This one's personal. Hiroaki Samura's Blade Of The Immortal was one of the first manga given major-league distribution in English, and one of the first I picked up on — gorgeous, audacious, ambitious, violent, worth devoting a whole shelf to. It hurt to see it adapted twice before, as a short anime series, and as a live-action film, only to have each of those fall short in some way. Now comes a new animated adaptation that addresses the original story end to end, and it's as good a version of this material as one could hope for. It also preserves two things about its source I most hoped would stay: some hint of its remarkable design work, and the way it manages the difficult balancing act of dealing with ugly things without itself becoming too ugly to watch.
The never-ending man and his new mission
Samura's manga, and the show after it, begins with a setup open-ended enough it could have sustained two decades' worth of stories as a weekly, let alone a monthly. Sometime in the latter half of the Shogunate era, a scarred and one-eyed swordsman named Manji (so named for the fylfot on the back of his jacket, or maybe the other way 'round) lives a reclusive existence. At some point in the past a mysterious, apparently immortal, witch dosed him with "bloodworms", a kind of parasite that allows him to regenerate any bodily injury short of having his head severed. Any fight he's in, he wins, if only because he can take just about any blow without actually dying.
One day a young woman, Rin, approaches him about a possible mission. Years ago her parents, owners of a sword dojo, were killed by members of a rival school — Ittō-ryū, made up of outcasts and renegades, led by the cold-blooded and -eyed Anotsu Kagehisa. They exist solely to challenge others and win, and to demonstrate how foolish the cult of swordsmanship is. Rin's mother and father were casualties of that ambition, and now Rin wants Kagehisa (and, if possible, his cohorts) all dead. Manji is not in the habit of helping other people with their crusades. Especially not a frail little sparrow like Rin, whose one martial art is a showy but mostly ineffectual stunt involving throwing knives. But then the members of the Ittō-ryū come gunning for both of them, and Manji realizes he's going to end up fighting this motley gang anyway.
The first third or so of the show uses a "freak-of-the-week" approach, where Manji and Rin face down Kagehisa's disciples one by one as they try to close in on the man himself. Some are straight-up repulsive, like Sabato, the giant whose enormous pauldrons are actually severed heads — one being his late wife, and the less said about the other the better. But some are more intriguing and conflicted, like Makie, the geisha who adores Kagehisa and turned to assassination to avenge her disgraced mother (since it was her brother, not she, who was supposed to have the swordsmanship skill in the family). And some are straight-up approachable, like Taito, the lower half of his face perpetually hidden, who eventually allies with Manji for a common purpose even if he spends most of his time insulting the other guy.
The bad guys, and the worse guys
By the time the first third of the show or so is over, two interesting things have happened. The first is how the show's focus has both widened and shifted — not so much away from Manji and Rin, but to allow their own path to be placed in the context of bigger goings-on. Kagehisa and the Ittō-ryū are cruel and determined, but much of their cruelty and determination was shaped by larger forces assembled by the powers that be, dead-set on enforcing the pax Shogunatica at all costs. Kagehisa would rather work with the likes of Rin and Manji to accomplish his bigger mission, and Rin is horrified (at first) to discover that yes, so would she.
The two of them don't learn about this all at once, which helps sell us further on it being plausible. Members of another sword school determined to take down the Ittō-ryū slither into view: the Mugai-ryū. This off-the-record organ of government power also affords outcasts a place to be and a purpose to channel themselves into. Small wonder they approach Manji and try to enlist him directly, since they both want Kagehisa and his clan wiped out. But by then Manji already knows where his sympathies are. Or, at the very least, he knows low character when he smells it, and seeing how the Mugai-ryū provides a place for some truly vile characters (e.g., Shira, a white-haired sexual sadist) tells him everything he needs to know about bad vs. worse.
