Author’s Note: This is an 18+ manga.
Creator of the iconic Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no Juunin) series, Eisner award winning Samura Hiroaki’s latest work in translation is the German-titled Die Wergelder (Beagerutaa). Originally published in Kodansha’s quarterly Nemesis magazine, a publication aimed at more mature male audiences, Kodansha retains control of the manga in its dual volume omnibus English release with Stephen Paul, known for his work on popular titles like Durarara!! and Sword Art Online, providing the translation.
Die Wergelder opens with a series short vignettes introducing our three main characters. First we see the German Träne, going by the name Nami Savrasova, undercover as a prostitute so she can seek revenge on a man from her past. Interspersed in this is the Chinese assassin Jie Mao, leaving a peaceful, domestic scene with a young blond girl before orders come in for a new mission. Finally, the story’s focal character Aza Shinobu falls into a bit of bad luck as she attempts to run away with her boyfriend Sugito Ro and 20 million yen in yakuza money. When Shinobu and Ro’s plans run afoul of Ro’s old gang, the Kakesu-gumi, Shinobu finds herself dragged in to help the yakuza out with a matter involving her old homeland, the remote island of Ishikunagmjima. Shinobu, Ro, and several members of the Kakesu-gumi are sent to Ishikunagmjima to spy on an exchange between a rival yakuza gang run by a former member of the Kakesu-gumi, Shindo Kurahiko and mysterious hooded figures who are actually representatives of an international pharmaceutical company, Hill-Myna.
While the Kakesu-gumi’s intentions are only to determine how Shindo’s group is making so much money off the exchange, chaos breaks loose when Nami appears, wielding a rifle and shooting down the Hill-Myna representatives. When Jie Mao makes an entry and seems to stall Nami’s assault, Shinobu and her gang make a grab for the goods. However, in intercepting the goods, they find that what they thought was a simple black market deal is only the cusp of a mystery that ties Hill-Myna, Nami’s plot for revenge, a red light district in China, and Shinobu’s homeland together in a twisted web of corruption and deceit.
Samura’s self-professed interest in the mature ero-guro genre of Japanese media certainly shows itself in this work. He doesn’t shy from the violent imagery in his fight and torture sequences, with blood and dismembered limbs gracing the pages, but what’s a bit more off putting is his gratuitously sexualized treatment of peripheral female characters in the series. Though the primary plot of Die Wergelder centers around sexual abuse and prostitution, the most graphic scenes in the manga are entirely inconsequential to this. Jie Mao helpfully lampshades one such occasion where Shindo has sex with a prostitute in a mermaid outfit by calling out Japan’s bizarre porn obsession, but it doesn’t quite change the fact that Samura deliberately chose to throw a completely bizarre sex scene into his manga for no apparent reason.
It’s interesting to note, however, that despite these unnecessary oversexualized additions, Samura doesn’t fall into the familiar trap in seinen action manga of using fight sequences as an excuse to flash panty shots and improbably sexualized angles of any female fighters involved in the fight. When Jie Mao goes head to head with Shinobu’s yakuza friends, in a qipao no less, not once do we get an upskirt shot or anything else that diminishes this as a display of her prowess as a fighter. Though at times Samura’s lack of distinct character designs sometimes make it difficult to tell exactly which woman we’re following at the moment, it’s at least heartening to see them fight in a way that isn’t demeaning in a manga rife with other exploitative content.
In fact, these first two volumes very clearly show that Der Wergelder is a story centralized on the interactions of Shinobu, Nami, and Jie Mao. While in Shinobu and Nami’s cases, their motivation springs primarily from trouble and suffering they’ve experienced at the hands of men in their lives, it’s clear that where they stand in the story now they’re treated as trusted and capable by the men around them. Though the story strongly fluctuates in how it treats them–such as Nami’s bizarre attempt at a sexual encounter with Shinobu despite her history as a rape survivor and Shinobu’s somewhat implausible attitude regarding her own virginity–it’s clearly a story driven by Nami’s attempts at revenge and, to a lesser extent, Shinobu’s desires to uncover the secret of her changed homeland.
In terms of translation, Die Wergelder presents a unique challenge with Samura writing in four different languages throughout the first two volumes. While Paul’s translation choice to stick to only translation the parts that have a translation provided in the original Japanese is a wise choice, his use of translator notes to clarify some of the other foreign phrases used is a bit spotty and inconsistent. While some phrases are addressed in translator notes at the end of the volume, others are translated on page in the margins between panels, while others still are left completely untranslated. He does show skill at times, such as his translation of Nami’s pidgin Japanese when she’s hiding her identity, but at other times he seems to slip into a more vulgar vernacular that seems inconsistent with the voice he’s chosen for the characters in question. These little slip ups leave the reader wondering if the characters might have a more colorful speech pattern in the original, or if the sudden change in their tone of voice is something intentional.
Overall, if you can stomach the violence and darker themes and permeate through the heart of this manga, Die Wergelder does show promise in doing something that few other manga of its genre attempt: showcasing a story of revenge completely driven by central female characters. It’s certainly not without its flaws in doing so, but you want to see three women lead a gritty action series, this is one for you.