Satsuma Gishiden Vol. #01 -

Anime/Manga Reviews

Mania Grade: B-

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  • Art Rating: B+
  • Packaging Rating: A-
  • Text/Translatin Rating: B
  • Age Rating: 18 & Up
  • Released By: Dark Horse
  • MSRP: 14.95
  • Pages: 264
  • ISBN: 1-59307-517-0
  • Size: B6
  • Orientation: Right to Left

Satsuma Gishiden Vol. #01

By Matthew Alexander     November 02, 2006
Release Date: September 01, 2006

Satsuma Gishiden Vol.#01
© Dark Horse

Creative Talent
Writer/Artist:Hiroshi Hirata
Translated by:Naomi Kokubo with assistance by Jeff Carlson
Adapted by:

What They Say
Controversial, tough, angry, highly skilled, and lost in a time of peace, the characters of Satsuma Gishiden tell a quasi-historical tale of social caste and brutal reprisal.

Readers with a taste for Kazuo Koike's gritty Lone Wolf and Cub will go nuts for master gekiga artist Hiroshi Hirata's tome of samurai struggle. Hirata's art and calligraphy leap off the page during scenes of action, only to unfold upon a full bleed that looks like a fine plate print. It's art at its most expressive, accentuating the classic stoic samurai characters you've come to know, only with a little more true society thrown in to help the reader understand what it was really like to be a warrior without a war.

Presented in the authentic right-to-left format to preserve the art, Satsuma Gishiden promises some of the best samurai manga ever.

The Review
Dark Horse uses red, black and white colors for both the front and back cover layouts. The colors are bold and visually appealing. The front cover has the only color artwork with a picture depicting a fully armored samurai charging with sword drawn. Interestingly, the author's original calligraphy for the books title and his name remain on the front cover and many instances throughout the story where the original text remains with corresponding translated dialogue boxes. The print quality is good and the ink is strong throughout the book. Extras include a glossary of Japanese terms.

The publisher compares Hirata's art style to that of Lone Wolf and Cub artist Goseki Kojima, another title produced by Dark Horse. The comparison is certainly a fair one. Hirata's art style is closer to Kojima's than any other I have personally experienced. The art in Satsuma Gishiden is not better or worse than Kojima's, just different. Like Kojima, Hirata implements a heavy cross-hatching method for the shading, which gives a stark black and white contrast to each panel. Unlike Kojima, Hirata does implement SD in a few panels which I feel takes away from the overall seriousness of this title and works about as well as it would have in Kojima's titles (which isn't very well).

Hirata's artwork is definitely powerful and highly detailed, even down to the stitching on clothing. Instead of using a couple of panels to display action, the artist often uses a single panel, which does an excellent job of capturing the raw energy of the moment. Backgrounds are detailed and characters are well proportioned with the exception of the SD moments. I did have a real problem with the character designs because the main characters fail to stand out from the 'minions', so in a few cases I found myself relying on clothing to help clarify who is who.

This story contains a lot of SFX, which is presented unmodified with smaller English translations positioned alongside and nicely mimicking the original text. The translation is fairly well done but there were instances where it just didn't read well or felt kind of jerky. There were no noticeable grammatical errors and the honorifics remain intact. The biggest difference about this title and just about every American manga release I'm familiar with, is the choice to leave much of the original Japanese calligraphy in place. Dark Horse left the more 'artistic' calligraphy in its dialogue box and then added an extra translated box. Personally I'm not a fan of this decision because it makes the panels too cluttered and the extra box with the English translation covers up artwork. Also the choice to leave original text appears to be preference based and overall distracting.

Contents: (Watch out, spoilers upcoming)
Shiba Sakon is a low-level samurai in the province controlled by the Satsuma Clan. Like all low-level samurai (Goshi) under Satsuma control, Shiba finds himself in a horrible class structure, which surprisingly does not favor his samurai position. Goshi are samurai but they only hold a place of rank during war. Between battles the Goshi are forced to do various types of craftwork which normal farm peasants are not allowed. Goshi can do anything from construction to metal work or woodcraft such as making umbrellas or wooden sandals. The Goshi are forced to work these crafts in order to feed their families since their low samurai status does not draw enough of a stipend from the daimyo to allow for a life spent in martial training like the middle and upper class samurai.

One day Shiba and his clansmen find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. An upper class samurai feels he has been slighted by one of Shiba's companions, and as the caste system allows, the offender is cut down in cold blood. Shiba and his clansmen decide to enact their revenge on all the men of higher samurai standing living in their area. Acting more like ninja assassins, Shiba and his companions kill their oppressive samurai brethren one at a time.

As they knew would happen, Shiba and his men are discovered and all but Shiba are killed. Shiba is tortured and then sentenced to fight his way through dozens of armed samurai in a military game that does not afford very good odds. But by using his wits, Shiba tricks another samurai into single combat, which delivers Shiba's freedom when he wins. Shamed by his defeat, Shiba's opponent commits seppuku. Not surprisingly, the son of the shamed samurai rages at the offense and wants his revenge, but things are not as cut and dry as they may seem. The son of the shamed samurai actually hated his father and in the background of this story is the larger conflict between the Satsuma Clan and the Shogunate. This conflict appears to be the larger theme that will drive the Satsuma Gisheden series. So in the end what will happen to Shiba and ultimately the Satsuma Clan as they are forced to make the hard decision between obeying the Shogun and accepting humiliation, or standing up for their honor and facing a sure death against the Shogun and all the power he commands.

Fans of historically themed and samurai manga will appreciate Satsuma Gishiden. This book highlights how harsh the feudal caste system and the drive for revenge in the name of one's family could have been. The artwork is powerful as it displays a plethora of bloody and grotesquely dispatched warriors. However, don't expect a finely expressed tale like those seen by Kazuo Koike. Hirata seems to have a difficult time getting volume one of Satsuma Gishiden up to speed. It is almost as if the author was unsure of where to begin the story. The book's timeline is chaotic and the multiple flashbacks are harsh and jarring to the point of creating confusion. The confusion is somewhat increased because of the aforementioned similarities in the character designs.

Satsuma Gishiden tells the story of a low-level samurai avoiding death by killing another samurai of a higher class, and the implications for revenge is interesting. Secondly, the overall conflict between the Satsuma Clan and the Shogunate and the power wielded by the ruling class promises to be incredibly bloody. So hopefully Hirata will hit the ground running with volume two of this series and avoid the confusing flashbacks that plagued volume one.


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