Monday, July 7, 2014

Cranky Book Review: Blade of the Immortal: The Gathering, Part II


All right, time to catch up on some reading. I found this one at a resale shop for a buck, so I decided to jump in and try it. It's volume nine in a series that I've never tried before, so bear with my ignorance. This one has a LOT of violence, so you sensitive viewers should probably go to bed and skip this review. I should also note that this collection is old enough to be a "flopped" version, where the panels have been reversed and re-arranged for lazy-eyed westerners such as myself.

So, as our story opens, the titular Immortal, Manji (minus an arm), is being stalked by a guy with a crack pipe who says "dude," a lot. According to the translation note, this story takes place in the 19th century, but the publishers decided to denote the difference between high and low speaking by having the thugs talk like Ninja Turtles. Except with more swearing.

The one-armed immortal dude beats up crack-pipe dude in a short, scratchy-line battle. Another bad guy shows up sporting hip sunglasses. More fighting and loss of limbs entails. And then a third bad guy shows up. This one wants to chow down on our "hero" in order to absorb his death-defying powers.

Now, I have to confess, I have a real problem with manga fight scenes. I find fight scenes in general to be boring; people beating up on each other to prove a moral point has long been a dubious story-telling technique. In the right hands however, there can be a great amount of style and choreography. But I've found that I'm so used to Kirby-derived action style that I can't properly "read" the pulp Japanese stuff. It all looks like a mess of speed lines and cut-up motion to my eyes. There's a bunch of that here, but there's also these wonderful moments where Samura slows down time to introduce the next new element.

In this case, the two sidekicks. One is a bumbling, nerdy sidekick. The other is a bad-ass woman with a clip-on bow and arrow set. Lots and lots and lots more of fighting and slicing and stabbing take place. It's a pretty good balance of gross humor and horror, but for a while I thought the whole book was going to be a weird exercise in lost body limb jokes. Then the fight finally ends and snobby dude shows up.

On one hand he's an intrusion of normality onto the story, but he also functions as a segue to the second half of the book. He recognizes our now very quadriplegic Manji as the bodyguard to Rin, who appears to be the actual hero of the ongoing story...

Yes, Rin is a young girl taking a bath. The gaze of the book has shifted from gross-out violence to a bit of titillation. Her nudity, though, is also her vulnerability, as she is at the mercy of her inn-keepers, and as a murder suspect, of the local authorities. She's sworn revenge on the person who killed her parents, and needs to get over a heavily guarded bridge. The couple that run this particular inn agree to help her get over the border...

The local official knows that these two have helped people sneak through before, and immediately distrusts the story of Rin being the innkeeper's sister. There follows a gut-wrenching sequence of questions and answers as Lord Shimada tries to trick her into deviating from her story. 

I won't spoil the amazing drama of the final confrontation, but I do want to mention that everything that leads up to this moment reveals the women as being the ones secretly in charge of this situation. The men in this book are either just along for the ride, or fail because they trust in the way things are supposed to be. It's actually a bit subversive for a manly historical samurai series. Even our immortal guy ends up being an incapacitated trophy that everyone else fights over.

So, an interesting book that in some ways reminds me of Eddie Campbell's Bacchus series, with it's similar scratchiness and presentation of characters who know that immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. You do have to get through a fifty page fight scene before getting to the actual story, but Samura is very good at balancing the contrast between the two episodes. And I didn't feel too lost, even without all the usual expository dialogue. But I am recommending this on the strength of the last chapter of the book, definitely a masterful use of suspense, and a bit of emotional closure before the next volume.

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