Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer
Yuuhi Amamiya has begun to settle into his role as the Lizard Knight, but that doesn't mean his life is getting any easier. In the wake of his would-be mentor Shinoname's death, Yuuhi no longer feels confident fighting the golems, and the introduction of more Beast Knights only complicates things. Though they're intended to aid the Princess, Yuuhi and Samadare's new “friends” seem to be a strange and unreliable mix of battle-hungry ruffians, would-be heroes, potential spies, and weirdo kids. And all that's before you factor in Samadare's secret plan to destroy the earth, which it seems unlikely their new friends will be all that thrilled to hear about. No matter how you slice it, it's looking like Yuuhi and Samadare's quest to save (and then destroy) the earth is going to get a lot harder before it gets any easier.
I couldn't really figure out Biscuit Hammer within its first couple volumes. The plot was fairly simple - the Mage is planning to destroy the earth with the titular hammer, and the Princess and her twelve Beast Knights are meant to stand against him. To this you add the cynical personality of the Lizard Knight Yuuhi, an overall quirky sense of humor, and a fractured storytelling sensibility that focuses heavily on the characters behind the heroism. That all made sense to me, but Biscuit Hammer is considered something of a cult classic, and I wasn't sure why this somewhat routine adventure story with the kinda crappy art had such a firm reputation.
With these third and fourth volumes, that's starting to become clear.
The art is still pretty crappy; Satoshi Mizukami has a distinctive style, but it's certainly not a polished one. His eyes are expressive and angular faces unique, but there's little congruity of character design from one page to the next, and more importantly, the manga has difficulty conveying tension across multiple panels. Biscuit Hammer's battles continue to be something of a mess - Mizukami's humans don't seem to have any bones, so there's no sense of weight to their motions, and the jumps from one panel to the next rarely convey a sense of movement or even just physical space. Backgrounds are avoided whenever possible (and often when it really shouldn't be possible), meaning a lot of times characters are just flailing bonelessly in blank voids. There are distinctive single pages scattered throughout (an ominous declaration in tall grass framed against the Biscuit Hammer's looming shadow, a profile of an old teacher that makes smart use of negative space), but overall, Biscuit Hammer's visual personality is inextricable from its amateurish execution.
But weirdly enough, when it comes to the writing, that amateurish execution is actually a strength. Biscuit Hammer reads like an adventure story told by a thoughtful, slightly misanthropic person who's only vaguely familiar with the rules of shounen storytelling. Characters can die, here. Villains will sometimes just pop up and say hi to the heroes, because they're bored and kind of lonely. Small one-chapter stories exist for their own sake, adding texture to the narrative's ideas but barely interacting with its plot. Though the first two volumes focused fairly tightly on Yuuhi's story, as he began to come to terms with the abuse he'd suffered at the hands of his grandfather, these volumes broaden the focus to include all of the Beast Knights and even the Mage Animus. Those Beast Knights aren't all introduced through dramatic reveals - Yuuhi accidentally runs into two of them biking home from school, while two more are simply discovered by the Crow Knight and brought to an impromptu party at Yuuhi's apartment. With a much larger cast introduced, the second half of these volumes ends up detouring into a series of vignettes that dig deeper into each of our strange heroes. And it's at this point, with the plot and Yuuhi's character both firmly established, that Biscuit Hammer's ambitions and, well, soul become clear.
Originally, I'd assumed Yuuhi's backstory existed largely to enrich his character specifically. Yuuhi spent his childhood tormented by his grandfather, who urged him to “make no friends or connections, and treat all others as his enemies.” This treatment scarred Yuuhi deeply, and he grew up to be someone who lived out that creed while hating the world. The Princess Samadare opened up his world, and he's started to become a more full person through his interactions with all the other Beast Knights. But it turns out this story isn't just about Yuuhi - it's about how we engage with the world altogether, and the meaning of a life well-lived.
This volume's thematic points start out tied to Yuuhi, as he attempts to come to terms with the death of his teacher Shinoname. Eventually, he realizes Shinoname's dying wish was for Yuuhi to inherit his skills - and so, holding close this piece of “immortality” that Shinoname passed on to his friend, Yuuhi is finally able to grieve. As the chapters progress, each of the new Beast Knights end up offering their own perspective on how to live and how to die, adding up to a strange chorus of quirky yet solemn, lightly sketched yet deeply felt reflections. The Snake Knight Hakudo understands that everyone must die, but her wish is that “when my family dies, they are able to die smiling.” The Horse Knight focuses on ideals of justice, but his former brushes with precognition end up reflecting on how both the Cat Knight and Mage see knowledge as a kind of immortality. And in the final chapters, the Swordfish Knight offers a harsh critique of that belief, saying that infinite knowledge and immortality are far less important than the tangible things we learn from the people we love. “The way to die is smiling, free of regrets!” says the swordfish, and though in most stories that would be empty cliche, here it feels like the culmination of hard-fought lessons scattered across an array of unique, engaging characters. Ultimately, Yuuhi's backstory isn't just an explanation meant to enrich his character - it is a series of cynical hypotheses that Biscuit Hammer will be dismantling one strange adventure at a time. “Do you still hate this world?” asks the Princess. “Yes, I do,” Yuuhi replies. “Can you also love this world?” “Yes.”
So yes, I am beginning to understand why people love this story. It's full of engaging characters with unique sensibilities (“Oh, so snakes can talk now?” says Hakudo when first meeting her partner, while the Mantis Knight immediately tries to wish for the Mage to be defeated), its rough-edged personality is clear even in its narrative stumbles, and it is full of passionate, neatly expressed ideas. I'm already at the point where I feel like I'm struggling to convey why this story “got to me,” which is always a good sign when it comes to emotional engagement. Biscuit Hammer is as scrappy as its heroes, and just as endearing.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : C+
+ Biscuit Hammer's quirky voice remains a strong point in its favor; the introduction of more Beast Knights both broadens and focuses the story.
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