Dear Yasushi Suzuki,
I hope you’ll forgive me.
I’m writing this to you today not simply as a critic, but as a fan — someone who saw your book The Art of Yasushi Suzuki and instantly began plotting how I could get you to sign it. I saw what little there was to be seen of Purgatory Kabuki at that time and could barely make myself wait for it. An underworld samurai fantasia dressed up in a painterly visual style — how could I say no to that? And so, finally, the Purgatory Kabuki book hit my doorstep and I opened it up … and I wondered if the wrong name was on the cover.
The problem with Purgatory Kabuki is, I think, that you can’t put together a manga the same way you put together an artbook. It’s a heck of a good try — I give you all the credit in the world for hard work — but I can’t ignore the fact that what we’ve ended up with here falls horribly short of the mark. You took some truly marvelous character designs and visual concepts, but executed them in a sketchy, indistinct way, then buried under shifting layers of murk and obscured them with angles so oblique I felt like I needed a compass to figure out which way was up.
It’s impossible for me not to talk about this stuff first, because whatever storytelling merits Purgatory Kabuki has — and for all I know, there are plenty of them — have been completely obscured by the book’s visual style. The story, as best as I can make it out through the murk, is about a swordsman named Imanotsurugi dueling with other dead spirits in the underworld and collecting their swords as he goes. One day he clashes with a giant headless demon, splits it open, and out pops Enishi, a puckish little demon that looks like a young girl. The two of them forge a pact of sorts: Enishi will lend Imanotsurugi a body of amazing strength, and in return the swordsman will bring the demon a thousand swords, the better for them to break out of hell and storm heaven.
I should have eaten this stuff up, as I’m a self-professed sucker for anything that taps into samurai tropes. (Small wonder I’m currently gobbling up Blade of the Immortal with both hands.) But I’m not so big a sucker that I can pretend things like coherency and on-page blocking don’t need to exist. The simplest things have been depicted as near-indiscernible smears of action. Edges of objects and characters blur into each other no thanks to the overuse of screentone. Why should the mere act of trying to figure out what on earth (or in hell, as the case may be) is going on make us feel like we’re cracking a cipher?
Consequently, the vast majority of what happens in PK is nigh-impossible to follow — or, once we do figure out how to follow along, it hardly seems worth the effort. About the only thing that is made clear is how many swords Imanotsurugi has collected along the way, which is conveniently tallied for us at the end of each chapter, like the lifebar of a video game character. But by the end of the book I was hard-pressed to coherently recount what had just happened, or why, or to what end.
Most telling is the opening few pages, in moody and powerful color, and the cover art itself, all of which so far upstage what’s inside that it’s dismaying. Given that the color pages look so good, the only thing I can hope for is that the original comic was indeed entirely in color and that the printing had to be racked back to B&W due to budgetary concerns. I’d like to believe that. But that’s not what we have here, and while I’ll be happy to look at the second book (out much later this year), I can’t help but feel like I’ve been cheated.
Purgatory Kabuki should have been a must-buy title, given its pedigree, what it’s attempting to do, and its reasonably low cover price ($10 for a book that’s a tot larger than the usual paperback manga volume). If the book was originally in color and ends up being republished that way, I’ll be more than happy to re-read it and reconsider. And I still want to see what Suzuki has in store for us in the future — yes, even the second volume of PK. That’s the worst part about this job: being given a book that I want desperately to recommend and yet just can’t.