Read my site instead of watching football.

*I need to start off today’s post with this link. You’ve probably see it somewhere before, maybe Tom Spurgeon’s site or Newsarama’s blog. Jason’s store was my primary comics store since it first opened. Which means it was the first place I’d go after work or school or whatever to buy the new comics, week after week, unless I was a hundred miles away or something. I met a lot of fine people there, Jason among the finest of them, and bought a lot good books, some of which I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. There’s still just under three weeks left, so perhaps I speak prematurely, but let me say it now - thanks, Jason, for everything.

*Anime Dept: Here’s what I like to see - the lengthy trailer to Studio 4°C’s latest dvd anthology package, Deep Imagination, featuring five short animated films. It was only released in Japan the other week, but Kazuto Nakazawa’s Comedy is not a new piece, having been around the internet for a while; it’s a typical (if typically ravishing) action thingy adapting an old Irish legend, with some great incidental animation. Also: Osamu Kobayashi’s End of the World looks completely awesome. But where’s Genius Party?!

Satsuma Gishiden Vol. 1 (of 5)

It’s often been said that the ‘70s were a golden age for manga. Few English speakers could really know, since very little manga from over a quarter of a century ago has actually been translated into English, and relatively few readers have the means or drive to locate and import books, much less learn Japanese. Yes, some of the translated books from that period have been mightily impressive. You all know how much I like The Drifting Classroom, and Swan certainly has its supporters. Golgo 13 stretches back into that period. Osamu Tezuka shows up at regular intervals, sometimes with material from those times, and he’s always welcome. But they are isolated examples, seeming aberrations. We remain largely in the dark, and it’s not really surprising; there is an undeniable resistance to ‘old’ things among the young-skewing manga readership, and even older fans don’t always support such vintage works.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about samurai. Or ninja. Or whatever species of sword-swinging character you prefer from the Japanese past. In those cases, it seems, readers are blind to age, and the older comics can sometimes press through.

That’s how we end up with wonderful books like Satsuma Gishiden, the overheated, over-the-top, gloriously entertaining creation of writer/artist Hiroshi Hirata. Dark Horse brought it over, no doubt crossing their fingers for the sort of business that Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima can do with similar samurai subject matter; this first volume actually came out months ago, and I believe vol. 2 is already available. Unless I’m mistaken, this is the first of Hirata’s works to actually appear in English, though his name might be familiar to those who’ve studied their manga history texts, as he regularly shows up alongside Kojima and Sanpei Shirato as one of the masters of samurai manga. Although it might be worth conducting a little compare/contrast - while Shirato’s Kamui stories provided much fodder for discussion among left-leaning students in the ‘60s, Hirata was a personal favorite of author Yukio Mishima, who wrote glowingly of the man’s art.

The copyright date says 1977, so Mishima wouldn’t have lived to see Satsuma Gishiden, but I think he would have enjoyed Hirata’s sprawling saga of hot-blooded warriors carrying the spirit of old forward into a world that seemed to have no place for them. There’s even a heroic mass suicide scene (of sorts)! The story is set in the mid-18th century, during a period of peace, and focuses on the plight of goshi, lower-class samurai who are forced to take on menial jobs to support their families, without any wars to serve in (and thrive off of). They are essentially peasants, which puts them at odds with more privileged samurai, yet their status demands respect from Japan’s emerging merchant class, monied members of which resent having to supplicate themselves before yam-eating farmers. Anger burns in the goshi, anger enough to fell a tree in only three days of practicing their martial skills. They remain true to the ancient samurai code, honing their skills for seemingly nothing while gaining little from a rapidly advancing society. Finally, a small group are pushed over the edge, and engage in masked killings of the powerful, which sets off a whole chain of events in the troubled domain of Satsuma.

In the real world, in another hundred or so years, Satsuma would become famous for its eponymous Rebellion, in which the local samurai staged a revolt against the modernizing Japanese government; their defeat is often considered the historical ‘death’ of the samurai as a viable class in Japan. Obviously the region is pregnant with possibility for stories about the lingering spirit of the warrior in a changing Japanese culture, and Hirata absolutely loads his book with spirited declarations of the true spirit of the goshi, and detailed observations on the class distinctions and economic disparities that existed at the time. Even the upper Samurai class is paranoid in Hirata’s Satsuma, certain that a controversial flood prevention scheme from the shogunate is actually a secret plot to drain their coffers and sap their manpower. I hope you’re ready for bone-cracking economic debate, True Believers, because there’s plenty of pounding period politics on display, although Hirata is bright enough not to skimp on the gore and melodrama either.

And holy shit, what gore and what melodrama! The beauty of Satsuma Gishiden is in how it absolutely refuses to reign itself in for any reason, yet alternates between wild violence, vivid character interactions, and detailed documentary as a means of keeping itself from getting dull. The first 30 pages of the book depict the hiemontori, a grand guignol spectacle of execution in which two teams of battle-hungry samurai are loosed upon a convict on horseback. If the convict reaches a certain tree, his crimes are forgiven. For the teams of samurai, the ‘winner’ is the team that seizes the convict’s liver from his body. Over the course of the battle, the convict is speared, dragged along the ground, tossed from horse to hose. His limbs rip off, he’s cut in half through his belly, his torso is flung in the air and wrestled over, and his lower body is chucked scrotum-first at an oncoming rider like a dodgeball. It's almost slapstick, yet drawn with total conviction.

And then, lead murderer (and nominal protagonist) Shiba Sakon is led out, and proceeds to give these play-acting warriors a real run for their money. He winds up killing a prominent man, yet going free; this catches the attention of the dead man’s rebellious son, who hated his father for murdering the goshi girl he wanted to marry, yet feels the need to destroy the man who did violence to his family. There’s many other characters, and a wide historical sweep; one gets the sense that the whole of the nation is crashing down with Satsuma itself, even as the plot digresses so much that you question if there’s every going to be much focus. But with momentum like this, who really cares?

It’s astonishingly brutal, and made very nearly overwhelming by Hirata’s art, so detailed and haggard and ferociously inky that it’s occasionally difficult to read. His men are uniformly muscular and weathered enough that it’s sometimes a challenge to tell them apart, but the violence of his battles and the lived-in wilt of his domestic scenes truly convey the hardscrabble brutality of his setting, “a sensibility in the manner of the violent warrior prints of the late Edo period,” in Mishima’s words (I quote from Frederik L. Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics). He’s deft enough with his storytelling that a sequence on a bridge, in which two opposed groups of people pass one another, becomes intensely suspenseful, yet he knows when to ramp up the full-page splashes for maximum impact. Hirata is also famous for his lettering, which occasionally bursts into an explicitly calligraphic style that’s prompted Dark Horse to take the unprecedented step of leaving those particular word balloons in Japanese and ‘subtitling’ them underneath in English. The effect is somewhat disorienting, but Hirata’s letters match his figures so well you'll probably buy into it.

So it’s uncontrolled, chest-thumping samurai stuff all the way. What impresses me about this book is how there’s actually not a lot of ‘action’ per se, but even the lectures on, say, institutionalized misogyny in the samurai class are so bluntly forceful that the book seems like a non-stop assault on the eyes regardless. If it sounds like fun to you, go out and support this title so Dark Horse will put out more. There's never a guarantee, even in genres like this.