Blade of the Immortal, Volume 31: Final Curtain

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 31: Final CurtainCreator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781616556266
Released: April 2015
Original release: 2013
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

So, this is it. The Final Curtain of Blade of the Immortal, both literally and figuratively. Released by Dark Horse Comics in 2015, the volume is the thirty-first and final installment in the English-language edition of Hiroaki Samura’s epic manga series. After nearly two decades of publication, the entirety Blade of the Immortal has now been translated. Due to slight differences between the early English trade collections and the Japanese releases, Final Curtain is actually equivalent to the thirtieth volume of the original Japanese edition of Blade of the Immortal published in 2013. The manga has been well-received by both critics and fans alike, winning Samura many awards and honors including a Japan Media Arts Award and an Eisner Award. Blade of the Immortal was one of the very first manga that I began reading and collecting and the series has remained a personal favorite of mine ever since I discovered it. Because of that, Blade of the Immortal and its ending hold particular meaning for me. I have been looking forward to reading its conclusion for a very long time.

At its height, the Ittō-ryū was poised to become the official sword school of the shogunate, bringing the goal of the group’s leader Anotsu Kagehisa—the restoration of the way of the sword to Japan—tantalizingly close. But in the end they were betrayed and massacred by the very people who invited them to join the banshū. Since then the Ittō-ryū’s numbers have continued to dwindle as the survivors of that initial attack have been hunted down by the Mugai-ryū and Rokki-dan, forces largely made up of death row criminals commanded by Habaki Kagimura. The fighting has been fierce and casualties have been immense on both sides. Now only a few members of each group remain and they are locked in their final battles against one another. Though it appears as though Anotsu may have the upper hand, the outcome of the conflict is far from certain, especially as there are others interested in controlling the fate of the Ittō-ryū, including the young woman Rin and her near-immortal bodyguard Manji.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 31: Final Curtain, page 238Final Curtain serves two main purposes: providing a resolution to the intense and bloody confrontations begun in the previous volume, Vigilance, and granting a conclusion to Blade of the Immortal as a whole. I feel the final volume is successful on both counts. Even though they aren’t as over-the-top or as brutal as some of the other fight sequences in the series, there are still plenty of surprises to be had in the final battles of Blade of the Immortal. They require incredible physical, mental, and even emotional fortitude from those involved, making the scenes very engaging to read. It’s not just fighting for fighting’s sake; there is deliberate purpose and reason behind the struggles. Lately, the series seems to have turned its attention to the dramatic demise of the Ittō-ryū and its leader, but Final Curtain manages to bring the manga full circle again by allowing Rin and Manji to once again become directly involved in how events unfold.

Blade of the Immortal has always had a large cast of characters as well as several intertwining plot threads. All of the survivors and the families and friends of those who have died have at least one moment in Final Curtain, even if it’s only a few panels, in which they become the focus of the manga, creating something akin to an epilogue. Loose ends are tied up and, while some ambiguity remains, the aftermath of the long struggle is revealed. Blade of the Immortal covered a lot of ground in its thirty-one volumes, the story twisting and turning and the characters and their relationships continually growing and evolving. The series can be read and enjoyed simply for its impressive action and fight sequences, but the manga also explores deeper, thought-provoking ideas. The characters are morally complex—very few can be said to be entirely in the right or in the wrong—and Blade of the Immortal questions what their or any person’s ultimate legacy will be. As for the last volume itself, I found Final Curtain to be a very satisfying conclusion to the series.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 30: Vigilance

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 30: VigilanceCreator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781616554842
Released: October 2014
Original release: 2012
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Vigilance is the thirtieth and penultimate volume in the English-language edition of Blade of the Immortal, the long-running and award-winning manga series by Hiroaki Samura. In Japan, the series was only thirty volumes long, but due to slight differences in how the manga was released early on in its English-language run, Dark Horse’s edition of consists of thirty-one volumes. Vigilance, published in 2014, is equivalent to the twenty-ninth volume of the series’ Japanese edition originally released in 2012. Blade of the Immortal is a series that has particular significance for me. It was one of the very first manga that I ever read and it was one of the first series that I decided to collect in its entirety. I have been reading and collecting Blade of the Immortal for years now. The previous volume, Beyond Good and Evil, marked the beginning of the series’ end and Vigilance brings it that much closer. I was very curious to see how Samura would continue to advance the series.

