Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1 by Hiroaki Samura

Manji used to be the samurai retainer of Lord Horii, and served faithfully until the day he discovered that the people he’d just killed on orders from Horii were in fact not criminals, but innocent peasants who were going to the government with evidence of the lord’s tax embezzlement.  In a fit of rage, Manji executed his master.  Now a fugitive, Manji wound up killing one hundred police officers in his efforts to remain free.

Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

The last one turned out to be his sister Machi’s husband, and witnessing this event drove her mad.  This sobered Manji somewhat, and he reconsidered his habit of resorting to lethal violence while trying to take care of his sister.  It was at this point that Manji met the Buddhist nun Yaobikuni, who infested him with the kessen-chu (holy bloodworms) that regenerate any wound, making Manji functionally immortal.

After a ronin (masterless samurai) gang murders Machi to force Manji into a duel, he no longer has a reason to be immortal.  It turns out that he can be released from the bloodworms if he can complete a worthy goal.  Manji decides to make up for murdering one hundred cops by killing one thousand criminals.  But he believes he must have proof of evil before he kills someone, otherwise he’ll just be adding more stains to his soul….

This 1990s seinen manga series (originally titled Mugen no Juunin “Inhabitant of Infinity”) is set in the Edo period of Japanese history, but uses deliberate anachronisms to indicate that historical accuracy is not to be found here.  The creator states in an interview contained in this volume that he was trying for a “punk” sensibility.

After the introductory chapter, the story begins to focus on the other protagonist, a young woman named Rin.  She is seeking revenge on a man named Anotsu who murdered her father (in revenge for his grandfather’s offense against Anotsu’s grandfather) and had her mother raped before carrying the woman off.  The problem is that Anotsu is the leader of the powerful Itto-Ryu gang, renegade warriors who are out to destroy all other schools of weapon use.  Rin may be plucky, and can handle weapons, but she hasn’t had nearly enough training to handle expert fighters.

Yaobikuni suggests that Rin hire Manji to help her.  He’s dubious at first–he’s been lied to before, after all, and how does he know which if any side of a revenge cycle are the evil ones?  But because she reminds him of his sister, he’ll at least come along and see for himself.

As it happens, one of the Itto-Ryu members is locatable as Kuroi Sabato has been sending Rin love poems since participating in the murder of her father.  As you might guess from this inappropriate behavior, Kuroi is very wrong in the head(s), and Manji agrees to help Rin out with her revenge.

The remainder of the series is trying to track down Anotsu and getting him to stay in one place long enough for Rin to get revenge, while battling members of the Itto-Ryu and other enemies made along the way.

This omnibus edition covers the first three Japanese volumes.  The art is nifty with distinctive character designs (though the young women do tend towards same face.)  There’s plenty of exciting blood-drenched fight scenes, and musing on the cycle of vengeance and where it gets you.  The dialogue is generally good, but heavy on the snark from most of the characters, which can get tiresome.

Manji wears his namesake symbol, the counter-clockwise swastika, on his back.  This is in context a Buddhist reference and has nothing to do with Nazis.

More problematic is that there’s a lot of rape in this series.  While none takes place onstage in this volume, there’s discussion of it in the backstory , and male characters often threaten or express a desire to rape women.  (Later on in the series, one of the recurring villains is a serial rapist.)  Also, when we see Anotsu’s backstory, we learn that his grandfather was physically and emotionally abusive to both him and his cousin.

That cousin, Makie, has a story that’s centered around the ill effects of sexism.  Because she has a natural talent for weapons use that is far greater than any other person in the series, Makie can’t fit into the standard social roles for women.  (She tries being a prostitute for a while, and then a geisha; neither work out.)  But she can also never get the respect or rank that her skills would earn if she were a man.  To be Makie is suffering.

I’d recommend this series to fans of samurai revenge drama who enjoy some anachronism and can overlook the problematic elements.

There’s an upcoming live action movie, but in the meantime, here’s a trailer for the anime version.

