Reflecting on the end of 'Blade of the Immortal'

Blade of the Immortal, Hiroaki Samura's samurai tale, reaches the end of its long run this week with the publication of Volume 31. Dark Horse began publishing the series in 1996, at a time when manga was not only flipped but chopped into single-issue comics. The world has changed a lot since then, and so has Blade. Samura spent almost 20 years writing and drawing the series, and his storytelling style evolved quite a bit over the years.

Samura's superb art belies the startling violence of his story: Manji, a renegade samurai, cannot die because his body harbors bloodworms that heal every wound. To shake the curse of immortality, he must kill 1,000 evil men. This task gains focus when he teams with Rin, the daughter of a dojo master whose father was slain in front of her; she seeks not only to avenge his death but also to stop his killers from slaughtering the members of the other dojos to consolidate the power of their own school of fighting, Ittō-ryū. Samura fills the pages with baroque villains and and elaborate weapons of his own invention. The early volumes have a punk feel to them, but eventually he settles into a more traditional style.

Philip Simon, who has been the editor of the series since 2000, spoke with ROBOT 6 about working on Blade of the Immortal and how the manga itself and the way it was presented have changed over the years. He also shared an exclusive first look at the artwork from the final volume.

Brigid Alverson: How long have you been the editor of Blade of the Immortal?

Philip Simon: I’ve been working on Blade of the Immortal for long time here at Dark Horse, but Hiroaki Samura had several editors in Japan working on the series with him first, of course, since Blade of the Immortal first appeared there in Kodansha’s Afternoon monthly. I’ve been Blade’s English-language shepherd for a while, though. I first started working on this series in March 2000 when I arrived at Dark Horse. Blade of the Immortal was one of the first projects assigned to me, and it’s been a rare “constant” on my plate throughout the years — from assistant editor to associate editor  to full editor. In 2007, all trade collection duties were consolidated with the monthly comic duties, and I became Dark Horse’s sole Blade editor. Because of that, I am extremely fond of (and already a bit nostalgic for) the series, especially our comic book run. The Blade monthly comic series was one of the longest running monthly manga series in the United States — if not the longest serialized run — at 131 issues!

The manga industry was very different when Dark Horse started publishing the series in 1996. Do you know what it was about this manga that made it a good fit for the audience at that time?

In the late '80s and early '90s, I believe the popularity of shonen and seinen titles dictated what a lot of publishers were releasing. There was a lot of retailer confidence in those genres, and sales at the time pushed things in that direction. Most manga series were being released as flopped, monthly comic books, too, before being collected! Dark Horse had released some classic manga titles, and Blade of the Immortal felt like a perfect fit to expand the line. Studio Proteus founder Toren Smith was the one who brought Blade to the attention of our publisher, Mike Richardson, and it was a simple combination of the work itself and Toren’s enthusiasm and vision of a unique, unflopped-but-rearranged panel approach to reprinting the work that sealed the deal for Dark Horse.

Why do you think it has remained popular for 20 years?

Now that the finale is coming out, it’s obvious how popular Blade of the Immortal has been with fans, and we’re finding that older fans on social media are saying things like, “Shoot, it’s time for me to catch up!” and newer fans are saying, “Wow, it’s about time I started reading, because this series has a great rep!” — so Blade’s reputation as a solid manga series has remained strong over the years. Some spin-off projects, like the anime series and the light novel tie-in from several years back, only seemed to remind readers how great the original source manga is.

In the early volumes, Samura sort of stops the action when the actual kill happens, turning it into a splash page with a very static, often symmetric design. Do you have any insight into why he did that in the beginning, and why he stopped later on?

I haven’t corresponded with Samura on this, but I have to guess that he became less interested in those “splash page kills” as his story became less about Manji facing wave after wave of weird Itto-ryu warriors and more about Rin. I feel that Rin is the real heart of the series and the story — Rin and her relation to and fixation on Itto-ryu leader Anotsu. At some point in Blade, Samura amps up story and character development and seems to neglect those “splash page kills,” perhaps because they were feeling too repetitive or the story arcs felt too “villain of the month.” The story arcs definitely changed and became less predictable around the “Road to Kaga” era, and Blade feels very different by, say, Volume 15 in the series. Samura evolved as a storyteller. But everyone misses those great death spreads and splash pages. Samura did them so well!

As someone who has been involved with the series for a long time, what other major changes did you see Samura make along the way to his art and storytelling style?

With his “Road to Kaga” story arc, Samura seemed to be testing the waters with an extended, Rin-focused tale — which he expands on when we get to the “Prison Arc,” when Manji is captured and experimented on. Rin goes on a long quest to free him. I am a big fan of the “Prison Arc,” mainly because it’s a long, lingering look at the lengths Rin will go to in order to be reunited with Manji — and the “Prison Arc” shows us that Rin’s not only stubborn, she’s smart and dangerous!

Did you ever have the opportunity to talk to Samura about the series? If so, what did he have to say?

