Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Swordsman Jintetsu has already died once in a quest for revenge, and now he lives a drifter's life in a mechanical body. Jintetsu's latest travels take him to a humid forest, where he stays at the home of a craftsman with a dangerous secret. Later on, he's hired by a gang leader to hunt down a rival and finish some business, not realizing that the feud lies much deeper: a beautiful woman is at the center of it all, and the grudge she holds is more intense than any clan war. Further down the road, Jintetsu stops by a village that's been spooked by rumors of a samurai-slaying ghost. He checks out the mystery, but he'll also have deal with another wanderer who's sworn her life to defeating Jintetsu in battle.
Who needs an afro when you've got a cyborg samurai? Jintetsu's exploits may not be the slickest, or the bloodiest, but they bring out something that many other action series forget: characters with depth and gripping stories about them. Kei Toume's vision of Edo-period Japan is not one of super-powered ninjas in battle, or gory outpourings of blood and sex, but a world where flawed people try to cope with a flawed social system. Their problems are the kind that would not be too far-fetched from our own: a clan war that descends into brutal revenge, an ill-fated search for a long-lost brother, a shut-in loner with an unhealthy fetish. Jintetsu may be entering their lives equipped with a mechanical body and sword, but as he and the others often learn, violence is rarely a happy solution.
The first story in this volume provides a bite-sized taster of things to come: a forty-page one-shot where Jintetsu stays the night at a creepy little hut in the forest. This vignette captures everything about the series: a laid-back mood, a dash of the supernatural, and just enough swordplay to fill the action quota. The following four-part arc, "Crimson," adds more plotting to these elements, creating a revenge tale with a handful of twists. However, "Crimson" also brings out Toume's weaknesses as a storyteller—getting so caught up in the particulars, he starts dishing out names and motives that only serve to confuse the plot rather than intensify it. The latter story arc, "Mask," is less problematic in this regard, focusing on a straightforward brother-sister relationship rather than complex clan wars.
Whichever way each story goes, though, the characters are still the foundation that make this series work. No matter what kind of peasant, artisan or warrior Jintetsu meets, the best way to get to know them is by watching the plot unfold. Sometimes they get what they want, but always at a price—these are neither heroic happy endings nor melodramatic tragedies, but simply contemplative sketches that say, "That's life." And life, as it turns out, often takes its sharpest turns right before death. In fact, this is the series' one major cliché: death is constantly used as a "final solution" to each story, as if there's no other way out. Occasional bouts of sword-fighting action, usually placed towards the end, also help set up the big rise before the cathartic fall, although students of short story writing will see this as a blatant use of formula. But that's just the most solid way to build a short story—one that will leave a lasting impact.
Toume's sketchy but vibrant art adds another dimension to the series, creating a historical Japan that evokes Koike and Kojima's classics but not quite as stodgy. There's still an element of action-adventure caricature—Jintetsu's big, glaring eye and forehead-sweeping lock of hair seem more suited to the Shonen Jump school of character design—but sophistication lurks within the textured inking and moody backgrounds. The lines aren't always perfectly straight, and there's a bit of shaky splatter, and that's fine; it makes everything look more alive. The infrequent action scenes, bursting with speedlines, are the fullest example of this liveliness, with layouts that guide the eye swiftly across the page. (If only they were a little clearer—read the fight scenes carefully, as you might miss a critical hit or finishing move.) The character designs of the supporting cast are the other aspect that could use improvement, as it's hard to differentiate the "ordinary folks" at times—every young man looks the same; every young woman looks the same.
Although the setting is old-fashioned, the language used in this translation is contemporary enough to understand. Short, austere dialogue is the style of choice, which nicely fits the contemplative mood of the series. A more outspoken font would have been nice, though, as the use of lowercase lettering makes for squinty reading. The sound effect translations also get lost in the art sometimes, as the Japanese characters and surrounding imagery can be so striking that they drown out the little thuds and clangs. The back-of-the-book cultural notes, although helpful in understanding historical context, could have been more comprehensive—words like "katagi" and "toseinin" are not defined here, assuming that readers have already read the previous volumes. Still, quality printing and binding plus a beefy 250-page count make this a product well worth its cost.
In a way, Kurogane is the anti-Basilisk, a historical series that focuses not on outrageous ninja battles but on down-to-earth, human problems. It may sound like boring stuff, but these flawed and fascinating characters are sure to keep you immersed in their world, following along as they try to solve problems that have no easy answers. This volume centers mostly around two equally moving stories, one about revenge, the other about family and loss, and each with its own message. Sometimes things get too confusing with names and affiliations, but our mechanical man Jintetsu is there to look at the big picture, and this is what he sees: a world of willful hope and unfortunate mistakes, but one that we must keep traveling through, no matter what.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+
+ Deep personal stories with intriguing characters and a thoughtful mood.
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