One of the drawbacks of diving into a lengthy manga series is that it is not always obvious where to start. In this particular case, I found myself in front of a shelf full of volumes of Hiroaki Samura's popular series without a clue to which were the first. So, totally at random, I selected this book and its sequel ('The Gathering, Part II'), guessing from the titles that they at least represented a single story. Typical reviewer's luck, I got home to discover that I had managed to start right in the middle.
Unlike novels in a series, which often feel the need to provide some background, these manga start right in. Without even knowing the characters' names, I was busy trying to pick up the details of the plot. Gradually I pieced together that Manji was an immortal swordsman who could not die until he killed 1000 villains. He travels with Rin, a young swordswoman, helping her track down the murderers of her parents.
'The Gathering' starts out in an inn where Manji and Rin are resting after a failed attempt on the life of Anotsu Kagehisa head of the Itto-ryu sword school. All they know is that Anotsu has left Edo for Kaga. Rin is determined to follow him, but there is a hitch. Travel in 18th Century Japan was severely restricted, and neither Manji nor Rin have the credentials to pass the checkpoints. Rin is so determined though that she ignores Manji's warnings and heads off on her own. Manji has no choice but to follow her. Their situation is complicated by the fact that they have been charged with murder and their sketches have been posted all over the path to Kaga.
This volume traces Manji and Rin's individual paths as they each try to acquire the coveted pass (tegata). True to their natures, Rin chooses the less violent path of subterfuge and Manji follows the swordsman's path. But neither finds progress easy. Without question, this is a two-volume problem.
The series is drawn with great elegance and style - much better than many of the manga I have seen. And once you figure out what exactly is going on, the story progresses smoothly. There is a great deal of depth to the characters coupled with a strong plot. The details of late 18th Century Japanese society are worth the price of admission on their own.
One thing I did find hard to follow was the depiction of fighting. With very little dialog other than sound effects these have a much different style from U.S. Comic violence. They are far more violent and have a disjointed style that takes more concentration to follow. However, this is just a matter of acclimatization. Taken as a whole, it is certainly no surprise that 'Blade of the Immortal' enjoys extensive popularity both in Japan and elsewhere.