The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 160 | A Blade of the Immortal primer

Leaving Proof 160 | A Blade of the Immortal primer
Published on Thursday, November 15, 2012 by
Blade of the Immortal deconstructs the samurai and grapples with the absurdity inherent in popular conceptions of bushidō and the traditional martial arts.

Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal—published in Japan as 無限の住人(Mugen no Jūnin, roughly translated into English as “Denizen of Infinity”)—is one of the most popular samurai-themed seinen manga of the past two decades. The series’ combination of striking art and design, compelling characters, and intriguing plots has garnered it fans and critical acclaim on an international scale: It is one of the few publications to have won both a Japan Media Arts Festival Excellence Award for Manga (in 1997) and an Eisner Award (The English-language edition published by Dark Horse was recognized as the Best US Edition of Foreign Material in 2000).

Blade of the Immortal follows the adventures of Manji—a ronin with the ability to recover from any injury short of decapitation—and Rin, an orphaned teenager whom Manji has pledged to assist in her quest to avenge the murder of her parents by members of a rogue sword school. The book, like a lot of contemporary samurai-themed manga and anime, builds on many of the themes and ideas presented in Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub; the relationship between Manji and Rin, for example, loosely mirrors the parental bond between Lone Wolf and Cub‘s Ogami Ittō and Daigorō. Like Koike and Kojima before him, Samura deconstructs the Edo Period samurai, peeling away the built-up layers of romanticization to reveal a warrior-bureaucrat class headed towards obsolescence, whose general ethos was based on a ritualized aggrandizement of Sengoku-era martial principles of dubious pragmatic value and shaky ethical and moral grounding. Manji’s superhuman regenerative powers are a deliberate affront to the samurai philosophy contained in the Hagakure, where Edo Period retainer Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote that “the way of the samurai is found in death,” words that are obviously inapplicable to a protagonist who is virtually immortal.

It isn’t too surprising that a modern-day Japanese author like Samura would be critical of the supposedly genuine samurai values commonly portrayed in samurai-themed popular entertainment and espoused in quasi-historical “samurai treatises” like the Hagakure and Nitobe Inazō’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan—there are no confirmed historical accounts of Tsunetomo ever engaging in actual duels or mortal combat as a samurai and the distorted and extreme bushidō (“way of the warrior”) Inazō championed has been described as “the cornerstone for the construction of an edifice of ultra-nationalism that led Japan down the path to a war she could not win.”

Blade of the Immortal casts its iconoclastic gaze not just on the broad themes of death, honor, and revenge, but also upon martial arts philosophy. To Samura, the same formalistic and dogmatic mindset that corrupted the Edo Period samurai class also had a deleterious effect on the evolution of the martial arts. As the villain Kagehisa Anotsu explains to a captured Rin:

In the series, the best fighters are those who utilize unorthodox and unique techniques and incorporate non-traditional weapons in their arsenal. This is initially presented as the approach favored by the primary villains of the book’s first major story-arc, the rogue sword school led by Anotsu known as the Ittō-ryū. The murder of Rin’s samurai father by the Ittō-ryū was actually a demonstration by Anotsu of the superiority of an unorthodox fighting style that pays no heed to the artificial restrictions of traditional sword forms:

Anotsu’s words echo those of Bruce Lee, who wrote in his Tao of Jeet Kune Do that “if you want to understand the truth in martial arts, to see an opponent clearly, you must throw away the notion of styles or schools, prejudices, likes and dislikes, and so forth,” and helped modern martial art shed a pernicious legacy of doctrinal obstinacy that threatened to render it irrelevant outside of the sterile confines of the dōjō, the kwoon, the dojang, and the temple.

It becomes plain to the reader as the series goes along that Anotsu’s fighting philosophy isn’t categorically “evil” or “wrong,” Manji and Rin use similar methods, they continuously hone and adapt their tactics to suit their enemies, using weapons and techniques that would be considered underhanded and blasphemous by traditional sword schools.

