From the stack: Satsuma Gishiden vol. 1

I don’t know if thoughtful ultra-violence happens as often as its creators think it does. In fact, I generally think that imposing deep-think-y stuff on splatter usually has the effect of making the think-y stuff look dumb while taking the air out of the splatter. When I do run across brainy splatter, it tends to have come from Japan.

The latest example in this (for me) narrow field is Satsuma Gishiden (Dark Horse), written and illustrated by Hiroshi Hirata. It opens with a group of samurai playing some feudal version of rugby that involves trying to extract the liver from a criminal. It’s a morale-building exercise, you see. And while it’s muscularly drawn – snorting horses, thrusting spears, blood splatter that would keep the casts of five hour-long crime procedurals busy for a week – it’s also got a purposeful grimness that suggests to me that Hirata isn’t going to be blindly celebrating the samurai’s path.

The orgy of violence is part of a social studies lesson, you see, illustrating a strangling caste system and its consequences on individuals and their culture. The full-time samurai look down on the citizen soldiers, who can barely eke out a living. The citizen soldiers resent their apparent betters, and the highest tiers are oblivious to the strife. The system of education is designed to prop up the caste system and promote a dehumanizing form of patriotism.

Hirata shifts between displays of physical prowess and the ways it can be brutally applied and less moist passages that provide the context – the whys and wherefores of how liver soccer became a sport. The history and sociology lack the sleekness and force of the bloodshed even more than you might normally expect, but they serve the useful purpose of making that bloodshed seem less like an end in and of itself. I say “less like” because there’s too much relish in those sequences and they’re too protracted for anyone to believe that they’re entirely essential to the plot.

Still, evident as the relish for a well-drawn impaling can be, choppy as the political maneuverings can read, there’s genuine feeling here. These things matter intensely to the characters, as they should. And sometimes the pondering and the splatter work in perfect conjunction. In one sequence, the lower-class samurai take ruthless revenge on their oppressors. To call these pages beautiful is probably deeply wrong, but they work like you would not believe. They have gruesome visual fascination and substantial narrative force.

Unfortunately, Dark Horse has published only three of the six volumes of Satsuma Gishiden. They’re keeping it in print, as I picked this up via an “offered again” listing in Previews. Maybe a second bite at the apple will generate enough interest to get the rest into our hands. I know I’m going to read as much of it as I can.

10 Responses to From the stack: Satsuma Gishiden vol. 1

  1. I’m so glad to see this series get some critical love — I’m heartbroken that DH didn’t finish it, as it’s one of the few historical manga I’ve read that really explores the complexity of Japanese feudalism. Plus, I’m a sucker for stories about public works projects. I should have been a civil engineer!

  2. davidpwelsh says:

    I know! If I were to write a cover blurb, it would probably read something like, “SWORDPLAY! CLASS WARFARE! FLOOD REMEDIATION!” (And it probably would have sold even worse.) But I’m going to keep my hopes up, because it’s just so bizarrely brawny and smart at the same time. And Hirata’s ability to draw built guys in loincloths puts the entire gladiator movie genre to shame. To SHAME!

  3. Emilio says:

    What’s really amazing about this manga is that it was originally published in the 70s. When you compare it to what gekiga looked like in the hands of Tezuka and Tatsumi (and even Lone Wolf and Cub’s Goseki Kojima), it’s simply amazing how proficient and contemporary it looks.

    I really enjoyed volume 1. What I didn’t understand until I got to volume 2 is that this manga doesn’t have a main character. It’s kind of like The Wire in scope, and I imagine that fact is what hurt the sales in subsequent volumes such that Dark Horse stopped at 3.

  4. davidpwelsh says:

    I saw that it was originally published in, what, 1973? It is really amazing that it can feel classic without looking vintage.

  5. Matthew J. Brady says:

    Ooh, this is one I’ve been wanting to check out, but had kind of despaired of ever finding, since it had been cancelled. I’m glad to find out it’s still sort of available, so maybe I’ll find my way to it eventually.

  6. This sounds like exactly the kind of book I need to read! Thanks for the review.

  7. DanielBT says:

    It was Dark Horse’s sudden cancelation of this series that soured me on their take with new series. My plan was to wait until the whole series was available, then speed marathon the whole collection in one go. This worked particularly well with Samurai Executioner, even if I found the overall experience to be less thrilling than Lone Wolf & Cub. Of course, once I was denied that chance, any potential interest I had simply dried up.

    This isn’t the only series they’ve canceled midway once they saw a potential audiecne wasn’t immediately buying up every copy once out of the gate. Reiko the Zombie Shop, the Junji Ito collection, and possibly Eden are several titles that come to mind. I particularly wouldn’t have minded seeing more Junji Ito past the 3rd volume where the LAST publisher worked up to. Maybe if they followed the Yen Press model of releasing the 4th volume and up, interest could still be sustained. Of course, that would involve thinking outside the box, and the comics industry has an extremely stubborn streak for anything that could be consistuted as “new”.

    It’s why I’m rather pessimistic about Dark Horse picking up Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder series. Either it’ll be canceled after the first omnibus, or it’ll be released months (if not years) after it’s announced street date. I want to read more of her work after Sin-Eater, and I’m worried I may not get the chance to do so.

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  9. […] David Welsh analyzes the first volume of Satsuma Gishiden, which combines extreme violence, political […]

  10. […] published by Nihon Bungeisha; Dark Horse put the title on hiatus after publishing three volumes. I very much enjoyed the first volume, which I read rather belatedly, and plan to pick up the other two while keeping my fingers crossed […]

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