Blade of the Immortal: Brutally Beautiful

Front cover, Blade of the Immortal. Hiroaki Samura with Tomoko Saito. Written and illustrated by Hiraoki Samura , retouch by Tomoko Saito. Dark Horse Manga, 2018

Blade of the Immortal Omnibus V

Hiroaki Samura (Art and Story), Dana Lewis & Toren Smith (Translation and English adaptation), Tomoko Saito (Lettering and Retouch)
Dark Horse Manga
27 March 2018

Blade of the Immortal began its manga run in 1993, finally finishing in 2012. During this nearly 20 year run, it spawned one anime season, a novel, and most recently a live action film in 2017. The story is simple enough: a young girl, Rin, hires a bodyguard, Manji, to help her avenge the death of her parents. Of course, it helps that no wound can kill Manji thanks to some pesky immortality inflicted upon him. (It involves an 800 year old nun and some horrific choices on Manji’s part.)  However, this is more than a story of revenge and redemption. It’s also a reflection upon the conflict between the hyper-stylised depiction of violence and its actual brutal impact.

blade of the immortal

A small note: Blade of the Immortal is a large and perhaps daunting world to step into, especially when this omnibus alone is 738 pages long, cover to cover. There is no “handy” recap, so often seen in Western comics, no quick entry point. Blade of the Immortal was a decades-long journey for the creator and readers; much nuance and meaning will be missed if starting part way through.

The book begins with some explanations about translation choices. Context is given to the swastika emblazoned upon the clothing of Manji, educating readers who may be unaware that the swastika was a symbol of Buddhism, and that it was called the “manji” in Japan. As the note states, the Nazis took the clockwise direction version of the swastika (the hakenkreuz) and adopted it, corrupting its meaning. It feels important that this was addressed by Dark Horse, particularly living in times where some people pervert and downplay the meaning again, using it as just a throwaway meme gag.

There is also a sense of respect for Samura within this introduction. Though mirror-imaging can be done when translating manga (i.e., reversing the images to allow them to be followed from left to right, as Western audiences are used to when reading), Dark Horse have not done this where possible. This is due to Samura’s request that they leave the layout as is. Instead, a “cut-and-paste” technique is used through most of the book. This does not affect the flow of the page, though as someone used to reading manga from right to left, it can take a little getting used to.

Dark Horse highlight that they have left Samura’s sound effects in their original Japanese, unless where it was “crucial to the understanding of the panel.” Samura then completely re-drew the panel with an English translation of the sound-effect. It all feels incredibly reverential of the artwork and story, which is genuinely pleasant to see.

This omnibus collects volumes 12 through 14, which includes the memorable Mirror of the Soul, Last Blood, and Trickster acts. However, it starts with Act 68: Path of Shadows, in which Rin meets Kagehisa, the man responsible for the attack which killed her parents. What follows is an interesting deconstruction of Kagehisa, as Rin and he are forced together as unwilling comrades.

We have come across the “bad guy with a heart of gold” trope before, but Kagehisa isn’t that straightforward an antagonist. As their relationship develops, Kagehisa feels like a more desperate and powerless character than Rin had believed him to be. This narrative choice by Samura builds greater depth to these two characters, adding some grey to the black and white perceptions Rin holds.

Violence and its effects dominate this manga. Samura’s fight scenes are splattered with gore and dismemberment, but he allows them a sense of grace, lines blurring to show fluid motion and the path of the weapon wielded. On a few occasions, Samura depicts several iterations of a character in motion during one panel to heighten the sense of fast movement.

There is a romanticisation in the violence, and nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Makie’s fight scenes. Her fights are balletic to the point of portraying her as a goddess of death, kimono slit exposing the top of her thighs as she dances through opponents and flying limbs.

If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because on paper it is, hinting at the familiar hyper-stylised and hyper-sexualised image of the female assassin. However, by filtering part of this fight through Kagehisa’s envious perception of Makie’s abilities, this portrayal makes more sense.

The commentary against violence stands out in Act 89: Pity. A brothel owner states that she wants no more to do with Kagehisa’s group after her girls have continuously been used as bait by them, often wounded or brutalised. We then shift to the group’s representative, asking after a particular prostitute, only to be coldly informed that she is dead thanks in part to his organisation’s actions. The brothel owner’s attempt to distance her and her employees from these fights highlights the relentless harm it inflicts upon the innocent, echoing Rin’s declaration (whilst captured) that this fighting and death is senseless. Shira is the embodiment of this idea, a sadistic character who only hurts others because he wishes to. He is seen briefly in this omnibus, but his actions resound throughout the entire series as he leaves traumatised victims in his wake.

This message about the emotional impact of violence balances oddly as there is so much glorification of violence within the many fight sequences. However, Samura also does not shy away from depicting the aftermath and the effects upon people, either actively participating in this cycle or those caught up against their will.

Blade of the Immortal holds an uneasy truce with itself, on the one hand decrying the brutality of the world Manji inhabits and contributes to, whilst on the other serving beautiful and awe-inspiring fight scenes. However, this conflict almost seems the point. Though Rin, Kagehisa, and others become increasingly aware during this omnibus of how devastating their actions can be, they are still resolutely drawn to committing to them. Rin, for example, confronts the reasons behind her quest and finds them wanting, yet she still resolves to enact her revenge. By acknowledging the futility and complexity of seeking vengeance, Blade of the Immortal elevates itself above the standard revenge story and into something weightier and bleaker.