With its characteristic art, thrilling stories, and uncompromising incisiveness, Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal is an ideal read for the manga novice and experienced reader alike that rightfully occupies a place alongside Lone Wolf and Cub and the fictionalized Miyamoto Musashi biography Vagabond as among the finest samurai-themed manga to find a wide audience in the West.

Where to find it

  • Dark Horse Manga (a division of Dark Horse Comics) has been publishing English-language trade paperbacks of Blade of the Immortal since 1997 at a rate of one to two per year. The most recent collection, Blade of the Immortal, Vol. 25: Snowfall at Dawn, was released in August 2012. The next volume is due out on March 2013.
  • An anime adaptation of Blade of the Immortal produced by BEE TRAIN with support from Production I.G debuted in 2008. So far, only one 13-episode season—covering the events of the first five volumes of the manga—has been produced. The adaptation is available on DVD and can also be viewed on-demand and free-of-charge in select territories on the Crackle video streaming service. While fairly accurate to the comics, I personally found the adaptation to be a less-than-satisfying substitute for the source material; as incongruous as it sounds, the comic’s art and layouts look more dynamic than the show’s full-motion visual direction and fight choreography.

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7 Responses
    • I haven’t explored this title yet, but since I like Lone Wolf and Cub and Usagi Yojimbo I might like this too from the sounds of it. It sounds promising that this title is critical of the myth of Samurai. Like the 80s overuse of ninjas, the Samurai has been an interesting historical distortion over the years.

      • I think the rise in popularity of the ninja in Japanese popular entertainment during the latter half of the 20th century was partially a reaction to the aggrandizement of the samurai and the feudal caste system they served in literature and later, in film.

        Nitobe Inazō’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan (and to significantly less of an extent, Tsunetomo’s Hagakure), long (and wrongfully) considered as the definitive “book on Japan” both within its borders and abroad really changed how foreigners and the Japanese viewed the country… in the decades before WWII, the commonly-accepted national narrative was that of Inazō: Japan as a martial culture that valued honor above reason and thought of the drive for self-preservation as a sign of terminal weakness. In the years following WWII, the image and idea of the ninja, as historically dubious as it was and continues to be, allowed for an alternative representation of the Japanese archetype in popular entertainment. Of course, as the years have passed, the philosophical distinction between ninja and samurai has been blurred, particularly in depictions in the West, where ninja are little more than samurai dressed in black and where Inazō’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan is still considered in many quarters as a genuine cultural artifact, and not a piece of imperialistic propaganda (I’d be willing to bet that a lot of “McDojos” have a copy stashed along with their imitation swords).

    • […] Dark Horse Manga does seem to suffer from a relative lack of variety when compared to the other major US-based manga publishers, but I think this is part of what has made Dark Horse Manga so resilient when so many US manga publishers have folded over the past two decades: it doesn’t try to do too much and takes only calculated risks when picking titles to bring over, fully cognizant of its corner of the North American manga market. Maybe Dark Horse Manga will never land a sales record-breaking hit like VIZ Media’s One Piece or Naruto or Kodansha USA’s Attack on Titan, or even a consistent New York Times best seller like Yen Press’ Black Butler, but it does have two of the longest continuously-published manga titles in the US: Kosuke Fujishima’s Oh My Goddess! and Hiroaki Samura’s soon-to-conclude, Eisner Award-winning Blade of the Immortal. […]

    • […] the final English-language volume of Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal comes out next spring (it’s slated for a 25 March 2015 release, and the penultimate volume […]

    • […] Shaman Warrior, Vol. 1 by Park Joong-Ki (Dark Horse Manhwa): This introductory volume to the sword-and-sorcery series was the first US-published work from the creator of Over Bleed and The Arms Peddler. I don’t know much about manhwa (Korean comics)—I’ve only read the occasional stray trade paperbacks of Yun Mi-kyung’s Bride of the Water God (Dark Horse Manhwa) and Park So-hee’s Goong (Yen Press) and they weren’t really working for me, style-wise—but this seems like as good a starting point as any, given that a lot of the reviews I’ve read online compare it with Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal, which is a personal favorite of mine. […]

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