Friday, September 2, 2011

Random Reviews: Samurai's Blood

Of the many temples, shrines and castles I visited while living in Japan, Nijō Castle in Kyoto still captures my imagination like none other. Built by the Tokugawa Shogun in the early years of his rule, Nijō is a flatland castle within walking distance of the Imperial Place. Now, this on its own in unremarkable (the Tokugawa Shogun invested heavily in infrastructure to consolidate his rule after 1603), but Nijō also served a unique purpose: to monitor the Emperor so the Shogun’s power remained absolute. This raison d'être, in my mind, symbolizes the complexities of feudal Japan, a topic that still captivates my interests today.

This is why at FanExpo Canada this past weekend I strayed from my usual superhero comic fare and picked up the first two copies of Samurai’s Blood by a Benaroya Publishing/Image Comics team led by Owen Wisemen and Nam Kim. Samurai’s Blood is a limited series which takes place against the backdrop of Tokugawa Japan and gives the reader an opportunity to explore this fascinating period using comic books.

(Above and below panels from Image's Samurai's Blood #1, June 2011)

The first issue begins with the brutal betrayal and execution of the Sanjo Clan in their province and elsewhere. As the clan is reduced to a rump, we are introduced to the young daimyo (feudal lord), his sister Yuko, and the soon-to-be-star of our series, his friend and talented samurai retainer. In a harrowing final scene, these remaining Sanjo escape and the second issue begins with the trio finding themselves in a nearby city. After they are accosted by enemies and Yuko is captured, they meet an elder swordsman who offers to train the samurai and ultimately help the Sanjo towards vengeance and vindication. Think Dune meets Bloodsport and you get the idea.

So while the series contains a number of reoccurring themes in fiction, Wiseman’s writing is sharp and he has done his homework in setting the story against the complexities of feudal Japan. These Japanese details, in turn, give the American comic an authentic quality; while keeping it accessible for those who might not know about Japan in the 1600s. Most panels include a caption with has some haiku-type samurai wisdom, which both contributes to the story and gives the reader something deeper to think about. I’m not sure if this has been taken from a popular samurai-era text, but a quick look at Wisemen’s biography will reveal a long-time interest in Japan means famous texts like Musashi’s Book of Five Rings have almost certainly been consulted.

(Above and below panels from Image's Samurai's Blood #2, July 2011)

The artwork is great too. While there are obvious Japanese influences, it never-the-less remains accessible to those of us (myself included) who don’t particularly enjoy Manga. Details such as training with bokken (wooden swords), the samurai armour and Japanese urban geography all contribute to the storytelling and do well at portraying pre-industrial Japan. It is a rather violent comic, so I would not recommend it for children or even early teenagers, but the drama and complexity of Japanese society (and the expensive DC relaunch!) probably makes this age-appropriate suggestion moot.

So if you’re looking for a break from the mainline superheroes and want something with both action and human drama, give Samurai’s Blood a look. It’s a good story that has captured the complexity and majesty of feudal Japan, while presenting drama enjoyable for the unfamiliar Western reader. This comic also underscored what I consider the best part of any comic convention: the unexpected surprises you find there. Samurai’s Blood was this year’s surprise for me, and while it hasn't been on my pull-list before, it certainly is now.

Samurai’s Blood #3 is in stores now.

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