Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 30th 2006
For years, the only thing that kept the Kouga and Iga clans from slaughtering each other was the Hanzo Hattori truce. With that truce now dissolved, however, a deadly battle is underway: ten of Kouga's best ninjas versus ten of Iga's! News of the battle has not yet reached the Kouga clan, however, and they've already lost four warriors due to Iga's element of surprise. On the Kouga side, however, is Gennosuke, a ninja so powerful that only one person can possibly defeat him—the Iga maiden Oboro. There's just one problem: Gennosuke and Oboro are in love with each other. Gennosuke, unaware of the political situation, is already at the Iga palace visiting with Oboro. Now the Iga clan must convince Oboro to turn against her lover, while Kouga's ninjas must race to protect him!
The Kouga Ninja Scrolls is a fine name for a historical action epic. It says that there are ninjas involved, particularly of the Kouga variety, and that scrolls play a key part. It's hard to go wrong with a descriptive (if slightly dry) title. So why, then, is the manga adaptation of this classic novel called Basilisk?
Read Volume 2 and you'll find out why.
More than just explaining the title of the series, though, this volume also shows what happens once the Kouga clan realizes that their backs are against the wall. The resulting story arc is a strong blend of suspense, drama, and visceral battle action. It gets off to a clumsy start, however, trying to re-introduce all twenty main characters with an obituary page and an everyone-versus-everyone-else standoff in the Kouga village. Didn't quite get everyone's name and team affiliation? That's okay, they'll meet again in a series of one-on-one confrontations, which turn out to be much more manageable and much more compelling. What the individual battles do best is to showcase each character's superhuman ninja technique—hiding in walls, stealing someone's face, or even sucking an opponent's blood through the skin. By the time the meaning of "Basilisk" is revealed, the ever-increasing tension has become strong enough to propel the volume to its dramatic cliffhanger ending.
Nonstop action has its drawbacks, though. With so much fighting and such an extensive cast, character development is skimmed over just like in the first volume, although Gennosuke and Oboro do get some attention, being the pivotal couple in the series. Unfortunately, most of that attention is paid to them towards the end, and only in the heat of battle. An earlier scene where siblings Saemon and Okoi see each other for the last time is genuinely touching, but again, completely overshadowed by the rest of the fighting in that chapter. If Basilisk is exciting, it's only because the very nature of a ten-on-ten elimination battle is exciting; the characters at this stage seem like mere placeholders for a set of unique abilities and resulting duels. (On the other hand, it'd make a great collectible card game.)
What Basilisk lacks in depth, however, it makes up for with eye-popping art. The characters' names and connections may be easily forgotten, but the designs are not—each ninja's appearance is pushed to the extreme, whether curvy, bulky, sinewy, or just plain old. (The aged characters are some of the most unique-looking in the series.) This same level of detail goes into the backgrounds as well, creating an immersive setting where the environment and the weather are just as important as period architecture and clothing. Adding to the unique look is the heavy use of computer-aided effects, allowing gradients and nuances of tone that go beyond ordinary manga. However, the pinnacle of the artwork is the brutal action that charges forward for pages at a time, stopping only to let people die and to let new challengers appear. Spacious layouts, intense speedlines and graphic violence add to the feeling that every move happens at maximum speed, with maximum power—and for anyone in standing the wrong place at the wrong time, it will be the last thing they'll ever see.
A story so focused on battle relies mainly on short bursts of dialogue, so most of the translation is a straightforward script of one-liners and interjections. A mild level of archaic formality adds to the historical-fantasy flavor—this is the one kind of story where you can get away with "After him! Don't let him get away!" in total seriousness. Sound effects are left alone in the artwork, with only small subtitle text running alongside the effects, and a brief appendix of translation notes provides some historical background (although there's not much that needs to be explained in this volume). The larger-than-average page size is ideal for showcasing the art, and Del Rey's paper quality is smooth and strong enough to handle the nuances of the unique toning style. Color pages at the front are an added bonus to the volume.
Action and adventure characters have this nasty habit of coming back from the dead, and doubly so in a tournament or fighting series where the hero always manages to find that last reserve of energy in him. However, no such safety net exists in Basilisk, where a dead character stays dead, and even gets his or her name crossed off a scroll to prove it. Volume 2 features several more rounds of this deadly battle, a shocking revelation that explains the title of the manga, and new levels of tension among the surviving combatants. Rendered with rich tones and unmistakable visuals, the world of Basilisk is a unique experience in ninja warfare. Even if the characters aren't all fully developed, the momentum certainly is—and it'll only get more intense from here on out.
Story : B-
Art : A-
+ Gripping, nonstop action and a striking art style well-suited to the story.
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