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Nov 05

Samurai Executioner (again)

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 557 views

I did a small item on this series when it started. I’m not sure how much it’s my state of mind and how much it’s the creative team of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima finding their range, but volume 6 struck me as much the best yet, and one of the stories seems to me a genuine miniature masterpiece.

Japanese comic stories tend towards the long – an episode on a series might be as short as 20 pages, but very short serious stories are rare. ‘To Be A Sunflower’ here is preceded by a story of 105 pages, but itself runs to just 15. It has three scenes, and the first, of a man being let through the closed city gates at night, had my jaw dropping, and it never falters from there on, through the man’s crimes and his final encounter with the executioner around whom the series is centred. There is no name, personal history, friends or family, reason for his crimes, narrative of their sequence or how they started, nor how he is caught, tried and sentenced.

There’s not much of anything in it, but the control and judgement in what there is is magnificent. It’s a piece about tone, atmosphere, mood, expression, composition, line, light – the switch from the first two night scenes to the blazing sun in the final scene is breathtaking, and the first two-shot of our protagonist and his executioner is drawing as good as you’ll see in comics – as is the bleached-out penultimate panel, of the sword swinging.

Oddly, there aren’t so many genuinely great short-short stories in comics – the Feldstein/Krigstein ‘Master Race’ is justly celebrated, but this reminds me most in control and mood of my favourite war story, by Bob Kanigher and Alex Toth, called ‘White Devil, Yellow Devil’ (which you can find reprinted cheaply in Sgt Rock Special 8). You would imagine that the form, and the way comic publishing works, would be extremely well suited to this kind of miniature – but perhaps the craft and control demanded to make it work so well is in short supply, and all six of the creators mentioned here are very much the exception rather than the rule. Anyway, I now have a top three such pieces rather than a top two.

(Final note: unlike their subsequent series Lone Wolf & Cub (same creators, same era, same samurai subject matter), there is very little sequence to the Samurai Executioner stories, and not having read 1-5 will not mar your enjoyment of this volume at all.)

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