Consider this the beginning of the end for Hiroaki Samura’s epic.
With Shira out of the way in spectacular fashion, the narrative now shifts back to Habaki Kagimura and his Rokki-dan’s efforts to wipe out the rest of the Itto-ryu and the maverick sword school’s work to counter that. That’s made clear as the bulk of the group on the run splits off into two in order to confuse their pursuers and reduce the pressure on them. On one hand, this does lead to some fantastically tense action scenes and strategic standoffs as the opposing parties try to outmaneuver each other physically and mentally. The catch is that this volume also gets bogged down by a lot of exposition relating to these things. That winds up slowing a lot of the book’s momentum as it heads into the home stretch, but it still manages to pack in a number of significant developments to keep the reader invested in what happens next.
The bulk of this volume is spent on a mini-arc called “The Pots” which has Kagimura’s illegitimate daughter Ryo, the Rokki’s skilled gunman Ban and some of their Hebi-gumi fighters following the elderly Itto-ryu Kashin Koji as he splits off from the main group. Koji then leads his followers into the mountains where he, and several of his village’s members unleash their own strategy to take out their pursuers. It’s an intricate plan deployed in several stages where the momentum is constantly being shifted between the pursuer and the pursued. You’re never quite sure who has the upper hand until the very end, and that’s how any kind of proper battle should play out.
Of course, before the fighting starts there’s a lengthy bit of verbal jousting between Ryo and Ban as the former tries to suss out the latter’s real intentions for going on this mission. Then there’s more as she doubles back on the initial conversation once the full scope of their situation is revealed. We’ve also got a scene towards the end where Koji comes upon his quarry and can’t quite figure out if they’re dead or not. Though we get some insight into the characters of Ryo and Ban through their exchanges, they do slow things down a bit. Koji’s situation is a bit more irritating since it’s pretty obvious how things are going to go even if Samura does manage a couple little surprises there. It also doesn’t help that whenever I see this kind of situation where someone is forced to play dead, I’m instantly reminded of the scene in the “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure” anime where the protagonist nearly died because he was using his special powers to stop the beating of his heart so that the bad guy wouldn’t hear it. Completely unrealistic, but it really packed in the suspense.
“Pots” is followed by the first two parts of “The Last Ten” where Kagimura sends off three of the Rokki-dan to catch up with the main Itto-ryu group of new recruits being managed by the aged but still feisty Abayama Sosuke. There’s not much real action here -- though it’s made clear that things will really get going in the next volume -- though we do get to see a few interesting things. Seeing Sosuke match wits with the Germanic member of the Rokki-dan was impressive and it was surprising to see his students turn on him in the way they did. Granted, it doesn’t speak well for their intelligence or life expectancy; but still, surprising. Also, given that she’s on the cover I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that Hyakurin shows up again in this volume. She’s not the only character who makes a surprise return (though, since she’s here it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out who the other one is…). I remember it being said at Dark Horse’s panel at Anime Expo that she was back in fighting condition and ready to unleash hell, so if you’re like me and were expecting to see that here you’re going to be disappointed. Maybe in the next volume.
There is one other thing to note about the conflicts in these stories, and that’s the ambiguity regarding who’s in the right during this conflict. While the Itto-ryu is made up of unrepentant killers willing to do whatever it takes to win a battle and have been the main antagonists for most of the series, they’ve also been direct and straightforward about their goals with no need for underhanded dealings. Then you’ve got Kagimura and the Rokki-dan, who should get points for opposing the Itto-ryu, they’ve also done so by thoroughly underhanded and duplicitous means. Also, there’s the matter of Kagimura imprisoning one of the title’s protagonists for seven volumes while he ordered all kinds of macabre experiments performed on him to obtain the secret of immortality. That’s… kind of a sticking point right there.
It’s not as if Samura has taken steps to address this issue. The introduction of Ryo showed that the man is actually capable of caring about someone other than himself, and the circumstances regarding the death of his wife and son were certainly disturbing. Still, I can’t help but look at the guy and think that he deserves his impending hara-kiri and feel somewhat sorry for the Itto-ryu as they’re slowly being picked off by them. Considering that their brutal murder of Rin’s parents is what got this series started, I’m impressed that Samura has managed things to this point after all these years.
Speaking of our protagonists, Rin and Manji take a backseat to the events in this volume as they make their way to Hitachi and a (potentially) final confrontation with Anotsu. It doesn’t happen before we get a great scene at the beginning of the volume that brings proper resolution to the events of the previous volume. While we find out what’s going to happen to Renzo and while Rin really wants to make amends for what happened with his father, that’s going to have to wait until she’s finished her business with Anotsu. However, as Magatsu points out, saying a few words on a cold winter’s night isn’t ultimately going to change much in the long run and she may have to resign herself to being hated by Renzo for the death of his father.
Now, I had misgivings about seeing Renzo come back at the end of the “Prison Arc” since his return effectively unraveled what I thought was one of the more satisfying story resolutions in this title. After reading this, I think I finally get what Samura was going for when he brought the character back. Just as Anotsu was the architect of the misery in Rin’s life, she has become much the same in Renzo’s life. If her ultimate path leads to Anotsu dying for his crimes, what does that leave for Rin and Manji? The cost of revenge has always been a key theme to this series and the fact that Samura is continuing to develop it bodes well for the title’s ultimate resolution. That being said, this is a fairly brief scene at the beginning of the volume and the fact that so much meaningful information is conveyed here underlines the leadenness of the exposition and verbal jousting that follows.
Even with these issues, “Blade’s” momentum isn’t constantly deflating in the way that “Gantz’s” is as both titles march to their conclusions. Samura clearly has a plan for how the many threads of this series are going to be resolved, but he’s also being very particular in their execution which makes this volume less exciting than it should have been. Things are heading for a couple of major battles in the next one, so come January I’m expecting the narrative to really kick into high gear as the blood and the limbs start flying along with the moral superiority in the Itto-ryu’s clash with the Rokki-dan.