Blade of the Immortal has to be one of the most amazing manga to come out of Japan since... since... Ghost in the Shell? Battle Angel? Akira? Who knows... all I can say is I have never been more blown away by a combination of art, plot, and characterization since I picked up Matt Wagner's Mage over 12 years ago. Hiroaki Samura has created a world very unlike any I've seen before (although Ninja Scroll comes close); it is violent, darkly humorous, saddening, and very engrossing. It is also an excellent source for gamers to draw ideas from. Everyone, from immortal ronin Manji, to sword-genius Anotsu, to the walking freak-show that is the Itto-ryu, are well developed and highly interesting, both visually and as individual characters.
So... what is Manji's world like? Is it anything like the "real" Japan of the era? And what era is it anyway? Although I'm not an expert on Japanese history, I can try and supply a brief overview of Manji's world, giving prospective gamers a better idea of what life was like during his time.
The first question we need to answer is "When does this story take place?." Hiroaki Samura never actually gives us a definitive year (yet), but enough clues are sprinkled through the text to allow us to make an educated guess.
For starters, Anotsu states that 200 years ago, Oda Nobunaga defeated the cavalry of Takeda Shingen at the Battle of Nagashino. This battle took place in 1575, meaning that Manji and Rin are living somewhere around 1770-1780. Eiku Shizuma states that Yaobikuni fed him the kessen-chu over 200 years ago, which Rin declares to be during the "Muromachi Period." As the Muromachi Period extended from 1336 to around 1580, we see further proof the story is taking place well after 1600. Finally, after killing Gyobutsu "Johnny", Manji makes the notation that it is the "Second year of Tenmei," locking the time period down as circa 1792. Using this information we can see that Manji and Rin are living in the middle of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Now, of course, we ask "What's the Tokugawa Shogunate?." Well, to answer this question, we need to look back to the second half of the 16th Century, when Japan was embroiled by a long series of wars. This time period, which extends from approximately 1550 to 1603, is called the Sengoku Jidai or "Age of Battles." This was a time of great upheaval, where numerous daimyo struggled to gain land, power and prestige. It was a time when an ashigaru (foot soldier) could aspire to gain samurai status, and even the great Toyotomi Hideyoshi, unifier of Japan, started out as a simple sandal bearer.
With the decline of the Ashikaga Shogunate in the mid-16th Century, many of the daimyo saw the chance to gain great personal power. With no strong central government, many were free to do as they pleased, invading neighboring provinces with the intent of taking all they could. Out of this mess rose several prominent figures, who fought with each other with the intent of bringing all of Japan under their control and forming a new Shogunate.
Two of the more well-known personalities of this time were Takeda Shingen and his constant foe, Oda Nobunaga. These two fought back and forth for sometime, until the massacre of the Takeda forces at the battle Nagashino. Here, Nobunaga used ranks of arquebusiers to maintain a continuous volley fire into the attacking forces of Takeda Shingen and his son, Takeda Katsuyori. Unfortunately for Nobunaga, his success wasn't long lived, as he was assassinated a mere seven years later by one of his generals.
Following the death of Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi rose to power, making his bid to conquer Japan. He also led two rather unsuccessful invasions of Korea. Hideyoshi died in 1598, leaving Tokugawa Ieyasu (a former ally of Nobunaga) to try and become Shogun.
In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu won the decisive Battle of Sekigahara, effectively destroying any major opposition to his attempt to unify Japan. Three years later he established himself as Shogun, bringing about a period of peace that would last until the Meji Restoration of the late 1860s.
With the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Ieyasu followed in the footsteps of Hideyoshi, enforcing the idea of a severe social structure which completely eliminated the chance for someone to gain rank and recognition. Someone born a peasant was doomed to stay a peasant, while only someone born to a samurai family could ever hope to become one. One of the main reasons behind this world view was it allowed Tokugawa to secure firm control over society, hampering any attempts to start uprisings.
Along with the strict social class structure came a period of self-imposed isolation. The Tokugawa wanted total control over the country, and severed almost all ties with surrounding countries (such as China and Korea). The Dutch and Portuguese were restricted to one or two ports, and all trade into and out of the country was severely controlled. Finally, the few Christians living in Japan were executed or exiled, leaving Buddhism as the dominate religion (although Shintoism was still practiced by many).
It is this last fact which makes the opening of Blade of the Immortal so interesting. It takes place in an obviously Western-styled Christian church, with Gyobutsu "Johnny" dressed in a priest's robes. I also find it interesting Manji has some knowledge of the Bible and it's teachings. It's this scene that first tells us the world of Blade isn't quite historically accurate.
This rigid class structure also helps shed some light on Anotsu's frustration over the status and fate of Japan's sword schools. The Tokugawa ruled Japan with an iron fist, severely limiting the movements of the local daiymo. Armies became a thing of the past, and actual conflicts between armored samurai was nonexistent. In such an environment, the many kenjutsu schools almost certainly stagnated. Yes, there were the occasional duels, and clashes between groups of armed men, but in general, most samurai would never actually be in any sort of pitched battle. It is also interesting to note Anotsu's systematic destruction of the various sword schools probably wouldn't have gone on in the manner described. The Tokugawa instituted a large police force, who most certainly would have attempted to put down such a wholesale slaughter.