The final confrontation between the remnants of Anotsu Kagehisa’s Ittō-ryū and Habaki Kagimura’s Rokki-dan has begun. Numerous casualties have been incurred by each side and countless innocent lives have been caught in the fray as the two groups try to destroy each other. At one point they were fighting for their ideals—Anotsu striving to restore martial glory and the way of the sword to Japan while Habaki worked to prevent that from happening in order to maintain the dominance of the shogunate—but now they are fighting simply to survive long enough to crush the other. Even if they are successful in killing their foes they may not live to see the fruits of their victory. Habaki is challenging Anotsu head on while the Ittō-ryū’s strongest fighter, Makie, is left to face multiple opponents under Habaki’s direct command despite her failing health. And on the periphery of this all, Manji and Rin stand against one of Habaki’s most imposing men even though they, too, seek Anotsu’s demise.

At this point in Blade of the Immortal the series’ story is drawing very close to its ultimate conclusion. There is very little plot development in Vigilance, and there doesn’t need to be; the series has been building up to these final volumes. Instead, the focus of Vigilance is on the deadly battles currently in progress. Samura’s artwork has always been dynamic in Blade of the Immortal, conveying a tremendous sense of movement and drama, but the action sequences and fight choreography in Vigilance may very well be some of the series’ best. Makie’s fight against an entire team of adversaries is particularly impressive and breathtaking. Her talent is astounding and on full display. She is constantly in motion, with an acute awareness of her surroundings, using both her weapon and her body in tangent to strike and defend. While she may not have the brute strength that so many of the other fighters in Blade of the Immortal possess, her agility and martial skill far surpass any of them.

The other two battles being simultaneously waged in Vigilance are also well-developed and each has a different feel than Makie’s. Manji’s style of fighting has come to rely very heavily on his near-immortality, leading him to attempt feats that would otherwise be unthinkable. He is also able to put to good use in some rather curious ways the bizarre regenerative powers of his body. The manga’s horror elements are readily apparent in his fight. There’s even a hearkening back to the death mandalas of the early series, which is a particularly nice touch. The confrontation between Anotsu and Habaki is different still. Like all of the other fighters who have managed to survive this long they are both exceptionally skilled swordsmen, however tactics and strategy play a much more prominent role in their death match. The way they fight is both intelligent and refined. Manji, Rin, Makie, Anotsu, and Habaki are now locked into their final battles. It will be very interesting to see exactly how things will turn out in the series’ conclusion, Final Curtain.

Dororo, Volume 3

Dororo, Volume 3Creator: Osamu Tezuka
U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781934287187
Released: August 2008
Original run: 1968-1969
Awards: Eisner Award

Osamu Tezuka was an extraordinarily prolific and influential creator of manga and anime. So far, only a small fraction of his total output has been released in English. Out of those, one of my personal favorites is his short manga series Dororo. With yokai, an accursed swordsman, and the inclusion of historical elements, I can’t help but like Dororo. Although eventually releasing an omnibus containing the entire series, initially Vertical published Dororo in three separate volumes which earned an Eisner Award in 2009. Dororo, Volume 3, released in 2008, contains the portion of the series that was originally serialized in Japan between 1968 and 1969. It was also during that time period that Dororo went on hiatus. Tezuka abandoned the manga for a year, leaving it without an ending, before returning to it when the Dororo anime series began. The manga was then given a proper conclusion, albeit a much shorter one than was first envisioned. The finale admittedly ended up being a bit rushed, but I love Dororo anyway.

Chased by demons and in turn chasing them down, Hyakkimaru is slowly regaining his forty-eight missing body parts one at a time; each demon he defeats brings him closer to becoming whole. Often it’s not the terrifying supernatural beings that Hyakkimaru must really worry about, though. Humans—with all of their failings, greed, and lust for power—can be just as dangerous as any monster. Hyakkimaru’s father, who selfishly sacrificed his own son’s body in exchange for demonic aid, has become an oppressive warlord. Hyakkimaru isn’t the only one suffering because of his father’s ambitions. The country is being torn apart by war and it’s the farmers and commoners who are being forced to support and fight for leaders they didn’t choose. Dororo, Hyakkimaru’s young traveling companion, also has a family legacy left to deal with. The diminutive thief’s late father was a bandit who amassed a significant amount of wealth. The map to the location of his treasure was tattooed upon his child’s back and now Dororo is pursued by those who want the riches for their own corrupt purposes.

