This week, I read the final volume of Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura. Now I am sad – not necessarily about the things that happened, but also simply because it’s an ending to a story that I had been reading for over 11 years. I managed to remain almost entirely unspoilt throughout the years, and I was 100% unspoilt about the ending. And unlike with most shows, the ending itself was not something I anticipated or saw coming. It all makes perfect, painful and peaceful sense, but I could not have foreseen it.
Perhaps that’s because Hiroaki Samura and I are really different people with different tastes and ideas. Our minds are not in synch, which I notice occasionally when there’s one of these particularly twisted, morbid moment. Eh … you know. On the other hand, throughout Blade of the Immortal, I think that I’ve always responded with the “correct” emotional responses to twists, character deaths or individual panels. I laughed and cried when I was meant to. I may not have been able to anticipate Samura’s moves, but he was always able to anticipate mine, or to create them – the way a storyteller ought to!
I have noticed that sometimes when I reach the end of a long series – Harry Potter comes to mind – I have disengaged emotionally, don’t take it entirely serious anymore. I have put an ironic distance between me and the story, have detached myself and am left unmoved by even deaths of characters I liked. But this was not the case with Blade of the Immortal. To hold my interest for years and to keep me invested emotionally until literally the last panel … That’s a rare and wonderful experience! It’s how it should always be, but often isn’t.
When I started reading Blade of the Immortal back then, I did not expect to like it much. It was the time in my manga reading career when I gave almost every manga a chance. I bought the first volume of Vagabond at the same time as Blade of the Immortal, and just based on the plot summaries and a superficial glance at the artwork, I expected to like Vagabond more than Blade of the Immortal.
… I don’t own another volume of Vagabond, and 11 years later am quietly sobbing about the ending of Blade of the Immortal, so my initial expectations could not have been more wrong.
It’s funny that I initially thought that Vagabond might have good art. I quickly realized I actually loathed it, especially the way the characters were drawn. They looked dead, lifeless and just plain ugly to me. I much preferred the peculiar drawing style of Hiroaki Samura … At first, he wasn’t always on top when it came to proportions, although he quickly improved. But his art style is rough yet warm, very alive and dynamic. Pencil-dominated, realistic and often extremely detailed. Great eye for composition, for movement, for panelling … It’s so perfect for the medium.
And practically magic.
Another thing that led me to approach Blade of the Immortal expecting not to find it that appealing was the premise. The idea that Manji had to kill “1000 evil people” in order to break his curse of immortality and find peace … and that Itto Ryu were such “evil” men. It sounded very simple in the beginning, with a clear morality, good VS evil. But as the story progressed, everything became more complex and complicated. Instead of one moral and one immoral faction, you suddenly had thre or even four factions, with likeable characters and complete monsters on any side. I think it’s fair to say that one of the worst, most clearly evil characters in the series is Shira, who actually started out as an ally of Manji and Rin, sharing their goal of destroying Itto Ryu. But he was also a psychopathic, sadistic murderer and rapist! It is perfectly fitting that Shira found his death against an unlikely team-up of Manji, Magatsu and Meguro, who each had allegience to different factions in the main conflict. That these enemies saved each other’s lives and helped one another against Shira … that illustrates that the fight against Itto Ryu, Rin’s quest for revenge, Habaki’s hunt of Anotsu, Anotsu’s goals, wasn’t a matter of good or evil. Not even of pure hatred. It became so much more complicated than that.
Rin’s determination to kill Anotsu appeared to falter. Especially when she had tot eam up with him briefly, fough by his side and even clearly saved his life against different enemies. Afterwards, she renewed her promise that she would kill Anotsu in the end, but it felt confusing at that time. I suppose that when she got to know him a bit more closely, Rin started to understand Anotsu a bit and maybe even stopped thinking of him as just that monster who murdered her parents. But at the same time, I guess, Rin started to understand that her wish for revenge was valid even if it had nothing to do with good or evil. I believe that’s actually a key revelation in Blade of the Immortal, that personal motivations often have little to do with an objective good/evil morality, but they are nevertheless justified.
Another thing that gets dealt with is the idea of revenge – naturally. Despite the focus on Rin’s vengeance, despite the fact that she gets to carry it out in the end, vengefulness is portrayed as something that creates unhappiness and a vicious circle, especially because there is no clear good or evil and everyone’s pain is equally just, which means revenge leads to revenge leads to revenge.
I am very happy that Hyakurin, Giichi and Magatsu survived. :) I had been very worried for all of them, although in retrospect, I find their survival very logical. Especially Magatsu, who had the perfect opportunity of an emotional, dramatic and noble death at the hands of Shira, which would even have been a satisfying culmination of his character arch! Since he survived that, there was no good, interesting way he could have died. Narratively, it makes sense that Magatsu became of of the handful of characters who readily gave up swordfighting and found a happy, peaceful life.
As for Rin and Anotsu …how about this quote from The Middleman instead of more rambling from me?
“At the end of “Ride Lonesome, Ben Brigade kills the man that kills his wife. Only it doesn’t happen the way you think it’s gonna happen. But once it does, you realize that no other ending was possible.”