Blade of the Immortal, Volume 27: Mist on the Spider’s Web

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 27Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781616552152
Released: September 2013
Original release: 2010
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Mist on the Spider’s Web is the twenty-seventh volume in the English-language edition of Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal manga series. Released by Dark Horse in 2013, Mist on the Spider’s Web is more or less equivalent to the twenty-sixth volume of Blade of the Immortal published in Japan in 2010. Blade of the Immortal is an award-winning series. Over the course of its long publication history the manga has earned Samura a Japan Media Arts Award and an Eisner Award among other honors. Blade of the Immortal is also a series of which I am particularly fond, so I am glad to see Dark Horse sticking with the manga through to its end. Mist on the Spider’s Web takes place during the fifth and final major story arc of Blade of the Immortal. The previous volume, Blizzard, was particularly good and so I was very interested to see where Samura would take things next with Mist on the Spider’s Web.

While Rin, Manji, and the others are recovering from their final confrontation with Shira, the hunt for the remaining Ittō-ryū swordsmen continues. The main group is well on its way to Hitachi under the guidance of senior members Abayama Sosuke and Kashin Koji. Before making their escape they hope to reunite with their leader Anotsu Kagehisa who has been delayed after his attack on Edō Castle. The three other Ittō-ryū fighters who also took part in the strike are either dead, missing, or severely wounded. Habaki Kagimura is in pursuit, chasing down the Ittō-ryū and its allies. He and his Rokki-dan warriors—death row convicts with little choice but to aid Habaki in his quest—are charged with annihilating the rogue sword school. The pressure on the Ittō-ryū continues to mount as more and more of Anotsu’s enemies draw ever closer.

If it wasn’t already apparent, Mist on the Spider’s Web makes it very clear how far the Ittō-ryū has fallen since its glory days. The most talented swordsmen are slowly being killed off, the new members are few and inexperienced, and the group has had to abandon some of its core ideals and principles just for the chance of survival. It is becoming increasingly likely that the Ittō-ryū may simply cease to exist in its entirety. The sword school is a mere shadow of what it once was. The Ittō-ryū, which destroyed so many other martial groups and caused so much chaos, is now faced with its own demise. However, its members are prepared to fight to the very end and by any means necessary. Despite the questionable methods that the Ittō-ryū has employed to reach its goals, Anotsu wasn’t entirely wrong in his ambitions. It is a little disheartening to see the Ittō-ryū’s idealism fading away.

Mist on the Spider’s Web has some fantastic action sequences, but there’s also quite a bit of standing around and talking, too. It can be somewhat tedious at times, but it does make sense within the context of what is going on. In general the focus of Blade of the Immortal on the Ittō-ryū has been directed towards its fighters, but the group also has members that rely more on their mental capacities rather than on their martial capabilities. Anotsu has always been shown to be a particularly impressive strategist in addition to being a skilled swordsman, but in Mist on the Spider’s Web it is old man Kashin who demonstrates his worth through his devious intelligence. He doesn’t need physical strength to overcome his enemies, only careful thought, thorough planning, and little bit of time. Of course, time is one of the things that the Ittō-ryū has less and less of these days.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 26: Blizzard

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 26Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781616550981
Released: March 2013
Original release: 2009
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Blizzard is the twenty-sixth volume in the English-language edition of Hiroaki Samura’s long-running, award-winning manga series Blade of the Immortal. Dark Horse originally released Blade of the Immortal by story arc rather than by number of chapters, so the volumes in the English-language release are slightly different from those in the original Japanese edition. Blizzard was published by Dark Horse in 2013 and is equivalent to the twenty-fifth volume of the Japanese series which was released in 2009. Blizzard takes place during the final major story arc of Blade of the Immortal and includes one of the series’ most important climaxes. I consider Blizzard to be a companion volume to the previous collection Snowfall at Dawn which leaves off partway through the battle between Shira and Manji. By the end of Snowfall at Dawn things aren’t looking at all good for Rin and Manji, so I was anxious to read Blizzard.

With Manji and Rin sunk beneath the pond’s freezing surface, Shira returns to the roadside where he left Magatsu incapacitated. Shira is not yet through with Manji, but he wants revenge against the young Ittō-ryū fighter as well and intends on making the most of their chance meeting. Magatsu is surprised to see Shira, too, having previously sent the sadistic killer plummeting from the top of a cliff during their last encounter. Shira once again finds himself interrupted when he is challenged by Meguro, one of Habaki’s shinobi. She has little hope of defeating Shira, especially now that he is semi-immortal, but her attack serves as a distraction. Shira isn’t aware of it, but back at the pond Meguro’s companion Tanpopo is doing all that she can to rescue and revive both Rin and Manji. At this point Manji is the only person who has even a slight chance of stopping Shira, but as Manji’s condition continues to deteriorate his success seems increasingly unlikely.

