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by Rebecca Silverman,

The Elusive Samurai

GN 1-2

The Elusive Samurai GN 1-2

In 1333, the child heir to the Kamakura shogunate, Hojo Tokiyuki, was abruptly orphaned and deprived of his heritage. Fleeing to another province, the young man begins to grapple with his new circumstances as he builds a following. But Tokiyuki's no fighter, so he's going to rely on what he does best to win his war: run away!

The Elusive Samurai is translated and adapted by John Werry with lettering and touch-up by John Hunt.


We all have our own special skills. Some of us are excellent fighters, others are impressive bakers or dancers. Hojo Tokiyuki's talent? He's awesome at running away. If that sounds like a weird premise for a historical samurai manga, well, you're not wrong, but The Elusive Samurai is also brought to us by Yūsei Matsui, the creator of Assassination Classroom, and that gives us reason to believe that the story's going to try to do something special and interesting with its premise. While that hasn't fully materialized in these two volumes, the plot's still engaging enough that it's likely to be worth powering through until Matsui gets his feet fully under him and the story really takes off.

It's understandable that things may take a little while to get going when you consider the source material. Matsui has essentially taken a footnote from history and is fleshing him out into a full character. In history, Hojo Tokiyuki was the son and heir of the last Kamakura shogun, Hojo Takatoki. His family was ousted from power in 1333, and the eight-year-old Tokiyuki fled to Shinano Province. He later raised an army and fought back against the Ashikaga brothers before asking for a pardon from Emperor Go-Daigo and entering his service. He was beheaded in 1353 and the Yokai family are thought to be his descendants. While a bit more is known about Tokiyuki, there's much less historical information about him than some others of the period, so Matsui is taking relatively few facts and turning them into his own story about the end of the Kamakura period and Tokiyuki himself. (Hopefully his version of events will end differently for our hero.) But the wonderful thing about using such a relatively unknown figure is that it gives Matsui the space to play.

These first two volumes start with the fall of Tokiyuki's father when the shogun is attacked by Ashikaga Takauji. The sole survivor of the shogun's immediate family, Tokiyuki is taken in by Suwa Yorishige and brought to Shinano Province, where Suwa intends to help him build a following to get revenge on Ashikaga. The catch? Suwa is a combination priest/embodied god/prophet, and he gets weird flashes of the future, making him pretty darn close to being unreliable and just plain odd. His goal is to use Tokiyuki's amazing powers of running away and hiding in his favor, and if you know anything about the cultural implications of running away in Japanese historical warfare, that just makes it even more bizarre. But Tokiyuki, Suwa realizes, is strongest when he's moving away from the fight, and that's something he wants the boy to use to his advantage.

Historical setting aside, at this point the story is fairly typical shounen action drama. Most of the humor is provided by Suwa's sheer over-the-topness, while Tokiyuki is more or less a regular kid who excels at tag and hide and seek. His assembled crew thus far consist of Suwa's miko daughter, a big strong girl, and a boy warrior, with a thief joining the gang in volume two as the de facto ninja. The real hook, however, is the insertion of the supernatural into the story; while Suwa's clearly got some mystical powers, the villains of the piece all seem to have inhuman aspects, and whether they solicited help from otherworldly sources or became the villains because they have demonic powers isn't yet clear. More interestingly, Ashikaga doesn't necessarily have demonic imagery, but it's still clear that there's something off about him than just a simple lust for power. In Tokiyuki's memories of him, Ashikaga is a kindly figure, so to have him so suddenly betray his family is something that Tokiyuki struggles to accept, even as he realizes that he has to.

It's very clear that Matsui has done his research and is deeply invested in the history he's writing about. Along with text boxes letting us know who some of the characters are and how they've gone down in history, he's also gotten a historian to write more in-depth historical notes in extensive appendices to both volumes. (Apparently the notes also appeared after each chapter in the original serialization.) They're written in language that works for the intended middle-grade audience as well, and they cover a lot of ground for a period that doesn't necessarily get quite as much attention as some others of Japanese history – although both notes and manga throw out a few references to The Heike Story, which should make some readers very happy.

Matsui's art for this series looks more stylized than in Assassination Classroom, with lots of intricate details on period clothing and backgrounds. Horses are not his artistic strong suit, but overall the pages look good, if a little crowded at times. The color art is particularly beautiful, and it's a shame we only get the covers to look at; hopefully an artbook will appear at some point in the future. It's also worth mentioning that the English translation is quite good – there's a sense that this must have been a beast to translate and adapt for English-language audiences, and the balance between old-fashioned and contemporary (but not slangy) language is very well done.

The Elusive Samurai is hard to write about in its first two volumes. It's clear that the story is walking a fine line between known history and wished-for adaptation, and the plot is relatively slow-moving despite a lot happening. But it's a deeply interesting start, and even if it's not quite worth rushing out to buy each new volume, it's definitely worth reading to see where things go.

Overall : B
Story : B-
Art : B+

+ Interesting take on a historical character who doesn't get much attention, nice detail in the art and translation.
Slow moving, pages can be very dense.

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Yūsei Matsui
Licensed by: Viz Media

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