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Kamui, the main character...kind of.
Kamui-den was the very first entry in Shirato Sampei's long-running series of manga set in 17th century Japan. Though ostensibly the story of the low-born ninja Kamui, it presents its setting in broad terms,depicting characters of various social backgrounds and the challenges they face. The first series also included a heady dose of Marxist ideology which was present to a lesser extent (or simply not included) in later iterations. This leads to some confusion about the relation of the first series with later ones, such as the better known spin-off/sequel Kamui Gaiden
. First appearing in the underground magazine Garo in 1964, Kamui-den is also a good example of the Gekiga
style of manga devised by Tatsumi Yoshihiro in the late 50s. Oh, and the original series has never been translated into English.
Anyone coming to the series for the first time will want to distinguish between the various iterations of the Kamui property and their chronological relation to each other:
- The Original Kamui Den, hereafter referred to as "the first series" was serialized in Garo from 1964 to 1971.
- From the original Kamui Den came the more youth-friendly spinoff, Kamui Gaiden, which ran in Shonen Sunday from 1965 to 1967 and was thus concurrent with the main series. It set aside the huge cast and increasingly Byzantine plotlines of the original series to focus on the adventures of the protagonist, Kamui. This series was also the basis for the 1969 animated TV series.
- A second series of Kamui Gaiden was serialized from 1982 to 1987 in Big Comics. This is also the version of Kamui best known to western audiences who had a chance to read it in English through Viz Media's translation, "The Legend of Kamui." The move to the Big Comics periodical also marked a shift to more adult-oriented content.
- Finally, the second series of Kamui Den ran from 1988 to 2000 in Big Comics. It picks up more or less where the original series had left off back in 1971.
Kamui Den contains examples of:
- Acceptable Breaks from Reality: While the original series generally eshcews supernatural elements, some of the ninja techniques require suspension of disbelief. This is partly justified in that historical ninja encouraged the belief that they possessed mystical or even magical powers.
- Action Girl: These are common enough with all the female ninja appearing in the various series. Naginata master Atena, in the first series, and Tomboy Princess Nishiki Sayaka in the second are notable recurring examples.
- Ambiguously Gay: Nowhere more ambiguously than with Ryunoshin and his young charge Miyagi Onya. Initially, the latter approaches Ryunoshin requesting that he become his "nenja" (a kind of mentor figure, but like the erastes of ancient Greece, with strong gay overtones). Ryunoshin says he has no interest in "shudo" (male pederasty), but recognizing the young man's purity of heart, accepts his request to form a special bond (chigiri) together. Of course, Shirato had to go and muddy the waters further by saying in a recap, that the two characters shared a bond of "shudo," which all but explictly labels them as gay lovers. Certain characters within the manga also seem to think their relationship swings this way. As they are never shown engaging in anything beyond mildly affectionate behaviour, it would seem they are in a platonic gay relationship...maybe.
- Anachronism Stew: Largely averted, though for such a rigorously researched historical piece, it's surprisingly not above having Akame wield a revolver in 17th century Japan.
- Animal Motifs: Used to great effect. Both the first and the second series begin with extended sequences depicting animal behaviour in the wild (wolves and monkeys, respectively). The workings of animal communities are shown to mirror human society. Also, the title character Kamui shares his name with a white wolf who is an outcast from his pack.
- The phrase "ippiki okami" is as emblematic in Japanese culture as "lone wolf" is in English. This motif would factor even more prominently in another well know gekiga title years later.
- Anyone Can Die: The majority of named characters introduced in the first series don't live to see the end of it. Seriously, we're talking about a body count on par with A Song of Ice and Fire or Blood Meridian.
- Art Evolution: Due in part to its length (6000 pages, give or take), the first series changes considerably over time. The early issues have a cartoony, almost Tezuka-esque look, while the later ones look more like the realistic art style of later entries in the series (some of which were reportedly drawn by one of Shirato's uncredited assistants).