Dororo is one of Tezuka’s transitional works as he began to develop more mature, adult-oriented stories in contrast to his more lighthearted manga generally intended for younger audiences. Dororo addresses serious issues like war and discrimination, but it also incorporates charm, humor, and bittersweet joy. One particular bright spot to balance the darker elements of the series is the titular Dororo. The small thief has led a hard life and can empathize with others and their misfortunes, becoming an exuberant and enthusiastic champion for their causes, while somehow remaining optimistic and cheerful in the face of all the unfairness and tragedy. Hyakkimaru, on the other hand, has an even more dire past than Dororo and has grown weary of the injustices in the world. But the time Hyakkimaru has spent with Dororo as they travel across Japan has changed him. Dororo’s positivity has rubbed off on Hyakkimaru and he has come to care for the youngster immensely. Whether Hyakkimaru realizes it or not, he desperately needed someone like Dororo in his otherwise bleak life.

The relationship that develops between Hyakkimaru and Dororo is only one component of many that makes me appreciate what Tezuka is doing with the series, even if it did end up being truncated. I was initially drawn to Dororo because of Hyakkimaru’s horrifying origin story and his fight to regain what he lost, searching for somewhere to belong and wanting nothing more than to live in peace. His specific situation may be unique, but that desire to be accepted by others is nearly universal. I also liked the supernatural elements in Dororo and how Tezuka slowly shifts the focus of the series to issues more firmly based in reality. The demons and monsters never completely disappear from Dororo, but as the manga progresses the historical influences and more realistic aspects of the manga become increasingly prominent. Among other things, Tezuka’s artwork and storytelling in Dororo takes inspiration from traditional legends and tales, samurai films, and events from Japan’s Warring States period, but he also incorporates his own touches and imagination and pulls it all together in a way that only Tezuka can.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 29: Beyond Good and Evil

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 29Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781616553371
Released: May 2014
Original release: 2011
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Beyond Good and Evil is the twenty-ninth volume in the English-language release of Hiroaki Samura’s award-winning manga Blade of the Immortal. Published by Dark Horse in 2014, Beyond Good and Evil is equivalent to the twenty-eighth volume of the Japanese edition of Blade of the Immortal released in 2011. Blade of the Immortal is a long-running series. The collected volumes of the manga first began to be released in Japan in 1994 while the first collection in English was published in 1997. Personally, I discovered Blade of the Immortal in 2007 and have been reading it ever since. The series is now in its final volumes and is drawing closer and closer to its conclusion. Since I’m fond of Blade of the Immortal, I’m both excited and saddened to see it end. Beyond Good and Evil is the beginning of the series’ last battle as all of the surviving characters are brought together to face one another and to confront their destinies.

The members of the Ittō-ryū who were escaping Edō by way of the Mito road have been annihilated. They put up a magnificent fight against Habaki Kagimura’s Rokki-dan and there were casualties on both sides, but in the end it was the Ittō-ryū that was brought closest to its demise. A very small group of the Ittō-ryū’s most elite warriors, including its leader Anotsu Kagehisa, still remain and are on the run. They stayed behind in Edō long enough to wreak havoc at the city’s castle before fleeing, hoping to reunite with the rest of the Ittō-ryū at the port of Hitachi before sailing for Satsuma. But with their companions dead, a few unexpected allies, and no small number of enemies, Anotsu’s carefully laid plans will have to change. As for Habaki, who has very little left to lose, he is willing to do anything that it takes and to commit any atrocity necessary in order to ensure that Anotsu and the remaining Ittō-ryū members, as well as anyone who might lend them their aid, are completely wiped out.

One of the things that has always impressed me about Blade of the Immortal is its complex, morally grey characters. The protagonists and antagonists of the series are constantly shifting, making it difficult to strictly categorize them as being good or bad guys; they are simply extremely flawed people. The confrontation between Habaki and Anotsu and the rest of the survivors has been building over the last few volumes. They all finally meet again, likely for the last time, in Beyond Good and Evil. It’s an aptly named volume. None of the characters are entirely in the right and they are all guilty of countless deaths. There is no turning back for them and they must see their chosen paths through to the end, even knowing that there is a strong possibility that they will fail or have failed already. Anotsu, Habaki, and the others may or may not survive, but even if they do, survival does not necessarily mean victory.

