+ Beautiful, fluid animation
+ Witty, intelligent script
Ends much too soon
Fans of the original manga may not immediately appreciate this series because it doesn't recreate the exact look of the manga's beautiful art work. However, they should give it a chance. The series captures the manga's morally ambiguous vision of the life of a feudal warrior. It raises questions about that life including the nature of good and evil, the nature of violence, and the morality of following a corrupt leader. And even if the animation doesn't match the original art work, it is some of the most beautiful animation put on TV in a while. It is worth watching just for the choreographed, dance-like fight scenes. Hopefully Bee Train will produce more episodes in the future.
4.5 out of 5 · Highly Recommended
Blade of the Immortal Anime Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 3/3/2009
The samurai is to Japan what the knight is to Europe or the cowboy is to the United States: a mythic figure of heroic stature deeply engrained in the national consciousness as a symbol of the nation's ideals. While a fairly common figure in theater, film, and literature the samurai didn't become a popular figure in manga until Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima created the graphically intense, groundbreaking series Lone Wolf and Cub in 1970. In 1994, Hiroaki Samura created the popular and critically acclaimed manga Mugen no Jūnin, known in English as Blade of the Immortal. Celebrated as much for Samura's beautiful, detailed, and elegant art work as for its story of revenge and redemption it is surprising that it took more than a decade for Blade of the Immortal to reach the small screen in anime form. Set in the late 18th Century during the Tenmei Era of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Blade of the Immortal tells the story of Manji, a fallen samurai cursed to live forever for crimes that lead to the death of 100 samurai. He can break the curse only after he has killed 1000 evil men.
Like the manga on which it is based, Blade of the Immortal begins in a Christian church. Manji confesses to an insane priest that he is the notorious disgraced samurai known as "Killer of 100", the former enforcer for Horii Shigenobu who slew said daimyo after he learned of the daimyo's corruption. In traditional Japanese thought, the samurai's first duty is to his lord. Whatever the reason, a samurai who cannot fulfill this duty, is obligated to kill himself. After the death of the daimyo, Manji manages to kill the 100 samurai sent out to bring him to justice including his younger sister's husband. By reversing what is seen as the natural order of things, Manji has brought disgrace to himself, and his contemporaries see him as a beast worthy of execution. Although immersed in Christian beliefs, the priest seems to agree with the samurai assessment of Manji and tries to kill him with a concealed pistol. Laughing maniacally, the priest believes he has killed Manji and the title "toughest man in Japan" now belongs to him. Of course he has a surprise in store when Manji gets up and kills him with a pair of hidden scythes at the end of a long chain.
Witnessing her husband's death at the hands of her brother drives Manji's sister mad. He is forced to take care of her, she has reverted to a child like condition and would eat horse feces mistaking it for a rice ball and regularly forgets simple tasks such as bathing. Her simplicity makes a scene near the end of the first episode where she is sexually assaulted and murdered by a man seeking revenge against Manji nearly unbearable to watch. Shortly after killing his sister's husband, Manji comes in contact with Yaobikuni, an 800 year old nun who gives him kessen-chu (sacred blood worms) which make him immortal. He grows to hate immortality, what's the use of living if nothing is truly at stake? For one thing, improving his legendary swordsmanship is completely pointless if he can never die except by extremely rare poison. After the death of his sister, Manji makes a deal with Yaobikuni that he will kill 1000 evil men as a penance for the 100 samurai if she will remove the blood worms when he is finished and grant him his mortality.
The second episode introduces Rin Assano, the daughter and granddaughter of famed sword teachers and heir to their sword school. Her father has been murdered and her mother kidnapped by members of the Itto-ryu, a rival sword school and she seeks out Manji as her bodyguard as she sets out on her quest for vengeance. When they meet, Manji is reluctant to help Rin because he has doubts about whether he can trust others judgment about who is good and who is evil. After all, he did his daimyo's bidding for years, killing hundreds of innocent people before he realized that it was the daimyo who was the greatest source of corruption in the province. Rin tells Manji her sad story and in the end, he decides to set out with her on the lonely road of vengeance.
Show More It would have been easy to fill a story of vengeance with two-dimensional archetypes, Blade of the Immortal takes the opposite approach, the story is peopled with multifaceted human characters. For instance, Manji is far more laid back than the typical brooding anti-hero. He is often depicted sleeping, whiling away his time fishing, and eating. He shocks Rin when they first meet by offering her a whole roast frog on a stick. However, like other famous anti-heroes, his sense of morality is more complex and ambiguous than the typical lantern jawed heroes who often populate the typical Hollywood adventure story. His world view is symbolized throughout the story by his unique kimono which is half black and half white and has a half white and half black swastika emblazoned across the back. Before being perverted by Adolf Hitler, the swastika was a powerful symbol used by many cultures. In Buddhist thought it represents dharma, harmony, and the balance of opposites. In Japan it is known as "manji" and is the character for eternality. When facing left it represents love and mercy. When facing right it represents strength and intelligence. In a sense, Manji is the eternal strong and intelligent hero of love and mercy.
