I have to be an anomaly in that I have never read Blade of the Immortal, but I picked up Hiroaki Samura's Emerald. I have no doubt that Blade of the Immortal is an amazing series — it has a great reputation — but I have a hard time picking up the first volume of a 25+ -volume commitment. Little self-contained volumes like this, however, are right up my alley. I love short stories, and self-contained books. I figured this was a good way to give Hiroaki Samura a shot.
I wasn't disappointed. Samura proved himself to be a versatile artist, working a range of genres within this one book and doing a good job with all of them. There is a classic western, a few high school slice-of-life vignettes, a sci-fi piece, an SM piece and a psychological horror story. The range is so broad it is almost like Samura is showing off, but because he handles each story so well you can tell that his interests are broad, and he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as "That guy who does Blade of the Immortal."
My favorite story in Emerald was the titular western "Emerald." It wasn't really a surprise that this was good — samurai and western films have a long and storied history together, and anyone who can do one should be able to do the other. As has been shown many times, all it really requires is a change of costume. What's impressive about "Emerald" was the characters — Samura created a cast of fully realized characters even though they are essentially disposable, just for this one story only. But Samura makes them live and breathe, and adds a psychological depth to the story that keeps it from being a straight action piece. The only disappointment in "Emerald" is when you flip the last page and realize that that's it — you don't get anymore. That's a great quality for a short story to have.
"The Uniforms Stay On," on the other hand, plays on a little long. I liked these at first — little slice-of-life mini-tales about a group of high school girls and their inner lives. They are well done; the dialog sounds incredibly natural (props to the translator on that!), and it is almost like overhearing a snippet of conversation from a group of girls on the bus. The only problem is — like many teenagers — the dialogue is mostly shallow fluff, and I soon get bored of it.
The rest of the stories fall somewhere in between. "Brigette's Dinner" is a good old-fashioned Edogawa Rampoesque tale, and you know that isn't going to end well. "The Kusein Family's Greatest Show" is also classic Japanese SM-style ero-guro involving a father and daughter. "Shizura Cinema" is a clever, clever sci-fi story with a twist that totally threw me for a loop — I wasn't expecting that at all, and it came so far out of the blue it was like Samura got bored with his own story and let his imagination fly. "Low-grade Strategy: The Mirror Play" is really only going to appeal to fans of Mahjong. I'm not ashamed to say I didn't get this story at all. And "Youth Chang-Chaka-Chang" is fantastic — a very funny little story, with a bit of nudity tossed in at the end because, as Samura says, the story was supposed to be about Music and Eros, but he forgot the erotic part so he drew some nipples on the final page.
A good collection all around. You don't have to be a fan of Blade of the Immortal to enjoy Emerald. Samura's art is amazing, and his storytelling skills are wonderful. I'll keep an eye out for more of his work in the future. And maybe even dive into Blade of the Immortal one of these days…
Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.