real drivers of the story, and not merely clever plotting or devilish situational arrangements. It's not about who's the strongest or most skilled, but about why they long for such things, and what kinds of people they are willing to become to get there. Manji is no angel, but he's also not a fool, and the good he does for Rin is made palatable to him by being disguised as a transactional arrangement. Rin is wracked with self-doubt and a sense of powerlessness in the face of her enemies, but she's not paralyzed, either — she decided long ago that if this ends with her dying, at least it will have been for something that mattered.
The other thing is the artwork. A great story can be driven by rudimentary artwork (Astro-Boy), but great artwork always bolsters an already-great story. Samura's work for Blade of the Immortal shares a common attribute with Kentaro Miura's work for Berserk: it starts off at such a high caliber that it's hard to see how it can get any better, but improve it does, and not by a little either. This goes beyond Samura's great command of ink lines or judicious use of screen tone. He has the eye of a cinematographer; he knows how to frame and block the action in a way that best complements it. And at the climax of a battle, he stops everything for a full-page or two-page spread, like a freeze-frame, glorious and horrible at the same time.
Dazzling as his battle shots are, though, they're far surpassed by the way he uses the human face as the ultimate subject for our attention. Case in point: Anotsu is reminiscing to a woman about a memory from childhood, about a girl he knew whose devastating power with a sword was nothing compared to the look of sadness on her face. Cut to a low angle looking up of the woman. The gravity of her expression is the only clue we need as to her identity.
A word about the presentation of the art is in order here. Blade of the Immortal was one of the very first manga to receive broad distribution in English. Right-to-left printing may be ubiquitous now, but it was unheard-of when Blade first appeared in comic shops; the typical strategy was just to print each page as a mirror image. Rather than do this, Samura approved of a plan to have the panels on each page reorganized to read from left to right whenever possible. The reissue preserves that "swapped" layout, and doesn't substitute it for a right-to-left version. At first I was irritated by this; it would have been nice to see the story in its original format, as per Kodansha's forthcoming reissue of Masamune Shirow's original Ghost In The Shell manga. But I suspect it would also have been a major and costly production effort, and it would have run contrary to the original aim of making the title as broadly accessible as possible. It makes little sense to undo that right when the series is poised to draw in an entirely new generation of readers.
Flashpoints and starting points
Two other things about Blade of the Immortal make it a potential lightning rod for controversy. The first is the violence, and for a hint of that I refer you back to my earlier mention of how Manji often needs Rin's help gathering back up his limbs. It's no accident the director of the ultra-ultra-violent Ichi The Killer, Takashi Miike, signed on to direct a live-action adaptation of this franchise. That said, Miike is a good complement also because of the character-centric approach he's brought to even the most outré material, and this story is driven first by character and second by action, even if those eye-filling two-page splash panels make it easy to forget that.
Side note. I'm on the fence as to whether Immortal's violence is made more or less palatable by the series's black humor — I suspect the people most put off by it will be those who aren't fond of jokes, even mordant ones, as leaveners for violence. Personally, I like it; it's a reflection of Manji's own attitude that the best way to deal with a world that doesn't even seem to want you around is to sneer right back. (The short-lived animated adaptation of the manga was missing a number of things, but that was the largest and most egregious omission: there wasn't any of the original's crackling, cackling underdog laughter.)
Second is the swastika. For those not in the know, it's the one on the back of Manji's jacket — after all, "manji" means swastika — but not enough people know that symbol had a long and noble history before the Nazis appropriated it for their own ends. (For the longest time, Buddhist temples were thus marked on maps in Japan and other places.) Rather than censor the art, as was done in Germany when the title was localized for that country, Dark Horse did the wise thing and placed a detailed discussion about the swastika's history and meaning in the front of each copy of the comic.
Most of the titles I discuss in depth on Ganriki.org have personal significance; all the more reason for me to dive into them. Blade of the Immortal was one of the very first things I encountered that I was conscious of as manga. It was easy to get dizzy over it because of its art, or the extreme subject matter, or its exotic status as a cultural product imported from the far opposite side of the free world. As years went by, and I picked up volume after volume, I marveled at how it expanded the scope of its ambitions. It became more than just the sum of its parts, or the slow-motion execution of a single gimmick. Like Vagabond, Berserk, Black Lagoon, Rurouni Kenshin, Monster, Eden: it's an endless world! (lamentably incomplete in English), and many of Osamu Tezuka's works, Immortal showed how something that ostensibly only existed to entertain could contain so much more than just that.