If there’s anything I like almost as much as ‘real robot’ anime, it’s ‘real samurai’ anime and manga. What I mean by ‘real samurai’ is that the swordsmen and swordplay in the subject works are for the most part portrayed with a realistic aesthetic; the same way FLAG is real robot to Shin Mazinger Z‘s super robot, as is Sword of the Stranger is ‘real samurai’ to Rurouni Kenshin (TV)’s ‘super samurai.’ ‘Super samurai’ shows are distinguished by their extensive use of shounen tropes, particularly called out attacks that result in colorful energy explosions, among other special powers. While I don’t think any of these are bad (After all I like Sengoku Basara), I have a greater appreciation for samurai anime and manga that indulges perhaps the same things, though very differently. Here in this post I present two of my favorite samurai manga: Shigurui and Vagabond.
I’m not going to get into the stories, characters, and other elements of these books. While these are all interesting (they are very interesting) I’m going to present here a small (and subdued) sample of the drawings. In my opinion these are some of the best-illustrated panels in manga. The lines, the detail, the construction of each panel is well thought out and rendered diligently and industriously (and in Shigurui’s case, gratuitously). In Vagabond there isn’t much fetishization of specific techniques. The protagonist, a fictional version of Miyamoto Musashi is known for his Ni Ten Ichi Ryu technique which involves the wielding of two swords. The moment wherein he felt the necessity to pull the other sword (to fight a chain-and-sickle expert) is largely portrayed without adornment or added significance. This actually works very well. The swordsmanship seems more pure and spiritual (even when savage and beastly) bereft of technique/attack fetishization. As a contrast, Shigurui is a tour-de-force of arcane swordsmanship. Some techniques are well-kept secrets by their originators, legends in their own right. The execution of the swordplay is quite fantastic and unrealistic, but the portrayal is dedicated to plausibility and works very well. Back in the day I had hoped Rurouni Kenshin (TV) would’ve been done this way instead of the overall silliness I’ve seen, but I did get my wish when I saw the OVA prequel which was quite sublime. That one felt very much like Vagabond, while Battousai’s training and swordsmanship was given plenty of attention, no techniques were mentioned by name, much less portrayed. So how does all this look like in a page?
In this image take note of the extreme foreshortening used to draw Musashi’s foot and leg which is closer to the ‘eye’ of the reader relative to the man being chased. The ink blot technique to draw the blood on the head complements the inky-dark forest around the fighters.
Now check out the work put in the bridge. Look at all that hatching. Look at all the whorls on the wooden planks and posts. It’s insane.
See the sense of proportion in the anatomy, the character designs do not look outlandish or inhuman. Even the action poses are not exaggerated (instead look at Musashi’s free hand, and how it’s functional in maintaining the balance of a sword-swinging body). The treatment of light and shadow is exemplary, as is the work on wrinkles and drapery. Also note the absence of action lines to depict motion. Instead of action lines there is effective use of white space which highlights the dramatic foreshortening done on Musashi’s sword and swordarm (not easy to do, especially in this fast motion), as well as the aforementioned wrinkles and drapery and light and shadow on the various articles of clothing. To say something about consistency, The first image is from chapter 5, the image from the top of the post is from chapter 227. At present there are around 269 chapters published. The quality is rock solid.
While the wrinkles and drapery, light and shadow, and detail on the wooden floor aren’t on the same level as those in Vagabond, the detail is still quite impressive. Also what’s notable is the construction of the scene, the drama — the potent stances of the combatants brimming with violence. The single vanishing point perspective used leads to some imbalance in the depiction of the spectators — which tells me just how ambitious the panel is. See how Kogan’s sword hand is hidden in his sleeve. It’s not cutting corners (more difficult hands were illustrated in this panel), it’s a kind of touch that the construction allows you to take note of.
Very difficult foreshoretening used here. The from above view requires an excellent sense of depth and proportion. The attack is illustrated with high drama, with the billowing hair and head-scarf. Also note the non-use of action lines, instead going for the more difficult use of sword after-images. Note that the sword is slashing slightly diagonally downwards, you can tell by the angle of the wrist and the sword hilt guard. It doesn’t totally work, but again the degree of difficulty is stupendous.
Here is another image with foreshortening, this time from a ‘worm’s eye view.’ The thing to note here is not only Gennosuke’s foreshortened figure, but also the coils and limbs of the dragon as well. Lots of good hatch work on the shadows though it would take context for the reader to get that the background is lightning against the rainclouds. This is not a literal dragon in the narrative, only a manifestation of the dragon-like spirit of the swordsman. Part of the thrill in watching swordplay or reading samurai manga is the payoff of the actual cutting down of opponents. In both manga there are copious amounts of blood and the violence cuts deep. In Shigurui‘s case, cuts through bone and spills guts everywhere. I find it ridiculous watching shows like He-Man who wielded a huge sword never cut anyone down with it. I felt I was being made stupid as a child. Good thing there are manga like these that remind you that when you swing a sword with power and technique, very bad things happen to your enemies.
Shigurui on Wikipedia (beware spoilers) [->]
Vagabond on Wikipedia (beware spoilers) [->]
What the heck are real robots and super robots, and how the frick can I tell the difference? (Vendredi 2009/04/20)
Fans of Shigurui will notice that I withheld sharing the truly distinctive elements of the manga (stylistically, and visually)
The mangaka of Vagabond is Inoue Takehiko, who also did the wonderful Slam Dunk.
I may not be the most reliable evaluator of drawing technique, as I don’t even draw anymore. But I used to do so a lot, from childhood to high school and have studied a number of Burne Hogarth books on drawing [->]