Review by Frank Plowright
In one form or another, Dark Horse have made a real commitment to Blade of the Immortal since they began serialising Hiroaki Samura’s epic as individual comics in 1996. Since then these stories have appeared as digest-sized slim volumes titled On Silent Wings I, On Silent Wings II and Dark Shadows, and as a bulkier Omnibus edition combining all three, but at the same dimensions. All these years later the Deluxe Edition restores the pages to the size they were originally printed when serialised chapter by chapter in Japan, gathers them in hardcover, and provides a handy bookmark for those pauses to make lunch. These will be taken reluctantly as this is another superb collection.
Seeing her family wiped out by Anotsu Kagahisa and his Ittō-ryō colleagues two years previously, Rin has vowed vengeance. Now sixteen, she’s set on that path by hiring Manji as her bodyguard, an expert swordsman who can recover from any injury, no matter how fatal it may seem.
Having established the cast, Hiroaki Samura now begins to toy with audience perceptions about them. Based on the content of the first Deluxe Edition most readers will have reached conclusions about some characters, but although the artwork is black and white, almost the entire series explores shades of grey. Taking this as his driving force, Samura consistently confounds, continually offering new insight and adding layers to what he’s already shown. Kagahisa, previously the abject villain, is supplied with some motivation, historical context applied to his recent past, and while he’s not a constant presence, Samura will continue refining him until Blade of the Immortal’s conclusion.
The opening section features little sword action, but it underlines what a superb artist Samura is. He’s already dazzled with his energetic extended combat sequences, but here subtlety is necessary, as Samura needs to establish what his cast are thinking. The art may look simple, but it’s emotionally complex, and Samura is a rare artist able to invest equal skill in defining personality and action scenes.
Samura expands his cast considerably, introducing several creations who’ll be around for the long haul. The sadistic Shira is a reflection of what Manji could have become, a superb swordsman entirely without conscience or regret. He’s one of the few characters who’ll remain as introduced, lacking shades of grey and becoming ever more appalling. Equally grim, but in a more manipulative way, is Kagimura Habaki, a man who seems reasonable here. Hyakurin is a presented as a figure of some allure, yet immensely capable when it comes to trickery and fighting, and is someone else who’ll be perceived differently as the series continues. So will Giichi. He represents another creative aspect of Samura’s imagination. Throughout the series he’ll introduce people with fantastic, yet individual, bladed weapons, all of his own design, yet all something consistent with the technology of the time. Giichi works with paired sprung blades attached to long chains, enabling him to be deadly from distance, to kill without ever coming within reach of a standard swordsman’s blades. The sample art shows another invention, the small blades Rin never masters.
Combining three volumes for a continuous read in this case works effectively with the structure of Samura’s plot, as the tension escalates continually over the first two thirds of the book, rather than being split over two books and grinding to a halt.
The opening Deluxe Edition was good as Samura suckered us in with what appeared to be a standard story of samurai revenge, but this ups the quality and expectations, and there’s another leap for Deluxe Edition III.