- As Lethal as It Needs to Be: Many characters use a technique called "mine-uchi" (striking an oponent with the blunt side of the blade) to knock out their foes: Nishiki Tanba does it to Ryunoshin; Ryunoshin in turn uses it on a whole mob of wayward samurai. Conversely, Atena's failure to perform a non-lethal mine-uchi on an unruly peasant gets her killed by an angry mob.
- Author Appeal: Reading the series today, one has to wonder whether Shirato enjoyed drawing women's breasts or simply felt the need to improve his ability through endless repetition. Either way, they are ubiquitous in the first two series.
- Shirato also has an obvious interest in fishing villages. Important plot points revolve around these communities in Series 1 and 2, and in both cases exhaustive accounts of pilchard fishing are given. Kamui Gaiden also has an entire story arc, the same "Sugaru no Shima" story featured in the film, set in a fishing village.
- Bad Ass: Take your pick.
- Bad Ass Boast: After experiencing a personal tragedy, Matsubayashi Kenpu tells Minazuki that they "have a rendevous with the god of death."
- Bilingual Bonus: An odd example. While Kamui-den is entirely in Japanese, it has a way of assuming readers have a grasp of both period Japanese and the Tohoku dialect. Even native speakers of Japanese sometimes struggle with this, especially in the case of younger readers.
- Blade on a Stick: Atena is a naginata master.
- Black and Gray Morality: Frequent in the series. Even the idealistic Ryunoshin winds up killing a subordinate who gets in the way of his plans to reform the domain. He's subsequently forced to kill the guy's whole family when they come looking for revenge.
- Bowdlerisation: The fate of the 2009 movie version of Kamui Gaiden, which was based on Shirato's own reboot of a spin-off of the original Kamui Den. To begin with, the 80s reboot largely dispensed with the original's themes of class struggle and institutional discrimination. This made the franchise more accesible, but robbed it of much of its depth. So, the story had already been watered down when filmakers decided to Bowdlerise it for the screen. In summary: a sanitized adaptation of a reboot of a spinoff of a subversive classic. Needless to say, not much of that subversiveness made it into the film.
- Combat Pragmatist: The ninja. All of them.
- Continuity Lockout: Another consequence of the series' massive length. Even reading through the entire thing attentively, it's possible to miss or forget important details.
- Continuity Nod: A nice one in the second series, in which Ryunoshin is shown tending to the graves of his father, mentor Sasa Ikkaku, and Atena. Doubles as the character's reveal.
- Contract on the Hitman: This trope is central to Kamui's character arc throughout the various series. Once he has left the Iga Clan, he is declared "nukenin" (a fugitive ninja) and stalked by would-be assassins for the rest of his days.
- Crazy-Prepared: One of the hallmarks of the ninja. they seem to have a tool or technique to meet every contigency.
- Darker and Edgier: One of the characterstics of the developing Gekiga movement was more adult subject matter. Kamui was one of the first widely-read manga to feature graphic depictions of sex and violence.
- Death Seeker: Matsubayashi Kenpu and Minazuki Ukon engage in a hopeless fight against Hioki samurai late in the first series. As each has endured a Despair Event Horizon by this point, it's not surprising.
- Decoy Protagonist: Kamui himself. He's well represented in the first 3000 or so pages of the original series, but pretty much disappears toward the end. Even in the early books it's obvious that the peasant leader Shosuke and the outcast samurai, Ryunoshin are going to be characters on par with the titular lead.
- Despair Event Horizon: Inverted to an extent with Omine, whose death galvanizes both Shosuke and Ryunoshin to action. Played very straight with Atena, after Sasa Ikkaku's death and Minazuki Ukon after Atena's death.
- Determinator: This trope is endemic to the series. Special mention goes to Akame who retains his composure and stays in disguise after one of his hands has been cut off.
- Disproportionate Revenge: Minazuki Ukon, on discovering the body of Atena, who has been brutally hacked to death by peasants, picks up her naginata and proceeds to slaughter scores of them.
- Door Stopper: Thankfully, it hasn't happened yet, but any attempt to publish a series as a single tome would result in a book that was many thousand pages long.
- Driven to Suicide: Mine, after being raped by the Hioki Clan's lord, throws herself into the moat to drown.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: Ukon Minazuki engages in a hopeless battle with Hioki samurai, slashing his way through throngs of guards to challenge the leader before being literally blown to pieces by a volley of musket fire.
