Almost all Chinese media and websites tell that Blade of the Immortal, the infamous manga by Samura Hiroaki, takes place from 1792 to 1793 in the feudal Japan. The author has never made it that clear, but the Japanese fans have studied the manga closely and come to the same conclusion, when this work was still being serialized in monthly Afternoon Comics in early 2000s.
Contrary to this common belief, I am intrigued that the Western fans have a different answer. Dark Horse Comics, the English publisher of the Blade of the Immortal, has educated their readers that the story took place from 1782 to 1783 since the very first volume, and repeated it in each and every book until the end.
The confusion is further intensified by the publication of Bakumatsu Arc, the derivative work of the original manga, Blade of the Immortal (let’s call it “Ittoryu Arc”). Written by a different author, Kenji Takigawa, Bakumatsu Arc takes place around 80 years after Ittoryu Arc, i.e. AD 1864, which kind of CONFIRMS the setting provided by Dark Horse Comics.
1792-theorists are from the East, 1782-theorists are from the West
For my fellow Western readers, it is understandable to appeal to authority and uphold this story setting. Kodansha, the original Japanese publisher of the manga, and even Samura Hiroaki himself, should have approved this information for the sake of the English readers. There are loads of jargon from an alien country in a distant period. They should need a clear background to enjoy the story.
You can hardly find any sources in English, Italian, and even Portuguese stating that the story actually takes place in 1792. The writer of Wikipedia’s entries even speculate the age of Manji based on the 1782-theory.
Neither can you find any sources in Japanese and Chinese stating the story actually takes place in 1782, (at least before the Bakumatsu Arc comes to be). Why did it happen? What are the clues of two different theories? Is it an inconsistency by careless mistake, or an intentional retcon?
Frankly speaking, it will not get rid of your appreciation of the artwork, theme, character developments, etc. if the timeline moves 10 years forward or backward. This is a study mainly on close reading, the reception of readers, responsibility of editors, and the role of author. You may learn a little more about the Edo Bakufu in which Manji cheated the Hell out of his death. You will take one step further to be a geek of Samura’s work. If you do not find these amusing, please stop here.
Four arguments for the 1782-theory
Summarizing from the Western sources and my study, there are four main arguments for the story takes place between 1782 and 1783:
- The explanation for English translation: There is a piece of “about the translation” in every volume of Blade of the Immortal by Dark Horse Comics — at least in the electronic edition. In the section of “the Swastika”, the editor explains, “it is important that readers understand that the swastika has ancient and honorable origins, and it is those that apply to this story, which takes place in the 18th century (ca. 1782–83). There is no anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi meaning behind the use of the symbol in this story. Those meanings did not exist until after 1910.”
- Bakumatsu Arc: This new work is written by Kenji Takigawa, illustrated by Ryu Suenobu, and collaborated by Samura Hiroaki. In the second page of this arc, it says “80 years after the battle with Ittoryu. It’s time of the Bakumatsu, at the height of turmoil.” Manji leaves the US in 1850 for Japan, and is back in Tosa in 1864. He says it took him 80 years to be proficient in the use of Garasu, the weapon of Sabato Kuroi. Since it is on the eve of Ikedaya Incident (July 1864), it should be around 1784 (1864 minus 80) when Sabato Kuroi fell prey to Manji’s trap, which is in line with the above explanation.
- Yamada Asaemon Yoshiro’s year of death: He is the only historic figure who shows up in the Ittoryu arc. He was born in 1736, and died in 1786. It is said that he dies at the age of 49 in chapter 134 in Ittoryu Arc, which is consistent with the historical record. Since he is dead in 1786, he should not have stayed alive for six more years until 1792 to fight with Manji.
- Afterword by the author: Kodansha published the omnibus version of Blade of the Immortal in 2016. Samura Hiroaki writes in the afterword, “Tenmei Era of Japan in the 18th century is the historical background of Blade of the Immortal”. Tenmei Era starts from April 1781 through January 1789. The main story can only start in 1782, but not 1792, if it is within the Era of Tenmei. A specific range of time was finally given by the author after 23 years, thus put the final nail in the coffin of the 1792-theory… Or did it?
Seven arguments for the 1792-theory
There are six solid proofs inside the Japanese manga series, supported by one extra proof from a derivative work:
- Interrogation at the Kobotoke checkpoint: In chpater 45, Shimada, an official at the Kobotoke checkpoint, finds that Sawa gave birth to twins in Kansei gannen, which was 1789. It was three years before the interrogation, which means the interrogation takes place in Kansei 4, i.e. AD 1792.
- Shogunate of Tokugawa Ienari (1787–1837): Hyakurin, Ryo Soma, and a nameless old lady mention that the shogun at the time is Tokugawa Ienari. He acquires this position in Tenmei 7, i.e. AD 1787. It is not possible for the main story to take place in 1782, five years before he becomes the shogun.
- Sword Abolishment Edict (1876): In the final chapter, a policeman reminds Manji that the Edict of Sword Abolishment has been issued for six years. According to historical record, the Meiji Government issued this Edict in 1876. So Manji meets Yaobikuni in 1882 (1876 plus 6). Since the final chapter is 90 years after the major events, we can find that the main story takes place in 1792 (1882 minus 90).
- Dissolution of Bakufu (1868) : Also in the final chapter, Yaobikuni asks Manji, “I didn’t ask you last time. Where did you go during those 80 years before the Bakufu was dissolved?” Since they met once 10 years ago, there are two implications.
Firstly, there was no Bakufu last time they met, and Manji did not tell her what has happened in those 80 years. If there was Bakufu 10 years ago, there would be no “80 years before the Bakufu’s dissolution” last time. Had Manji told some of his experiences in the Bakufu period in the last reunion, Yaobikuni will not ask him in that way 10 years later.
