~by Hiroaki Samura
Footsteps is the twenty-second volume in the English-language release of Hiroaki Samura's manga series Blade of the of Immortal. The volume was published by Dark Horse in 2010. Because of the difference in how the various chapters of Blade of the Immortal have been collected for the English-language edition, Footsteps is actually equivalent to the twenty-first volume of the original Japanese release published in 2007. Blade of the Immortal is a long-running series, having first begun serialization in 1993. Over the course of its publication it has won several awards, including a Japan Media Arts Award and an Eisner Award. It also happens to be a series of which I am particularly fond. Footsteps marks the beginning of the fifth and final major story arc in Blade of the Immortal.
After staging a successful prison break, setting free hundreds of captives from the hidden dungeons underneath Edō Castle and rescuing them from the fate of becoming the human test subjects of cruel immortality experiments, Rin has finally been reunited with Manji. The two have been separated for quite some time. Manji, despite his near-immortality, is a little worse for wear from his time spent in the dungeons and is currently missing his left arm. Isaku and Dōa, two members of the Ittō-ryū who were also involved in the raid on Edō Castle, were able to escape as well. However, their involvement has brought the Ittō-ryū back under the intense scrutiny of the shogunate. Nearly wiped out when the bakufu betrayed them, the few remaining Ittō-ryū members have been working in the shadows readying their revenge. They may have been forced out into the open sooner than planned, but the Ittō-ryū is still prepared to face the authorities head on.
Although I did enjoy the previous storyline, I am glad that the series is moving on from the dungeons and experiments and beginning to cover some new ground. Footsteps is an excellent volume in general, but particularly as the opening to the final story arc. The volume establishes where nearly all of the major players in Blade of the Immortal are after the fallout from the prison break. The focus turns from Rin and Manji (although they do have some absolutely wonderful scenes together) to the Ittō-ryū, which was largely though not entirely ignored during the previous arc. Anotsu, the highly capable leader of the Ittō-ryū, is gathering his forces and the Ittō-ryū is gaining new members and strength. For better and worse the Ittō-ryū has left a strong impression on other sword schools. Anotsu faces Habaki Kagimura, who has proven to be a worthy opponent, and the newly formed Rokki-dan--a group of death row felons hand-selected for their battle prowess.
I was actually a little surprised by the introduction of the Rokki-dan in Footsteps. Samura already included one group of death row assassins in Blade of the Immortal--the Mugai-ryū. However, the Mugai-ryū has been disbanded. The Rokki-dan is a similar group with a similar goal--to annihilate the Ittō-ryū. At this point, the only difference between the two is that the elite of the Rokki-dan are implied to be even more badass than the members of the Mugai-ryū. This would certainly be impressive if true. Skill-wise, its top fighters may even be able to hold their own against some of the Ittō-ryū's. The lower ranking members of the Rokki-dan are nothing more than faceless cannon fodder, though. In many ways the Rokki-dan's introduction does seem to be more of the same, but there should at least be some fantastic confrontations and battles in the next volume, Scarlet Swords, as a result.