The most frustrating thing about The Legend of Kamui is how we know there is so much more, but you won’t find it here. Sanpei Shirato’s Kamui ran in Japan for dozens of volumes, but all we can see of it here in English is the first two volumes from its sequel series, as translated and presented by Viz, back when their manga business was entirely trade paperback volumes that cost $15 or more a pop. Now, like most everyone else in the industry, they have dropped back to grocery-sized paperback volumes that run about $8 each — a move I consider one of the key factors for the manga explosion in the United States, aside from a number of other clever marketing and promotional gimmicks. Kamui¸ however, has not been reissued, probably due to Viz no longer having a license on the title, and so these first two books are all we are likely to ever get. And as far as I know, no one has ever bothered to license the original, although if Dark Horse’s work with Path of the Assassin and Samurai Executioner and Lone Wolf and Cub are any hint, it might only be a matter of time.
It’s terribly frustrating, because what I’ve seen of Kamui both in and out of English has convinced me that it’s one of the finest manga of its kind — a ninja fantasy that draws its plot and themes from human behavior and need rather than politics or historical details. Shirato was responsible for a whole slew of historical samurai and ninja titles, but of them Kamui probably remains the most direct and compelling. It deals with a few single, strongly identifiable and empathic characters instead of a galaxy of interrelated power-strugglers, and its themes — the place of an individual in society, the justifications for having a society of any kind at all — are as universal as you’re likely to get.
The story (or at least what we get of it in these two volumes) is simple at heart, but Shirato knows how to spin out complexity from it naturally. Kamui, the titular character, is a nukenin — a ninja who has fled the clan he served to live on his own. The mere act of leaving the ninja order is treason punishable by death, and the only way to resist is to kill and kill again. He flees to a small island where a fishing community ekes out what existence they can in the face of samurai despotism and nature’s own brutalities, and ends up being taken in by one of the families who lives there. He also encounters Sugaru — also another nukenin, also concealing this fact as best she can from her new “family” on the island.
The mere facts of each’s existence is earth-shaking to the other. Kamui is deeply impressed by Sugaru; she’s not only fled from the ninja order that cloistered her, but has thrived, sired children, maintained a way of life no less difficult than the one she left behind. He feels obliged to reach out to her, but she wants nothing to do with him; in fact, his mere presence means she must destroy him, for how does she not know that he has been sent here to murder her? No amount of words from him will change her mind, so he must do one of two things: win her heart, or awe her into submission. The first may be impossible, and the second is terrible for him to contemplate, but he also knows that he cannot help but feel empathy for her. He has felt the same existential terror she experiences, and if there is any way for him to bridge the gulf between them, maybe it is through that.
Things are further complicated by Sayaka, a daughter of the family that took Sugaru in. She quickly becomes enamored of Kamui: she admires his bravery, and even longs to be his wife. In one especially lovely scene, she dives into the ocean and brings back a seashell for him to symbolize her attachment to him. When Kamui tells her she needs to go back to her mother, who must be worried about where she is, she retorts: “My mother is only my mother; I don’t belong to her.” He does not want to push her away, but he also does not want to set her up for the possibility of being heartbroken by his sudden and messy death. And under it all is the growing suspicion that at least one of the others who lives side-by-side with him in the village is a traitor, and is slowly but surely drawing plans against all of them.
Kamui is so intimately familiar with the way Japan used to be — or at least does a good enough of a job of seeming like that — that it makes me mildly jealous. The details about how life worked in rural Japan are many and convincing, and are used to root the story all the more firmly in a time and a place. It’s also possible to see Shirato’s Leftist political sympathies threaded through the story, but they rarely become distracting or arch; they’re used to inform what goes on instead of command it. Kamui is only able to resist illegitimate authority with violence, but he is also wise enough to recognize the legitimacy of the authorities in the village, presumably because they exist through the consent of all involved. Anyone can leave the village, but none can leave the ninja order — and, likewise, any who prove themselves are welcome in the village, but not always so among the ninja.
Above and beyond the sociology, and even the dimensions of the story itself, is Shirato’s art. The closest comparison I can draw is with Ryoichi Ikegami, the artist who gave us the meta-realistic look of Crying Freeman, Sanctuary and even Mai: The Psychic Girl. Shirato’s style is a little rougher but no less impressive: it has the raggedness and earthiness, for lack of any better word, that we need for a story about people who wrest their living right out of the mouth of nature. He details every fight and every struggle with vigor and intensity; it’s as exciting as any action movie, but because it all happens to people we care about it’s not just spectacle. The one thing you must always keep in mind when reading it, though, is that there is more — far more — and that is absolutely worth holding out to see the rest of it appear in English. That is, if it ever does.