Satsuma Gishiden volume 1
Dark Horse Comics
by Hiroshi Hirata
BW, 264 pgs $14.95 US / Higher in Canada
Satsuma Gishiden volume 1 opens with an action sequence that grows in both intensity and violence as it progresses, a fight between a convicted criminal and samurai of the Shimazu clan, the criminal as good as naked on a horse and the samurai in full combat attire, armed to the teeth and lusting for blood in this traditional contest. This bloody action introduces the overarching topic of Satsuma Gishiden, which isn’t bold samurai in bloody battles. No, the topic is what do warriors do when there is no war.
Manga-ka Hiroshi Hirata puts the brakes on in a big way after that first visceral tale. What follows is a historical introduction to different societal classes of samurai, the sanpin and the goshi, the latter low-born samurai who scratched out a living as farmers and laborers between military engagements. I will admit it is dull reading in comparison to that slam bam opening, with a very textbook presentation of the material, but once you get past the initial shock the information engages with its historical accuracy and relevancy. It is a side of samurai you rarely see in popular culture, and though it is not nearly as sexy as the warrior side of samurai life, it does make samurai feel a lot more “real” and a lot less archetypal.
This historical presentation is also very relevant to the story of Satsuma Gishiden. It lays the foundation for the tale that will unfold throughout the following volumes. That story is that of the Shimazu clan from the Satsuma han, which is known in history as a powerful southern province that twice rebelled against the shogunate. Interestingly and all the more compelling because of it, the conflict between the shogunate and the Shimazu stems from a public works project, specifically the clan being asked to help with flood prevention in the region at great financial expense to the clan and great physical duress to its members who will perform the labor. Here then in this first volume we see how Japan is changing, when battles are not necessarily fought on open fields between large armies. This too then provides readers with more historical and political context, once again showing the multiple layers within Hirata’s opus.
The manga-ka does manage to balance his historical narrative with dramatic, gruesome action, bawdy humor and an assorted cast of diverse characters from various levels of the caste system. As such, Satsuma Gishiden volume 1 is a well-rounded introduction to this tale, but also Hiroshi Hirata, who is considered one of the great creators of historically themed samurai manga, right alongside Goseki Kojima and Sanpei Shirato. (Chad Boudreau)