When I first heard about Enma the Immortal, I am ashamed to admit I was immediately reminded of another Japanese pop-culture phenomenon, one which has lionized the attention of comic lovers: Blade of the Immortal. Aside from the similarity in titles, there are other connections: both start in the late feudal era, and both involve an antihero who’s been given the curse (not the gift) of immortality. But Enma is no BotI clone, and in fact once you start reading Enma it quickly diverges from anything BotI-ish and takes on its own flavor.
The Enma of the title was once Amane (“Enma” backwards, get it?), an assassin in the service of the shogunate during its last years in power. He’s rescued from the edge of death by Baikou, a tattoo artist who has been harboring a secret skill known as oni-gome. This dark art of tattooing confers immortality on the recipient of a special tattoo that has a demon sealed within it. As you can imagine, the tradeoffs are not trivial: you don’t age, but you can still be killed with the right kinds of blows, and you most certainly do continue to feel pain. Worse, the demon sealed in the tattoo has demands of its own which are growing increasingly difficult to ignore … and if the demon dies, so does the host. Enma not only receives such a tattoo from Baikou, but learns the art of tattooing from him as well, the better for the old man to pass on everything he knows. (Since any injuries Enma sustains heal up automatically, he uses his own skin as a practice canvas; everything done there fades in a matter of days.)
The novel covers many decades in Enma’s life as he uses his gifts to search for the man who murdered his sister — someone who may well be the recipient of an oni-gome tattoo like himself. He eventually acquires a sort-of sidekick, a girl named Natsu whom he swears to secrecy; she goes from passing for his daughter to passing for his sister to passing for his grandmother as the decades flick by. There’s some attention paid to how the changing times and mores affect them both, right up to and including the end of WWII, and how being forced to live on the margins of different societies affects both of them.
That said, the vast majority of the story is driven by various subplots that spring up across different eras — a murder here, a kidnapping there. Among them is a surprise appearance by Jack the Ripper, which is put together cleverly enough that it comes off as inventive and fun instead of quite a bit silly. I always enjoy it when a story finds a way to connects its own fictional history to the real thing, but it takes a light touch: too much underlining of the connections and the whole thing collapses into overserious Dan Brown territory. This never happens here; it’s spry and nimble the way through.
Enma shared Japan’s 2010 Golden Elephant Award with another book I’ve reviewed here, A Caring Man. Of the two I enjoyed Enma a bit more for a couple of reasons. The first is me being a sucker for historical/period work from Japan; the second is how a lot of the most interesting things in A Caring Man never seemed to be developed beyond mere plot markers. (I preferred Ryū Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies’s take on the same material.) This is apparently Fumi Nakamura’s first published work, with her only previous career being that of a housewife and a mother of two. I hope it isn’t the last. If she keeps it up, she might find herself in the same company as Kaoru Kurimoto.