Blade of the Immortal, vols. 1-26

Blade of the Immortal 2Fugitive swordsman Manji is tired of living with regrets, without purpose, and without any foreseeable end in sight, due to his body’s mysterious ability to repair itself. Told by his wizened one-time benefactor that taking the lives of 1000 evil men in atonement for those he’s wrongfully killed in the past may free him from his immortality, Manji is torn between weary cynicism and hope when he’s approached by Rin, an orphaned young swordswoman out for revenge and desperate for a bodyguard. Faced with her intense resolve, the severity of the crimes against her family, and the memories she unwittingly stirs, Manji gives in and takes the job, determined to make the most of this second chance to protect something and earn back his right to die. Nothing is ever as simple as it seems, however, and the two learn the hard way that revenge is often self-perpetuating and that the blurry line between “good” and “evil” can shift with perspective.

With its first English volume published in 1997, Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal is among the longest-running manga series in the U.S., garnering a Japan Media Arts award, an Eisner, and multiple British Eagle awards along the way. Having recently concluded in Japan at thirty volumes, the series is nearing the homestretch in English, a prospect that fills devoted readers like myself with equal parts excitement and sadness. (Since chapters included in each English volume don’t line up exactly with the originals, it is unknown how many there will ultimately be when the series is done over here.)

In this convincingly reimagined Edo-era Japan, nothing remains static. Alliances form and dissolve, paths crisscross, relationships change, individuals grow. As they strive for redemption or retribution, for power or peace, the characters explore and reevaluate the implications of immortality (of a body, a name, an idea), and what begins as a duo’s shared quest evolves and expands to include the lives of those encountered and the social and political turmoil that envelopes them.

Samura’s engaging, complex characters regularly defy convention. Manji may be able to reattach his own severed limbs while slinging both weapons and insults, but he’s no cold, impassive hero and is far from invincible. In the same way, gentle, vulnerable Rin can also be hard and lethal, surprising even Manji with her developing strength. And the man responsible for her family’s misery, the clever and deadly Anotsu Kagehisa, is neither a monster nor a misunderstood saint, but – like many of his followers in the subversive Ittô-Ryû school – frustratingly sympathetic. With one terrifying sociopathic exception, even the most egregious offenders here have humanizing traits and experiences, making it hard to hate them unreservedly and, in a few particularly likable cases, to know whom to root for when inevitable conflicts arise.

The fantastic art is equally dynamic. Samura achieves his kinetic, scratchily detailed realism with largely hand-drawn texture and depth, interesting layouts, and impressively varied and creative points-of-view that put the reader in the middle of the action, high above it, or right under its feet. From life-or-death confrontations to quiet hearthside conversations, his understanding of anatomy, gravity, and perspective brings vitality and substance to every scene.

Because the series premiered before “flipping” (reversing the art to read from left-to-right, as English reads, rather than right-to-left as Japanese reads) was passé, Dark Horse continues its unusual, creator-stipulated, labor-intensive method of reordering panels with minimal mirroring and alterations to maintain continuity in its left-to-right editions. Although this makes for a few speed bumps early-on (such as Manji’s missing eye trading sides of his face), the process quickly becomes invisible. Importantly, it also preserves the left-facing manji on Manji’s kimono, with its ancient associations of auspiciousness, magic, and the harmonious balance of opposites rather than its recently Nazi-appropriated mirror.

While glossaries cover untranslated cultural terms, Samura intentionally dispenses with historical diction in favor of modern speech, resulting in mildly anachronistic dialogue that nevertheless sounds natural and relevant and erases much of the distance imposed by the period setting.

Blade of the Immortal blends historical fiction and dramatic action with a disarming sense of humor, a touch of expertly-incorporated sci-fi, affecting emotional bonds (romantic and otherwise), and enough implicit and explicit graphic violence to qualify as horror. The latter, more so than the occasional strong language and nudity, pushes the series well into mature territory, with depictions of dismemberment, torture, and some particularly disturbing sexual violence that may be too much for sensitive readers, although it, too, has its place in the creation of Samura’s believably complex, thoughtful, and involving whole.

Blade of the Immortal, vols. 1-26
by Hiroaki Samura
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781569712399
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781569713006
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781569713570
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781569714126
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781569714447
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781569714690
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781569715314
Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781569715468
Vol. 9 ISBN: 9781569715604
Vol. 10 ISBN: 9781569717462
Vol. 11 ISBN: 9781569717417
Vol. 12 ISBN: 9781569719916
Vol. 13 ISBN: 9781593072186
Vol. 14 ISBN: 9781593073213
Vol. 15 ISBN: 9781593074685
Vol. 16 ISBN: 9781593077235
Vol. 17 ISBN: 9781593077822
Vol. 18 ISBN: 9781593078713
Vol. 19 ISBN: 9781593079697
Vol. 20 ISBN: 9781595821997
Vol. 21 ISBN: 9781595823236
Vol. 22 ISBN: 9781595824431
Vol. 23 ISBN: 9781595826718
Vol. 24 ISBN: 9781595827517
Vol. 25 ISBN: 9781595828835
Vol. 26 ISBN: 9781616550981
Dark Horse, 1997-2013
Publisher Age Rating: 16+ (1-19); 18+ (20-26)