Whenever I see Ryoichi Ikegami’s name attached to a project, I know two things: first, that the manga will be beautifully illustrated, and second, that the plot will be completely nuts.
Samurai Crusader, a globe-trotting, name-dropping adventure from the early 1990s, provides an instructive example. The story revolves around a young martial artist who teams up with struggling novelist Ernest Hemingway — yes, that Ernest Hemingway — to prevent an unscrupulous Japanese general from invading Shanghai with Nazi assistance. And if the thought of Hemingway as a butt-kicking action hero isn’t crazy enough, Ikeda and writer Hiroi Oji populate the story with such colorful bit players as a sadistic female military general, a bare-breasted priestess, an axe-wielding Aryan warrior, a demon whisperer, and a ninja with razor-sharp teeth. Ikeda and Oji don’t skimp on the cameos, either; Pablo Picasso, Joseph Goebbels, and Hermann Goering all have brief but memorable walk-on roles, as do Hitler and Emperor Akihito.
This motley assortment of characters are all chasing Kusanagi, a Japanese sword so expertly crafted that it can sever a canon in two. But Kusanagi isn’t just an elegant weapon; it’s a mystical object, capable of bestowing great power on its owner. The Nazis and the Japanese military alike believe that Kusanagi is the key to world domination, and double-cross each other in hopes of stealing it from the Oritsuin clan, a noble Japanese family. Kumomaru, the youngest member of the Oritsuins, is determined to stop both parties from abusing Kusanagi’s power, racing from Paris to Shanghai in a valiant effort to foil Japanese imperial ambitions in China. Along the way Kumomaru befriends Hemingway, beds a sexy French cat burglar, and falls in with a gang of Chinese warriors who disguise themselves as cooks. (As a sign of just how badass these cook-warriors are, each high-ranking solider in the organization has a dragon tattoo… on his tongue.)
As awesomely silly as the plot may be, the real attraction of Samurai Crusader is the art. The period settings provide Ikegami a swell excuse to draw zeppelins and biplanes, Nazi uniforms and samurai formal wear, French ballrooms and Chinese dives. No detail goes overlooked; even the most inconsequential characters’ clothing is meticulously rendered, and the street lamps in every city are drawn with such care as to distinguish a Parisian boulevard from a Shanghai corner.
The character designs, too, are arresting in their specificity; Ikegami’s great strength as an artist is his ability to convey character through odd facial features and posture, whether he’s drawing a crooked industrialist or a street urchin. Though his lead characters are impossibly attractive, Ikegami’s best creation, by far, is Juzo, a stealthy martial artist with the most distinctive set of choppers since James Bond crossed paths with Jaws. Juzo’s shark-like teeth, wild hair, and demonic squint make him an excellent foil for the handsome Kumomaru; Juzo moves with the lethal precision of a cobra, twisting his body into extraordinary positions to better deploy his arsenal of knives, wires, words, and pistols. Oh, and those teeth? They make swell weapons, too.
The only downside to Samurai Crusader is the dialogue. Though the story unfurls at a furious pace, the story grinds to a halt whenever Kumomaru crosses paths with his arch-nemesis, the deluded General Kamishima. Their all-caps exchanges feel more like policy discussions than real arguments, despite Ikegami’s best efforts to stage the scenes as dramatically as possible. Sweat drops bead, veins pulse and pop, but Ikegami can’t disguise the fact that these speeches are kind of a drag. (Sample: “Independence for all of Asia should be the way of Japan! We need national self-determination!”) What redeems these windy passages are the shoot-outs, tank fights, and sword play that proceed and follow them; aside from John Woo and Andrew Lau, few people can make bloodletting look as elegant as Ikegami does.
Perhaps the best way to summarize Samurai Crusader‘s appeal is to say that it has all the virtues of Crying Freeman and Wounded Man — crazy action scenes, sexy leads, mustache-twirling villains — without the copious nudity and sexual violence that can give even the most committed manga fan pause. Readers interested in tracking down copies should note that all three volumes of Samurai Crusader are out of print, though reasonably priced copies are readily available on Amazon and eBay. Highly recommended.