As a final note, in the second issue of the On Silent Wings story arc, we see a samurai draw his sword with the intent of killing Renzo Kawakami. Magatsu Taito also mentions how his sister was cut down by a daiymo during a Sangin procession. This form of execution was called kirisute or kirisutogomen and was the right of a samurai to kill those of the "lower classes." Although this wasn't a ticket for wholesale slaughter, it did mean a samurai could cut down one of the heimin class with a minimum of fuss and paper work. Those outside of the social structure, such as eta, geisha and ninja, could be killed with no comment at all from the local authorities (Although, it has been pointed out killing the favored geisha of another samurai could have repercussions all its own).
Throughout most of it's history, Japan has had sharply divided social classes. Up until the Tokogawa era, it was possible to rise from one class to another. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who effectively unified Japan, started out as Oda Nobunaga's sandal bearer. Starting from the top down, a simplified view of the social the classes are:
This is a a very simplified structure, and more in line with the earlier Muramachi period as opposed to the actual Tokugawa era. Still, it should serve to illustrate the division within Japan at the time. Note the Emperor, although at the top of the pyramid, had no real power. This resided in the actual Shogunate itself, who ran everything via a strong military backing.
The basis of the Japanese system of wealth was the koku. The koku was equal to 180 liters of dry rice (Enough to feed one man for one year). This measurement also set the monetary standard. The kan was the coin equivalent of the koku, and the rest of money followed suit:
As an interesting side note, Master Sori tells Rin that 30 ryo (quite a large amount of money) is enough to live off of for two years or more. On the other hand, several times in Usagi Yojimbo, Usagi has been stuck with a inn bill of close to 50 ryo!
The typical dress of virtually everyone in Japan at this time is the kimono. It is the traditional full-sleeved robe seen in countless samurai films and manga. This robe was kept restrained with a belt called an obi. Samurai wore the kimono along with a pair of wide trousers called hakama. For formal occasions, the samurai wore the kami-shino ("upper and lower"), which consisted of the kimono, hakama, and an upper jacket called a kataginu, which had stiffened and flared shoulders (Giving us the distinctive costume seen in any court scene in Usagi Yojimbo.).
Women wore longer and more ornate kimono, with broader and more elaborate obi. Over kimono, members of both sexes wore a short sleeved coat known as a haori. The lower classes (farmers and merchants and the like) wore a much less elaborate costume. Usually a short kimono, trousers (of a much tighter fit then the hakama), thin undershirts, and a loin cloth.
For footwear, one wears a split toed sock called a tabi. Sandals are the norm; usually a woven reed/grass sandal called a warabi. Heavy wooden clogs, called geta, are also worn—we see Machi wearing them in her duel with Manji—although it's doubtful one would actually try to wear them in a fight.
Almost all the weapons shown in Blade of the Immortal are pure fallacy. Kuro's spinning blades, Machi's three-section yari (spear), almost all of Manji's swords, Saito Tatsumasa's double-bladed katana (katana do not have hollow, snap-off hilts!), Shido Hishiyasu's forked swords (with "acid" inscribed into the tsuba [sword guards]), and Anotsu's ax are all mythical designs. Hiroaki Samura admits that almost all the weapons (and weapon forms) are fictional. A fact that only adds to the fantastical quality of the art and story.
Some of the weapons shown are real, of course. Manji's katana and Rin's knives for example. The katana, or long sword, is the weapon of choice by samurai. It is about 42 inches long, with a hilt big enough for two hands. Forged by a long process of sandwiching layers of steel and iron together, and then folding the metal back on itself, a properly made and honed katana is one of the sharpest cutting weapons in existence. Such a weapon is capable of severing a limb, but certainly cannot slice a man in half (or chop apart Master Sori's gate) as shown in the pages of Blade. A side effect of the forging process is the blade is brittle and can snap if used improperly. Rin looses her sword in just such a manner during the fight in Master Sori's yard (We also see Toshiro Mifune shatter his no-dachi [great sword] in the film Seven Samurai.).
Other common weapons of the period include the yari (spear), wakizashi (short sword), naginata (glaive), tanto (dagger), sai (a trident-shaped truncheon), and the jitte (A sai-shaped weapon with one tine missing. It is a policeman's weapon, designed to catch swordblades.).
Interestingly enough, Gyobutsu "Johnny''s double-barreled flintlock pistol is a real weapon. Tokugawa, however, disliked firearms and banned such weapons after assuming control of Japan.
It should be noted by 1792 many swordsmiths were out of work, having few if any orders of new weapons. Many sword (and armor) makers turned to making pots and other metal items as a way of making ends meet.
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