As I am getting older, I will often take a moment to reflect on the rise of technology and media during my life thus far. I can distinctly remember a time when cell phones were a luxury, when there were only two big companies from which to buy video games, and when the internet was a sluggish behemoth limited to technophiles. Lately, I find myself waxing nostalgic on the days when manga didn’t take up a massive section in the local bookstore and anime was relegated to late night broadcasts on the Sci-Fi Channel.
It’s strange to think of how common Japanese animation and comics have become in our modern society when compared to the past. My friends and I used to save all of our allowance to buy import VHS tapes that we would trade back and forth amongst each other. Now we all have Crunchy Roll subscriptions and watch multiple series from start-to-finish at a low monthly rate (or free with commercials). Instead of the catalog ordered toys and clothing we used to covet at the back of magazines, modern otaku can buy piles of official merchandise from their local Target. I was an adolescent who used to scour dusty comic book shops for the rare chance to find an actual manga to buy. Now I am an adult who feels overwhelmed with the wealth of options at Barnes and Noble (and annoyed with stepping over those damn kids sprawled out in the aisle). In spite of all these modern conveniences, I will occasionally find a solid throwback at a used book store and the halcyon days of Ninja Scroll and Dragon Ball will come rushing back to me.
Originally serialized in 1994 as “Samurai Spirits: Scrolls of the Demonic Arts” in the Japanese publication Weekly Shonen Sunday, Samurai Shodown was brought to American consumers by Viz Media. The now massive media company released individual chapters starting in May 1996 through their short-lived gaming magazine, Game On! USA. The entire comic was later collected and published with a previously unreleased final chapter as a standalone graphic novel in August 1997.
Written by Kyoichi Nanatsuki and illustrated by Yuki Miyoshi, Samurai Shodown serves as a sort of prequel to the second entry in the fighting game series. Only a handful of the major fighters show up through the story, along with several original characters that mainly serve as motivators for the quest at hand. In this comic, fan favorites Haohmaru, Nakoruru, and Hanzo find their individual goals become intertwined as they work together to stop an evil sorcerer from releasing hordes of demons bent on invading the planet. On their journey, the trio encounters a variety of thugs and monsters, which provides plenty of battle scenes chock full of attacks from the fighting game. Despite catching up to the sorcerer and defeating many of his minions, the heroes are unsuccessful at preventing the resurrection of the dark wizard Amakusa (another familiar face from the games), who attacks the team and makes his escape in the confusion. The story concludes with a vision delivered to Nakoruru, who senses a future that is basically Samurai Shodown 2, ending with the melodramatic line, “TO BE CONTINUED ON YOUR NEO-GEO!” In spite of this ham-fisted ending, the entire story is the stuff of classic battle manga; plenty of dark rituals and swords clashing, ninja attacks and dramatic speeches which suit the source material quite well.
The art is conveyed in the classic black-and-white manga style, but reads from left-to-right as opposed to the traditional Japanese format that is maintained in most modern publications. Most of the characters are unchanged from their original designs, which feature reasonable full-body proportions and plenty of stylized armor and costumes. Minimal line work is used for facial expressions, relying heavily on shading and brow-furrowing to convey emotions. The battle scenes are where the manga really shines; full-page splashes of signature attacks and dynamic effects to create a sense of movement on the page. Overall, the artwork stands the test of time thanks to the care and detail that seems to have been lavished throughout the book.
As I take the time to glimpse back through my own history, I am not hit with the usual “good ole’ days” syndrome like so many of my peers. Honestly, this is an amazing time for fans of Japanese animation and comics. There is a huge variety of genres and series to choose from, most of which is readily available to eager consumers. I am glad that one of my favorite hobbies has seen such a boom, and I feel lucky to be tech-savvy enough to reap the benefits. So instead of wishing for days gone by, allow me to show my age by saying these damn kids don’t know how good they’ve got it.