Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru 007-014 – 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:

Review:

Samurai 8 moves in a big, new direction with this set of chapters, taking the story from the backwaters of this universe and throwing Hachimaru into a far grander and wide-reaching tale than what we began with. Let’s jump in.

Chapters 7-10 focus on world building, character exploration, and exposition used to take Hachimaru from his backwater home and introduce him to the series’ grander elements. We get explanations for the Locker Ball system, princesses, see some bonding between him and his princess, Ann, along with a few teases for our approaching big bad. This information is great, and helps to solidify the concept of Samurai 8’s universe, giving us a better understanding of the world Hachimaru lives in. Samurai 8’s world is still a little under defined, but what’s offered in these chapters is a damn sight stronger than anything before.

That said, it doesn’t manage to improve on one of the series’ growing issues: Hachimaru himself. Hachimaru is kind of a nothing character. He’s like budget Naruto. Naruto could often be goofy and defiant, much like Hachimaru, but what kept him likable, and relatable for a teen audience, was how stacked the world was against him. Naruto had a tragic backstory, riddled with hardship, that made him easy to root for even if sometimes he was a snot. Here Hachimaru doesn’t have a tragic history to draw from (At least up through Chapter 10) making his awkwardly timed comedy more frustrating than endearing. I’m thinking specifically when our big bad shows up in Chapter 11. While everyone else is realizing the danger they’re in, Hachimaru has some of the most eye-rolling, get with the program, internal quips that paint him as an out and out idiot. It’s tough to love an out and out idiot as our lead, unless the series is a comedy. Hachimaru also isn’t nearly as underdog-ey as Naruto was. He’s already kicked ass multiple times and it’s only as we continue to move goalposts that the series asks that we view him as a fledgling hero in a universe stacked against him. It’s like the manga is trying to have its cake and eat it too. He’s both powerful and yet not. I think this stems from Kishimoto’s difficulty in trying to keep Hachimaru from simply aping Naruto, even if the ship has sailed on that point.

Another issue is the sexist princess and samurai system. While the concept of protecting loved ones is a noble message, we’ve relegated the women of this story to a totally passive, non-combatant role. Naruto wasn’t exactly the best shonen to point to in terms of female empowerment, but it had female fighters, who sometimes kicked ass. I’m sure Kishimoto won’t leave this a total sausage fest, but this princess/samurai dynamic makes it so female fighters are likely to be an extreme rarity, rather than a regular occurrence.

Chapters 11-14 pick up thanks to the introduction of our big bad: Ata the Peerless. Not only does he boast a cool design, but he wrecks a number of characters built to establish just how incredible and dangerous Ata is. We get several great fight scenes, Hachimaru and the other characters struggle against Ata, narrowly pulling out a win, and even instill some hardship and loss to Hachimaru’s otherwise bland story.

The biggest boon here is the introduction of the overarching narrative, shedding light on Hachimaru’s true history. Hachimaru, as it turns out, is one of eight keys needed to unlock a box that contains great power. Except the box only requires seven keys. Hachimaru is the eighth key, an unneeded one, sucking power from the other seven, so they can’t open the box, and hindering Ata’s villainous plans. This puts Hachimaru is a new light, although it does nothing to improve his persona. With the death of Hachimaru’s surrogate father, the series plays out Hachimaru’s origin story tragedy in real time, unlike Naruto, who lost his loved ones before he was old enough to remember them.

Ultimately Samurai 8 has improved, but is it enough? It’s clear Kishimoto is trying to expand his story-telling, but at times it feels like the differences between Samurai 8 and Naruto are merely superficial. At other times Samurai 8 feels outright inferior to Naruto, struggling to form a compelling narrative without falling back on Kishimoto’s original work for inspiration. Samurai 8’s in an odd place, and the love for it seems to be wavering as Jump’s Japan rankings come in and we find Samurai 8 barely holding on at the middle of the magazine. I’m not sure what can be done, but Kishimoto needs to find a way to drown out the comparison criticisms and show that Samurai 8 stands on its own, with only a passing resemblance to his previous work. I think the success of the series will largely depend on how this recent tragedy affects Hachimaru. If it can transform him, and get him out from underneath Naruto’s shadow, then Samurai 8 could have a long life ahead of it.

 

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.

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