Monday, September 24, 2007

Samurai Commando: Not the latest Schwarzenegger movie

Ah, lame jokes. They never get old.

Samurai Commando: Mission 1549, volume 1
Written by Harutoshi Fukui
Art by Ark Performance (Kenji Mitsuyoshi, Koichi Ishikawa)



I had been pretty interested in this book due to the ridiculous-sounding concept: a squadron of Japanese soldiers get transported to the titular date and change history, so a second squad must follow them and try to set things right. It's so silly, promising a goofy combination of modern warfare and samurai action, that I couldn't help but be intrigued. Plus, I always enjoy time travel stories, even if they usually fall apart under heavy scrutiny. This one is no different (Oda Nobunaga, a major Japanese historical figure, gets killed on the first page, which doesn't seem like a fixable problem), and it kind of sags in spots, but it's still pretty fun, at least for the first volume (of two).

After a prologue in which we see the time-displaced Colonel Takeshi Matoba murder Nobunaga and take over his rule, the focus shifts to 2010, six years after the fateful experiment that caused the temporal chaos (the manga presumably came out in 2004). A man named Yusuke Kashima, who used to serve under Matoba, gets recruited to join an expedition back to the past and try to stop Matoba in his schemes to destroy the future. But they are unprepared for what they find when they get there: Matoba has transformed the ancient landscape into a sort of steampunk-samurai countryside, armoring the local soldiers and giving them weapons that allow them to tear through the modern soldiers like rag dolls. How can he be stopped? Find out in volume 2!

So while the plot is pretty simple and straightforward (at least, as much as a time travel story can be), it's executed pretty well, with interesting characters and dynamic art. It reads kind of strangely to my American eyes, however; the Japanese soldiers, being part of the "Self Defense Force", hesitate to use lethal force against their samurai opponents, and are subsequently wiped out. This seems strange, coming from a country that takes such pride in its ability to conquer those who are lesser-equipped. While it seems like a smart idea, in an "A Sound of Thunder" sort of way, to not kill denizens of the past, a character monologues to himself, "We're members of the self-defense forces...no matter what the situation, we're forbidden to do anything but defend ourselves." It definitely emphasizes the Japanese origin of the story.

But other than the cultural oddity, it's an interesting story, full of well-drawn characters. Kashima wants to find out what has happened to his former mentor, and Matoba seems to be taking some sort of revenge on the modern world; he also seems to have a tinge of madness, which might be influencing his actions. Then there's Shichibe Iinuma, a samurai who was transported to the future (it's never explained how) and goes back with the second team. He's one of those honor-bound samurai that are always enjoyable to hang out with. Finally, Lady Kicho, Nobunaga's wife, has been hanging around the background of the story, probably planning something. After reading about her on Wikipedia, she seems like another historical element that Americans might miss out on; Japanese readers familiar with history would probably immediately recognize her as a devious schemer

Ark Performance, the studio composed of Kenji Mitsuyoshi and Koichi Ishikawa, deliver some gratifyingly dynamic art that comes none too soon after the slow middle of the volume. Their depiction of the cool technology, both in the future:



And in the past:



Adds a lot to the atmosphere of the book. The action and violence are quite striking, with plenty of arterial spray as the samurai are decimating the soldiers:



Kudos should also be given to the localization team, who used a hand-lettered font for many of the sound effects that I thought was much more effective than a lot of the sound-effect translation methods I've seen:



The book is a pretty quick read, and it's a bit slimmer than most manga volumes. But it's still a good time, similar to an action movie (in fact, a movie version was also made, adapted from the same novel as the manga). And at only two volumes, it's much smaller of an investment than many manga series. It's definitely worth a look if it sounds like something you might enjoy.