SAMURAI CRUSADER: THE KUMOMARU CHRONICLES, VOLS. 1-3 • STORY BY HIROI OJI, ART BY RYOICHI IKEGAMI • VIZ COMMUNICATIONS, INC. • NO RATING
Michelle Smith saysJuly 9, 2011 at 7:56 pm
You had me at Hemingway! But really, this sounds like an awful lot of fun. Great review!
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 9, 2011 at 9:30 pm
Thanks, Michelle! It is a lot of fun. It’s kind of like a cross between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Midnight in Paris (minus Gertrude Stein).
Derek Bown saysJuly 9, 2011 at 8:40 pm
Actually…you had me at Hemmingway too. How many volumes is this? Wikipedia says two, but Amazon says three.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 9, 2011 at 9:29 pm
The Japanese edition is two volumes; the English is three. The volumes are (in order): Samurai Crusader, Samurai Crusader: Way of the Dragon, and Samurai Crusader: Sunrise Over Shanghai. Amazon still has all three volumes in stock, so you can ignore those folks on eBay who seem to think they’re going to get $50 for a single volume.
Derek Bown saysJuly 10, 2011 at 12:40 am
I always ignore the people who think they’re getting that much. Wonder if anyone ever actually buys those?
But yeah, I’m seeing some pretty cheap copies on amazon, so methinks this is definitely happening…after my next paycheck that is. XD
Mason saysJuly 10, 2011 at 4:03 am
You make this sound like an awesome series (Hemingway!), so I went ahead and added the first volume to my next Amazon order.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 10, 2011 at 9:41 am
Thanks, Mason! I’ll be curious to hear what you think after you’ve read volume one.
Jason Green saysJuly 10, 2011 at 4:38 pm
Oh, man, Samurai Crusader was great stuff. I was reading it in Manga Vizion as it came out, and really looked forward to that little dose of a samurai fighting Nazis every month. As much as I love Ikegami’s more R-rated stuff (not Wounded Man, but Crying Freeman and Sanctuary), I think I have to give the tamer Samurai Crusader and the (even better!) Mai the Psychic Girl the edge overall.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm
I agree — I think Samurai Crusader is a tighter package than many of Ikegami’s R-rated manga, not least because the action doesn’t stop every ten pages for an over-the-top sex scene. Not that I’m a prude, but stories like Wounded Man and Offered sometimes read more like porn with a veneer of action-adventure than the other way around.
Jason Green saysJuly 11, 2011 at 7:44 am
Have you read “Mai the Psychic Girl”? Not only is it historically important (VIZ’s first manga!) but it really is Ikegami’s finest work. That, and it’s written by Kazuya Kudo, who wrote the also-awesome “Pineapple Army” that was illustrated by Naoki Urusawa waaaay before “Monster, “20th Century Boys,” etc.
Incidentally, Kudo and Ikegami also did a manga on the life of Oda Nobunaga that I’d *love* to see translated…I have one volume in Japanese and it is just gorgeous stuff.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 11, 2011 at 7:52 am
I have both Mai and Pineapple Army in floppy form! I actually featured Pineapple Army in a column last year: http://mangacritic.com/2010/06/30/manga-artifacts-pineapple-army/.
lovelyduckie saysJuly 11, 2011 at 12:53 pm
You weren’t kidding on the price, all 3 volumes cost me $15 after shipping was applied.
lovelyduckie saysJuly 11, 2011 at 12:53 pm
I take that back… $13.22 :)
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 12, 2011 at 10:05 pm
I’m glad to hear you were able to score cheap copies! I’ll be very interested to hear what you thought of Samurai Crusader when you finish it.
Aaron saysJuly 12, 2011 at 6:29 pm
the funny thing is the day before this was psoted I had just read the entry for Saurai Crusader in Manga: The Complete Guide and I thought “sounds intresting” life’s funny is’nt it and off subject but can I throw a vote out for Keiko Nishi’s Love Song as another title that could use some attention.
Katherine Dacey saysJuly 12, 2011 at 10:04 pm
I promise I’ll get around to Love Song — it’s a personal favorite of mine, too!
Justin saysJuly 29, 2011 at 10:57 pm
“The story revolves around a young martial artist who teams up with struggling novelist Ernest Hemingway —”
O.o WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE?!?
lol I don’t know if this manga is any good, but I feel compelled to read just to see what happens! *takes out his debit card* oh wait…I don’t know how much I have on it…dang. Uh, maybe I’ll find it at a convention? ^^