Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Satsuma Gishiden
by Jason Thompson, Jun 28th 2012
Episode CXI: Satsuma Gishiden
"The pay-library comics that once could only be purchased in the flea markets of Ueno had ten times more vulgarity, cruelty, wild abandon and vitality than (manga) of today…But in Hiroshi Hirata's samurai comics, with their direct, serious art style, I find a nostalgia for the kami-shibai of old, and a sensibility in the manner of the violent warrior prints of the late Edo period."
"Perform hara-kiri! Words of reluctance will only add to your shame!"
If you think Blade of the Immortal is for wimps, and Vagabond is too soft and New-Agey, you may like the samurai manga of Hiroshi Hirata. Swords, historical settings, stoic samurai philosophy, blood and gore—you've seen all these things in a hundred manga, but Hirata's are the purest, without all the genre conventions that came later. His manga are stories of honor, blood, sweat and tears; without humor, without romance or sex, without even an invincible hero to tie it all together and make sure that justice is done.
Born in 1937, Hirata survived air raids during the war and debuted as a mangaka in 1958. He soon became one of the most respected artists in the growing market for adult manga, carving out a niche in hyperrealistic samurai comics. In 2010 Marc Bernabé interviewed him for his documentary project "Masters of Manga"; Hirata still draws at the age of 70+ and keeps an ancient Japanese helmet over his drawing-desk. Like many mangaka, his work was popular in Europe long before it was translated into English; in his case, perhaps it's due to his incredibly detailed artwork, which goes way beyond manga or even American comics and to an almost bandes dessinées level of detail.
Interestingly, Hirata seems to have some interest in Western comics. Way back in the dawn of translated manga, he created two works specifically for the American market: the short story "Two Samurai" in the 1980-1982 anthology Manga, and a 48-page standalone comic in 1987, Samurai: Son of Death. "Two Samurai" is a solid little Hirata story of honor and death, but Samurai: Son of Death isn't so good; a collaboration with American comics writer Sharman DiVono, it's one of the worst examples of overly-crowded, exposition-heavy American comics narrative I've ever read. It also has a bit of a fantasy element (or at least a borderline one; the main character wakes up on the battlefield and thinks he's undead, the "son of death," but he might just be crazy), which is very unusual for Hirata, whose main schtick is his ultra-realism.
Unfortunately (or perhaps luckily, in the case of Samurai: Son of Death), Hirata's work left little imprint on the American comics scene. In 1987, American comics fans were obsessed with samurai manga, but they liked another samurai manga: Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub. Despite their similarities of style and subject matter (lots of Tokugawa-period architecture, swords, ugly men on horses), Hirata's art is very different from Kojima's. In contrast to Kojima, whose panels are sometimes sketchy, Hirata's work is intensely detailed: you just want to stop and stare at every panel to catch everything. When Kojima draws an action scene, he uses lots of quick cuts and speedlines; but when Hirata draws an action scene, he uses big panels and puts the figures right in the foreground, often many figures at once, all posed so you can see every rippling muscle. Basically, Kojima's style is more "manga," and Hirata's style is more "Western," or sort of a mix between the two. In Hirata's work, as in traditional American comics, each page or panel is a full composition, but Kojima's work is all about the cinematic effects and the flow. Was Hirata's work actually too similar to American comics to catch on in America? Or was it just that Frank Miller preferred Lone Wolf and Cub? In either case, it was twenty years until Dark Horse published the first full Hirata graphic novel series, Samurai Gishiden ("The Legend of the Satsuma Samurai").
Originally printed from 1977 to 1982, Satsuma Gishiden is the tale of the samurai of Satsuma, a province in southern Japan. Here, samurai are divided into classes, with the upper-class samurai lording it over the lower-class gôshi, "part noble and part slave." After generations of being slowly financially squeezed by the Tokugawa Shogunate, the province has become quite poor. The gôshi are so poor they must work as tradesmen, a matter of shame for a samurai, and their hurt pride often explodes in resentment and anger. The upper-class samurai abuse the gôshi, who they call "yam-eaters" and "leek-eaters," and the gôshi take it out on the peasants. Just looking at a samurai the wrong way is a killable offence ("Your eyes spoke loud!").