- And then there's the rebellious peasant leader Gon, who cuts his own torture session short by gulping down molten iron. He has time to smile at his horrified captors before collapsing.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Inverted with Nishiki Tanba. The introduction of his daughter in the second series humanizes him considerably.
- Evil vs. Evil: Any time the Hioki and Iga clans are in conflict.
- Expy: Many characters in Kamui-den strongly resemble ones from Shirato's earlier Ninja Bugeicho. To wit: Akame is a lot like Kagemaru, both in appearance and in his mentor-like relationship with Jutaro, who in turn resembles Kamui. Most strikingly of all, the kunoichi, Saesa is virtually indentical in appearance and character to Hotarubi.
- Eyepatch of Power: Worn by various characters throughout the series. Ryunoshin also wears an eyepatch as part of a disguise during his stint as a guerilla leader. Also, the female ninja Saesa always has one of her eyes covered by a shock of hair.
- Fan Disservice: In one scene in the second series, a Yagyu swordsman demonstrates proper cutting technique one the naked corpse of a shapely young woman. Cue Gorn.
- Friend to All Living Things: At various times, Kamui is shown befriending wolves, dogs, and falcons.
- Gorn: Often appears in the wake of peasant uprisings due to the brutal measures taken to suppress them. Expect rows of hanged women, torsos hanging from trees, etc.
- The second series also has one particularly stomach-churning scene in which a master swordsman demonstrates proper cutting techniques on recently dead corpses. It is anatomically...thorough.
- Handicapped Badass: Minazuki Ukon, who loses his foot in the early issues, but remains a formidable fighter. Likewise, Ryunoshin loses the pinky and ring finger from his left hand—critical for wielding a Japanese sword—in a duel. He works tirelessly to develop a fighting style that compensates for this handicap.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Sasa Ikkaku, pretty definitively.
- Hotter and Sexier: The series begun in the 80s were more sexually explicit than their 60s and 70s predecessors.
- Iaijutsu Practitioner: Matsubayashi Kenpu. Kamui himself also counts: his signature "kasumi-giri" technique involves some unorthodox sword drawing.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Anytime shuriken are involved.
- Instant Awesome, Just Add Ninja: Very much so, though in the second series, you have to wait for hundreds of pages before a ninja even makes an appearance.
- Katanas Are Just Better: Averted. While there's plenty of fancy swordwork in the series, characters with access to firearms make good use of them.
- Karmic Death: The despised feudal lord who raped Omine and hacked up her body out of spite is ambushed by Sasa Ikkaku while his retainers are carrying his litter across a stream. Long story short: he takes a katana up the rectum.
- Kill 'em All: The title page of the penultimate issue gleefully displays the heads of three major sympathetic characters post-exceution...and it doesn't end there.
- Killed Off for Real: Major characters are killed off with dizzying frequency throughout the first series. Subverted with Kamui himself: he often appears to die only to show up a few issues later with little or no explanation as to what happened.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: What with the series' mortality rate, the author had to keep introducing new characters just to keep it populated.
- Made of Iron: Burly peasant, Kokemaru.
- Meaningful Name: Kamui shares his name with a god of the Ainu people (one of Japan's indigenous races).
- Ms. Fanservice: Noone in particular, though female characters have a way of winding up topless.
- The 80s reboot of Kamui Gaiden has Sugaru. Her clothes are torn during her establishing sequence in the first issue and she winds up spending most of the book with her breasts exposed. This doesn't make it into the film version.
- My Master, Right or Wrong: True of countless samurai who are serving an oppresive regime in Hioki (though they are not necessarily bad people).
- Naginatas Are Feminine: Action Girl Atena is a master of naginatajutsu.
- Non-Action Guy: Shosuke, while a key figure in the peasant uprisings, doesn't do any actual fighting.
- Off with His Head!: Constant.
- Paper-Thin Disguise: In the second series, Ryunoshin's face-shading hat prevents other characters from identifying him long after the reader has.
