In Chronin: Knife at Your Back, Mirai Yoshida is out of time. Literally. A history grad student from 2042, she has disguised herself as a man and finds herself trapped in 1864 in Edo, Japan.
This gender-bending, time-hopping adventure by writer and artist Alison Wilgus is simply drawn with clean lines and and somber grey shading. But the plot is rich enough to keep the reader heading down the Tokaido Road when Yoshida, in her ronin disguise, is hired as a bodyguard to accompany a tea house owner on a trip from Kyoto to Edo.
Edo (Tokyo) is a political powder keg in 1864. The Tokagowa Shogunate is set to fall, as pro-imperial forces gather, but Mirai has issues of her own to worry about. Besides being disguised as a samurai (a capital offense), she’s dealing with her ex-boyfriend-turned-patriot and the possibility that they might have altered history.
The average reader’s lack of Japanese history is no impediment to understanding the story. Not a lot of time is spent on exposition or explanation of terms (and there are no footnotes). I am a fan of the Edo period, and readers of historical samurai manga like Rouroni Kenshin, Peacemaker, or Kaze Hiraku may be familiar with the Shinsingumi or the Imperial factions of this civil war and the resulting Meiji Restoration.
Chronin’s flashbacks reveal Mirai’s studies in the future and the tale of how she became trapped in the past, as well as her ex’s radicalization that caused him to abandon his studies for a tea house mistress and life in 1864.
The plot reads like an exciting manga and the art is reminiscent of a Japanese woodblock print, with lightly shaded, simple backgrounds. The characters are flatly drawn without shading or a lot of detail. The time travel trope is fairly common and has been explored in comics and fiction—certainly the phrase “Butterfly Effect” applies here. As unexpected events occur and expected events fail to materialize, Mirai (which means “future” in Japanese) is left wondering what the hell went wrong.
This first volume reveals each character’s motivations bit by bit and leaves some secrets left unanswered. It’s an engrossing, fast read, not bogged down by the political or historical plot. These simply serve as a backdrop to Mirai’s own adventure.
Wilgus’ previous graphic novel works include an Avatar: The Last Airbender prequel, Zuko’s Story. Volume 2 of Chronin: The Sword in Your Hand is set to be released in September of 2019. In it, Mirai is forced to concoct a plan to set history to rights, but will face some formidable enemies, and only time will tell if she will survive, let alone make it back home.
The publisher rates it for older teens, which makes sense as the main characters are grad students. The libraries I have checked all list this graphic novel in their adult graphic novel section, most likely due to the plot and the age of the main characters. The simplicity of the art and lack of color reduces the impact of the violent sword fights. But this graphic novel will appeal to teens and adults alike. I eagerly look forward to reading the next installment.
Chronin, vol 1: The Knife at Your Back
By Ben Wilgus
Tor Books, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: T+
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)
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Character Traits: Japanese Queer Genderqueer
Creator Highlights: LGBTQIA+ Creator