The most frustrating thing about The Legend of Kamui is how we know there is so much more, but you won’t find it here. Sanpei Shirato’s Kamui, and its sequel Kamui Den, ran in Japan for dozens of volumes, but none of it exists legitimately in English save for two volumes. Frustrating, because what I’ve seen of Kamui both in and out of English has convinced me that it’s one of the finest manga of its kind—a ninja fantasy that draws its plot and themes from human behavior and need rather than politics or historical details. It deals with a few single, strongly identifiable and empathic characters instead of a galaxy of interrelated power-strugglers, and its themes—the place of an individual in society, the justifications for having a society of any kind at all—are as universal as you’re likely to get.
The ninja way is one without tears
The story (or at least what we get of it in these two volumes, taken from Kamui Den) is simple at heart, but Shirato spins complexity from it naturally. Kamui, the titular character, is a nukenin—a ninja who has fled the clan he served to live on his own. Even attempting to leave the ninja order is treason punishable by death, and the only way to resist is to kill and kill again. He flees to a small island where a fishing community ekes out what existence they can in the face of samurai despotism and nature’s own brutalities, and ends up being taken in by one of the families who lives there. He also encounters Sugaru—also another nukenin, also concealing this fact as best she can from her new “family” on the island.
The mere facts of each’s existence is earth-shaking to the other. Kamui is deeply impressed by Sugaru; she’s not only fled from the ninja order that cloistered her, but has thrived, sired children with a local man, Hanbei, maintained a way of life even more difficult than the one she left behind. He feels obliged to reach out to her, but she wants nothing to do with him; in fact, his mere presence means she must destroy him, for how does she not know that he has been sent here to murder her? No amount of words from him will change her mind, so he must do one of two things: win her heart, or awe her into submission. The first may be impossible, and the second is terrible for him to contemplate, but he also knows that he cannot help but feel empathy for her. He has felt the same existential terror she experiences, and if there is any way for him to bridge the gulf between them, maybe it is through that.
Things are further complicated by Sayaka, a daughter of the family that took Sugaru in. She quickly becomes enamored of Kamui: she admires his bravery, and even longs to be his wife. In one especially lovely scene, she dives into the ocean and brings back a seashell for him to symbolize her attachment to him. When Kamui tells her she needs to go back to her mother, who must be worried about where she is, she retorts: “My mother is only my mother; I don’t belong to her.” He does not want to push her away, but he also does not want to set her up for the possibility of being heartbroken by his sudden and messy death. And under it all is the growing suspicion that at least one of the others who lives side-by-side with him in the village is a traitor, and is slowly but surely drawing plans against all of them.
A way of life (and death)
Before a broad variety of manga or anime titles were available in English, I tended to savor most those that presented intimate details of daily life in Japan as it was once upon a time. They rooted the events all the more firmly in a given time and place, and they were all the more valuable for often not showing up in English-language reference works. Kamui makes great use of the flavor of such material, whether real or fictitious: the life-threatening intricacies of fishing (how about being bludgeoned by a school of fish?), the work required to create a lure from a horse's hoof, the way red jellyfish can be weaponized. It's instructive for both audience and protagonist: Kamui, a mountain-dweller, is as new to a life of the sea and shore as many of us might be.
It’s also possible to see Shirato’s leftist/socialist political sympathies threaded through the story, in much the same way much of the classic samurai cinema of the Sixties and Seventies were counter-reactionary. But the politics do not become distracting or arch; they’re used to inform what goes on instead of command it. Kamui is only able to resist illegitimate authority with violence, but he is also wise enough to recognize the legitimacy of the authorities in the village, presumably because they exist through the consent of all involved. Anyone can leave the village, but none can leave the ninja order—and, likewise, any who prove themselves are welcome in the village, but not always so among the ninja.
One thing did date the story for me. I hate it when sexual violence is included in fiction not as an actual story element — that is to say, something a story centers around — but merely as a cheap way to raise the stakes of danger for a female character (and it's almost inevitably a female character). I cringed when that happened to Kagero in Ninja Scroll not once but twice, and I cringed again here when Sugaru is menaced in this way not long after we first meet her. That said, if there's a difference between how the two stories handle it, though, it's that Kamui at least attempts to build on it in some form. Sugaru uses the assault to trap the men menacing her, as we quickly learn she can more than hold her own. Ninja Scroll uses the whole thing as mere spice for a jaded viewer. (Another potential turn-off in Kamui, one animal lovers should beware of is the scene where stray dogs are used as shark bait.)
Above and beyond the sociology, the flaws, and even the dimensions of the story itself, is Shirato’s art. The closest comparison I can draw is with Ryoichi Ikegami, the artist who gave us the meta-realistic look of Crying Freeman, Sanctuary and (yes) Mai: The Psychic Girl. Shirato’s style is rougher but no less impressive. It has the raggedness and earthiness, for lack of any better word, that we need for a story about people who wrest their living right out of the mouth of nature. He details every fight and every struggle with vigor and intensity; it’s as exciting as any action movie, but because it all happens to people we care about it’s not just spectacle.
Viz presented the two extant volumes of Kamui in English back when their manga business consisted exclusively of "floppies" (single-issue 32-page comics) and trade paperback collections that cost $15 or more. Since then, Viz has become a major force in English-language manga, mainly by way of their partnership with Shonen Jump, but back catalog titles like Kamui have languished. I hold out hope one day the likes of Dark Horse will pick it up, as they did with similarly themed titles like Path of the Assassin, Samurai Executioner, and Lone Wolf and Cub, but today is not that day. For now, though, we have these two, and they deserve what audience they can find.