Hiroaki Samura has done a couple series since wrapping up his epic masterpiece “Blade of the Immortal.” This one is just the first to reach our shores. Expecting something on the same level of brilliance as his signature series would just be an exercise in setting myself up for disappointment. Yet this is likely to be a series best appreciated by his core fanbase. After all, they’re the ones most likely to be patient enough to allow this wild and irreverent series the time it needs to come together.
“Die Wergelder” -- which is the money paid by a murderer or their family to the victim -- starts off with a one-page sequence of an old man meeting a little girl in Germany before jumping to the Hwamei, China, circa 2012 where a man buys a woman for a night and winds up regretting it in due course. While this is going on, we see another woman talking with a young girl in a coastal environment which is revealed to be a fake that requires the woman to undergo decontamination procedures when she leaves. After all this, we’re introduced to Shinobu, a homeless but not run-down woman, who agrees to run off with a low-level yakuza thug who has just stolen a bunch of money from his employers. They’re soon caught, and Shinobu is forced to work with other yakuza to find out what another group of gangsters is doing on her home island that’s making them a ton of money. That’s only the first part of this volume. It isn’t until the second that we learn about the multinational corporation that’s pulling all the strings behind the scenes and why the one-eyed, one-armed female German assassin is out to murder those in charge of it.
Particularly at the beginning, there’s a whole lot of plot and characters to keep track of in “Die Wergelder,” and it doesn’t wind up making the best of impressions as a result. Even for a diehard Samura fan like myself I found it hard to get invested in the story he was telling here. The jumps in time and place along with the motivations of the different yakuza groups obscured whatever the main thrust of the story was. Even though it becomes clear that Shinobu is the main and most sympathetic character here, she’s not introduced until the second chapter and it takes a while to realize just how important she is to the story. In short, the beginning of this series is kind of a mess.
Being a diehard Samura fan, however, I was still inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt that he did have a point to all this and that it would all start to come together after a while. It does, and I’m glad that Kodansha Comics decided to publish the first two volumes as a two-in-one omnibus for that reason. After a certain point it becomes clear that the actions of the multinational corporation and the German assassin’s quest for revenge are driving the story with Shinobu along for the ride. Even if she doesn’t have anything to do with it at first, it’s clear that this whole experience will wind up being transformative for the homeless woman -- assuming she survives it. Which I would very much like to see since she demonstrates the kind of good humor and quick thinking I like to see in my protagonists.
The cast itself turns out to be pretty interesting as a whole once the story slows down long enough for the reader to get to know them. Some of them are cut from familiar cloth, like the endearingly pathetic Ro, the yakuza who stole from his boss and tried to run away with Shinobu and winds up paying for it in ways he couldn’t have imagined. Then you have the ones that break the mold a bit, like Soli, the young enthusiastic torturer for the Kakesu-gumi who can get very creative about her work. Nami, the German assassin whose actions and history drive the plot, is memorable in her formidable fighting nature along with her willingness to do what is needed to survive the situation at hand. This can range from stripping off her panties and spreading for an STD inspection without a second thought to slicing a hole in an unsuspecting thug and using him as a human shield that also allows her to keep firing on the enemy. It’s a memorable cast, at least for those who Samura deems interesting enough to be developed beyond the role of cannon fodder.
While not as action-packed as his signature series, “Die Wergelder” does feature a number of standout action sequences. Nami’s moonlight assault as she interrupts a clandestine business deal is the most memorable of them, particularly when the drama spikes after she finds out that she has bitten off more than she can chew. Oh, and he’s also able to take advantage of the near current setting to allow for the use of modern firearms, combat-ready prosthetics, and other surprises to liven up the fights even more. He even manages to indulge his China-dress fetish along the way.
Yet Samura’s artwork here is more reminiscent of his slice-of-college-life series “Ohikkoshi” in the way that his sense of irreverence and weirdness come to the forefront here. They manifest in strange ways, from Soli’s exercise-torture of Ro, to the woman turned into a mermaid sex-toy, and the corporation’s quest for human fetuses. Some of this is funny, other parts are disturbing, and there’s the stuff that naturally both at the same time. It makes for lively visuals and a constant stream of surprises that persists towards the end of the volume.
I found “Die Wergelder” to be very much worth my time, but you can take the word of someone who has spent years espousing the great quality of Samura’s manga with as much salt as you want. Yes, it takes a while to get going and the scenes of extreme gore and some sexual violence (thankfully not at the same time) firmly put this title in the nebulously-defined realm of “not for everyone.” When the story does come together, the title’s quirks become more entertaining and it stands revealed as something that can be described as the “good” kind of different. Obviously this is recommended for people who are as much a fan of Samura like me, but anyone who likes looking for weird and interesting manga beyond the mainstream will likely find much to appreciate here. Provided they’ve got the patience for it.