The one thing I can say, unequivocally, about Hiroaki (Blade of the Immortal) Samura's new series, Die Wergelder, is that Samura isn't repeating himself. He's made a left turn from the samurai-punk aesthetic of the former series into something that I guess could be called Nikkatsu-punk, a quasi-SF updating of the girls'n'gangsters flavor of 1970s Japanese crime cinema. It provides Samura with no end of ways to flex his visual inventiveness and grotesque artistry, two things Samura has always had to offer no matter what story he was telling. Unfortunately, Samura's not repeating himself in the way that matters most: by giving us another series that's compulsively readable in spite of all of its boundary-pushing.
The dilemma I've always faced with stories that feature "gritty" or "adult" material is what its real function is in the story. If it's where things start — if we move past it into other territory, into some greater understanding — then it's an ingredient and not the reason for being. But if it's where things end up — if the whole point seems to be to evoke ugliness for the sake of a "life's like that" or "brutality would be the norm in such a world" mentality (hello, Game of Thrones), then it makes the story little more than brutality porn. Wergelder is a little too sophisticated and ambitious to be only that, but I would not blame someone else for thinking it was, in fact, only that.
Three bad girls in a hidden fortress
Blade of the Immortal was informed about equally by Hong Kong wuxia, Japanese chanbara, and Western fantasy-horror. Wergelder takes at least half of its cues from Japan's Nikkatsu Studios cinema of the 1970s, where bad girls and tough guys sparred for territory and dominance, all filmed in a wild, kinetic, colorful style. (Samura's style may be all black-and-white, with pencil lines instead of fiery color, but his moody, stark images are a good complement for the aesthetic he's conjuring up.) It was the same scene that gave Meiko Kaji of Lady Snowblood her stardom, and it's possible to see how she, female martial arts whirlwind Lingfeng Shangguan, and maybe '80s J-action queen Yukari Oshima could have all been influences on — or starred as — the three women at the center of the story.
The other half of Wergelder, though, is informed by far less appetizing things — the kind of sleazy underworld tech-noir atmosphere used in tales of the extreme like Ichi the Killer, a property I'm no fan of. In such a world, human life is a currency unto itself with a value asymptotically approaching zero, and the chief difference between the various sides of the conflicts depicted is how closely any one of them can enlist the audience's sympathies. The good guys in such a setting are only good because we were introduced to them first, warmed up to them first, and were told why they have been wronged and why their choice of violence is justified.
But the first and most prominent problem I had with Wergelder was not toughing my way through the violence or the amorality. It was figuring out what was going on. The first of the two volumes in the omnibus edition put out Stateside by Kodansha is something of a murk, with various nebulously defined parties all plotting to screw each other over in ways that required at least one re-reading on my part to keep straight. I suspect some of this might have been me, since a lot of what goes down in Wergelder is calculatedly, deliberately vile — more on that later — and the number of times my nose wrinkled and my stomach rolled did make it difficult to keep the details straight. More than one reading was in order.
At the center of Wergelder, and featured prominently on the cover art and endpaper, are three women. First is Nami Savrasova, aka "Träne", a one-eyed sniper and former prostitute who killed one of her johns and hoofed it from the pleasure-palace island where she lived and work. Second is Shinobu, a drifter and delinquent in the Meiko Kaji/Stray Cat Rock mold (although it's Nami who sports Kaji's wide-brimmed hat and trenchcoat in this story). She makes the mistake of hooking up with a small-time yakuza, Sugito, who's just stiffed his employers, the Kakesu-gumi. They catch up with the two of them and offer Shinobu a way not to end up messily killed: she can participate in a sting of their own, where they plan to make off with a MacGuffin-ish suitcase of some "product". Third up is Jie Mao, a qipao-clad corporate assassin with a mean right heel to the jaw, who drops into the middle of the goings-on and clashes with Träne.
The three of them end up returning to the island Nami escaped from, passing as prostitutes looking for work there. Something about the island itself has attracted the attention of various nefarious parties — the aforementioned yakuza group and a pharmaceutical conglomerate — who are at war over it. Without giving away too much, it soon becomes clear the goal isn't land, or mineral rights, or anything nearly that mundane — it's about the welfare of future generations, as yet unborn, and how the use of prostitution on the island is meant to further that.
Twists of plot, turns of stomach
You can see why I'm reluctant to give too much away in a review, partly because there are still many unanswered questions by the end of the first omnibus. I think from the above it shouldn't be hard to infer how one of Wergelder's missions is to make the womanhood of its main characters a central component of the story, and a core motivation for their need to take revenge. It's far from the first time I've seen the idea of femininity-as-body-horror used as material for a story; one of the grand masters of the terrors of the flesh in Western fiction, David Cronenberg, used it in The Brood to great effect. (The very title should be a tipoff.) Here, though, the idea of a woman as a mere flesh factory isn't surreal, nightmarish, or metaphorical — it's handled with the cold-bloodedness of a docudrama about, say, Korean comfort women.
My problem is not that this material is tasteless or should be off-limits to only "serious" works. It's also not that the story tries to chockablock violent, politically incorrect material with more sensitive and thoughtful stuff; Black Lagoon is proof you can have those things coexist in the same story and even augment each other. It's that those more serious elements don't elevate the surrounding story — they work on their own, but the teeth of its gears don't really mesh with the more exploitive pieces. When there's a subplot about the Kakesu-gumi's in-house torturer, a Korean girl named Soli Kil, we get several pages of her gleefully going to town on Shinobu's hapless gangster boyfriend. It's meant to be a characterization gesture, and perhaps also black humor (look, she's working the torture into her exercise routine! ho ho!), but too much of Wergelder tries to characterize people as evil or amoral (or just plain weird) by merely showing them doing nasty things. Berserk's Griffith is a horrible, amoral person, but fascinating because we understand why he makes the ghastly choices he does — some of which involve harming himself as well as others. He is not merely a human freakshow.
I suspect the problem is not so much that this stuff isn't present in Wergelder, but that the delivery is muffled. I spent too much of my time in the first volume puzzling over who was doing what to whom and why, and the cognitive load involved in sorting all that out got in the way of me feeling much of anything for the people involved. A second reading helped, but by that point the mark had been made: this was mainly a story about not-nice people doing not-nice things to each other, and everything else was commentary.
Samura can, and has, done better. Blade of the Immortal provided its characters with clear, easily divined motives, right from the beginning. That made everything they did, and everything that happened to them, land with tangible impact. Wergelder's setup is far longer and more involved than Blade, and nowhere nearly as direct. By the time I had some idea of where things were going and why, the window of opportunity for empathy had closed and the blinds had been pulled down. Attitudes copped by the characters aren't substitutes for emotions felt on the part of the audience.
It would be easier if we were dealing with an out-and-out piece of exploitation, like the wretched Bambi and her Pink Gun. Were that the case, there wouldn't be a problem: we could say the book has its audience, and I'm not it, and that would be enough. But 1) Samura is a favorite artist of mine with a proven track record of ambition, so I'm in his target audience by default, and 2) it's plain he has slightly more in mind here than a mere thrill ride. That makes Wergelder frustrating, because the things I want to like most about it all revolve around Samura's reputation and intentions, and not what's actually on the page. What is on the page is stylish, gorgeous, grotesque, violent, cruel, and disturbing, but there are times when even all that will fall short.