“Beautiful” and “deadly” are two words that seem fated to go hand-in-hand in most manga. They certainly apply to Makie the geisha, a woman of both uncommon loveliness and unearthly skill with her choice of weapons. A woman that gorgeous and with so many talents, though, shouldn’t have such a desolate expression all the time — but that’s only because she knows firsthand how all things, herself included, are terribly impermanent. And now she has been commanded by her lover Anotsu to seek out and kill Manji, the ronin condemned to take a thousand evil lives before he himself will be permitted to die.
Welcome to Dreamsong, the third volume of Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal, for my money the best comic running apart from one of Dark Horse’s other titles, Berserk (which I need to get caught back up with one of these days). It’s not just the unmistakable art style or the show-stopping characters or the gut-level storytelling — it’s the fact that you’ve got all this side by side in the same book, and none of them comes at the expense of the other. It’s all of a piece.
Volume three opens with the above-described scene between Makie and Anotsu — the final panel where we see Makie’s face for the first time is masterful — and then switches to Manji and his young female sidekick Rin, both of whom are on the hunt for Anotsu. Their plan is not terribly sophisticated, but then again it doesn’t have to be: it’s hinging on the fact that Anotsu is coming after them in the first place, so all they have to do is make themselves that much more available. And it even seems to work at first: Makie comes along, in the guise of a cut-rate streetwalker, and gets quickly unmasked by Manji when he fondles her and finds a poisoned knife in her robe.
Then Makie steps out of the shadows with herreal weapon — two scythelike blades chained together — and the fight between them begins in earnest. Manji’s able to whip her in fairly short order, but doesn’t kill her: he’s got a mixture of contempt and pity for someone who can’t even fight him properly, and furthermore she seems to be doing so out of a vendetta that isn’t even hers to begin with. Worse, Rin is jealous that Manji went and hooked up with a prostitute behind her back (and no, she doesn’t know that this girl did her best to take Manji’s head off). The whole scene where they lock horns over this is hilarious, and its conclusion convinced me of something I’d suspected all along: if there’s anyone in the world who can smack Manji upside the head and not get killed for it, it’s Rin.
What makes the whole battle between Makie and Manji poignant, and not just a clash of badasses, is that Makie would give literally anything to not have to do this. She did not want to live as a murderer; the life of a “silly little whore”, as she puts it, would have been bliss compared to this. Anotsu’s answer is blunt: it would offend him to the core to see such talent go to waste. There are reasons for that, too, explained in a long and hallucinatory flashback (Samura’s flair for grotesque tableaux once again shows itself beautifully here), and the next time Makie and Manji clash, it’s for keeps. That second fight, by the way, is yet another example of Samura indulging himself in the sight of bodies stretching and colliding violently, but his indulgence in this context is forever our gain.
The other thing that Samura puts into all of his stories, aside from his magnificent art style, is a deep sense of context and character. It’s never about two people fighting to determine who’s stronger, shonen-action style; everyone involved has motives, reasons, outlooks. Even the sometimes-a-great-cliché-notion that Manji tosses around (the whole “I’m not going to be beaten by someone this weak!” line) is surrounded by other things that give it greater weight. And at the climax, even a pro like Manji can find himself at the mercy of a “little slip of a girl”. Although, once he is, it’ll take Rin of all people to save him in a way he doesn’t expect — and he’ll pay her back in a way he doesn’t expect, either.
Writing about why you need to pick up Blade of the Immortal is like trying to come up with reasons to continue breathing. This is by far and away as essential as it gets, and Dreamsong doesn’t give us any reason to change that assessment.