Samurai stories and other such Asian action flicks are often seen as schlocky, lower class fare – genre and thus not for the gentry – but then there are people like Akira Kurosawa (Though not many) and films like Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai that stand easily amongst the greatest of the mediums creations and are bestowed by nearly all with the honour befitting such a place. In the land of sequential art (Is that really the best term they could come up with?) there have been few attempts made at achieving a similar ascension of this genre (or at least few come to my mind. Feel free to educate me on this front) thanks partly to the fact that most Asian artists work in the field of manga, a medium rarely interested in such a slow, simple and dare I say it sane set of stories. So it has been left to a Westerner to try it and the result, for better and worse, is Owen Wiseman’s Samurai’s Blood. Is it successful? A sublime take on the swords and Shinto story or does it slice away too much of its meaning in favour of the massacres? Patience dear reader, a samurai would know to wait for the answers he seeks to find him; read on and they will.
Though it may seem that making comparisons between comics and cinema is something of a crutch for me in these reviews (and I’m not arguing that it isn’t, film is my familiar field after all) I feel that it is particularly relevant here, both because of the content and its creators. Series writer Wiseman and his two artists – Nam Kim and Matt Dalton – are all card carrying cineastes whose back of the book bio’s read more like something that you’d find on IMDb then in a CB and their background is on full display in this book. The story is shot and structured like a film: opening in media res, flashing from location to location and in one of its best moments even backtracking to show the stories events from another perspective, Rashomon style. Certainly these tropes are not specific to cinema, many in fact made their premiere in prose, but the way that they are executed here makes them feel that way.
The most obvious of examples though is the action, which is cinematic in an entirely comic book way. What that means exactly is hard to say, I guess there is just something about the way that the artists utilise these beautiful widescreen panels to show us these exact seconds of the slaughter that makes the whole thing flow in front of our eyes, the panels flickering as if frames in front of a projector. This kind of fluidity is not at all easy to achieve; there is a precision in the panelling and packing in of content that allows it and when you go back and re-read these pages slowly, without getting sucked back in to the swordfight, you really start to see the supreme artistry of it.
Sadly though the illustrations are imperfect; this may be a revelation of racism on my part but I constantly found myself thinking that far too many of the characters looked alike for my liking. Sure the style of the time was one of uniformity but when most of the minor characters you create share a facial appearance and hairstyle with one of your protagonists it can make the read a little harrowing. Worse than this though is the way that it stops you from fully immersing yourself in the story and action scenes, because you constantly have to go back and check who was who and why they were just killed. Wiseman should also take some of the blame for this though, because if these people were introduced properly in the first place and our memories promptly jogged with each re-entry then they would have been much easier to keep track of. I can only imagine what it was like for month to month readers; though again, maybe I’m just racist.
It’s important to note though that Samurai’s Blood is not all just kung-Fu action; for every panel of such schlock there is a piece of serious philosophy. I mean this quite literally because, in one of his more revolutionary moves Wiseman employs captions of cut up proverbs to dictate the action instead of the traditional first or third person narration. These are all fairly standard Samurai fair, some surely pasted right out of the ancient handbook, if there is such a thing. They talk of death, honour, the afterlife and all the other usual suspects, but these terms are familiar for a good reason: A) They’re accurate and B) They do hold potent meaning even today. Whilst I like the idea – both here and in the film Ghost Dog, one of my favourite films – I found the execution a little iffy as the captions were occasionally cloying. While each issue’s excerpts nicely form a coherent whole around the one central theme, the individual lines are sometimes too far separated from their panel’s action for my liking and on a whole they tend to pervert the pacing in an uneven manner; stopping mid battle to read a whimsical paragraph on betrayal is not ideal, especially when it fails to enlighten you on the scene at hand.
When I say that I couldn’t always make out what a scene was signifying I am actually slyly complimenting the book because I am thus saying that it does actually signify something, which makes it more than those that are just empty action and fury (there is of course no sound in comics). Though the storytelling does falter slightly here and there it succeeds despite its denseness. The story it tells is thrilling, the characters convincing and many of its action scenes are made entirely memorable, which is saying something given the glut of murders that we make our minds take in these days and that very denseness also ensures that it will only work better on the re-read, something that not many other books can say of themselves. So while it may not have matched its master Samurai’s Blood certainly strives to and for that boldness and bravery alone it is a success; there is no dishonour in this deed. So until Kurosawa returns to us as a kami and crafts something greater I have to say that Samurai’s Blood is as worthy a successor to Seven Samurai as I have seen in the comic medium.