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack by Rob Goss

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Tuttle Publishing was founded by Charles Tuttle, a Vermonter who came to Japan with Douglas MacArthur’s staff after World War Two.  His job was helping the Japanese publishing industry get back on its feet; along the way he married a Japanese woman and founded the first English-language bookstore in Japan.  Tuttle Publishing’s goal is to print “books to span the East and West.”  So it’s not too surprising that they’d publish a tourist guidebook.

The author is a British writer who has resided in the country since 1999 and traveled extensively, writing about his journeys and Japan’s tourist destinations.

The book itself is thin and light, designed to fit well into a backpack or tote bag for easy consultation.  There’s  a fold-out map of Japan (and details of certain areas) tucked into a pocket in the back, as well as several detail maps in the book itself.  There are many color photographs as well.  (One of Sapporo’s Snow Festival is reused several times.)  It’s slickly produced, but sturdy enough that it should survive a several week journey.

After a quick overview of Japan at the encyclopedia summary level, the main book starts with a chapter of “must-see” sights, ranging from Mount Fuji to the “Art Island” of Naoshima.  These alone would take a month or so to get in with any comfort, as they are scattered all over the country.

This is followed by an “Exploring Japan” chapter that focuses on the tourist sights of the major cities and individual regions, making it easier to plan an itinerary.  This includes callbacks to the opening chapter, but also mentions what else is around the must-sees.  There are sidebars on local cuisine travelers might like to sample.

Chapter 3 is the “Author’s Recommendations” section, where he talks about hotels, museums, kid-friendly attractions and the like that he personally really likes.  The edition I have is from 2013, so there may have been some changes–he mentions that a particular fish market was scheduled to move to a different location in 2015.

The last major section, “Travel Facts” is the most likely part to be useful on your actual trip, with the location of important embassies, key Japanese phrases to use, how the transportation system works, and so forth.  There’s an index and a page of photo credits.

The language is clear and straightforward, with key words bolded to make them easier to find.  As a tourism booster, it focuses almost entirely on the positive; people who like to be more cautious might want to do further reading to see what they need to prepare for.

This book would be most useful for tourists who like to plan their own itineraries, or at least dream about doing so.  Package tours, well, you see what’s in the package.   People who want to live in Japan for extended periods will need to consult more substantial materials.

Another group that might find this book useful is fanfiction writers.  You’ve decided that Jeneriku High School will be taking a summer field trip to Okinawa; how long will it take to get there, where will Hana and Tarou be going on their date, and what sights offer the most ideas for plot twists?

Overall, very good of its kind.

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

Book Review: Nexus

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam

In the not so distant future, technologies for human alteration and augmentation have advanced rapidly, so that many people are considered “transhuman” and there are a few that are possibly “post-human.”  One of the new developments is Nexus, a “nanodrug” that allows humans to communicate mind-to-mind to some degree.

Nexus

Kaden Lane and his friends have developed a new variant of Nexus they call Nexus Five.  It makes the effects of Nexus permanent and gives the user new capabilities that are near or at superhuman levels.  Young and idealistic, they want to help the world with this new technology.  Samantha Cataranes and the agents of the Emerging Risks Directorate want to protect humanity from the misuse of new technologies like Nexus Five, even if it means holding back progress by the strongest means available.  These two groups, and several more, are on a collision course.

After several horrible incidents (one of which Samantha was a direct survivor of) involving various new human enhancement technologies, the governments of the world decided that people who had passed a certain line were no longer human in the legal sense, and thus had no human rights.  In the U.S., the ERD has taken this to an extreme, censoring, imprisoning or even killing as necessary to prevent what they see as harmful alterations to humanity.  Of course, to battle criminals with these enhancements, the government agents themselves have to become transhuman, a bitter taste in Samantha’s mind.

Kaden and his friends are caught early on before they can spread Nexus Five beyond their immediate circle, and Kaden is extorted into working for the ERD.  It seems there’s this Chinese scientist, Su-Yong Shu, who is violating the international agreements on behalf of her government, and she’s taken an interest in Kaden’s work.  The ERD wants Kaden to go to a scientific conference in Thailand to be contacted by her and eventually infiltrate her laboratory.  If he doesn’t do what the ERD wants, his friends will be imprisoned incommunicado permanently.  Naturally, the agent assigned as his partner is Samantha, the one who busted him.  She is against her will dosed with Nexus Five to help in the assignment.

