With the world going to hell in a handbasket, a good, gritty Western always takes the edge off. As such, I was delighted to find Darkhorse Comics’ manga line included a Western to which I could drink my sarsaparilla: Hiroaki Samura’s Emerald and Other Stories. Emerald itself, as the cover suggests, is that rare manga gem — the Western. It’s not a space western, either; it’s a Deadwood-style Western. This title is remarkable from the get-go.
The book is made of fourteen shorts and three bonus illustrations that focus around women, all serialized in various Japanese comic anthologies between 2004 and 2009; the English volume was published early in 2013. Samura’s most famous series is Blade of the Immortal, and his works over time have won the Japan Media Arts Award, an Eisner in America, and three British Eagle Awards. In Emerald, it’s easy to see why.
The plot follows two groups and shows how they intersect: the foxy Roaslie as she hires a most-wanted outlaw to do some killing (and who has several surprises of his own), and fourteen-year-old Sara, as she fights for her life in a rigged game put on by local crooks. There are several twists involved, and the tension is at times thick and a moment later nimbly walking a tightrope. For this main story alone the book is worth a read, but the other fourteen shorts and three bonus illustrations will capture your imagination as well.
The layout of the story is solid: not a cell wasted or a single action too soon. The artwork manages to be soft despite being sketchy, and the faces are highly detailed and the costumes vivid. Not only are they dynamic outfits that improve the characters, but their flourish and sweep are palpable on your skin as you read.
Darkhorse doesn’t publish a lot of manga, but when they do, they do a great job on them. The paper and printing of the book is fantastic, the lettering is perfect, and there’s not a typo to be had. Darkhorse also specializes in hard-hitting titles for an adult audience. (Even Oh! My Goddess! is intense in its own way.) This book is no different; each story is dark and controversial, and who doesn’t like reading that?
Most of the shorts deal with the devotion found in an unconventional love and some sort of sexual taboo; they feature pairs of women as they revolve around a male figure, who in most cases is stunted in his emotional purveyance. In most cases, the female pair is a sexually-novice young woman and a well-traveled mature woman, presented as foils. The mature woman acts as instigator and also watches events unfold, while the young woman is slowly drawn into the new situation as actor. The man’s immaturity is deeply and darkly psychological, in a way that brings a great literary value to each story.
Sometimes this comes across as muse and artist (Youth). But, more often the characters’ story arcs dance like celestial bodies: as a star and planet would revolve, the furiously burning one stuck in place while the dependent one lives routinely and quietly (Kusein Family); as binary stars, one which cannibalizes the other (Shizuru Cinema); or even as Pluto travels with Charon, a lonely ellipsis walked together for eternity (Brigette’s Diner). The stories cross genres, from sci-fi to Victorian to humor, so the central theme that runs through the collection doesn’t get stale.
You might be wondering how there are so many stories in a 200-page book. Seven of the stories are short comedies of a dozen pages, called The Uniforms Stay On. They’re often political in nature, fourth-wall breaking, and discuss esoteric issues that are, unfortunately, a bit outdated. To me at least, it’s a slight mystery as to why they’ve been included in the collection, and so prominently (they are a good chunk of the back half). I found myself skipping over them, though academics and ex-pats might find a lot to soak up or otherwise enjoy in them. On the other hand, the author’s autobiographical story, the only non-fiction in the collection, about a certain late-night, college-drinking game of Majonng, hit just right as a funny tale with a moody ending.
So, if you’re looking for great art, an award-winning author, and a hard-hitting Western, Emerald and its other stories are for you. The whole collection is something to savor — stories that could have come right out real-life stories, but with deliciously taboo twists to sex, gender, and social roles. It’ll leave you with a lot to think about, and wanting even more.