Basilisk Vol. 2 (Del Rey)

A truce shattered, two rival ninja clans bludgeon each other in his brutal samurai fantasy series. Del Rey; 234 pgs B&W; $13.95

(W/A: Masaki Segawa)

Sometimes when we read comics, we want to be challenged, yearning to read deep, meaningful tales that deconstruct the very nature of human existence. Other times, we just want to watch people with fantastical powers beat the tar out of each other. Masaki Segawa's blood-soaked epic Basilisk is a perfect example of the latter.

A hyperviolent tale of ninjas locked in deadly mortal combat, Basilisk is an adaptation of The Kouga Ninja Scrolls, a novel by famed Japanese author Fūtaro Yamada (which, as luck will have it, Del Rey will also be releasing in English this December). Set during the early 17th century, the story begins with Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu announcing that the next successor to the Japanese throne will be decided in a battle to the death between two rival ninja clans, the Iga and the Kouga. The names of ten members of each clan are inscribed on a scroll, and each new casualty's name is crossed off in dark red paint as the contest reaches one step closer on its bloody march to a conclusion. As Vol. 2 opens, the members of the Iga clan have managed to keep the existence of the scroll a secret and have so far killed four Kouga ninja while losing only one of their own in the process. The challenge tears apart a long-standing truce between the two clans, a truce that was set to become permanent with the marriage of Oboro and Gennosuke, a pair whose love for each other is at odds with their allegiance toward their own clan.

Political machinations and a star-crossed romance are bandied about in Basilisk, but they're just window dressing for the series' main draw: blood-soaked martial arts battles, and lots of ‘em. This book, the second in a five-volume series, whittles the rosters down from 6-on-9 to 5-on-7, and if that seems like a spoiler, it's not: the title of each chapter (cheekily called "Kills") announces what the new stakes are. With the ending given away, the outcomes become secondary to the battles themselves, the plot merely serving as the most rickety of bridges between each new brutal match-up.

And what match-ups they are. Each of the series' 20 ninja possesses his or her own unique and ferocious attack, something American readers might more readily refer to as "superpowers." The battles crackle with energy thanks to Segawa's art, which is nothing short of phenomenal. Many manga artists use screentones to add depth and shading to their work, but few do so with the rich attention to detail that Segawa packs into each page. Though super-detailed styles often result in stiff, lifeless artwork, that is not the case here: Segawa's characters appear realistic, practically three-dimensional, yet they crackle with kinetic energy as they blur across the page during the many, many fights. Segawa never shies away from the violence, either, as decapitated heads fly and blood spurts from sword wounds.

As a part of Del Rey's new "18+" mature readers line, Basilisk gets the deluxe treatment. The page dimensions are about 25% larger than other books in Del Rey's manga line (about the size of some of Dark Horse's manga titles, such as 3×3 Eyes or Cannon God Exxaxxion), which helps showcase Segawa's art even better. But make no mistake, this is most definitely an 18-and-up comic: even though there is no sexual conduct, there is ample female nudity, and the fights are quite gory. The book comes shrink-wrapped, so squeamish readers should know what they're in for with this title.

There is a long tradition of this sort of hyper-violent martial arts brawl in anime and manga, such as the post-apocalyptic Fist of the North Star or Ninja Scroll, the flag-bearer for stories of this type. Basilisk contains more than a few surface similarities to Ninja Scroll; the Kouga ninja were featured prominently in that movie as well, and they featured in their deadly ranks a ninja woman named Kagerou, who appears here as well. The "special techniques" of several combatants are similar as well. One thing in particular that sets Basilisk and Ninja Scroll apart, however, is that the former lacks the sense of purpose and urgency of the latter. In Ninja Scroll, the conflict is set up as a man and woman up against impossible odds, creating a distinctive hero to cheer on to victory. Basilisk's emphasis on the clan-on-clan aspect lessens its appeal somewhat, its attention too scattershot to give readers a single focal point to draw them onward.

Though the plot doesn't serve to keep readers moving, the non-stop action still makes Basilisk a book that's impossible to put down for the right reader. Basilisk is not for everyone, but any fan of knock down, drag out martial arts brutality will find much to love here.

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