While firmly in the science fiction camp, this book has the structure of a techno-thriller.  Every so often, the action is interrupted for “Briefing” sections that fill in some of the future society’s backstory.  The technologies have both good points and bad ones–it’s pointed out by a minor character that because many of the enhancements are produced illegally due to the heavy restrictions, safety and side effects aren’t tested as rigorously as they would be if researching the technology was legal.

One of the things I like about this book is that most of the characters are at least trying to do the right thing.  The ERD really does good work pursuing criminals who abuse new technologies.  Kaden and his friends want to improve everyone’s lives.  Su-Yong Shu wants to protect her people, even as her government perverts her work.  A scientist-monk wants to invite people to live in harmony.  But these goals come into conflict, and there are a few people in the story whose motives are greedy and self-serving, and they force the story on to a violent path.

Kaden and Samantha both grow over the course of the story, Kaden learning to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions (and to think more carefully what those actions should be) while Samantha moves past the pain of her past to find a new way into the future.

Early on, there is a scene where a faulty “sensual enhancement program” turns a consensual encounter into involuntary sexual assault, and one character’s backstory involves rape and sexual abuse.  The abuse of mind control technology is a constant theme.

In the author’s note, he discusses the real-life technologies he’s extrapolating from–it’s fascinating stuff.

Recommended for science fiction fans up for discussions of transhumanism and the possibility of post-human people.

Magazine Review: High Adventure #126 Adventure Fiction Spectacular

Magazine Review: High Adventure #126 Adventure Fiction Spectacular

This issue of the pulp reprint magazine concentrates on stories of adventure around the world.  Three of the stories are by “Major” George Fielding Eliot, who was born in Brooklyn, raised in Australia, fought at Gallipoli and was a Canadian Mountie before settling down in the U.S. to a long writing career.

High Adventure #126

“Arms for Ethiopia” Lawrence Ward is the college-educated son of a gun-runner, who’s come to Africa to assist his father in smuggling weapons into Ethiopia in contravention of international sanctions.  When his father is badly wounded in a mysterious assault, the capable but somewhat naive Lawrence must complete the mission against all odds.  This 1936 story leaves out the reason Emperor Haile Selassie needed the arms; the Italian government wanted to expand its power and was about to invade Ethiopia from its territory in Eritrea.

The period racism is toned way down in this particular story, although Somalians might bridle at being described as stereotypically arrogant.  Our hero is quick to pick up on local customs and figure out how to navigate them, while being blind to the treachery of his fellow Westerners.

On the other hand, Lawrence and his father are criminals looking to make a big score.  The only thing that makes them the good guys is that they keep their word.

“The Lorelei of Lille” is a fact-based story of Louise de Bettignies. who served the Allies as a spy during World War I.  When she arrived as a refugee in England, the interviewing officer was struck by her intelligence and observational skills.  She was sent back to France to gather information on troop movements and artillery emplacements, and served extraordinarily well as the leader of the “Alice Dubois” spy network.  Eventually she was caught and imprisoned by the Germans, dying of incompetent medical care before the war was over.  Mr. Eliot may have cribbed much of this story from the book Queen of Spies by Major Thomas Coulson which was also published in 1935.  It’s still one of the rare pulp stories starring a woman of action.

“Siamese Sorcery” takes place in Siam (modern-day Thailand) as financially embarrassed American Bill Dorrance investigates a cry for help.  It turns out that there’s a dying Englishman to rescue, and this sets Bill on a quest for an Emerald Buddha statue.   Bill and the English people in the story are blind to the racism and religious prejudice that convinces them it’s A-okay to steal a religious artifact from the local priests.  The temple is guarded by panthers, which presents some logistical difficulties.

