Reviewby Carlo Santos, Oct 16th 2006
G. novel 2
Although the swordsman Jintetsu died while on a quest to avenge his father, a mechanical body has given him a new lease on life. Armed with a talking sword that voices his thoughts, Jintetsu wanders from town to town, trying not to stir up trouble—but trouble has a way of finding him anyway. Whether the problem is a girl accused of murdering a family boss or two kids looking for the man who killed their father, Jintetsu doesn't pick sides, choosing only to fight for what he believes in. However, this becomes a problem when Jintetsu finds himself in the middle of a conflict between a childhood friend and a former gang buddy. Will he side with ambitious gang leader Ryujiro or rough-talking drifter Renji? Whatever path he chooses, Jintetsu knows it can only lead to bloodshed.
Robot samurai! That's the kind of concept that makes people go, "Why didn't I think of that?" Of course, Jintetsu is neither a true samurai nor a true robot (more of a cyborg, really), but historical adventure will never be the same now that there's a mechanical swordsman running around Japan. And while Jintetsu may be the product of pure fantasy, the world that he lives in is decidedly real: no monsters or mystics, just regular folks dealing with the ups and downs of feudal politics. While it doesn't reach the level of Koike and Kojima's samurai epics, the series does lean in that direction; the world will always need a sword-wielding hero with an unshakable set of principles. If the sword literally does the talking for him, well... all the more fascinating.
The two stand-alone chapters that begin this volume are ideal examples of Jintetsu's methods: he comes to a new town, runs into some people, and helps to solve a personal dilemma, often with mixed results. Hardly an original formula, but one that makes you stop and think, at least in this series. In "Caged Bird," he protects a girl who hopes to escape her overbearing master—but her thoughts on freedom clearly don't agree with the reality that Jintetsu's come to know. Being totally free can mean no house, no meals, no security ... is that what she really wants? While Jintetsu doesn't say exactly that, he implies it with his observations. More personal philosophy happens in the next chapter, where Jintetsu meets up with former accomplice Renji. A flare-up between Renji and a vengeful young man gets both parties thinking about the principles of killing. For Renji and Jintetsu, it's also a chance to reflect on the emotional damage that they've caused as former hired assassins.
The rest of the volume is a four-part saga that basically extends this formula; by the time the smoke clears, certain key characters will be dead and Jintetsu will have thought about many things, including his relationships with old friends. Despite his half-human existence and stoic attitude, our hero can be very compassionate when it matters. This ambitious story arc has its weaknesses, however: back-story gets pretty messy with several characters being interconnected (good luck keeping all their clan affiliations and motivations straight), and overused plot devices become a crutch to sort out the whole mess, right down to the dying character who reveals a big secret with his last words. A mechanical man tackling human issues in the feudal era may be an original idea, but the way it's executed doesn't always measure up.
Of course, there is more to Kurogane than just principles, morals and feelings; sword-fighting is usually the most direct way of solving such problems, and these bursts of action help to pick up the pace. The sketchy art style lends itself well to gritty fight scenes, where hatched shadows and uneven lines give each battle a rough-edged vitality. In capturing such energy, however, it does become hard to tell who's attacking whom. (But isn't that what real fights are like?) Characters are drawn with sketchy lines as well, and certain features complement their personality—Jintetsu's glaring eye seems to be judging the whole world at times, and the burn on Renji's face is a constant reminder of his harsh background. The mainly rectangular layouts make it easy to follow the direction of the story, but come with enough variety that there's a definite change in flow from introspection to tension to battle.
Those who worry about getting value for money should be pretty happy with almost 250 pages of material here. Del Rey's production values are solid as usual, with sharply printed images on good paper, although the color-to-grayscale conversions on some pages look faded out. Some artists' styles just don't covert well when you take the color out of them. The translated dialogue, despite a couple of typos, has a good natural flow to it and adds some flavor for certain characters as well—most noticeably Renji's street talk. Sound effects aren't all that common, with dialogue and action equally balanced out, but when they do come up, small translations are placed next to the characters to give the series its soundtrack.
Sometimes it takes a robot samurai to get us thinking about what defines us as people. Jintetsu's ideas on the value of life are revealed as much by his inaction as his action—whether he fights or not, who he defends, and what he has to say afterwards. Don't assume that this is just another action-packed historical romp, as it goes one level deeper than that: this is also emotion-packed historical drama, showing us how people respond when tragedy and trouble befall them. Volume 2 shows just how deep these troubles can become when friends get caught in clan wars. Sometimes the stories stumble, getting bogged down in plot details and falling back on handy clichés, but the overall message gets across more often than not. In adding a realistic human element to the genre, Kurogane turns out to be a thoughtful action series—not the deepest by any means, but definitely with enough substance to it.
Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Relies on both vibrant action scenes and personal drama to make its point.
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