What It’s About?
It is the mid-Tokugawa era in Japan, and wandering samurai Manji’s body is infested with healing worms that make him extremely difficult to kill. This “gift” of immortality is actually a curse for his bloody history of killing 100 men, including his sister’s husband. He has been told by a mystic that the cure is to kill 1,000 evil men, so when a young woman by the name of Rin begs him for protection and vengeance against an upstart martial combat school, Manji and Rin’s paths become one. For the first omnibus or so, this is the gist of the series, but the cast, setting, and motivations blossom and take on lives of their own, and blessedly so.

By the end of the series, there are several perspectives separately driving the narrative, each applying different moral standards to the problems at hand. As the body count rises, cycles of vengeance are set in motion and allowed to drive characters to the point of obsession and mutilation. The initial “villain” of the series, Anotsu, seeks to break the established, relatively coddled order of peacetime sword discipline, attracting a motley crew of anything-goes killers. The Japanese government, in turn, hires agents and assassins to counter their movement, leading to Manji and Rin stumbling into conflicts far greater than they imagined. Selfishness, duty, ambiguity, ambition – watching characters clash as they pursue and escape one another is a perpetual highlight of the series. The story’s heights often involve pushing a conflict to its absolute boiling point then swapping to another scene and letting the reader’s dramatic irony detector in their brain go off like fireworks as the scenarios converge. The effect is downright Proustian and never gets old.

As the series goes on, there is a kind of a meta element in tracking Hiroaki Samura’s storytelling style and observing how he breaks out of his own conventions. Really cool sword fights as dramatic climaxes go a long way—Samura takes “swordsman passes by an opponent at the moment of evisceration” to a whole new level. As that effect becomes regular to the point of predictable, Samura sidelines the immortal Manji in order to focus on the motives and checkered pasts of ambitiously doomed characters, elevating the series to something admirable. Just about everyone is participating in a suicide squad of sorts for different reasons, and readers might find themselves rooting against Manji by the end. Shonen tropes like “fighting for my friends” or “proving I’m the best” sometimes apply, but character arcs also delve into how to let go of hatred or commit oneself to selfless acts.

Notable Notes
Samura’s style is one of a kind, and tracking its evolution throughout the series is another joy. He dropped out of art school to make Blade of the Immortal, and he cites classic art in interviews about his inspirations.There are pages that set a scene just so, that are more exhilarating than the standout duels and close calls. Samura and his team are masters of using touches of white to create highlights across landscapes, rooms, and faces that will stop you in your tracks. A spot of moonlight in a starless sky, a slice of brightness on the edge of someone’s cheek, a glowing torch advertising safety off in the distance – the fights are fast and heavy, but the quiet moments know how to command attention, too.

Consider this series rated M with good reason, and it’s not just lopped limbs and four-letter words. Characters have sex, including with prostitutes, and one long-running sadistic antagonist in particular derives pleasure from raping while murdering. Women are not strictly victims in this series—several are skilled, principled fighters who absolutely hold their own—but there are nonetheless a lot of violated women.

Having said that, the drama and carnage sometimes serve as a backdrop that makes the chapters of traveling and humor utter delights. The series earns big laughs whenever it slows down to show characters commenting on their journeys thus far or airing rumors about characters they haven’t seen in a while. Manji, Rin, and the rest are prone to exclaiming out loud when a situation gets out of control or downright weird (such as having to retrieve Manji’s body parts following a fight), which is another humorous highlight.

The “Demon Lair” arc is one of the greatest sustained combinations of setup, confrontation, and payoff I’ve ever read in action manga. It’s the culmination of Blade of the Immortal’s unique mixture of realism, anachronisms, sci-fi, and horror. It will spoil your expectations for arcs to come, for slow-burn schemes in other manga, and even for D&D campaigns.

Significance
Blade of the Immortal has been adapted into two different anime series, a live-action movie, and a novel.
The series won Japan’s Media Arts Award in 1997 and an Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material in 2000.

Blade of the Immortal influenced Naruto’s creator, Masashi Kishimoto, in a number of ways, including his style, plotting, and character design.

As if you needed more proof this series came about in the 90s, the English release reads left to right! This is no simple mirror flip – a “cut and paste” method was used to manually move panels around. Each volume contains a deeper explanation of this as well as Samura’s sound effects and anachronistic dialog.
Manji wears a giant Buddhist swastika on his back, and every volume of the series includes a lengthy disclaimer explaining the honorable history of the symbol and how it’s different from the Nazi swastika.

Appeal
Uninitiated readers may gravitate toward the bloody sword action and Manji’s cocky attitude, but the picaresque plotting and elegant dramatic build-ups are what usher this manga into the Classic Fantastic.

Why Should You Own This?
Each three-in-one omnibus is $22, which is a great deal for one of the best samurai manga ever made. And for the dedicated collector or librarian with money to spend, Dark Horse will be releasing a deluxe, hardcover omnibus edition in October of 2020, which will retail for $49.00.

Classic Fantastic: Blade of the Immortal
By Hiroaki Samura

VolumeISBN
Omnibus I9781506701240
Omnibus II9781506701325
Omnibus III9781506701721
Omnibus IV9781506705699
Omnibus V9781506705675
Omnibus VI9781506705682
Omnibus VII9781506706559
Omnibus VIII9781506708171
Omnibus IX9781506708188
Omnibus X9781506708195

Dark Horse, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)
Series Reading Order: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blade_of_the_Immortal (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Japanese
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator
Related to…: Comic to Movie, Comic to TV

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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