Finally, when an upper-class samurai kills two gôshi on a whim, the gôshi have had enough. They go on a small rampage of revenge, for which one man, Shiba Sakon, a samurai/carpenter, takes sole responsibility—killing his partners and crime at their own request, so that they and their families are not tortured and killed. For punishment, Sakon is forced to play a game called hiemontori ("grabbing something bloody"), in which samurai on horseback compete to kill him, grab his corpse and rip out his liver. But Sakon is so awesome he survives, and he roars a speech at the defeated samurai, calling them out on their foolish, dishonorable behavior.
The local lord, Hirata Yukie, grants a pardon to Sakon, and he goes back to his life as a gôshi samurai/carpenter. But Gondô Tôzaburô, an upper-class samurai whose father died while trying to kill Sakon during the hiemontori, becomes obsessed with revenge. He asks Sakon to make a coffin for his father, and when Sakon dutifully delivers it, all hell breaks loose. ("Why did you have your father's enemy make his coffin, for God's sake?") But as Gondô thinks more and more about his father's death, his feelings become conflicted; after all, his father killed the girl Gondô loved, because he could not allow his son to marry a girl from a gôshi family. Finally, Gondô realizes that he can't really be angry with Sakon, but honor demands that he kill him anyway. ("At this point, I'd rather strike my father than you. But because I have a samurai's pride, I will ultimately take you down!") Gondô postpones the fight for another day, and the two men go their separate ways…for now. In Gondô's heart, his love and hate for his father are a mirror of his love and hate for the whole Satsuma system of traditions. And deep down, beneath his hardened samurai exterior, Sakon carries a burden of guilt: "I took the lives of my friends. I'm a heartless man…a heartless man…"
With the two main characters established, the story suddenly takes a major turn: it ignores them for hundreds of pages. There's something bigger afoot than the rivalry between two men: Gifu Prefecture is plagued with flooding, and the Tokugawa Shogunate assigns Satsuma the arduous task of taming the river, building a series of dikes and levies so that the peasants will never again have to fear floods. This outrageous request—to work as laborers in a foreign province—almost causes a rebellion, but eventually the Satsuma samurai swallow their pride and travel to Gifu Prefecture, where they work themselves to the bone, despite the shame it causes. "True honor lies at the bottom of our heart. It is invisible to others, and it can never be violated!" But is the whole dam-building scheme just an elaborate plot by the Tokugawa to drain the wealth and manpower of Satsuma? And are there limits to what a samurai will do…to how much humiliation a samurai will take??
In Manga: The Complete Guide I described Satsuma Gishiden as "an incredibly intense action comic," but I wish I could take it back; after the jaw-dropping 40-page opening fight sequence, honestly, there isn't that much action. Kazuo Koike, the author of Lone Wolf and Cub, liked to say that "manga was about character"; but Satsuma Gishiden really isn't about character either. Satsuma Gishiden is about the world. The real point of the comic is tons and tons of history and exposition about the samurai world and Tokugawa-era Japan. In one volume, there's an 8-page explanation of the consequences of the Battle of Sekigahara and what it meant for Satsuma. (This story is apparently partially based on facts; it's historical fiction, at least more so than Lone Wolf and Cub is.) In another volume, there's a 10-page sequence just showing the gôshi working at their professions: treecutter, carpenter, farmer, geta maker, paper maker, etc.…It serves no story purpose, but it feels like Hirata is waving his fist at the audience and shouting "JUST TRY TO FIND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS MORE ABOUT THE TOKUGAWA ERA THAN ME! I DARE YOU!"
