Blade of the Immortal is shaping up to be one of the best arguments I’ve seen against living forever. There’s always a cost involved, and it’s usually not only paid in flesh and blood but spirit — and spirit is the one thing you can almost never get back. I remember reading Fritz Leiber’s oft-anthologized short story “The Man Who Never Grew Young,” about an immortal who experiences time in reverse, and is doubly estranged from the rest of the human race — both because he will outlive (or is that “outdie?") everyone around him, and because he has only the oblivion of being “unborn” to look forward to.BotI’s not quite that despairing — thank goodness — but the more we see of Manji the unkillable ronin and his female sidekick Rin, the more the idea of never being able to let go of life seems like a dread curse.
“Curse” is the best description for what’s happened to Manji. As punishment for evils past, he’s been condemned to live until he can claim the lives of one thousand wicked men. If he’s wounded, the countless thousands of parasitic worms that inhabit his body will stitch him back together, although they can’t replace the eye he lost before he was thus infected. They also can’t protect anyone else, which is always the downfall of an immortal — and so he wonders what kind of rotten luck he must have had to become partners-of-a-sort with Rin. She’s a young women out to avenge her father, and Manji’s reluctantly agreed to help her get justice … if only because it sounds like a convenient way to get the bad guys to come to him and get him off the hook all the sooner.
As per Blood of a Thousand, Cry of the Wormsets Manji against bizarre new enemies whose motives are as important as their fighting styles. The biggest threat they pose is not to Manji himself, but to the few other things in his world that can be attacked when his back’s turned. The first opponent, a wanderer who’s stolen Rin’s father’s sword, has more than a little bitterness for all samurai — whatever their status in life now — and tricks Manji into dueling with him on his own turf, always a smart strategy for someone who believes he’s outclassed.
The real struggle isn’t over the sword, though, but the way Rin thinks about her own past. She’s torn between weeping for her parents and putting aside all weeping so that she might be able to blend her strength with Manji’s. Manji, on the other hand, doesn’t see it as an all-or-nothing choice: with a memory, even a little pain will do the job nicely. It’s this degree of psychological insight and strong characterization that makes the series truly special. Even this early on in the series, we already have a great deal of emotion invested in Manji and Rin alike: they complement each other strongly, and not always in the ways we expect.
The second enemy, Shizuma Eiku, shapes up to be the most dangerous enemy Manji’s faced yet. He is immortal as well, a host for the worms himself, and he has been around to “watch the dynasties fall,” as he puts it. “I’ve taken five women to be my wife, and had more best friends than that … Death is merciless, but not being able to die, crueler still.” His self-appointed mission is to make Manji feel that truth from the inside out, and this he accomplishes with a poison that drives the worms from Manji’s body and subjects him to unspeakable agony. (Immortality only means you can’t be killed; it doesn’t mean you can’t be hurt.) It falls to Rin to make critical decisions about the best way to help Manji, and innocent lives that are also at stake. Eiku’s immortality has made him wholly indifferent to life, any life, and that’s a lesson that Manji is burning to drive right back home into Eiku with his swords … once he gets his legs reattached, that is.
I just looked back over what I wrote here and realized I haven’t said much of anything about the fact that this is easily one of the most violent and blood-soaked manga yet created. It’s up there with Berserk in terms of sheer visceral excess — actually, now that I think about it, I don’t think Guts ever carved up his enemies in the shape of a swastika* across a two-page panel. I also suspect the reason I didn’t find myself thinking a great deal about the violence as the main attraction for the story is because, when you get down to it, it’s only half the picture. With Manji at the center of everything as a character for us to be fascinated and identify with, the violence, incredibly, takes a backseat.
The only real drawback I can think of to a series like Blade of the Immortal is that you’ll have to start from the beginning — but with a series this outstanding, you probably won’t mind.
*In the preface for each volume of Blade of the Immortal there is a detailed historical note about the swastika, or manji, that appears on Manji’s jacket. It was in use for thousands of years as a religious symbol, in Hinduism and Buddhism, and to this day the left-facing swastika is used to designate Buddhist temples on many maps. The right-facing swastika is the version that was appropriated by the Nazis in the early 20th century, so there are no intended racist or anti-Semitic connotations about the use of it here. In a way, I’m glad the artwork was not optically reversed when the panels were reorganized for left-to-right reading, as that would have caused Manji’s manji to be unintentionally rendered in the worst possible way.