Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru 001-003 – Manga Review
Synopsis: A new series written by Masashi Kishimoto, the creator of Naruto! With art by Akira Okubo! A futuristic tale of samurai adventure! (Official Shonen Jump Synopsis.)
Warning: Spoilers to Follow:
Kishimoto is back with his first major work post Naruto. This time he’s got former assistant Akira Okubo to do the stunning artwork that retains a style one would expect from a Kishimoto title. Indeed Samurai 8 looks a like lot Naruto, save for the addition of sci-fi elements to give the series its own, unique, visual flare. Akira’s artwork really shines in this title, crafting a unique combination between the samurai aesthetic, the cyberpunk elements, and Kishimoto-like design sense. But for as much as the art impresses, Kishimoto’s writing unfortunately shows signs of a one track mind, or one hit wonder. There’s much at the core of this title that feels ripped straight from Naruto, yet removes the underdog elements that made that series so gripping early on.
Samurai 8 tells the Tale of one Hachimaru (The title kind of gives that away.) After a semi-fake out opening, introducing us to the series grander story via an online video game Hachimaru is playing, we meet the real Hachimaru, a down-trodden kid who’s stuck in a handicap body that doesn’t match his drive and ambition to one day become a Samurai. Not only is Hachimaru held back by his physical shortcomings, but he’s surrounded by dilapidation. His father is an old man, and his Pet Holder (their term for A.I. androids?) is so bugged and broken that it meows like a cat rather than barks like its dog appearance would have you expect. Hachimaru doesn’t suffer so much as an outcast like Naruto, but feels far and away from ever achieving his dreams of becoming a powerful Samurai.
The trouble with this opening is less that it has borrowed elements/structure from Naruto (Which become more apparent as we venture further in) but more so from how stilted and on the nose the dialogue is. For a 75 page opener Hachimaru truncates a lot of Hachimaru’s inner turmoil down into a few stilted exchanges between him and his pops. Hachimaru quickly belts out how unsatisfied he is with his life, and his intense desire to be a Samurai. It’s so on the nose it’s almost painful, leaving little for the reader to glean from the artwork, or more subtle writing. Perhaps it’s because Kishimoto isn’t drawing it himself, and hasn’t fully put his trust into Okubo’s ability to convey more subtle elements, but whatever the reason it makes Hachimaru clunky from the get go.
Or perhaps it comes from a desire to get the ball rolling, and fast. No sooner are we introduced to Hachimaru then are we catapulted to another scene, meeting our starter villain, a rogue Samurai. This rogue takes for himself as he sees fit. It’s through these scenes, as Hachimaru’s pops goes to this rogue for components to improve Hachimaru’s life support equipment, that we get a boat load of world building and concepts dumped upon us. The same can be said for Hachimaru’s plot, as his Pet Holder brings him a Cyborg Cat named Damura, which holds the soul of an ancient and famous Samurai, an initiate of the Kongo-Yasha Style.
From there the two plots collide, as the evil Bushi realizes the wealth the old man is likely hiding back home, and comes to find that Hachimaru holds the soul of an unbelievably powerful Samurai trapped inside him. Much like Naruto things take a tragic and emotional turn where characters are forced to admit their true feelings. In this case as Hachimaru is forced to commit seppuku in order to save his threatened father, and admit that his father means more to him than life itself. It’s similar to the bond Naruto and his teacher Iruka share in Naruto’s first chapter, although the roles are switched about.
But it’s here that Hachimaru rejects the underdog elements that made Naruto so gripping. Naruto became a success not so much because Ninjas are cool (although that’s certainly a chunk of the appeal) but more so because Naruto himself was a compelling vessel for audiences to see themselves in. Readers could identify with Naruto, struggling to achieve good grades, approval from peers, and allow Naruto’s social outcast nature and intense struggle upwards to act as an immediately relatable element. Most Shonen are power fantasies, but Naruto balanced that by making its lead feel like he was working his way up from the very bottom, crawling every step of the way on the path to success. Here however Hachimaru sacrifices himself for his father, and is immediately gifted with what he always wanted: To become a Samurai. Hachimaru’s body is reformed from the crippled pipsqueak he started this very chapter as and into a fierce, youthful warrior. Hachimaru isn’t so much the story of an underdog, but sheds that half of the formula in favor of going full power fantasy.
This immediate gratification keeps Samurai 8 from being anywhere near as compelling as Kishimoto’s previous success. Indeed Chapters 2 and 3 are hardly that memorable as follow ups. They’re spent expanding the world, introducing a few additional elements, but more so a rival/friend/love interest(?) named Nanashi. Nanashi is a tricky character, and perhaps the only thing worth discussing from Chapters 2 and 3. Nanashi suffers from something akin to gender-dysphoria, unsure whether they’re a boy or girl. But Kishimoto doesn’t seem to have the prowess to write such a character, coming across as a hamfisted attempted at positive LGBTQ portrayal. It’s up to the reader as to whether he succeeds or not, as there’s too many ways to read Nanashi’s character journey. Hachimaru himself bests sums up the botched nature of this element in the image below. I think it’s ultimately meant well, but doesn’t manage to provide the nuance in order to truly shine as this character could, especially seeing as the narrative subtly pushes a regressive train of thought (You’re whichever gender your body is.)
Ultimately though, Samurai 8 hits all the right beats. It may be an out and out power fantasy, but keeps a solid pace, and never feels like a chore to read. There’s clear hints at a longer narrative to keep the manga going should it gather reader support, and the art makes it a delight to look at. That said, there’s too much retreading of the Naruto formula to make it feel like something new. Indeed even Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Hachimaru befriending someone who understands his own personal struggle (Much as Naruto did in the second chapter of his own manga.) Even then the series fails to add anything new while also ejecting the other elements that made Naruto so captivating. There’s time to change things up, but right now Samurai 8 starts in a far weaker position than Kishimoto’s original claim to fame.
That’s it for today. Please let me know your thoughts on Samurai 8 in the comments below!
Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru is published as part of Shonen Jump.