What initially worried me about this change-up was how it might derail the show — e.g., the way the manga Claymore over time lost its attention for the very characters that got us interested in it in the first place. There are indeed stretches where we don't see Rin and Manji at all, or where they register as tertiary characters. Consider a lengthy subplot where Manji is captured by the Mugai-ryū's commander, Kagimura Habaki (an embodiment of the idea that if you want to tell good from evil, give it power), and experimented on by a mad doctor to learn the nature of his immortality. We gather that the doctor's madness is at least as much a function of his superior's monomania as it is the doctor's own frail psyche. But Manji and Rin, and the things they stand for and embody, are never far from the center of the action. When they come roaring back in to take command of events in the final third, it's well worth having waited for them.
A killer eyeful
All of what happens is in strict accordance with the original story, something both the first (2008) animated adaptation and the live-action film couldn't and didn't cover. In the first case, the story was ongoing; in the second, the now-completed story didn't lend itself to being crammed into a movie, and so one had to settle for a drastically reworked version of the first third or so. But this series covers everything, and does it nearly all the justice it deserves.
I say "nearly" because I still believe no animation could ever properly reproduce the spectacular, rough-lined and yet fantastically detailed pencil work of the manga's original art. Nothing looked like it then and nothing still looks like it now. The original anime mostly settled for being good-looking when the budget permitted, which was most of the time. This time around, the animation's even more high-end, and doesn't try to reproduce the manga forensically so much as reconstruct the impact it would have. One of Samura's favorite tricks was a double-panel splash page with a freeze-frame moment of bloody violence (of which this story provides innumerable instances). Occasionally the show reproduces the explosive power of such a moment, but it isn't overdone. Another way the animation nods towards the original art without just miming it is, again, in the violent moments. There are long stretches of the show where no one so much as flashes a weapon, bookended by furious bursts of severed limbs and geysering blood.
The art and the spectacularly stylized violence were not the only attractions for the original story, and the same goes for the show. Like Berserk, or Sanpei Shirato's works, it's populated by well-written, multidimensional characters, all of whom — including the second- and third-tier ones — have freedom of speech and movement enough over the course of the show to express themselves. Manji finds immortality more annoying than anything else: there's some subtle touches (in a story not known for subtlety) around how one of the big downsides of never being killed is that your swordsmanship never rises above a certain level because you have little incentive to improve. On the other hand, Rin remains always and painfully aware of her limitations, but that spurs her to do better. Among the very best episodes in the show is one where she has to concoct an elaborate lie to fool a scrutinous border guard, and we are shown how she uses the emotional fuel from her own wounded past to drive the whole project. Method acting.
I hate to keep using this franchise's previous incarnations as contrasting examples for how this iteration got it right, but so many examples come to mind. Biggest for me was the blunt, dark humor of the original story: if you can't laugh at the fact that you need someone else to help collect your hacked-off body parts at the end of a fight, what can you laugh at? I was most amazed at how the movie did not reproduce this part well — and that under the helm of Takashi Miike, normally a master of dark humor. But the show also wisely tones down some of the more needlessly edgy material: the early story notes about Manji's sister, for instance, or the smart way the swastika on Manji's jacket is reworked to not resemble the real thing quite so closely. That said, I'm not a fan of how one of the chief bad guys, Shira, still has most of his villainy defined by how he sexually assaults several female characters (including one of the best-delineated secondary characters, Mugai-ryū member Hyakurin, she of the 18th-century bleach job, attacked multiple times by him in thoroughly nasty ways). In story terms stuff like this always feels like a no-win. If he's evil because he rapes, that's not saying much. If he's evil apart from that — and he is, as in when he tricks Rin into eating dog meat to toughen her up — why bother with making him into a rapist anyway?
One of the pleasures of reading Blade Of The Immortal as it continued to come out was watching the story develop over years, and in my case decades. Would that everyone had the luxury, in time or finances or both, to experience the original as it once was only possible to experience it. All the more to experience its fiercest moments in that context — how no one's survival in the story is guaranteed, but also how this does not manifest in the contemptuous "everyone is dispensible" way shows like Game Of Thrones use as poor man's climactics. Everyone gets exactly what they deserve: it just sometimes happens slower than you might think, after which it happens faster than you can imagine. It was quite a thing to let that unreel over such a long period of time. To now see all of it compressed into a few weeks' TV feels, I admit, jarring. But in a good way.