- Pet the Dog: Nishiki Tanba has one in the second series. Once his son has kidnapped a young woman (Miyagi Onya's older sister) and sold her into sex slavery, Nishiki sets things right by intimidating the brothel owners into freeing her.
- Plot Armor: Nope.
- Rape as Drama: Constant, and nowhere more so than in the case of poor poor Omine.
- Seppuku Happens from time to time, most memorably with Miyagi's teacher, Sugiyama Sensei in the second series. Also, notably averted with Ryunoshin's father, who opts to go down fighting, instead becoming a case of Off with His Head!.
- Shown Their Work: Surely one of the crowning examples in modern media. The detail in which Shirato describes everything from mountain fauna to 17th century taxation can be overwhelming. And there are long sections of expository text that resemble textbook entries.
- Signature Move: Kamui's most iconic technique is the "kasumi-giri," in which he draws a short sword from a hidden position in the back of his obi and cuts his oponent horizontally. A close second is the "izunatoshi" used during tree top battles with other ninja.
- Single-Stroke Battle: Any fight involving Kamui's "kasumi-giri" is likely this. Also of note is Matsubayashi Kenpu's fight with a marauding duelist. He severs both of the man's legs with a single draw and cut.
- Smug Snake: The Hioki Clan overseer, Tachibana Gundayu takes a little too much satistfaction in his own machinations, which often involve using the peasant ninja operative Yokome to create unrest among the various castes of peasants in a series of divide and conquer schemes.
- Spiritual Successor: The first series can be seen as a spiritual successor to Shirato's earlier series Ninja Bugeicho. In particular, the character design in the early issues of Kamui-den strongly recalls the stylized designs of its predecessor. This would fade over time, due to Art Evolution.
- Stuffed into the Fridge: Omine again, though to Sanpei's credit, he has the main characters remember her several thousand pages after she's been killed off in the early volumes.
- Technical Pacifist: The mature Ryunoshin we meet in the second series will sometimes subdue his foes with "mine-uchi" or "atemi." He's not above using lethal force when necessary, however.
- Throwing Your Sword Always Works: Well, it often works anyway.
- Time Skip: In the real world, there was a seventeen year gap between the end of the first series and the beginning of the second one (1971-88). In the story chronolgy a similar amount of time seems to have passed, with the youthful central characters of the original Kamui-den being well into adulthood by the time we meet them again.
- Tomboy Princess: Noblewoman Nishiki Sayaka, complete with strong lesbian overtones.
- Truth in Television: As mentioned elsewhere, Kamui-den's depiction of the lower levels of peasant society is based on an actual historical phenomenon: the Edo Shoganate's policy of segregating the lowest caste of peasants (called "hinin" in the comic). Don't use this word in casual conversation with Japanese people. It's an extremely sensitive topic.
- Well-Intentioned Extremist: Kokemaru does not hesitate to use violence in the service of what he sees as a just cause.
- What the Hell, Hero?: A particularly painful one occurs toward the end of the first series: Shosuke, Gen, and the other peasant leaders have surrendered themselves to the local authorities and are being conveyed to a stronghold to be tortured. Along the way, Matsubayashi Kenpu and Minazuki Ukon attack the caravan and engage in a desperate battle with the troops escorting the prisoners. Against all odds, Matsubayashi manages to slash his way through scores of guards and free the captives from their cages. He urges them to run for their lives only to have them remain stoically on the spot, with Shosuke exclaiming "even if th revolt is over, our fight begins here." Clearly they have decided to martyr themselves. Too bad noone told Matsubayashi who winds up dying in vain. And he is NOT pleased about it.
- Where The Hell Is Springfield?: It's never explicitly stated where in Japan the Hioki domain is located, but the commoners use a lot of expressions from the Tohoku dialect. The flora and fauna might provide some clues as well.
- Working Class Hero: Given the author's background as a proletarian activist, it's no surprise to find salt of the earth types like Shosuke, Gon, and Kokemaru being given a very sympathetic treatment.
- Wouldn't Hurt a Child: This trope is not so much subverted as hanged, drawn and quartered. In the wake of the peasant uprisings, small children are executed alongside their families.