Yet I am impressed, and it is pretty amazing (at least the parts that don't have too much text; my eyes glazed over at some of the long exposition boxes, another thing Hirata does that's more like Western comics). Gondô and Sakon are just two of many characters in the story, and as we follow the massive mobilization of samurai sent to tame the flood, we meet lots of other strange characters and their little scenes. There is a family of ninja who secretly serve the Tokugawa clan, like the "grass ninja" in Lone Wolf and Cub, although their story turns out very differently. There is a very dysfunctional family, including an alcoholic father and a giant, half-witted sex pervert son, in one of the only sexual parts of the story (however, it's still less dirty than any random Kazuo Koike manga…well, sorta). There is a tearful scene when Hirata Yukie attempts to stop his men from rebelling. There are gôshi who hate upper-class samurai, and vice versa, and an assortment of cruel and arrogant foreign samurai who look down on all of the Satsuma samurai—for what kind of samurai would lower themselves to work in the mud?!
Most of these characters are short-lived. This is a world where life is cheap; they either kill each other, or they kill themselves. As recorded by Fred Schodt in his book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, one of Hirata's fans was Yukio Mishima, the right-wing Japanese novelist who committed seppuku in 1970 after attempting a failed coup d'etat to restore the Japanese Emperor. In Satsuma Gishiden there is seppuku aplenty—it's like it's the only way to handle an awkward social situation. The samurai also talk a lot, debating the right way to do things, or just mouthing off:
* "No matter how hard things may get, fall down eight times, somersault and stand up straight nine, ten! We'll show what kind of men we are!"
* "In the name of the war god of Hachiman, it is shameful to give up our samurai spirit merely for the desire for peace and safety!"
* "I will cut open my belly right here and now, as a sacrifice to your indignation!"
* "Never relax! Who knows when the great battle will erupt!"
* "How spineless are you? I told you I wouldn't give in even if my whole family is slaughtered!"
* "You underestimate the power of our blades!"
* "It is enough for men to laugh once every six years."
* "Let's show them the menace of our swords however many men they are! They'll taste it with their own flesh!"
* "We'll slash our blades like a whirlwind until this dry riverbed is completely covered in blood!"
If another mangaka wrote these lines, it might seem like self-parody, but Hirata plays it all straight. (Actually, there's a teeny bit of humor, like when Gondô chews out his fellow samurai for their lame code of chastity: "Your frustrated lust for women makes you masturbate in secret!") Again there's a clear contrast to Lone Wolf and Cub, where the hero rarely says anything; here, the characters shout and scream as if they want the heavens to listen. It's no surprise that Hirata loves his dialogue, since he's also famous for hand-lettering it with bold brushstrokes; most of his hand-lettering is left unchanged in the Dark Horse version, with translations in the margin, since it's more like SFX than mere dialogue.
Like the classic samurai stories, Satsuma Gishiden is about conflicts of honor. There are over-the-top scenes, Kazuo Koike-esque imagery, like a man getting his ribcage sliced open but beating his opponent by stabbing him with his own severed rib (!!!), but the real action is in the clashes of duty and morality, seeing what people will do and how they'll justify it. Will I give up my life for what I believe in? How about if I also give up my friends' and family's lives? What can I do when I am caught between two masters? Do I have the courage to die honorably? Or, alternately: do I have the courage to live on in excruciating humiliation when it would be so much easier to just go on a killing spree? The question is always essentially moral—What is the honorable way to live?—or to put it even more simply, Honor or death?
Eventually (SPOILERS) you know there's going to be death. It's an old samurai trope to see heroes stoically enduring the unendurable, until finally, 47 Ronin style, they can't take it anymore and they bust loose. Unfortunately, we don't get to see the climax: only three of the five volumes of Satsuma Gishiden were published due to sadly low sales. But the volumes that we do have are great, a wandering historical adventure of honor and blood and sacrifice divided up into lots of little self-contained vignettes. Satsuma Gishiden is harder to read than Lone Wolf and Cub; it has more text and more history; it demands more time, but it's worth it. Hirata's strengths are his beautifully rendered artwork, his love of the subject matter, and an intense seriousness that makes his work impossible to parody. I wouldn't make fun of it any more than I'd make fun of one of his characters. They'll cut you.
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