With the final battle of Blade of the Immortal approaching, one might expect it to be a heroic showdown of epic proportions, except for the fact that there aren’t really any heroes in the manga. Instead, the atmosphere surrounding the characters and their confrontation is one of inevitability and futility. There will be a battle and because those who have managed to survive for this long are the most skilled fighters it will be intense. However, very little will be accomplished by the skirmish except for perhaps mutual destruction. The Ittō-ryū barely exists anymore and it is very unlikely that Anotsu’s hopes and dreams of restoring the way of the sword to Japan will come to fruition. For Habaki, destroying the Ittō-ryū won’t allow him to regain his lost honor or to erase his heinous deeds. At one point both men were fighting to change Japan and to right the wrongs that they saw in their society, but their ideals and ambitions may come to nothing in the end.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 28: Raining Chaos

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 28: Raining ChaosCreator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781616553210
Released: January 2014
Original release: 2011
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Raining Chaos is the twenty-eighth volume in the English-language edition of Hiroaki Samura’s manga series Blade of the Immortal. Because of slight differences between the Japanese and English publications of the series, Raining Chaos is actually equivalent to the twenty-seventh volume of Blade of the Immortal released in Japan in 2011. The English edition was released by Dark Horse in 2014. Blade of the Immortal is a multi-award-winning series, having earned Samura honors both in Japan and in other countries. The series was one of the first manga that I made a point of following, so I am glad that Dark Horse is seeing Blade of the Immortal through to its end. Raining Chaos is part of the fifth and last major story arc in Blade of the Immortal. With only a few volumes left in the series, Blade of the Immortal is quickly approaching its final climax and Raining Chaos is part of that approach.

The majority of the remaining Ittō-ryū members have steadily been making their way to Hitachi, but it was only a matter of time before those in pursuit would catch up with them. After encountering the Rokki-dan en route, the Ittō-ryū has once again split its members into smaller groups so that some of them may have a better chance of survival. Most stay behind to face the Rokki-dan warriors, hoping to at least delay them if not destroy them, while a smaller force forges ahead attempting to keep the Ittō-ryū’s current second-in-command, Abayama Sōsuke, alive and safe. What they hadn’t counted on was the involvement of the Mugai-ryū, the predecessor of the Rokki-dan. Only two members of that group are still alive, and neither of them are the fighters that they once were, but they are both still extremely skilled and dangerous. With the Ittō-ryū occupied with both the Rokki-dan warriors and the Mugai-ryū assassins, the continued existence of the radical sword school looks increasingly grim.

The Ittō-ryū isn’t so much a specific style of fighting as it is a philosophy. The only agreed upon “rule” is that battles are nominally to be fought one-on-one. Other than that, almost anything goes. In part because of this, the school has attracted a diverse group of fighters with different backgrounds, martial abilities, and motivations. Some, like the Ittō-ryū’s leader Anotsu Kagehisa and several of the other high-ranking members, have very honorable intentions; they fight against what they see as corruption, though their methods may be questionable. Abayama, for example, is very concerned about the welfare of the men who train and serve under him. Others, however, are more interested in their own personal vendettas and selfish desires. They don’t care about others as long as they get what they want. The differences between these two types of people—those with noble and lofty ideals and those who are completely without morals—can be clearly seen in Raining Chaos. Even so, they are all still Ittō-ryū.

In addition to having different goals and reasons for joining the Ittō-ryū, the individual members also have different styles of fighting, which is put to good use in Raining Chaos. There isn’t much plot development in this particular volume of Blade of the Immortal, but there is plenty of action as the confrontation between the remnants of the Ittō-ryū and the Rokki-dan and the Mugai-ryū is largely brought to a conclusion. Happily, the battles in Raining Chaos are quite good; they’re well-choreographed and interesting to watch play out. Samura has a tendency to introduce unusual weapons and techniques in Blade of the Immortal, but even the most fantastic and strange have some basis in reality; legitimate tactics and fighting techniques are still applied to the battles in the series. In Raining Chaos, the importance of range and distancing is particularly emphasized. With excellent fights and compelling characters, Blade of the Immortal continues to be a series that I enjoy. I’m looking forward to the next volume, Beyond Good and Evil, a great deal.