May 30, 2008
Beatnik (All reviews)
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.