~by Hiroaki Samura
Heart of Darkness is the seventh volume in Dark Horse's English translation of Hiroaki Samura's manga series Blade of the Immortal. After chapters twenty-six through thirty-three were serialized as individual comics, the seventh collection was published in 2001. The numbering of the English volumes of Blade of the Immortal is slightly different than that of the original Japanese volumes. Heart of Darkness collects chapters from the sixth and seventh volumes of the Japanese editions, both of which were released in 1997. 1997 is also the year that Blade of the Immortal won a Japan Media Arts Award. The series also won an Eisner Award in 2000 for Best U.S. Edition of International Material. In addition to being critically well received, Blade of the Immortal also happens to be one of my favorite manga series (as well as one of the first manga that I read). Understandably, I was looking forwarded to reading Heart of Darkness.
Rin and Manji aren't the only people after the life of Kagehisa Anotsu, the leader of the rogue Ittō-ryū sword school. The Mugai-ryū, more of a band of assassins than a legitimate style, are also after Anotsu, but they have their eye on Manji, too. Anotsu will soon be leaving Edo, but his exact route is unknown. The Mugai-ryū have obtained inside information on Anotsu's plans and are willing to trade it in exchange for Manji's aid in taking him down. But that is all they are willing to share--who the Mugai-ryū really are, and who is backing and supporting the group is unknown. Despite their better judgement, Manji and Rin agree to join forces with the Mugai-ryū. They will soon discover just how incredibly dangerous some of its members truly are and may very well come to regret their decision.
Heart of Darkness is a exceptionally apt name for this particular story arc. Shira, one of the members of the Mugai-ryū who was introduced in the previous volume, Dark Shadows, plays a very prominent role. He is already known to be cruel and sadistic; the bloody aftermath of others' encounters with him were shown in Dark Shadows. In Heart of Darkness his perverse proclivities are on full display--witnessed by Rin and the readers from start to finish--and it is brutal. From the very beginning of Blade of the Immortal it has been clear that the series is intended for mature audiences, but Heart of Darkness leaves absolutely no doubt. The lengthy scene with Shira is well done, but that doesn't make it any less horrifying or any easier to read. It's disturbing, rough, and intense, but then again it should be.
I continue to be impressed by Blade of the Immortal. In Heart of Darkness Samura's artwork and storytelling is once again top notch. (Although the way Dark Horse has semi-flipped the manga occasionally makes the panel flow somewhat awkward.) His characters, even those that are scary as hell, fascinate me. Anotsu in particular is very intriguing. Time and again he is shown to be an incredibly formidable opponent. Not only is his a skilled fighter, but he has the brains to match. Anotsu is extremely intelligent and an excellent strategist which is one of the reasons he's managed to stay alive for so long considering the number of people who would rather see him dead. Blade of the Immortal remains one of my favorite series. I'm definitely looking forward to reading the next volume, The Gathering.