~by Hiroaki Samura
As the eleventh volume in the Dark Horse release of Hiroaki Samura's manga series Blade of the Immortal, Beasts collects chapters fifty-five through fifty-nine. The series has been divided slightly differently between its Japanese and English releases. Beasts, published in 2002, is most closely equivalent to the tenth volume of the Japanese edition, published in 2000. 2000 was also the year that Blade of the Immortal won the Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material. The series had previously been honored with the Japan Media Arts Award in 1997. Blade of the Immortal has also earned a special place with me as one of the first manga series I ever read and it remains one of my personal favorites. I enjoy its well-rounded and complex characters, the dynamic storytelling, Samura's fantastic artwork, and the series' odd yet stylish anachronisms. Needless to say, I was looking forward to reading Beasts.
For some time now the swordsmen of the Ittō-ryū, a rogue school which is steadily gaining legitimate power in Edo, have systematically been hunted down and killed on the orders of an unknown entity. Although they have lost many of their top members in these ruthless killings their leader Kagehisa Anotsu has successfully evaded capture and death, accomplished only by sacrificing his followers. Still, with so many people after his life, it is an impressive feat. Anotsu has left Edo to arrive safely in Kaga, but the same cannot be said of the decoys he left behind, all of who were killed or severely maimed. Many of the surviving members of the Ittō-ryū are frustrated and angry and are ready to show just how ruthless they can be. They only have one clue to go on, the name "Akagi." But when they are given a tip that leads them to the group of assassins known as the Mugai-ryū, the Ittō-ryū finally has a chance for revenge.
Although previously there have been hints and references to the Mugai-ryū's pasts and who they really are, Beasts is the first volume in Blade of the Immortal to really focus on the Mugai-ryū and delve into some of its members' back stories. In particular, Hyakurin and Shinriji's respective histories are explored as is their relationship to each other. Since his introduction Dark Shadows, Shinriji has always been a bit of a likeable goofball. It is obvious that he genuinely cares for Hyakurin and that she is incredibly important to him even if he is incredibly awkward about it. In Beasts, Shinriji proves that his good nature hides a great potential for swordsmanship. Shinriji's not really cut out for the Mugai-ryū's line of work, but when needed he is prepared to fight. He can even be surprisingly capable and effective. The members of the Mugai-ryū really only have one thing in common--they have all received death sentences but have been given the opportunity to work as assassins in order to buy back their lives. Their backgrounds may be different, but most have developed a sort of camaraderie with one another.
There is no question at all that Blade of the Immortal is a mature title. Violence in particular is prevalent and quite graphic. Beasts is not an exception although it does turn to a form of violence that hasn't been especially prominent in the series--torture. Most and some of the worst of it occurs off the page, but Samura shows enough that readers know exactly what is going on without having to rely on their imaginations. The torture and its aftermath are brutal. It's not pretty, but it is necessary for the story. What struck me as particularly well done for this segment of Blade of the Immortal was Samura's characterization of the members of the Ittō-ryū. At the beginning of Beasts they are all filled with blood lust. But as the volume progresses many of them become increasingly uncomfortable with the situation and dissatisfied with the results when things don't proceed as anticipated. Beasts is an intense volume with important plot and character developments. I'm looking forward to continuing the series with Autumn Frost.