Blade of the Immortal
Samura himself says when he set out to write Blade, he wanted a more realistic and harsh environment for his characters to populate. Hence the reader is thrown headlong into the seedy underbelly of Shogunate Japan. The protagonist, Manji, is a ronin, a masterless samurai with a price on his head. He's a man on the run and has killed a hundred men while trying to escape the clutches of the law, the last one being his brother-in-law. Somehow he bumps into an old lady who infects him with blood worms, worms that are able to knit together damaged flesh. Thus the man who wants to die and be released is made immortal, his only way to salvation is to kill a thousand wrong-doers. On completion of this task he'll be given the cure to the worms and be able to die. So far, so flimsy, I hear you cry. Well, here's where it goes a bit strange for our hero. His first charge is a girl called Rin who wants revenge against the 'Itto-Ryu', a sword school who killed her family; and many volumes and story-arcs later, we are still to complete this first mission. You see, Itto-Ryu is no ordinary school, and Blade turns from being a slash epic in the early books, into a more psychological and philosophical journey. We are treated to some political chess, rival factions, conflicting interests and uneasy alliances as the various strands of the story come together.
Samura is very gifted with his stylus, that's something that cannot be denied. Blade is rendered in black and white pencil with some ink-work in certain frames. The overall style is very kinetic, great movement for the battle sequences, varying between striped down shots of the fighters through to two-page spreads of samurai sword-locked, drawn in lavished detail. You can also see a definite influence on Takehiko Inoue's fight-work in 'Vagabond' comic series (published by Viz). Standard scenes are also drawn with the same care and attention, while the integrity of the comic is also unquestionable. Frames have been cut and moved around so the artwork looks exactly the same as the Japanese original, even though we read left to right, but I have to admit this can cause minor problems in the flow of some fight scenes.
Story wise as well, Samura holds his own. He doesn't pull any punches in his depiction of violence, nor does he glorify, giving the reader an uneasily struck balance between the required and the gratuitous, the only exception for me being his last volume Beasts, which is VERY heavy going. The pace is also kept well. In the early books we get relentless fight after fight after fight. Samura must have realised that keeping this kind of frenetic action going would have required a drop in plausibility and also would have become very repetitive. Thus, after volume 2, we are treated to more exposition, characters become more rounded, with drives and motivations, not only our main pair, but the henchmen of Anotsu, such as Magatsu Taito. This deeper, more textured feel definitely adds to the mood, slowly transforming the work from a cut and dice special into a true 'jidai-geki'.
All in all, I would have to rate this as an excellent series. What starts well just gets better. The main thing is Samura has let his work evolve and not stay stuck in a particular perception of a genre. Even the artwork has progressed, with one of the last duels with Anotsu being particularly striking. On the negative, the pace has slackened in the last couple of volumes, and Beasts is one hard, hard book to get through cos of the subject matter, but things are speeding up again. After the large battle preceding all this, this could be seen as having it's pros and cons. I would definitely recommend that you read some of this, you should be pleasantly surprised, if not hooked like I was!
'Blade of the Immortal' was first published in a compendium book format by Dark Horse Comics in 1997, and is still being written and printed (despite protestations over the last couple of years by Samura that the 'next' cycle will be the last). The 12th volume (Frost Fall) is due out in December.
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