Fortunately for Bill, he doesn’t have to deal with the larger implications of his actions, as an Annamese gangster nicknamed the Toad kills off all the priests in an effort to secure the statue for himself.  Too bad for the Toad he’s never studied Shakespeare, as that is the final clue needed.  There’s a couple of missing pages toward the beginning of the story, so it doesn’t flow as well as it should.

“The Trail of Fortune” is by John Murray Reynolds, who is best known for creating Tarzan knock-off Ki-Gor.  Aelward of Colchester is a Saxon driven out of his homeland by the Norman conquerors, so he and his friends go a-Viking, eventually ending up in the Varangian Guard of Byzantium in Constantinople (now Instanbul.)  Aelward soon finds himself falling afoul of Clitus, an ambitious naval Strategos, and having warm feelings towards Princess Maran.  When Clitus strands the Varangian Guard in Laodicea of Phonecia (modern Beirut), Aelward must find a way back to Constantinople before the treacherous warlord has a chance to overthrow the emperor.

Lots of exciting battle in this one, and the only story this issue where romance plays a major part.

Overall, a fun fast-paced issue, but the cultural blinders in a couple of stories may diminish the pleasure of some readers.

Movie Review: The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2012)

Movie Review: The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2012)

Fahai (Jet Li) is a Buddhist monk and abbot of a monastery who goes about the countryside with his bumbling apprentice  Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) defeating demons who harm humans and imprisoning them until they reform.  (Effectively forever for most of them.)

The Sorceror and the White Snake

Meanwhile, white snake demon Susu (Huang Shengyi) falls in love with Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), a humble herbalist.  Susu enlists the help of her green snake sister Qingqing (Charlene Choi) to win the man’s heart.

The stories collide when Fahai learns the true identity of Xu Xian’s wife.  Despite her benevolent behavior and good intentions, Fahai believes that all human-demon relationships are doomed to end in tragedy.  With this in mind, he decides to break up the marriage early, by force if necessary.  This leads to disaster even worse than that he was trying to forestall.

This 2012 Chinese fantasy film is also known as “it’s Love” and “Madame White Snake”, for those of you who might search it out.  It was released in 3-D, but the version I watched did not have that option.

Fahai is a righteous man of great spiritual power, but the rigid discipline that has given him this power has also narrowed his perspective.  This is first foreshadowed when Qingqing asks Neng Ren what the procedure is for dealing with demons who aren’t harming humans.  The apprentice admits his master has never bothered to give him any instructions for that.  To be fair, most of the demons we see are in fact harmful to humans.

Susu, in contrast, is used to following her feelings.  Her love for Xu Xian is genuine, and her presence is currently beneficial for both him and the neighborhood (she helps stop a plague.)  She has no patience for talk of potential future harm, or what is forbidden.

The boundary between the two peoples is blurred when Neng Ren is infected by the bite of a bat demon, and starts taking on demonic characteristics himself.  Qingqing shows her friendship by helping him, but her perspective is inhuman and Neng Ren ends up having to leave his monastic order.

There’s quite a bit of exciting action (kind of mandatory for a 3-D movie) and what the PG-13 rating lists as “sensuality.”  This turns out to be clothed or otherwise covered women moving in a way calculated to arouse male interest.

The ending is bittersweet at best; Fahai may have learned a valuable lesson about taking other people’s feelings into account, but it came at a great cost to everyone else.  If you’re okay with not having a happy ending, I recommend this to Jet Li fans and fantasy buffs.

Manga Review: Ooku

Manga Review:  Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga

In an alternate history version of Japan, disaster strikes during the reign of Shogun Iemitsu (circa 1630).  A plague that becomes known as the “red-face pox” sweeps the islands, with a fatality rate of 80% among boys and young men.  Within a couple of years, the gender imbalance among the younger generation has reached crisis proportions.  Less important to the people, but vital to our story, all the male heirs to the shogunate fall victim to the plague.

Ooku

It is decided that the country, already turning topsy-turvy as young women have to take up the jobs normally reserved for men, cannot be allowed to have turmoil at the top as well.  Iemitsu’s daughter Chie is forced to masquerade as her father for years.  After the people who originally controlled her are dead, and the country has more or less stabilized in its new male-scarce society, she reveals herself to the court.  Until a male heir survives to adulthood, women using men’s names will have to fill in.

