More stories from the creator of “Blade of the Immortal?” Yes please! Years ago, Dark Horse released another story collection from the mangaka called “Ohikkoshi” which told an extended story of the romantic tribulations of a group of college students. It was wild, goofy, full of in-jokes and more than a little slapdash in parts of the story, but it was still very entertaining and showed that the man’s knack for creating interesting characters wasn’t limited to his signature work. The second story in the collection, “Vagabond Shojo Mangaka,” was even better as it detailed the remarkably unconventional route the title creator winds up taking to manga greatness. There was also a story of a drinking trip Samura went on with his friends that I’m struggling to remember right now.
My point is that “Ohikkoshi” showed that he had skills beyond lavishly illustrated tales of revenge and retribution in feudal Japan and that anything he worked on would be worth my time. That’s true here too, if only a little less so.
“Emerald” is a western, which makes it a rare sight in manga. The story centers around a young girl named Sara who winds up facing down a businessman by the name of Mr. Randolph and his gang of thugs over a debt owed to him by her family. Being the sporting man that he is, he offers her a deal: pick the right figure out of two bags and go free. Problem is that out of all the women he has offered this challenge to, none of them has won. While this is going on, a woman named Rosalita is busy recruiting legendary one-armed gunman Jimmy “Raygun” Weed for a mysterious job that’s to take place right outside the hotel currently occupied by Sara and Mr. Randolph.
It’s a well-executed genre piece that doesn’t really tread any new ground. Though Samura is great at staging each scene to generate maximum tension, the story itself is fairly predictable. I could appreciate how well he set things up, but the structure that the mangaka was building was so familiar that it was easy to see how things were going to play out. He’s not going to give Garth Ennis a run for his money in the genre anytime soon, yet “Emerald” was a fun way to kick off the book and it looks fantastic too thanks to his attention to detail.
What follows is probably the best story in the book though its subject matter may just be the tiniest bit off-putting to some. “The Kusein Family’s Grandest Show” initially seems like it’s going to be about a battle of wills between high school girl Kaoru and Saho, the housekeeper she has an innate dislike for who apparently has eyes on her father. Dad, however, has his own issues as he’s a compulsive voyeur who likes to take pictures of his daughter at the most random times, and even when she’s unaware he’s watching. Though Kaoru deals with this as best she can, one day she walks in on the two doing something... she did not expect at all and is soon faced with the truth of his actual relationship with her mother.
“Kusein” begins as a light comedy with some dark undertones that takes on a dramatic shift once secrets start coming out two-thirds of the way in. It could’ve been a jarring twist and that it isn’t is a testament to how well the characters were defined prior to that. Once it happens, the sexual undercurrents of the story become more overt and that’s where things might get a little disturbing for some people. I didn’t quite feel that way because the father’s circumstances make it come off as more tragic than disturbing. This is particularly true at the end of them as a scene that could’ve been very silly actually has the heartbreaking feel intended of it. That we get an indication that Kaoru is going to use this experience as a way to move on with her life is also something that feels earned rather than tacked on for the sake of a happy ending.
We get a real departure from the mangaka as “Brigitte’s Diary” doesn’t even take place in Japan, but in what appears to be Germany, circa 1919. The title character is introduced to us as a homeless waif starving on the streets who is rescued just as her brother passes away. From there she’s restored to health and soon after circumstances take her to the castle of Clan Zwartgrif where she dines each night with its horribly mutilated lord. It’s notable for the way Brigitte bonds with the lord even though he’s never able to utter a word as she befriends him through kindness and a bit of deception. That deception leads to a head-scratching moment at the story’s climax, as I didn’t quite believe that she cared for him enough to do THAT, but is redeemed by its surprising epilogue.
Even more out-there is the path that “Shizuru Cinema” takes. It starts off as, and remains for the majority of its length, a very goofy “portrait of the manga artist as a young man.” Ken is the manga artist in question, an aspiring one who lives with Shizuru, a high school girl who also serves as the model for what will (hopefully) eventually be his magnum opus: “Bikini Bottom Detective Girl.” The energy and wackiness keeps it entertaining for a while until it takes a turn into another genre entirely that’s so downright strange I had to admire it. It could’ve broken the story in two, but the mangaka’s bitterness and anger over his situation keeps it grounded and makes you sympathize with him in the end.
The final two stories are shorts with “Low Grade Strategy: The Mirror Play” being about Samura himself and the one time he won a mahjong game with the legendary “Nine Gates” hand. I don’t know anything about mahjong but seeing the mangaka’s utter glee at displaying his hand and the rationalization behind his win -- “The idiot strategy... The idiot discard...” -- made the story worthwhile for me. “Youth Chang-Chaka-Chang” closes the book out with a love confession that does not go how the confessor planned it. At all. In fact, he really did deserve the humiliation considering the person he got to help him with this. The story may not be much more than a setup for that joke, but it’s a good one.
However, while I enjoyed all of these stories “Emerald” also has a series of shorts under the header “The Uniforms Stay On” which has two loquacious schoolgirls babbling on in a stream-of-consciousness ramble about anything and everything. Samura acknowledges in the afterword section that this was meant to riff off of current and “socially aware” material which proved to be a problem for someone who didn’t watch TV, read the newspaper or surf the net with any regularity. It feels like he’s struggling with a lot of the stuff here, though -- more than any of the other stories here -- the material feels too culturally specific and in-jokey to translate effectively here. To be perfectly honest, when re-reading the volume to review tonight I just skipped over these sections entirely. Once was enough for me.
Even if “The Uniforms Stay On” drags the volume as a whole down, the rest of the stories here make the collection well worth picking up for Samura fans and those looking for something off the beaten path of manga storytelling. With “Blade of the Immortal” finished in Japan the mangaka will be starting a new series later this year. If nothing else, I can take away from this anthology that I’m sure it’ll be worth reading no matter what genre he decides to set it in.