Reviewby Carlo Santos,
In a rural forest village, two swordsmen—Grave and Zen—are the only line of defense against an endless stream of bandits and forest monsters. Although both loyal to the young female village chief Shirayuki, they begin to change when a mysterious monk wanders into town. The monk is part of an order that must guard against the resurrection of the Goddess of Destruction, which is prophesied to take place right in this village. His very presence soon takes effect: impetuous Grave fights the ones he loves and respects; mild-mannered Zen professes his love for Shirayuki; conflicted Shirayuki tells Grave to leave the village. The winds of destruction have begun to blow.
If I had a nickel for everyone lone swordsman who set out to challenge destiny and improve his abilities... well, I'd have a lot of swordsmen. Death Trance walks down that same path, telling the tale of a gruff warrior who finds himself in conflict with all sorts of folks, including his own allies at times. It's surprisingly easy getting to know the cast and the story, and it's probably because they're not all that imaginative. Nonetheless, the expressive art and emotional pull of Death Trance offers its own well-polished take on a classic scenario.
The story jumps right into battle within the first few pages, giving an instant taste of what the series is about. From that point it maintains a careful balance between action and drama, alternating intense fights with somber (and often trite) dialogue. The entire first volume is expository in nature, gradually revealing more and more about each character and their situation until you finish the book thinking, "And THEN what happened to everyone?" However, the plot is so formulaic that it may also leave a feeling of "Actually, don't tell me what happens to everyone, because I can guess what happens next." Like most swordfighting tales, the flimsy story has to work itself around the framework of challenges and battles. The Grave/Zen/Shirayuki love triangle is telegraphed less than a quarter of the way in, and this causes most of the friction that drives the plot, along with that meddling monk. However, the bubbling angst between everyone—obvious and predictable as it is—results in some terrific one-on-one combat.
If the overlying story is all too familiar, it should be no surprise that the characters are also the typical players seen in a fantasy action title. Every epic adventure must have a rugged swordsman who lives on his own terms, and Grave fits the bill perfectly. Although he helps to defend the village, it's only because he feels like it, and inside he's a near-monster that's barely under control. He fights because he likes to fight, and wants to get better at it. But lest this become an angrier version of Naruto, Shirayuki offers a differing viewpoint: one who fights with an "empty blade," or no purpose beyond fighting, is the weakest of all. This hits especially hard because Shirayuki herself was trained to protect the village from a young age, but no longer wields the blade because the two swordsmen do it on her behalf. The result is a paradox where the one character with the greatest purpose for fighting—to defend her entire community—is the one who never fights. Meanwhile, Zen seems to be the wimpy swordsman who gets all mushy and confesses to Shirayuki, yet he makes the most courageous move and lets her go, if she should choose to be with Grave. (But really, who didn't see this one coming?) Together, the three main characters complement and conflict with each other, creating emotionally charged situations that are just as intense as the physical fights. But as mentioned before, most of these situations and their outcomes are painfully obvious.
Like a less refined Blade of the Immortal, Kana Takeuchi's artwork relies mainly on linework and hatching to create textures and effects. Even basic facial features, which could easily be expressed with one stroke each, are drawn with multiple thin-lined strokes to make the characters look more expressive. The detailed lines also enrich various backgrounds throughout the story—the village, the forest and even a local tavern all become part of a convincing world simply because they're rendered realistically. In a story such as this, where time and place don't get anymore specific than "long ago and far away," setting up that kind of believable environment is crucial. The panels are all clearly partitioned, telling the story in a straightforward way but with enough variation to keep the eye moving. Frames become more diagonal and dynamic as fights turn fiercer, but Takeuchi stays in control at all times and presents the action unambiguously by staying with the bare elements of combat: two opponents, their weapons, and as many speedlines you need.
Media Blasters makes it clear that this manga is a multimedia tie-in: an ad for the Death Trance live-action film graces the inside front cover and stills from the movie are added as an "extra" in the back of the book. Although the covers are a bit flimsy, the interior artwork is printed on fairly good paper, and the purple ink—which may be off-putting at first—doesn't change the fact that the artwork has been reproduced cleanly. The slightly larger-than-standard page size also helps to bring out the visuals. The English adaptation is the weakest point of Media Blasters' production; the sparse dialogue appears to have been pulled from a database of action/adventure/fighting clichés. Although the simple lines make it easy to understand the story, it also has that feeling of having been written by someone who's seen too many action movies. "How many people must die ... before we have peace?" Okay, so that's probably what it says in Japanese as well, but English allows many ways of phrasing the same sentence without having to resort to a cookie-cutter script.
Fantasy tales brimming with swordfights have always been popular with fans, and Death Trance is one such story that will surely find its audience. Those who can appreciate nuanced manga artwork that isn't begging to become an anime series, and are interested in conflicted characters with more dimensions than the usual good guys vs. bad guys, might want to pick up this title. Most readers can guess where the story is headed, but if you care more about the journey than the destination, then join up with Grave, Zen and the mysterious monk and let those blades clash.
Overall : B-
Story : C-
Art : B+
+ Confident artwork and tragic scenario make this an absorbing drama.