The vengeful Rin is a likewise complex character. Although she has inherited a sword school, she is a mediocre swordswoman. Although devoted to revenge, she is immature and often full of doubts. One of her greatest doubts is her sense of hypocrisy. Her family's school has always taught the supremacy of the sword, taught that a warrior should only use one sword in battle, and never use a "barbaric" foreign sword. The rivalry between her family's school and the Itto-Ryu is based, in part, in Rin's grandfather's strict adherence to these principles. He expelled the grandfather of Kagehisa Anotsu, the current leader of the Itto-Ryu for breaking these rules while fighting off some bandits -- he had the audacity to use a secondary fighting sword of foreign manufacture and believed that the formal rules were fine in the relative peace of the Tokugawa shogunate but would not be useful if war returned to Japan. When she encounters Anotsu, he points out her hypocrisy and she develops further doubts.
The success of any story about revenge depends heavily on the strength of its villains and Blade of the Immortal has some great villains. One of the strangest of these is Sabato Kuroi (Black Sabbath after Samura's favorite band). A perverted monk, Sabato is usually shown wearing a samurai kabuto helmet, a menpo, and a black kimono with seemingly exaggerated shoulders. He recites poetry based on lyrics by Black Sabbath, the supposed shoulder pads under his cloak are actually the preserved heads of his late wife and Rin's mother. Besides his sword, he also uses a pair of shuriken which he spins around his index fingers like buzz saws. Rin hates him most of all because he is the one who actually finished off her wounded father. Strangely when Rin's mother was being raped by the other members of Itto-Ryu, Sabato protected Rin from the violence, shielding her eyes with his cloak and telling her cover her ears. When Rin later encounters Sabato, he almost tricks her into killing herself by promising to die after she is dead. He is killed by Manji, who stabs Sabato in the back when both Sabato and Rin think he is dead.
Show More The series' main villain, Kagehisa Anotsu is an emotionally cold sword prodigy and one of the few characters on the series depicted as Manji's equal with a blade. It would be easy to depict him as purely evil but instead he is shown to be emotionally scarred by his abusive grandfather and driven to avenge that grandfather's disgrace at the hands of Rin's grandfather. From a certain perspective, Anotsu's goals are almost laudable -- unlike the Asano family's school which is obsessed with teaching the perfect method and following strict rules, Anotsu feels that it is the end result that is important. If a swordsman does his job and protects his lord from death at the hands of a bandit, what does it matter if the swordsman had perfect technique or used foreign weapons? From his point of view its results that matter -- in the case of a sword school it should be the most lethal who is rewarded not the most talented.
While manga are often about the moments just prior to or just after intense action, animation is about the moment of action. While the series can't capture the detailed beauty of Samura's art work it makes up for this with its fluid animation that depicts action and serenity with equal beauty. The series' many fight scenes are choreographed like a dance as they would be in a live action series, however because it is animation, the fights have a dreamlike quality that captures the mood of the manga if not its actual visual style. The animators often juxtapose moments of beauty with scenes of violence, for example, in the fourth episode, a famous painter who was once a samurai is searching for the perfect shade of red for his current painting. He is in his room contemplating this problem when a swordfight breaks out in the courtyard of his apartment building. Blood from a wounded fighter squirts through the window and splatters his canvas. He realizes with a sense of almost perverse joy that this is the color he's been looking for, the most vibrant red he's ever seen, full of life and vitality.
On the surface, Blade of the Immortal is a story of vengeance and redemption. Underneath it's often a social satire that casts a critical eye on Japanese values. Besides the theme of "who is good and who is evil" that runs through the series, the series also examines such things as the value placed on loyalty to one's lord (read "company" in Japan's contemporary corporate culture), the nature of violence, and the undercurrent of xenophobia in Japanese culture. For instance, Manji is an outcast in Japanese society because he killed his daimyo, however his daimyo was corrupt and ordered the death of innocent people. Yet in feudal Japan, a samurai not following his lord's orders was seen as a greater crime. The rivalry between Itto-Ryu and the Asano School is derived from differing philosophies regarding martial arts. Asano's view is in line with the perspective that while swordsmanship is by definition a deadly skill, learning to be a killer is not the reason to study the sword; discipline, centeredness, and artistry are the real goals. However, if the samurai does his job, he must become a killer. Yet Japanese society sees a difference between killing as out of duty and cold blooded murder. Blade of the Immortal asks if there is as much of difference as we would like there to be. The fourth episode of the series, which features an artist who was once a samurai begins with a flashback where that same character kills a group of artists for not turning over a forbidden piece of European art. He is then depicted admiring the same piece of art, knowing that if he were caught with it he would face the same repercussions as the men he killed. Japan justified censorship to protect Japanese culture from foreign, "polluting" influences. The implication of this episode is that Japan wasn't protecting their culture through their xenophobic attitudes they were actually harming it -- limiting the people's exposure to other ideas and forms of artistic expression. The artists in the opening flashback are shocked that Western art is more advanced than they've been lead to believe.
Blade of the Immortal is a solid series. While it doesn't recreate the exact look of Hiroaki Samura's art work, it does capture the tone of the manga which is at turns violent, brooding, satirical, and funny. Perhaps more importantly it gives us characters we can believe in, sympathize with, root for, and even occasionally hiss at. Where it falters is by ending rather abruptly after 13 episodes. Even given the tendency of anime series to condense the stories to fit in the time allotted for television, the episodes currently available only dramatize about a fourth of the manga story. Hopefully Bee Train will produce more episodes of this intelligently written beautifully animated series in the near future.
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