Blade of the Immortal may be a recent series but it arrives with considerable pedigree. Hiroaki Samura’s manga has been running since 1994, and has been being published in English by Dark Horse since 1996 making it one of the longest running translated manga to date. Samura’s work has long been considered one of the best samurai manga around, picking up numerous awards along the way. Considering this it’s surprising that it took fourteen years for the acclaimed manga to reach the screen.
The series is set in feudal Japan and follows a samurai named Manji. He is renowned throughout Japan for having being responsible for slaying over a hundred men, and therefore many people seek the honour of being the one to take him down. However (as you may have guessed from the title) Manji can’t be killed, thanks to a curse placed on him by a freaky little nun. Manji discovered too late that the master he served so loyally was actually a bit of a wrong’un and the people he killed were not the villains he believed them to be. To lift the curse and be allowed to finally die he must slay a thousand wicked men. Better get cracking then.
Along the way he meets a young girl named Rin who witnessed the murder of her parents a couple of years ago and has been seeking revenge ever since. Manji agrees to help her, and this storyline takes up the majority of the plot on this first volume.
Samura’s original is renowned for it’s beautiful artwork, thanks to his background in classical art education. This is perhaps one of the reasons it has not been adapted before – any anime adaptation would have trouble trying to replicate the artstyle of the manga. The demands of television animation would always require a somewhat simplified style, but other works with intricate artwork (Berserk, Tenjho Tenge and others) have been adapted to animation successfully. Bee Train have produced a good looking show that manages to get the balance of simplifying but still capturing the look of his designs about right. The colour pallet is muted giving it a classy and serious look that fits in with the tone of the material. The animation is slick without being overly flashy, with good character designs that match Samura’s style. Occasional arty flourishes are added to the action, which actually fits in with the source material where Samura often pays tribute to traditional Japanese art. Some fans may feel it’s lost something in translation but I think it works well.
Manji’s curse puts a twist on the plot that prevents this from being just another samurai story. At least up this point though the supernatural elements have been kept to a minimum, with none of the demons or monsters that frequently feature in more fantasy based samurai anime. Despite Manji’s immortality and some pretty wacky supporting characters, the samurai stuff is played straight for the most part.
The storyline takes some pretty dark turns and the feel of the show is pretty serious. There is some humour to prevent it becoming too oppressive, but it’s pretty subtle, avoiding the jarring clash of tone often seen in anime. The world depicted here is not one you’d like to visit but it makes for a compelling watch. When the credits roll on the final episode of the disc there is a good chance you will be itching to know what happens next.
When adapting such a beloved work you’re never going to be able to please all the fans, some of who will probably insist loudly it should never be adapted in the first place. However considering all the challenges they faced in adapting this particular work Bee Train have done an impressive job. Maybe the anime version is never going to win the kind of acclaim that the manga did, but it’s worth adding to the collection of any self-respecting samurai anime fan.