Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Blade of the Immortal
GN 22 - Footsteps
Rin and Doa's interference has killed Habaki's immortality experiment deader than the heaps of corpses he built his monstrous program upon. Abandoned by the Shogunate and left cycloptic by Manji's gentle ministrations, the ex-mastermind bets his future on the success of his new Itto-ryu extermination force, the Rokki-dan. If they fail, he dies. Unfortunately for him, they haven't proven particularly effective. One team is summarily terminated by Itto-ryu lieutenant Baro, and when the rest of the force is sent to search for him, armed with a shoddy drawn likeness, they end up attacking Manji by mistake. Aside from fending off assassins, Manji and Rin are enjoying their long-belated reunion. The separation has only strengthened their ties, and Rin at least is ready to step their relationship up to the next level. Elsewhere Anotsu Kagehisa plots the Itto-ryu's next move, using Habaki's replacement, a career politician, as a stepping stone to god knows what end. And still elsewhere stone-cold psycho Shira, still in possession of Manji's severed arm, stews silently, biding his time until he can revenge himself upon his archenemy.
"A new story arc begins!" exclaims the back cover. And indeed it does, what with the introduction of the Rokki-dan and resumption of plot lines put in cold storage by the Prison arc. With the artful minimalism of the recently concluded arc now behind it, the series explodes into parallel plots. This volume is awash in new information as it catches up with all of the manga's many principals, and advances most of them a few steps towards their ultimate goals. Anotsu in particular is poised at the cusp of a new course of action that will inevitably drag all others along with him. With the Rokki-dan, Itto-ryu and even Shira grinding into action, the cogs of a large and probably destructive plot machine are definitely starting to turn.
However, as befits a series that has just completed its best, and in its own way most ambitious, story arc to date, just as much time is spent parsing out the effects of the events beneath Edo Castle as looking ahead. And while doing so, Immortal gets to spotlight its gentler side. All of this volume's most satisfying moments are of a calmer, sweeter sort than the tightly controlled cage match of the last two volumes. Doa an Isaku's goodbye falls under this umbrella, and the chapter-long nighttime chat between Rin and Manji is likely the happiest you'll ever get reading dialogue bubbles. Another pair—Anotsu and Makie—gets a brief but tender exchange between political maneuvers, and elsewhere the series' usually deadpan humor is allowed to get explicitly silly. If you listen you can almost hear the series pausing to take a few highly enjoyable breaths before muscling its way forward once more.
Of course plot machinations and sweetness and light leave little opportunity for action. Violence is Immortal's bread and butter, but you can't blame Hiroaki Samura for laying off it having just spent a grueling five hundred pages on one extended battle. After all, to paraphrase someone or another, man cannot live on bread and butter alone. Sometimes he needs a little meat and sugar. Even so, Samura finds time for a thrilling opening slaughter and a graphic demonstration that, even one-armed, Manji is no one to trifle with.
The variety of tones allows Samura to showcase the flexibility of his wonderfully rough-hewn art. His insanely complex line work and deceptively simple layouts masterfully handle everything from ridiculously cool sword violence to straight-faced gags to repressed romance and intense battles of political wit. His fluid pacing allows for a huge density of plot and information to unfold without feeling purposely juggled or overcrowded. This may not be the most exciting volume, but Samura's art is thrilling nonetheless. It's cinematic in a way that too few manga truly are, beautiful and complicated and real and constantly pushing at its own boundaries. He isn't an artist to strive for invisible quality; his ambition and pride show in every line, and every line is the better for it. It is nearly impossible to describe exactly how integral his artwork is to his manga—though a quick watch of Bee Train's animated version of it will tell you most of what you need to know.
After twenty-some odd volumes, and lord knows how many eons, most should be amply acquainted with Dark Horse's Blade of the Immortal releases. The impeccable image quality, the satisfying heft, the weird cut-and-paste methodology for reversing the page order. At the end of the book you'll find a glossary of terms (nice, if repetitive), another of Samura's discussions of in-manga weaponry and an "ad" for a nonexistent Blade of the Immortal gal game (freaky).
Transitional volumes can be difficult, and compared to the perfectly-formed climax of the last arc, this volume is indeed a retreat in quality. Half forward march and half lingering look back, this isn't the series' most focused installment. It is, however, a fulfilling one, particularly for long-time fans looking to see where, if anywhere, Rin and Manji's relationship is going; and one that holds great promise for developments to come. The wait for which, as always, will be interminable.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Tasty relational morsels all around; the opening rumblings of what promises to be another epic-sized arc; that art.
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