The last couple weeks getting back into Lawrence I have, as always, been doing a lot of reading. As anyone who knows me also knows, I consume comics to an almost frightening degree in the eyes of others and occasionally myself. So for me, putting away 31 volumes of the legendary “Blade of the Immortal” manga series was that cathartic release that 2017 needed. At the same time, it was in a sense…overtly cathartic, and it led me to think a lot about how violence works in our minds.
Some brief plot recap: Manji, a former samurai-turned-criminal, is punished for killing 100 innocent people by being cursed with worms that render him effectively immortal from Tibet (just go with it). After extensive suffering, including a few tragic deaths, Manji makes a deal with the witch who cursed him. If he kills 1000 evil people, she’ll take the worms out. The witch laughs him off and instead introduces him to Rin, a young girl on a revenge quest, and orders him to protect her. Thinking this is a quick ticket to getting his curse lifted, Manji agrees. Things get complicated.
While the initial volumes are gory fun (and only get more and more gory the further you get in, until sometimes you get to an ocean of blood) “Blade of the Immortal”, around the midway point of the series begins to start asking some questions with disturbing implications about the nature of murder and immortality. Having been captured by the Shogun government, Manji is experimented on in an attempt to make other immortals like him, in a process that involves cutting off his limbs, putting them on other people and back again, in an attempt to transfer the bloodworms. It fails almost every single time, and unless you see pictures,you cannot imagine what this sort of surgical procedure would be like;our people a day getting a limb chopped off, a new one forcibly put on and then removed after a certain period of time. People’s minds go numb from the physical and mental pain. After a certain point, Manji stops screaming. Nobody cares. It’s all for science.
Reading these sections, you think about the fact that it is in fact incredibly unusual, the times we live in. Our murder rates keep falling. More people live to die of old age. More people have access to clean water, can read and are not hungry. There has not been a nuclear bomb used on people since Nagasaki. This is, despite the news you might hear about ISIS, Syria and South Sudan among other places, the most peaceful, prosperous time in the history of the world. It is hard to imagine, but it is true.
I think, this is because we are so eager for violence in so many forms. We have forgotten what it means, what it actually entails and the toil it takes on our psyches. This is dangerous, because excellent violence can make us long for it in the real world when we have entertainment with violence to prevent experiencing violence in the real world. This is ultimately what makes “Blade of the Immortal” find its voice: it provides violence that looks awesome but makes us remember its severity in an almost ancient way, like the best works of Cormac McCarthy or the Bible. When Manji cuts off his limbs to escape shackles, it is treated as an annoyance, a dose of severe pain rather than anything resembling coolness.
The story soon gets more and more direct about this theme, about the true agony of violence. As they journey together, Rin finds herself questioning her revenge more and more, and the people she wants revenge on, despicable as some of them are (and you will hate them. My god will you hate some of them.), become shaded with nuance and a real explanation of Japanese society, from the members who were exiled from society because of race, class, gender, or geography. Unlike most villains, they have a legitimate political ideology, and while none of them can truly be said to be good, none of them are unrepentant or unceasing monsters.
Which is what of course makes their deeds so awful. These are killers, after all, and “Blade of the Immortal” reminds us of this, whether they are cut down with swords, destroyed by traps, or in the case of perhaps the most evil character in the series, devoured by wild dogs. None of this is meant for anything resembling traditional fun. It is more like a sense of awe at the cruelty we can do to one another as human beings. You remember just how awful it is to be hurt and to hurt people. We must hope that in the coming years we do not venture down that path again.