In a prison world, there are few good stories, and this is the world of Kubikiri Asa, the beheader and master samurai under the Shogun. It's a world full of vengeance, greed, and violence. A world of depravity and sin. One man can set things straight if he can keep his wits. This is a story of extreme proportions, of sword study thick in tradition and with grim purpose, of blood rivers, agonizing screams, bondage, torture, and the evil prevalent in human failure. Drafted by the confirmed masters of the international medium of manga, Samurai Executioner is a shocking combination of darkness and fire, fine lines, and a fine man in the face of human decline.
Kubikiri Asawas first published in English as Samurai Executioner by Dark Horse from July 28, 2004 to May 31, 2006, with the digital edition released May 18, 2011 to May 9, 2012. The series was re-published in omnibus format, with four volumes, by the same publisher, from May 14, 2014 to February 11, 2015.
From the author and artist of the classic Lone Wolf & Cub is this samurai genre manga which began two years after their most renowned work, in 1972, but ended the same year in 1976. Samurai Executioner stands equally with Lone Wolf & Cub for being a powerful and heavily researched depiction of the lives of the Japanese hundreds of years ago.
From the synopsis and manga cover you'd expect this to be an all out action-fest but what Samurai Executioner is more akin to is the 'slice of life' genre, and quite literally in this case! Main protagonist Yamada Asaemon although not formally
a vassal, is the Shogun's sword tester. His profession is to execute condemned criminals by beheading. There is a ritual and tradition behind this violent punishment, just like there is a ritual and tradition for many aspects of Japanese Edo-period life.
With 21st century readers so accustomed to violence in media, some of you might not bat an eyelid at what occurs in this manga, but I believe there will be moments where you might just stop reading and truly comprehend what you're looking at on the page. Asaemon cuts heads for a living. Just seeing one beheading in real life might scar you for life, but this man does it for a living, and has to put up with criminals not exactly willing to be punished at the climactic moment.
This leads to most of the manga's powerfully poignant and emotionally devastating moments. The behaviour of the condemned, their last acts or dialogue before their deaths, Asaemon's behaviour and reactions; his method of beheading for criminals who want to make his job difficult, his methods of alleviating the horror of what they're about to endure, is just amazing stuff.
Yamada Asaemon was born into the tradition of Shogun's sword tester. His father beheaded criminals for a living and trained his son from a very young age to not be affected by shocking violence. Asaemon is such an amazing character. He embodies what hyperactive kids like to call 'badass' but at the same time he's one of the most compassionate characters I've ever read in manga or seen in anime. He's always striving to stay on the path of Bushido, refusing to take a wife and bear a child to spare them the dark reality of his life, and he'll always help out others any way he can, even though he has no obligation to.
He says it’s how you grow up, your environment, that is responsible for whether you end up doing good or bad, and feels that he is punishing the sin criminals have comitted, not the person. He hopes for a day when all people are equal and his job wont be needed. I wonder if he'd grown up as a proper vassal, would he still be so noble. So its ironic that growing up under such brutal circumstances, waking up among headless bodies and watching people get decapitated all the time that he grows up to be such a good man.
Samurai Executioner reflects on life and death, on the nature of justice and punishment. There are lengthy conversations on how to deal with crime and how to live one's life and how to die. There are observations of the bureaucracy of Edo-period Japan and the harsh consequences for both samurai and commoner alike. There are a few battles here and there, but mostly it’s about Asaemon bearing witness to the last words of the condemned.
Essential reading, and not to be overshadowed by the Lone Wolf & Cub.
A bright and sunny sky. The stinging heat. The sound of pouring water on a blade. The convicted last words. Then the slash of the sword as it cuts through the victim's neck as the executioner sends him off. Another person in his large list of beheadings: such is the life of Yamada Asaemon, a man who follows the path of the bushido, a man who deals in death. Kubikiri Asa narrates the daily life of an executioner in the Edo period of Japan, an era of violence, vengeance, greed and justice.
While Samurai Executioner does not have an overarching story, it does present a great
variety of themes, the prevalent one being justice. It could be said that said theme is the central piece of the manga, the author delving deep into the procedures of judging. Often dialogues are displayed going into detail of the crimes of the convicted as well as their respective punishments - it is in fact a logical and lengthy process.
An interesting aspect of the manga revolves around the fact that a person executes people for a living: the horror's of only taking a person's life must be a hell, yet for Asaemon it is his daily live. It is truly fascinating to see how this person deals with all the various situations, ranging from demented prisoners to the vengeance of the executed relatives. He could be described as a resourceful and very noble man, firm in the path of the bushido; a man who does not sway from his beliefs. He seeks to understand the people he takes their life from, and in doing so, he does much more than his profession obliges him to. He does not harm people willingly: he sincerely hopes one day people won't need to be judged by the sword, were no longer executions are necessary.
The story also focuses on the victims backgrounds and their respective crimes, painting to the reader their psychological state, as well as their ultimate stance on their respective execution. Other times the episodic chapters are dedicated to simply illustrate some facts and thoughts associated with beheading a person. A beheading is a ritual - not a simple murder. It cuts the crime(s) of the victim, not the person. That is at least the purpose of such action, the condemned must die realizing the gravity of their sins. Another interesting aspect to consider are the detailed descriptions on how people should live, how their respective action can influence society and their peers.
The art style is outstanding and very befitting to depict the cruelty and harsh conditions and lives of society in that period. Very detailed drawings of the various backgrounds and the characters within, portraying magnificently the actions of the people: facial expressions and such serve to enhance the seriousness of the situation. It must be mentioned that some of the character designs can be at times distornioned a bit, as well as lacking - yet this was mainly due to the clothing style of that period, which was very similar, and thus difficult to create a very distinguishable cast. The depiction of executed people is very real: it can get quite gory in some occasions, yet is never overdone.
Kubikiri Asa was a great read, from the detailed and lengthy explanations on some of the crimes as well as the various reasonings behind the punishments, to the characters and great art style. Naturally, for those in search of a story with a specific goal in mind won't find it here, yet the description of the daily life of Yamada Asaemon and his hardships are more than enough to compensate for it. I can wholeheartedly recommend Samurai Executioner to anyone with a slight interest in the historical genre.
I was absolutely blown away by Lone Wolf & Cub, so after finishing I quickly tracked down as much of Kazuo's work as possible, desperate to get more. What I learned is that Lone Wolf & Cub is an amazing comic.
Samurai Executioner is basically an attempt to make lightning strike twice. Same creator duo, similar settings, similar leads, same episodic format. The only difference is that Samurai Executioner is awful.
Before I break it down I want to disclaim one thing: The art is absolutely outstanding. It has exactly the kind of spaghetti western-influenced, Eastwood-esque heroes you expect from Goseki.
Back on point: There's not really a
story to Samurai Executioner, no over-arching narrative like in Lone Wolf & Cub. It turns out you really need that narrative, otherwise each vignette feels disposable and pointless. Yamada begins the story as a flawless model of bushido, but because he has no quest nor equal his stories quickly lose any sense of tension or drama.
I think even Kazuo realized this, as he introduced the rookie cop Kasajiro to the series about halfway through, to give the series a character who might actually grow and develop. The only problem with that is that I'm a normal human in 2016 reading about an Edo-era cop as written by a fairly conservative Japanese man in the 70s. Plucky little Kasajiro quickly loses my sympathy when he does stuff like beat his wife for sleeping on a hot day, or torture someone for a confession.
There's stuff to enjoy in Samurai Executioner, particularly in the beginning when you can still fool yourself into thinking that it's going somewhere. Unfortunately the longer you read the more lackluster, aimless and frustrating an experience it becomes.