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Rashomon: A Commissioner Heigo Kobayashi Case Hardcover – October 31, 2017
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First story: A samurai has been murdered in 1700s Japan. Detective Kobayashi investigates but is frustrated to find different and contradicting versions from the witnesses of what happened. The wife and bandit who raped her have one story while the dead man is raised by a medium and has an entirely different story.
Second story: A nobleman has died - forced to commit suicide (seppuku). His loyal retainers resent the means of his disgrace and flout the Shogun's orders by seeking revenge. Kobayashi is surprised to find that the wife from the first story is now the deceased noble's wife in this second story.
Fans of Japanese cinema will immediately recognize the two plots above: Akira Kurosawa's seminal movie Rashomon and the tale of the 47 Ronin. These two stories were merged with the atmosphere of film and novel noir, particularly the work of Dashiel Hammet and the movie Yojimbo. What this means is that we have an historical Japanese base but with very American aspects such as a femme fatale, light through the blinds aesthetics, characters with strong moral codes, and an obsession with weapons (guns in America and Swords in Japan). At times, it does feel more Western than Japanese despite a very well researched depiction of Shogunate Japan. Of note, as with the movie Rashoman, although the setting is from novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story "Rashomon", the plot itself is from one of his other short stories, "In The Grove."
There are other homages as well - I especially appreciated the subtle references to other bakufu (police) of the era: the specific blue and reversed triangles of the Shinsengumi. Santos has even woven in a bit of the shinobi ninja and (dare I guess) a nameless ronin likely to be Miyamato Mushashi to round out the cast.
Stylistically, the cover is very representative of what will be found within. Inspirations from Eisner (the Shadow), Frank Miller (who was heavily influenced by Eisner), and Mike Mignola become very obvious. From very heavy 'Japanese ink' type of drawings that were then later colored in for the American audience in bold color blocks (very Sin City - red lips, red blood, and a very sparse set of colors so as not to distract from the story). But the square jawed, blocky art style should be familiar for those who especially read Mignola or Miller.
If the above makes it sound like Rashoman is derivative, don't worry. What Santos brings is a seamless merging of two cultures in a way that pays respect to both. If anything, I feel he learned most from Japanese dark classics such as The Bad Sleep Well - that the ending doesn't have to have a happy ever after and, in true Kurusawa form, it's about exploring the various realities and how people even deceive themselves - rather than finding a singular 'truth.' Our detective does find some truth and, like the source movie Rashomon, there is a bit of restoration in the faith of humanity at the end. But it fortunately isn't cut and dried, which is respectable in a medium that too often has to compromise for its audience (as Santos had to do with being required to color the comic for American/Western audiences rather than leaving it monochromatic).
The story is not dialogue heavy but there is a lot to take in; certainly, this rewards those who like to reread their graphic novels later. The source material - Rashoman and 48 Ronin - aren't really needed to understand or enjoy this book but they do give an appreciation of what Santos has done here. Certainly, I appreciate a European who has been able to craft an engaging story from both Japanese and American cultures - and make it look like he was born to both. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.
I won't score the book down for stretching the noir claim because it's still a really great story with gorgeous art. I'll be cracking this open a lot over time. Highly suggest to any samurai or crime fan.