External Book Reviews: Blade of the Immortal Vol. #1: Blood of a Thousand


Note: This article was originally written for Advanced Media Network. Its editorial style differs from reviews for this site.

The problem with being immortal is that it’s a package deal from hell. Yes, you get to live forever, but it usually comes at a drastic cost — like, for instance, the fact that while you might get to live forever, anyone else you could come to care about typically doesn’t. And then there’s all that nasty, unwanted attention if your secret ever gets out, and the way that bad hair day you’re having never goes away, and …

That’s how it works in Blade of the Immortal, Hiroaki Samura’s widely-acclaimed, long-running, and blood-splattered manga epic about a (theoretically) unkillable rōnin in feudal Japan. The story doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming immortality is some great treasure — here, it’s a curse written in the blood and entrails of the undying, and it comes at a cost so huge that only the most wretched would ever want it. Small wonder it ends up being inflicted on Manji, a former samurai now turned freelance death merchant. To atone for his crimes as a mortal, he now has to deliver the corpses of one thousand evil men to his new master, the old hag Yaobikuni.

The problem with being immortal is that it’s a package deal from hell. Yes, you get to live forever, but it usually comes at a drastic cost — like, for instance, the fact that while you might get to live forever, anyone else you could come to care about typically doesn’t. And then there’s all that nasty, unwanted attention if your secret ever gets out, and the way that bad hair day you’re having never goes away, and …

That’s how it works in Blade of the Immortal, Hiroaki Samura’s widely-acclaimed, long-running, and blood-splattered manga epic about a (theoretically) unkillable rōnin in feudal Japan. The story doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming immortality is some great treasure — here, it’s a curse written in the blood and entrails of the undying, and it comes at a cost so huge that only the most wretched would ever want it. Small wonder it ends up being inflicted on Manji, a former samurai now turned freelance death merchant. To atone for his crimes as a mortal, he now has to deliver the corpses of one thousand evil men to his new master, the old hag Yaobikuni.

Most of the evil people Manji butts heads with (and clashes swords with, and hacks off the limbs of) are scum scarcely better than him, but there are just as many who arguably aren’t. One of his first victims, a doshin (samurai policeman) who’s come to arrest him, turns out to be his sister’s husband … something that only occurs to him, and us, as the dead man’s head is hitting the ground. Another, a priest-turned-serial-killer, gets his comeuppance after putting a bullet through Manji’s face … which knocks him down, but doesn’t take him out.

The interesting thing is that while Manji may be a killer, he’s perpetually mindful of the motives of others — including those who might hire him. He’s always refused them his services, simply because there are two sides to every story: the victim who hires him today is tomorrow’s killer (something also explored, although in a much more low-key vein, in the five volumes of Kurogane). The same rule applies when he first meets a teenager named Rin, daughter of a samurai murdered by a gang of kendo students seeking vengeance. She does everything up to and including offering him her body to recruit him into killing those who murdered her parents — something she’s been steeling herself to pull off for a couple of years now. Manji’s having none of it, but figures he can walk her back to town — or, rather, use the girl as bait to “harvest” some more evil men.

Then they encounter the first of the killers, Kuroi Sabato, and all three of them — Kuroi, Rin and Manji — are in for a few surprises. Kuroi’s like something out of Ichi the Killer (or maybe Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo), an aesthete of death sporting the heads of two dead women preserved and sewn onto his shoulders … one of whom is horribly familiar. Rin, in turn, has a few remarkably nasty fighting techniques up her sleeves — literally up her sleeves — and neither of them expect Manji to manifest his little immortality trick after he’s been hacked to shreds.

In the end, Rin and Manji form a partnership of sorts — a wholly cynical and opportunistic one, to be sure, but the corresponding tension between the two of them makes for a far more interesting story than we might normally get. And the last adventure in the first volume is a great example of Immortal’s tar-black humor at its finest, when Manji inadvertently inspires a former shogun’s ninja, now a painter, to discover a whole new art form … that involves splashing fresh blood on a canvas.

There are very few manga titles I call essential, but this is one of them — not just for fans of samurai action, but lovers of any manga that’s a cut above in every respect. If you haven’t discovered it yet, go find out what you’ve been missing.


Tags: Hiroaki Samura Japan manga review



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This page contains a single entry by Serdar in the category Books | External Book Reviews, published on August 9, 2007 12:09 AM.

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