~by Hiroaki Samura
Autumn Frost is the twelfth volume in the English edition of Hiroaki Samura's award-winning manga series Blade of the Immortal. The volume, published by Dark Horse in 2003, collects chapters sixty through sixty-seven. These are the same chapters that are collected in the eleventh volume of the Japanese edition of Blade of the Immortal published in 2001. Blade of the Immortal has been the recipient of a good number of honors. Two of the most noteworthy are a Japan Media Arts award, which the series won in 1997, and an Eisner Award, which the manga won in 2000. Blade of the Immortal continues to be one of my personal favorites. I love the characters, artwork, and story which only seem to get better with each passing volume. While the previous volume, Beasts mostly focused on the Mugai-ryū, Autumn Frost most directly picks up the storylines from the volume before that, Secrets. Chronologically however, Autumn Frost does follow Beasts.
After selling out the other members of the Mugai-ryū assassins to the Ittō-ryū, Shira now has enough money to hire some muscle of his own. His target is Manji, who he intends to kill nice and slowly in exchange for the hand he lost in their last encounter. What Shira doesn't know is the Manji is nearly immortal, making him the ideal victim for Shira's sadistic inclinations. He also doesn't realize that Manji has temporarily paired up with Magatsu Taito, an ex-member of the Ittō-ryū, and that Magatsu is out for revenge. Shira viciously killed a young prostitute named O-Ren with whom Magatsu was exceptionally close. Now that Magatsu has identified Shira as O-Ren's murderer, he is determined to make him pay for her death. Knowing that Shira is after Manji, Magatsu is willing to use him as bait. Manji, who knows what Shira is capable of, would rather avoid the cruel killer and is more than willing to let the younger man deal with him. Although Manji and Magatsu have fought against each other in the past when it comes to Shira the two are of the same mind.
Magatsu and Manji make a great pair. Although neither one of them would probably voluntarily admit it, they get along well with each other. I loved seeing them together. Magatsu is the younger of the two and still has much to learn, but he and Manji share a lot in common. They're both smart-asses (their near-constant ribbing on each other amused me to no end), they're both highly skilled swordsmen, and they both have a girl who weighs heavily on their minds--in Magatsu's case O-Ren and in Manji's, Rin. I am rather fond of Magatsu. His fight with Shira is marvelous and filled with raw emotion, physicality, and power. Samura brilliantly captures the encounters intensity through the men's facial expressions: pain, surprise, confusion, fear, disbelief, rage and anger. It is obvious at a glance just what they are going through. The tide of battle is constantly shifting; one moment Magatsu has the upper hand and the next Shira is in control. He may be fighting one-handed but Shira still makes for an incredibly formidable opponent.
I think I've probably mentioned it in past reviews of Blade of the Immortal, but it's worth saying again: Shira is absolutely terrifying. One of the important points to come out of Shira and Magatsu's fight is the need to know the terrain and one's own opponent. But no one really wants to know Shira. Grey morality is very prevalent in Blade of the Immortal, but Shira is one of the few characters in the series that is truly rotten. Previous volumes have revealed his sadistic proclivities but Autumn Frost shows that his soul is even more twisted than that. Shira takes great delight in causing others pain and suffering. However, his horrifying and outrageous actions work both for and against him. Either way, he is one seriously scary and messed up guy. Shira is not someone you want to get mixed up with as an ally and even less so as a foe. Blade of the Immortal continues with the next volume, Mirror of the Soul. I am very interested in seeing how things continue to develop from here.