I love little else like a good mystery, memorable characters, and a taste of foreign culture. Samurai gave me none of these things. The first four volumes of Titan Comic’s Samurai tell a contained story that is clearly meant as the first small arc in a sweeping epic. It takes on a grand task in trying to tackle horror and politics in all the grandeur of Imperial Japan. Unfortunately the work fails to deliver on any of its promises, and in suggesting them only highlights how little it manages to accomplish. Samurai’s failures involve nearly innumerable smaller issues, but they contribute to two overriding themes: the story feels unwelcomely familiar, and the Japanese aesthetic is painted on in only the vaguest sense; these are the only things that could draw you to Samurai, and I can firmly say they just are not enough.
It is clear that the author has a knowledge of Japan based purely in popular culture, including glaring inaccuracies throughout. Small linguistic problems start it off, as characters refer to “ronins” (the proper plural being “ronin”) and exclaiming to the “great kamis” in a manner that belies a complete misunderstanding of the Japanese animistic religion. These may seem like minor details, but they pale in comparison to the key offense, namely that the author appears to not know what a samurai is. Rather than a noble class of people, many of whom were armed and trained but also contained unarmed functionaries and their families, they are treated like jedi: powered individuals who wander the land getting into fights. The peasants do not address or interact with him appropriately. Character names are more than uninspired. The villain is Akuma, the Japanese word for demon. It’s on the same level as Dr. Evil, only completely straight-faced.
These are not perfunctory issues that would only occur to an otaku. They are integral to the cultural aesthetic that this comic is ignoring. The sense of cultural blindness comes because, despite your knowledge of samurai, you can’t shake the feeling that this is the most surface level, fictionalized idea of Japan available. Cliches are thrown around so blatantly that you can’t be unaware of them. I can absolutely forgive a loose interpretation of a culture if it has a justifiable reason and proper story to back it up. Samurai Jack and Samurai Champloo had inaccuracies throughout, but they had their own characters and aesthetic to make them memorable.
Samurai relies on tired archetypes to tell a story full of bland tropes that in the end does not need to be told. Of course the hero wins all fights, against all odds, in a single blow. Takeo, our wandering Samurai, is aloof and mysterious, with no discernable flaws besides his lurking past (involving his secret royal father). As with any such perfect hero, he casually tips his hat as we learn about the fact that even though he routinely attacks first, never being surprised, his fighting style is purely defensive. Of course his master is a wise old monk who died tragically before his eyes. Of course his ever-loyal sidekick is a fat, bumbling comic relief. Of course the main female character is purely there to get kidnapped, attempt to sleep with the hero, and betray him for scorning her. Of course the villains are cartoonishly evil, their every maneuver being over the top down to announcing their intentions upon arrival anywhere.
Even a familiar story I can tolerate if told with enough craft to keep it fresh, but I am sure you know where this is going by now. The writing is filled with all the worst techniques of comic books, with characters announcing not only their feelings but the surroundings that are readily visible to the reader. Often does Samurai go further, entering into The Last Airbender’s territory of people telling one another setting details both of them already know. The only reason the story manages to be at all unpredictable is because I could never have imagined so many basic tropes being smashed together at the same time. The overall story ends up being passable, but only after you have managed to shut down all higher brain functions.
After all that negativity I want to take a moment to praise this comic’s art. I really, really want to, but here as everywhere else there are issues. On the outside, yes, the book is beautiful. The art is the only place where the feel of Japan comes through. There are some gorgeous paintings that portray the scenes and have subtle hints of the culture’s water paintings. To look at it, you would be pleased with the work. At the same time, I cannot ignore the confusion that overcomes me with every action scene. I routinely found myself unaware of how the fights moved from one beat to the next. The artist also seems to have a problem drawing Asian eyes which, for a comic taking place in Japan, is an issue. In every scene all of the characters look like they have their eyes closed.
After this four volume story, Takeo leaves for a new adventure. I am sad to say I will not be joining him. Samurai did not make me excited about its characters or any prospect of their futures. I am up to see more by this artist and I love delving into multi-cultural folklore and horror. Sadly these elements did not come together, and I would encourage graphic novel fans to go elsewhere.