Blade of the Immortal, Volume 24: Massacre

Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781595827517
Released: October 2011
Original release: 2008
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Massacre is the twenty-fourth volume in the English-language release of Blade of the Immortal, Hiroaki Samura’s long-running manga series. Earlier on in the series’ release, Dark Horse divided the volumes by storyline rather than by number of chapters. Because of this, many of the individual volumes are slightly different in the English-language edition compared to the original Japanese release of Blade of the Immortal. Massacre, published by Dark Horse in 2011, collects the same chapters as the twenty-third volume of the Japanese edition of the series which was released in 2008. At this point, the manga has entered its final major story arc. The previous two volumes, Footsteps and Scarlet Swords, provided the necessary set up which allows Samura to really let loose in Massacre. As can be assumed from the title, it’s a rather bloody volume.

As agreed, the Ittō-ryū is leaving Edō after being banished from the city. However, the rogue sword school is still being chased by Habaki Kagimura and his Rokki-dan warriors as well as by Rin Asano and her bodyguard Manji. But what the pursuers don’t yet realize is that there are key members missing from the group of Ittō-ryū said to be making its way to the port in Hitachi: the sword school’s leader Anotsu Kagehisa and three of its elite fighters—Magatsu Taito, Ozuhan, and Baro Sukezane. The four highly skilled swordsmen have their own task to complete, a bold raid on Edō Castle through one of its most heavily guarded entrances. It’s a brash move that, if successful, will leave quite an impression in its wake, not to mention a high body count. The Ittō-ryū has already been identified as a threat, but they are prepared to show just how dangerous they can be.

Samura’s artwork in Blade of the Immortal has always been something that has particularly appealed to me about the series, but his kinetic style works especially well in Massacre. A large part of the volume is devoted to the daring attack on Edō Castle; the sequence is one of the most effectively choreographed and visually executed battles in Blade of the Immortal thus far. The Ittō-ryū is a group of swordsmen sharing the same ideals and martial philosophy more than it is a strictly enforced style. This can especially be seen in Massacre simply by watching how the Ittō-ryū’s elite fight. They all use different weapons and techniques and each has his own aura. Anotsu’s elegance, Magatsu’s cruder dynamism, Ozuhan’s speed and uninhibited wildness, and Baro’s strength and power are all readily apparent. They fight well as individuals, but also work well together as a team.

Although the focus of Massacre is on the raid of Edō Castle—a quickly paced, action packed, violent, and rather impressive escapade—several other important things happen in the volume as well. For the last few volumes of Blade of the Immortal Shira has been on the fringe of the story, but his prominence is quickly growing. He may have lost a limb or two over the course of Blade of the Immortal but his extreme sadistic streak and penchant for sexual violence remain. Shira is as terrifying as ever. Also making his return to the series was Ayame Burando, which I was surprised but happy to see. He and Manji even end up having a heart-to-heart about atonement and the meaning of evil. These are themes that play a major role in Blade of the Immortal, one of the reasons that I like the series so well. As always, I’m looking forward to reading the next volume, Snowfall at Dawn.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 23: Scarlet Swords

Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781595826718
Released: January 2011
Original release: 2007
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Scarlet Swords is the twenty-third volume in the English-language release of Hiroaki Samura’s manga series Blade of the Immortal. Published in 2011 by Dark Horse Comics, Scarlet Swords collects the same material as the twenty-second volume in the original Japanese edition of the series, which was released in 2007. Following Footsteps, Scarlet Swords is an early volume in the fifth and final major story arc in Blade of the Immortal. Blade of the Immortal was one of the first manga series that I began reading and collecting and it continues to be one of my personal favorites. The series has been well received both in Japan and abroad. In 1998 Blade of the Immortal earned Samura a Japan Media Arts Award. The series went on to win an Eisner Award in 2000 and has been the recipient of several other honors since then as well.

Time is quickly running out for Habaki Kagimura and the Rokki-dan. Anotsu Kagehisa and the Ittō-ryū have been banished from Edō and must leave the city within days else forfeit their lives. Should the Ittō-ryū make their escape, Kagimura and the Rokki-dan will lose their lives instead. Kagimura has been ordered to commit seppuku in atonement for the debacles surrounding his previous attempts to annihilate the Ittō-ryū and his failed investigation into immortality. The Rokki-dan are a group of death row felons who have been given a chance to redeem themselves if they can wipe out the Ittō-ryū and its leader, but they have been forbidden to leave the city; they must find and destroy the Ittō-ryū before the rogue sword school leaves Edō. One thing is certain: Anotsu and the Ittō-ryū will not make it easy for them.