Naturally, a female shogun needs men to help her produce an heir, so handsome and/or noble fellows are brought to the Ooku, the “Inner Chambers” in a reversal of the harems of our history.  Most of the story involves these men, trapped in the Shogun’s palace, and trying to find meaning in their lives.

In the volume to hand, #9,  the reign of the seventh female shogun, Ieharu, begins.   Ieharu realizes that the rest of the world has advanced while the Japanese hid themselves away to conceal their lack of men.  Therefore, one of the men she secures for the Ooku is a half-Dutch fellow named Gosaku, who has been trained in Western medicine.  He is renamed Aonuma (“blue pond”) after his eye color.

Thanks to records concealed in the Inner Chambers, Aonuma is able to piece together information about the red-face pox and its origins that have new meaning with his special training.  There might even be a way to prevent it!  However, prejudice against his foreign appearance and the schemes of a woman who believes that she should have been shogun instead may doom these efforts.

This series is an interesting sideways look at Japanese history–what would change if the gender roles were partially reversed, and what would stay the same?  The target audience in Japan is josei (young women), so romance both fulfilled and tragic is a large part of the series.  Unfortunately, so is rape, and there’s some frank depiction of prostitution, so the American edition is rated “Mature.”

The art is quite good, but often the minor characters are hard to tell apart, particularly the handsome young men of the Ooku, who tend towards same-face.  The student of Japanese history will be able to spot certain character traits from clothing styles that are lost on most of us foreigners.

I’d recommend this to historical romance fans and people interested in exploring ideas about gender roles.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible

Book Review: The Avenger: Roaring Heart of the Crucible edited by Nancy Holder & Joe Gentile

Moonstone Books is a publisher that specializes in new material about pulp magazine characters.  This is their third anthology of stories about Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger, and his organization, Justice, Inc.

Roaring Heart of the Crucible

For those who have not heard of the character before, Richard Henry Benson had his wife and child taken from him in a bizarre midair disappearance.  The shock of this and the claims that they had never been on the plane in the first place drove Mr. Benson to a nervous breakdown.  When he recovered his sanity, he found that his skin and hair had lost their pigmentation, and his face was now frozen.

In the process of tracking the criminals responsible, Mr. Benson became the Avenger and began assembling his team.

The fourteen stories in this volume are mostly inserted into the “classic” period of the original series, before “Murder on Wheels”, which changed the premise somewhat.  Some of the stories are very precisely placed indeed.  This means that Cole Wilson, who only joined Justice, Inc. at the end of “Murder on Wheels”, is absent from most of the book.  Perhaps fittingly, then, “An Excellent Beauty” by C.J. Henderson is a solo outing for this agent, with a twisted focus on his distinguishing feature of being “handsome.”

The most famous author in this anthology is Will Murray, whose “The Moth Murders” leads off the book.   It’s an appropriately creepy story, with a horrific murder method, a bizarre antagonist and an almost plausible explanation to end the story.

Another standout story is “The Box of Flesh” by Barry Reese, in which two seemingly unrelated investigations converge at the crossroads of stage magic and folklore.  It’s almost as creepy as the title makes it sound.

Most of the stories stay within the customary adventure pulp limit of “almost plausible,” but a couple do go straight into the science fiction genre.  There are also a number of references to other pulp characters, with the Domino Lady making a full guest appearance in “According to Plan of a One-Eyed Trickster” by Win Scott Eckert, which follows on from his stories in the two previous anthologies in this series.

While the stories are generally good about explaining who the characters are (and thus can get a little repetitious in this area),  for best effect, a reader should already be familiar with the Avenger characters; I recommend looking up a reprint of the first two or three stories in the original series.  Also, the book could have used another proofreading pass, as there are a couple of obvious typos.

If you are already an Avenger fan, or know one, this is a fun book.  You might also consider looking at the previous two volumes.

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