Review by Frank Plowright
In Blade of the Immortal Hiroaki Samura crafted a series than ranks right up there when considering the best ever graphic novels, but avoids producing something similar to follow it, Die Wergelder being a project set in the present, or near enough. What it shares is an unflinching attitude to extreme violence, over this first part often associated with sex. It’s a deliberately confusing thrill-rush heavily influenced by Asian action cinema, with little clarity about what assorted groups of gangsters are up to. Four women of different nationalities are prominently featured, and have met each other by the halfway point, two of them very violent. To that Samura adds a continued use of Germanic terms. The back cover blurb explains the title as meaning the money paid by a murderer to the victim’s family, but in actual German that would be Die Wergeld, not Die Wergelder, which would mean the people making the payment. It suggests other aspects are fabricated as elaborately. Still, a faked authenticity is the cornerstone of all the best thrillers.
The transgressive nature of events connects with a Japanese island of Ishkunagijima, somehow important to all parties, a place criminals visit to achieve sexual gratification no matter how extreme their needs. It’s also a place for some other form of trafficking, but Samura keeps that concealed.
If the overall plot is disorienting, each chapter can be enjoyed as a separate vignette with captivating characters. Also, Blade of the Immortal was a series where much changed, and what was felt could be taken for granted in the long term proved otherwise, so Samura’s earned considerable credit for plots that pay off in the end. What can’t be doubted is the sheer kinetic quality of his art, characters sweeping across the page in arcs of balletic violence. With the German background and quotes from German opera, it’s all very Wagnerian in places, and Samura supplies the visual spectacle that evokes.
This English language edition combines two Japanese volumes, which is sensible. Only the opening volume would offer plenty of action, but no answers among the disorientation, and risk people dropping the series before the second volume, in which many answers are provided. It’s not everything, but dots can be joined, and it gives almost everyone we’ve met a purpose, moving the women beyond fetish caricatures.
Because of the frequent association of brutality and exploitation with sex Die Wergelder will make unpalatable reading for some, but by the end of these 450 pages and fourteen chapters almost everything has been given a logical, if callous purpose. It turns out the gangsters aren’t the nastiest people in the story after all, although one person’s late misgivings ring as especially naive. Die Wergelder 2 combines the third and fourth Japanese volumes, but be warned, Samura’s not going to be hurried and there’s been no new English translation since 2018.