Purgatory Kabuki Vol. #01 (Mania.com)
Review Date: Monday, March 31, 2008
Release Date: Sunday, December 30, 2007
Translated by:Daniel Sullivan and Asako Otomo
Adapted by:Ailen Lujo
What They Say
Purgatory Kabuki is a samurai action story set in the underworld or afterlife. For reasons unknown, former samurai - Imanoturugi is obsessed with leaving the afterlife. To die in battle is a samurai's greatest honor. Yet, now Imanoturugi must claim 1000 swords from the fallen warriors who now share residence in the dark underworld. By these and these means alone, this highly skilled blades master will be allowed admittance back into the living world. But to what end? Upon what stone purpose does he sharpen his edge? The story borrows heavily from various Japanese legends and myths. A skillfully mixed bag of action, suspense, classic ukiyoe style art and intrigue...
Purgatory Kabuki is a clear-cut case of taking style over substance and going too far with it.
DrMaster has given Purgatory Kabuki a nice glossy, full-color cover replete with French flaps. Excluding the title block and a small box on the back cover for the barcode, Suzuki's character artwork is spread like a mural across the entire front-and-back cover, with not even a story synopsis section in sight. (This design choice is actually fairly telling, considering Purgatory Kabuki's emphasis on artwork over its paper-thin plot.)
As discussed below, the black-and-white printing inside is less impressive: lines are sharp, but the shading is overly dark and indistinct. Extras include six pages of character artwork and a page of cultural notes.
One of the things that initially drew me to Purgatory Kabuki was the promise of distinctive, woodblock print-style artwork throughout the series. Taken as individual drawings, each frame does in fact look reasonably attractive. The art isn't always as sharp or detailed as I normally like; but Suzuki's style certainly is distinctive, and I honestly just like the concept of pairing a story drawn from classic Japanese legends with a classic Japanese art style.
Unfortunately, I've had to apply a dual grade to the artwork because, as a storytelling mechanism, Suzuki's execution of this idea is an outright failure. He shows no sense of composition or discipline, and when combined with the excessive number of fight scenes the whole thing just comes out as a mess. Fight sequences here break down into nondescript wispy blurs slicing at other nondescript wispy blurs -- and for a volume that's comprised of at least 90% action scenes, that's definitely not a good thing. I would often have to re-read pages three or four times just to decipher who was attacking who, and even then there were numerous sequences where I had to throw up my hands and admit defeat.
These problems are compounded by the excessively dark and muddy shading, which lowers the book into the territory of nondescript wispy grayish blurs slicing at each other. Part of this may be a genuine (if, in my opinion, misguided) artistic intent, but I think DrMaster's printing process had a hand in the problem too: even some of the ads at the back of the manga are printed so darkly that I couldn't make out the release dates. The four pages of color artwork are an improvement in terms of clarity. However, the actual coloring here is limited, since most of these "color" panels are just tinted with a single color.
Purgatory Kabuki's dialog is fairly sparse, but what's there reads OK. I didn't find any grammatical or typographical errors while reading, and the text is mercifully legible throughout.
Sound effects are printed in English alongside their Japanese equivalents, using typefaces that mimic the original Japanese lettering. There's a one-page cultural notes section that discusses the legend behind the storyline; while I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, this section's too short for readers like me who have limited exposure to Japanese mythology and is woefully inadequate to explain what's going on in Purgatory Kabuki.
Contents: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Imanotsurugi, a self-described warrior without rival in the underworld of Japanese folklore, boasts of having collected over a hundred swords from his downed rivals. In a fit of arrogance, he ends up biting off a little more than he can chew when he takes on the demon-spawn Enishi, losing his arm and his life in the process. Seeing Imanotsurugi's potential, Enishi cuts him a deal: in exchange for giving him a new body and another chance at life, he is tasked with collecting 1000 swords for her so that she can break her way out of the underworld and into heaven. With the 110 swords collected in his past life apparently counting as part of the deal, this leaves him with a measly 890 swords to collect in order to reclaim his own life.
Unsurprisingly, Imanotsurugi accepts, and the story kicks back into gear with Imanotsurugi heading out to Rashomon to collect more swords. He's able to collect one more sword right off the bat, placing him only 889 swords away from his ultimate goal. Unfortunately, getting those remaining 889 swords seems to be more problematic, since he spends much of the rest of the volume battling the demons that guard Rashomon; to add insult to injury, he doesn't even seem to get any more swords out of the deal.
Or at least, that's what I think happened. More on that below.
After I managed to trudge my way through Volume 1 of Purgatory Kabuki the first time, I immediately flipped back to the first page and started re-reading -- and not because I was excited to revisit it so soon. Frankly, I was completely at a loss to explain what I just read; there were a lot of people swinging swords at each other, but I had only the slightest inkling about who those people were and why they wanted so badly to kill each other. Had I missed something? Was there some key scene or explanatory chapter that I had carelessly skipped over the first time through?
Reading through a second and third time only confirmed my suspicions: Purgatory Kabuki has virtually no story to speak of. I don't mean this as a backhanded way of claiming that its story is derivative, or under-developed, or just uninteresting; I mean that there is literally almost no plot at play here, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. If I had to approximate the experience, I'd say it's akin to someone taking a role-playing game set in the time of classical Japanese mythology, cutting out all of the storytelling segments, and just stringing together all of the boss fights into one incoherent mess. Suzuki even includes in-panel announcements of the arrival of new "boss" enemies and Imanotsurugi's newly-acquired powers, as if we were watching a video-game character in the process of leveling up.
Now this could be my own ignorance of Japanese mythology at fault here: if Imanotsurugi's story were common knowledge in Suzuki's native country -- or at least among his manga's audience -- then the complete lack of exposition would be a little more understandable. (Comments from anyone who is well-versed in Japanese mythology would be greatly appreciated.) Either way, my issues with the artwork still stand: plot or no plot, the fight sequences that make up more-or-less the entire manga are messily-composed and nearly impossible to follow.
The most generous thing that I can say about Purgatory Kabuki so far is that it's an intriguing idea, but that there's a frustrating gulf between concept and execution. While I'm all for manga artists trying something new, the storytelling in this release is just too sloppy to work as anything more than a disjointed collection of pretty pictures.
Mania Grade: D
Art Rating: B/F
Packaging Rating: B
Text/Translatin Rating: B
Age Rating: 15 & Up
Released By: DrMaster
Size: 5 3/4" x 8 1/4"
Orientation: Right to Left
Series: Purgatory Kabuki