Scarlet Swords is a volume of journeys and farewells. The Rokki-dan is desperate in its pursuit of the members of the Ittō-ryū, resorting to torture and other dubious means in the search for clues as to the group’s whereabouts. The Ittō-ryū are prepared for discovery and have even planned for it; perhaps in part due to the exceptional leadership of Anotsu, the Ittō-ryū frequently shows extraordinary forethought. And the Rokki-dan isn’t the only group that the Ittō-ryū needs to worry about—Rin and Manji are still in pursuit of revenge and some of the members of the disbanded Mugai-ryū, the predecessors of the Rokki-dan, are ready to support Kagimura. As the Ittō-ryū swordsmen prepare to leave Edō for the port in Hitachi, so do those who would hunt them down. Goodbyes are said and in some cases incredible sacrifices are made. The journey to Hitachi will be an eventful one for all who are involved.

As Anotsu points out to Rin early on in Scarlet Swords, only two active members of the Ittō-ryū remain from when her parents were brutally killed two years ago—Anotsu himself and his current second-in-command Magatsu Taito. Rin’s relationship with Anotsu has several complicating factors and she has even made friends with some of the newer Ittō-ryū members, but she still hasn’t forgiven the deaths of her parents nor does she approve of the Ittō-ryū’s methods. In the beginning of Blade of the Immortal, the Ittō-ryū was clearly set up as villainous, but as the manga progresses the morality is muddled. The sword school may be extreme, but its members maintain their own sense of honor as they fight against society’s injustices. I appreciate the development of the Ittō-ryū in Blade of the Immortal and look forward to seeing how the group continues to change and evolve in the next volume, Massacre.

Deva Zan: The Chosen Path

Creator: Yoshitaka Amano
Translator: John Thomas
Publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781616550301
Released: January 2013

Deva Zan: The Chosen Path is Yoshitaka Amano’s debut novel. Amano is known across the globe for his illustrative work and character designs, and in the West particularly for his involvement with Final Fantasy, Vampire Hunter D, and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: The Dream Hunters. At one time or another, Amano has lent his skills to novels, comics and manga, video games, and animation. Deva Zan is a project that he has been working on for more than a decade. The novel, which includes more than two hundred previously unpublished illustrations and paintings, is the first incarnation of the story to be released. Deva Zan was first and originally published in English by Dark Horse with a translation by John Thomas in 2013. Deva Zan is the first time that Amano has been completely responsible for both a work’s story and art.

At the end of the Edo period lived a hero, a young samurai by the name of Yoshitsugu Kamishiro. While engaged in battle he slips into another world where he discovers his true identity. Though he has no memory of it he is Zan, one of the Twelve Divine Generals and servant to Lady Mariu, the guardian deity of light. The Army of Light fights for creation against the forces of darkness—the Dark Corp—lead by the demon Moma. While Zan was warring in Japan, the battle between darkness and light, order and chaos continued without him. But now that Zan is aware of who he is, he embarks upon a journey of self-discovery through space and time, searching for the other lost generals in an attempt to remember his past. As the Army of Light gathers again, so does the Dark Corps—two sides of an endless conflict which will determine the fate of the world and universe.

Deva Zan isn’t so much an illustrated novel as it is an artbook with accompanying text. The narrative and writing style is impressionistic, consisting of dream-like sequences. Amano seems to have focused on creating an atmosphere rather than establishing a detailed or overly coherent plot. While the story of Deva Zan is interesting, incorporating Hindu and Buddhist elements with philosophical and cosmological implications, on its own it doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression. However, alongside Amano’s illustrations, it does create a nice effect overall. But even so, the story always feels secondary to the artwork. And in fact that was how Amano approached the Deva Zan novel—developing the textual narrative to fit the themes of the artwork rather than the other way around.

For me, Deva Zan works much better as an artbook than as a novel. I’ll admit, I have always enjoyed Amano’s illustrations. Deva Zan is a great and varied collection presented nicely as an oversized, hardcover volume. The individual pieces exhibit a range of styles and techniques. Some are complete, finished works while others, though no less arresting, seem to be concept sketches and designs. Amano is just as skilled working in vibrant, almost garish color palettes as he is in more muted and monochromatic schemes. His illustrations are striking and ethereal, whether he is portraying a stylized fantasy world or dealing in the abstract. Although reading Deva Zan was intriguing and I appreciate Amano’s involvement in all aspects of the work, I find that I’m just as happy flipping through the volume to linger on the artwork alone.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 22: Footsteps

Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781595824431
Released: January 2010
Original release: 2007
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Footsteps is the twenty-second volume in the English-language release of Hiroaki Samura’s manga series Blade of the of Immortal. The volume was published by Dark Horse in 2010. Because of the difference in how the various chapters of Blade of the Immortal have been collected for the English-language edition, Footsteps is actually equivalent to the twenty-first volume of the original Japanese release published in 2007. Blade of the Immortal is a long-running series, having first begun serialization in 1993. Over the course of its publication it has won several awards, including a Japan Media Arts Award and an Eisner Award. It also happens to be a series of which I am particularly fond. Footsteps marks the beginning of the fifth and final major story arc in Blade of the Immortal.