The beginning of Manji and Shira’s confrontation in Snowfall at Dawn was relatively subdued, focusing more on the psychological aspects of Shira’s attack and less on the physical combat. The conclusion of their battle in Blizzard is what I was really expecting and waiting for from their showdown. With two near immortals battling it out the damage that they inflict on each other is tremendous. Others can only look on astounded at the viciousness and brutality of the bloodbath occurring in front of them. Describing Manji and Shira’s final fight as intense would be putting it very mildly. At times it is difficult to see through all of the blood and guts as the two opponents literally rip each other apart. Samura’s artwork is unflinching and captures the entirety of their exceptionally violent battle as well as its bloody aftermath. Blizzard is extreme and gruesome and even those who make it through to the end of the volume barely survive.

While the duel between Shira and Manji is certainly the focus of Blizzard it isn’t the only important development in Blade of the Immortal to occur in the volume. I was happy to see Tanpopo and Meguro take on a more active role in the series. Up until this point in the manga they have generally been part of the series’ comedic relief—Meguro in particular frequently comes across as rather ditsy—but the women are shown to be quite capable martially in Blizzard. Another important development in the volume has to do with Renzō. His father, a member of the Ittō-ryū, was killed fairly early on by Manji in Blade of the Immortal. Since then Renzō has led a very difficult life, eventually becoming a broken and damaged young man partly due to the abuse he suffered at Shira’s hands and partly because he can’t forgive what happened to his father. His struggle isn’t over, but his story does begin to find a satisfying resolution in Blizzard.

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 25: Snowfall at Dawn

Blade of the Immortal, Volume 25Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Dark Horse
ISBN: 9781595828835
Released: August 2012
Original release: 2009
Awards: Eisner Award, Japan Media Arts Award

Snowfall at Dawn is the twenty-fifth volume in the English-language release of Hiroaki Samura’s award-winning manga series Blade of the Immortal. Published by Dark Horse in 2012, Snowfall at Dawn collects the same chapters as the twenty-fourth volume of the original Japanese edition of Blade of the Immortal released in 2009. Blade of the Immortal first began serialization in 1993 and has covered a lot of ground since then. Starting as a story of revenge with a touch of the supernatural, the series mixes historical reality with the fantastic and later on even a healthy dose of horror. Snowfall at Dawn is part of the fifth and final major story arc of the series. With morally complex characters, dynamic artwork, and an engaging story, Blade of the Immortal continues to be one of my favorite manga series.

After their daring assault on Edō Castle, Baro Sukezane provides the diversion needed to allow his comrades Magatsu Taito and Anotsu Kagehisa, the leader of the Ittō-ryū sword school, to escape. They aim to rejoin the rest of the Ittō-ryū as quickly as possible while avoiding their pursuers. Among those trying to locate Anotsu are Asano Rin and Manji, her bodyguard and companion. Little do the pair know, but they are also being pursued. Shira, a sadistic murderer who holds a particularly intense grudge against Manji, is steadily getting closer to exacting his revenge. Accompanying Shira is Kawakami Renzō, a broken young man with his own reason for hating Manji. It’s only a matter of time before the four of them meet once again. The encounter is one that Shira has been preparing for and fantasizing about, taking great pleasure in anticipating and contemplating the pain and torment his plans will bring Manji and Rin.

The last few volumes have been building up to the confrontation between Shira and Manji. Unsurprisingly, their battle is the focus of Snowfall at Dawn. What did surprise me, however, is how comparatively tame it is physically when considering the perverse and barbaric nature of Shira’s past exploits and misdeeds. The potential for extreme physical violence between Shira and Manji is great. Shira is an unapologetic and twisted sadist while Manji is a man who is extraordinarily difficult to kill, making him an ideal victim and target. But Shira isn’t only interested in Manji’s physical suffering, he also takes great joy in causing mental anguish. Although there is still plenty of bodily harm and pain inflicted during the battle in Snowfall at Dawn, the psychological impact and agony caused by Shira’s attack on Rin and Manji is just as crucial to the fight. Out of all of the characters in Blade of the Immortal, Shira is easily the most unquestionably villanous and terrifying.

In addition to the showdown between Shira and Manji, Snowfall at Dawn also reveals Shira’s whereabouts during the long prison story arc as well as his involvement in the immortality experiments. Shira may be an utter bastard, but he’s had some unspeakable things done to him as well. As part of this, there is also a lengthy discourse in Snowfall at Dawn about the nature and limitations of Manji’s bizarre regenerative abilities. While vaguely interesting, it is largely unnecessary. Anyone who has been reading Blade of the Immortal should be well aware by this point that Manji’s immortality is imperfect; ample evidence can be found throughout the series. However, Samura hasn’t previously gone into such specific detail about it as he does in Snowfall at Dawn. Unfortunately, he has to interrupt the flow of the story in order to do so. Still, Samura soon returns to what really matters in Snowfall at Dawn—Manji and Shira’s battle, which will reach its conclusion in the next volume, Blizzard.

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.