When I route questions to Samura in Japan, there are usually at least three people in between us, routing the question to Samura-sensei and the answer back to me — but we haven’t had to ask Samura much. When we were putting together Dark Horse’s edition of The Art of Blade of the Immortal, I asked Samura if we could add signatures to the book and run about three-dozen extra images, and he allowed us to do that as long as we ran our final design pages by him and his editor for approval. When he got a physical copy of the book — extra pages approved and included — he was so excited about the edition, he sent Dark Horse a “thank you” note via his editor. Over the years, we’ve asked for permission to print certain bits of spot art and text pieces we’ve seen in Afternoon and in the Japanese collections, but we haven’t had to ask about much. Our Blade program has been pretty straightforward and our English-language team has been running on time for years, so we haven’t had many issues to talk about, really.

Hiroaki Samura didn't want his art flipped, so the panels were rearranged instead. What was the process for doing that?

I’m glad you asked that. Studio Proteus founder Toren Smith brought Blade of the Immortal to Dark Horse many years ago, and when we ended our Blade comic-book run with Issue 131 I asked Toren to write something about the series. He wrote the following about the English-language page layout process:

Speaking to Samura, he was dubious about flopping his art. Since this was back in the Dark Ages, when retailers and distributors were wary of unflopped manga, we didn't have much choice. Still, initially he refused. Later, after the first tankobon had come out, I sat down with it and partway through made a realization. As his layout and storytelling skills had matured, he had moved to an unusual style—almost all of his panels were rectangular. For an idea how odd this is, grab any manga off your shelf and compare. I made a few photocopies of his pages and pasted them up with the panels unreversed, but the order of the panels reversed. It worked. Studio Proteus put together a sequence of about ten pages and sent them off to Samura, and he was intrigued. While he had done some work early on that was not amenable to this technique, he suggested that he'd redraw a few panels here and there as needed. I knew we could trim bleeds, and if I kept sharp while doing the rewrite I could move the readers along correctly with strategic repositioning of the word balloons and tweaking the dialog. Except for a few cases where I got brain fade and screwed up, I think it worked pretty well. Hey, it's tough to read each panel knowing it will be unflopped ... and yet reordered on the page! For the first couple volumes I actually cut and pasted each page, but eventually I was able to do it in my head, on the fly. All of my mistakes were corrected in the TPBs, and after Tomoko came on board, there were essentially none, since she kept an eagle eye on this.

To explain how the actual process has changed over the years, with digital technology making production a bit easier—Dark Horse used to receive large film sheets from Kodansha for our Blade production process. We used to print out high-quality sheets of both unflopped and flopped manga pages and send those to Toren Smith and Tomoko Saito so they could work with the large printed sheets and cut every panel out — flopped and unflopped — for flexibility in reassembling everything onto Dark Horse art boards. We’d get the book in chapter by chapter from Studio Proteus, to produce the comic books on a monthly basis, and those “raw” paste-up boards would get scanned and then digitally art corrected to remove any small glitches and correct any lettering issues. Since 2004, though, everything from start to finish has been done digitally. Tomoko Saito figured out how to use print-ready digital files from Japan, her own physically drawn and scanned sound effects, and a digital process to rearrange and flip the panels on a page and lettering everything up.

Will there be any Blade of the Immortal sequels, side stories or art books?

I’m not sure about a sequel. I think it’s possible, given how Samura leaves us in the final scene in Blade of the Immortal: Final Curtain. The Art of Blade of Immortal is a perfect companion book to the series, and Dark Horse has published the light novel Blade of the Immortal: Legend of the Sword Demon, which is a side-story that takes place early in Rin and Manji’s adventures together. We’ve also published two big collections of Hiroaki Samura’s shorter works, Ohikkoshi and Emerald and Other Stories.

How about an omnibus edition?

That’s a great question! Dark Horse Manga has had a lot of success with our omnibus programs, as titles like Gunsmith Cats, Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner and Trigun have been collected into larger editions — and omnibus collections of our successful Oh My Goddess! series have just been announced. We’re looking to keep all of our titles in print for new readers to discover, and an omnibus run for Blade is indeed something we’re talking about.

What other manga series are you working on right now, and do you have any new series in the queue for the immediate future?

I’ll be editing Dark Horse Manga’s Fate/Zero series and the continuing Blood-C manga series, with Blood-C Volume 4 and two volumes of Blood-C: Demonic Moonlight on the horizon. I have a wide range of projects on my editorial plate — including some creator-owned comic-book series, licensed video-game properties, original graphic novels, archival collections, art books, and even prose books — along with manga projects — but I’m working with Dark Horse colleagues Carl Gustav Horn, Roxy Polk and Michael Gombos to pull in even more new manga projects. I do have two huge announcements coming up this year. Two amazing new Dark Horse Manga series I’m really proud to be a part of will be announced in the coming months, so watch DarkHorse.com and social media for future announcements!

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