After staging a successful prison break, setting free hundreds of captives from the hidden dungeons underneath Edō Castle and rescuing them from the fate of becoming the human test subjects of cruel immortality experiments, Rin has finally been reunited with Manji. The two have been separated for quite some time. Manji, despite his near-immortality, is a little worse for wear from his time spent in the dungeons and is currently missing his left arm. Isaku and Dōa, two members of the Ittō-ryū who were also involved in the raid on Edō Castle, were able to escape as well. However, their involvement has brought the Ittō-ryū back under the intense scrutiny of the shogunate. Nearly wiped out when the bakufu betrayed them, the few remaining Ittō-ryū members have been working in the shadows readying their revenge. They may have been forced out into the open sooner than planned, but the Ittō-ryū is still prepared to face the authorities head on.

Although I did enjoy the previous storyline, I am glad that the series is moving on from the dungeons and experiments and beginning to cover some new ground. Footsteps is an excellent volume in general, but particularly as the opening to the final story arc. The volume establishes where nearly all of the major players in Blade of the Immortal are after the fallout from the prison break. The focus turns from Rin and Manji (although they do have some absolutely wonderful scenes together) to the Ittō-ryū, which was largely though not entirely ignored during the previous arc. Anotsu, the highly capable leader of the Ittō-ryū, is gathering his forces and the Ittō-ryū is gaining new members and strength. For better and worse the Ittō-ryū has left a strong impression on other sword schools. Anotsu faces Habaki Kagimura, who has proven to be a worthy opponent, and the newly formed Rokki-dan—a group of death row felons hand-selected for their battle prowess.

I was actually a little surprised by the introduction of the Rokki-dan in Footsteps. Samura already included one group of death row assassins in Blade of the Immortal—the Mugai-ryū. However, the Mugai-ryū has been disbanded. The Rokki-dan is a similar group with a similar goal—to annihilate the Ittō-ryū. At this point, the only difference between the two is that the elite of the Rokki-dan are implied to be even more badass than the members of the Mugai-ryū. This would certainly be impressive if true. Skill-wise, its top fighters may even be able to hold their own against some of the Ittō-ryū’s. The lower ranking members of the Rokki-dan are nothing more than faceless cannon fodder, though. In many ways the Rokki-dan’s introduction does seem to be more of the same, but there should at least be some fantastic confrontations and battles in the next volume, Scarlet Swords, as a result.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 21: Demon Lair II

Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781595823236
Released: July 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Demon Lair II is the twenty-first volume in the English-language release of Blade of the Immortal, Hiroaki Samura’s long-running, award-winning manga series. Along with the previous volume, Demon Lair, it forms the conclusion to the series’ fourth and penultimate major story arc. Demon Lair II was published by Dark Horse in 2009. The chapters collected in Demon Lair II are the same as those found in the twentieth volume of the Japanese release of Blade of the Immortal, published in 2006. In addition, Demon Lair II also includes a glossary (useful since many terms in Blade of the Immortal are left untranslated, or simply don’t have an exact equivalent in English) and a translation of a parody article about Samura originally found in the September 2003 issue of Afternoon, the magazine in which Blade of the Immortal was serialized.

Somehow, Rin and Dōa have successfully fought their way into the secret underground dungeons of Edō Castle. There they have found what, or rather who, they have been looking for: Manji and Isaku, who have both been subjected to cruel experiments meant to find a way to transfer Manji’s near-immortality and regenerative abilities to another person. Now the real trick will be getting everyone back out alive and ideally in one piece. As challenging as it was for Rin and Dōa to infiltrate the castle grounds, escaping will be even more problematic. The tunnels underneath the complex are flooding and are ready to collapse; standing between them and their way out are armed guards as well as crazed inmates. The situation above ground, assuming that they can make it that far, is chaos with countless escaped prisoners inside the castle complex and their families outside of its walls on the verge of rioting.

Much like its companion volume Demon Lair, Demon Lair II is largely one long action sequence. There are some important plot revelations and character moments, but for the most part Demon Lair II is made up of one fight after another. What sets Demon Lair II apart form previous volumes, and one of the things that I like the most about the volume, is Samura’s use of water. The flooding of the dungeons is a violent event in and of itself. The water is extraordinarily destructive and its effect upon those unlucky enough to be caught up in it is extremely detrimental. Generally speaking, Samura has always made good use of the environment and surroundings as part of his battles in Blade of the Immortal. Demon Lair II is no different and he has given special consideration to the sorts of problems and opportunities fighting in high, cold water would present.

Many of the recent volumes in Blade of the Immortal have focused on the human costs and failures surrounding the immortality experiments. Demon Lair II reveals that some of the successes that Burando, the doctor in charge of the investigation, has had are just as horrifying—he has literally created monsters. To some extent, that particular development wasn’t foreshadowed as well as it could have been, but it does go to show just how far Burando has strayed from his ideals. The conclusion of Demon Liar II also brings together a few of the stray plot lines and characters in Blade of the Immortal in preparation for the next and final story arc. Samura introduces a surprise or two along the way, too. I am very curious to see how things begin to play out in the next volume, Footsteps.