Secondly, Yaobikuni has not met Manji in those 80 years, so she needs to ask Manji to fill the vacuum. Historically, the Bakufu was dissolved in 1868, so it was around 1788 80 years ago.
To make it simple, 80 years after Ittoryu Arc, Manji meets Yaobikuni (some time before the end of Bakufu). They meets yet again 10 years later, which is around 90 years after Manji leaving Rin.
In the Immortality Experiment, Manji tells Burando that Yaobikuni planted the sacred bloodworms inside his body three years ago. It means the experiment takes place around AD 1791 (1788 plus 3), which is more or less in line with the 1792-theory.
On the contrary, if the story takes place in 1782, the final chapter should have been in 1872, which implies Manji met her 10 years ago in 1862. Bakufu was still intact in 1862 (and will only dissolve six years later), which contradicts the above projection.
- Oichi’s year of birth (≈1784): There is a little girl who wins the Tengu face mask from Araya Kawakami in chapter 14. On the back flaps of the dust cover of volume 25 by Kodansha, Samura introduces her as Oichi, “(she was) involved in the Eidai-bashi bridge-collapsing incident in Bunka 4, ending her short-lived life of 23 years.”
As Bunka 4 is 1807, Oichi was born in 1784 (1807 minus 23). It is impossible for her to get the face mask in 1782, two years before her birth. She is about eight years old if the story takes place in 1792, which sounds more believable.
(Eidai-bashi bridge-collapsing incident is a historical event.)
- Omitsu’s year of birth (≈1782): In chapter 160, a group of women gathers at a bridge of the Edo Castle, when Rin and Doa infiltrate Fukiage. There is a girl who sits on someone’s shoulder, who claims that her Dad is inside the castle. Samura wrotes about her in volume 25, “she finds that she is capable to excite the emotion of the public at seven… In Bunka 5, Omitsu visits Nagasaki and gains her illegal entry to Europe by taking the British frigate HMS Phaeton, at the age of 26.”
As Bunka 5 is 1808, Omitsu was born in 1782 (1808 minus 26). It is impossible for her to join the protest at the bridge and yell for her father in 1782, as she is still a baby under one year old. In 1792, when she is around 10 years old, she should have mastered her ability to incite the public for three years, which makes her able to incite the crowd.
(The intrusion into Nagasaki harbour by HMS Phaeton in 1808 is also a historical event.)
- Prologue of the novel: Kodansha publishes Blade of the Immortal: Legend of the Sword Demon in 2008, the first novel based on the original manga. The novel keeps the basic setting and character relationship intact, but takes a different route of story from the Ittoryu arc.
The very first line of the novel reads, “It’s Kansei 4, the year when the eleventh shogun Tokugawa Ienari comes to power. Nobody is certain on that.” There are six era names under the rule of Ienari, namely Tenmei (1781–1789), Kansei (1789–1801), Kyowa (1801–1804), Bunka (1804–1818), Bunsei (1818–1830), and Tenpo (1830–1844), which covers 50 years. Even though the narrator is uncertain about the time, he should not confuse with the year name, just like you won’t mix up the presidencies of Obama and Trump.
The story should take place within the era of Kansei, which is 1789 to 1801, but not in Tenmei. The author mentions in the afterword, “it is so fortunate to have Samura Hiroaki’s appreciation on my novel’s draft.” It should be safe to speculate that Samura did not disagree on the setting of Kansei 4 (AD 1792) at least until 2008.
For a better understanding, I try to summarize two theories with Japanese history in a table. The clues of 1792-theory forms World Line A, when the clues of 1782-theory forms World Line B. I also add the earliest publishing year of the clues in brackets.
It must be 1792–1793 (by the book)
Four of seven arguments for the 1792-theory comes from the details of the story directly: The interrogation, Shogunate of Tokugawa Ienari, the Sword Abolishment Edict, and the Dissolution of Bakufu. It seems that there is a hidden timeline in the hand of Samura to make sure the characters do not part away.
The character settings of Omitsu and Oichi are supplementary in a later stage, but both of them are sticking to the hidden timeline. If you connect all six dots together, you’ll find that the main story cannot move backward or forward more than one year. It must be 1792–1793 for the main story to take place. Since the 1782-theory are moving the main story 10 years earlier, it simply does not make sense.
Kodansha publishes the novel in 2008. It is inheriting the story setting of the Ittoryu Arc during its serialization between 1993 and 2012. The settings are both consistent and coherent, and mostly not contradicting to history.
Yamada’s death is not in line with history either way
The timing of Yamada’s death tells a different story. He is a historical future, and his biography should be very conclusive to the accuracy of the theories, right? Yes and no.
He died in 1786 in history, so it is impossible for him to cut Manji six years later. However, his year of death also does not fit in with World Line B. According to the explanation given by Dark Horse Comics, Yamada Yoshiro should be defeated by Manji in 1782. Yamada was 45 and will only die four years later according to historical record, yet he dies from asphyxia in the story. Mitake also mentions that Kagimura Habaki has cremated the corpses in the immortality experiment, so Yamada has no chance to feign death this time.
In World Line A, Yamada dies too late, while in World Line B, he dies too early. His death is not in line with history either way. He is an unfortunate historical figure who was hopelessly dragged into the story by Samura, and meets his death at a very wrong time. The timing of his demise cannot prove either theory. A third world line based on it will contradict six clues mentioned above. We should better turn a blind eye to it.
Sorry, Yamada Sensei!
(To be cont’d)