Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 13th 2013
Blade of the Immortal
GN 25 - 26
The remains of the Itto-ryu have brought all manner of hell to the Mito Road. Their feint towards the port of Hitachi has attracted a roster of very dangerous people to the one thoroughfare between Edo and the port: from Habaki Kagimura and his entourage of killers and spies to Rin and Manji. News of the Itto-ryu's assault on Edo castle sends further ripples of chaos down the road, exacerbated by the attackers' use of Mito to escape. But the most dangerous man on the road isn't there because the Itto-ryu are there; he's there because Manji is. Psychopathic Shira doesn't care about the Shogunate, or his one-time employer Kagimura, or the Itto-ryu's schemes. He wants only to force a final confrontation with Manji. And on the Mito Road he gets his chance.
After the tightly controlled Prison Arc, Hiroaki Samura has taken his cracked samurai epic in the opposite direction, assembling a sprawling, free-form follow-up that is as broad and loose as the previous arc was narrow and focused. The result is less satisfying, and less artful, but when it tightens its focus for one of its gore-soaked climaxes, it's still potent, frightening stuff.
This is one of those climaxes. Specifically, actually, these books cover the tail end of one such climax and the entirety of the build-up and execution of a second. The beginning of volume 25 is the final chapter of the Itto-ryu's assault on Edo castle, covering specifically the fate of Baro Sukezane, who stayed behind to enable the escape of Magatsu and Anotsu. It's most remarkable for giving Baro some extra background depth, and for its action centerpiece, an impossibly virtuosic, four-page POV shot as Baro tries to slaughter his way through the castle guard. Samura is always pushing his limits, and this is one of his more spectacular pushes.
The main body of these volumes, however, concerns Shira and Manji's final reckoning. Perhaps even more so than the Prison finale, it's a complicated fight, with a lot of moving parts and unpredictable players contributing to some unexpected kinks in its seemingly straightforward run. Just as he is with his art, Samura is always pushing the limits of his writing, and if this isn't the biggest push yet, it's still quite definitely a push. Unfortunately, unlike his art, when Samura pushes his plotting—at least here—he ends up showing some of the strain.
The strain first makes itself known in a couple of intrusive flashbacks. The first is okay, a short look back at how it was the Shira and his pet boy Renzo ended up down in those flooded tunnels where they stole Manji's arm back in volume twenty-one. The second is a more major problem. It's a lengthy diversion wherein Shira reads the findings of Burando, the doctor hired by Kagimura to unravel the secret of Manji's immortality. It's a necessary evil, as it explains some of Shira's behavior and also sets up the trap at the center of his plan to bait Manji (as well as fully explains Manji's body for the first time), but it's also wordy and dull and badly slows the story's progress.
It's over soon enough, though. At which time Shira springs his trap. Unfortunately it's such a good trap that Samura has to run interference on Manji's behalf so that everyone involved doesn't end up in charnel-house bits and pieces. To achieve that end, he brings in a series of outside interlopers and helpers to keep Shira occupied and extract Manji from a really impossible bind. (Though it wouldn't do to give the trap away, it is fair to say that it's a brilliant bit of cold-blooded psychological sadism). The problem isn't so much that the interloping strains credulity—Samura sets everything up quite carefully, and remember, everyone is travelling along the same road—but that it creates a finale in which the hero(s) survive by pure chance. Which is not terribly satisfying.
Those same interlopers, however, are also the core of the fight's screw-tightening, stomach-turning tension. Truth be told, there's never any doubt that Manji will survive—not so much because he's immortal as because he's the main character. But Magatsu? And dippy lady ninjas Tanpopo and Meguro? And even Rin? Oh, they can die. They can definitely die. And given Shira's nauseating psychoses, die in truly appalling ways. The sequence where he kidnaps Rin positively thrums with awful danger, and his battle with Meguro, knowing what we know about his particular perversions, is almost too worrying to watch. The battle as a whole may have its rough narrative edges, but it never forgets rules one and two of action: make the threat real, and make the outcome matter.
And it also has the benefit of Samura's masterful grasp of the art of action. These two volumes are nearly wall-to-wall carnage, in which Samura uses his fine-grained knowledge of human anatomy to detail the repeated destruction of the human body and his fine-tuned cinematic sensibilities to lend an artful quality to even the most grotesque of brutalities. Rarely has his art been more purposeful, or more stunning. His framing, linework, and sequencing have never been better; his pencil tableaus and intricate inking never more striking. There are a few underwater sequences that are downright poetic in their despairing beauty, and in their rare appreciation of Rin's heartbreakingly fragile physique.
It's the raw violence, however, that lingers most memorably. The meticulously choreographed, carefully considered, gorgeously cinematic violence. The battle between Manji and Shira is exactly as the battle of fleshly attrition that you'd expect when two immortals take swords to each other (it spoils nothing, given his acquisition of Manji's arm, to give away that Shira is now immortal). It's a jaw-droppingly nasty bit of work, a return to the uncontrolled, fantastical excesses of the manga's pre-Prison days, but with the concern for strategy and counter-strategy that Samura sharpened during the Prison arc's long final battle.
It is, to put it simply, one of the manga's great action sequences. And with a surprisingly satisfying—if sometimes thoroughly disgusting—coda at the end. It's clear that the manga is wrapping up its run, and if it's all done at this level, it should be one thrilling ride. Maybe a bit rough, but thrilling nonetheless.
Dark Horse's books, by the way, are entirely unchanged from previous volumes. The main extra is a collection of humorous Blade parodies compiled at the end of volume twenty five.
Overall : B+
Story : B-
Art : A+
+ Intense action and amazing art; Shira's trap; danger to long-term characters feels very real.
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