Bloody Stumps Samurai arrived in North America last year as something like a once-buried object, a work that had to be excavated before it could be translated. First released in Japan in 1962, Bloody Stumps was available for less than a year before cartoonist Hirata Hiroshi and his publisher withdrew the book from publication. Reading it now means sifting its content from its context. Set in the 1600s, Hirata's story depicts the disillusion and violent reprisals of Inoko Gennosuke, a samurai-in-training from Japan's historically stigmatized burakumin peoples. Gennosuke believes that his talented swordsmanship will give him a platform on which he can advocate for burakumin rights. His peers shun him, both for his background and his ferocious temperament, but a father-figure sensei nurtures Gennosuke's hopes. When Gennosuke learns that even his mentor plans to betray him, he embarks on a years-long campaign of murder and dismemberment.
At the time of the manga's original release, an activist organization known as the Buraku Liberation League was, in the words of translator Ryan Holmberg's backmatter essay, exerting pressure "against individuals, companies, publishers, and government institutions that (wittingly or unwittingly) express[ed] discriminatory sentiments" regarding the burakumin peoples. In the case of Bloody Stumps Samurai, the group cited inaccuracies in Hirata's representation of the buraku community's origins, as well as his "lurid depiction of a buraku liberationist as violent." These objections surprised Hirata, who was not buraku himself but intended an even-handed portrayal of Gennosuke. The book would stay out of print for the next four decades, until the efforts of people including manga scholar Kure Tomofusa (also represented in the backmatter) led to a new edition.
Even a reader unfamiliar with the past outcry would likely grant that Hirata doesn't have the lightest touch. At times, Bloody Stumps Samurai reads like an exploitation counterpart to class-conscious samurai stories such as Harakiri. Its pacing is brisk and sometimes even choppy but reliably pulls readers along. Hirata's linework, likewise, is blunt at times and occasionally muddles the motions of a scene--in certain panels, it can be difficult to discern who has punctured what. But he never fails to convey the emotional pitch of a page.
In this regard, the English-language edition's production choices don't always serve Hirata's sensibilities. Most notably, the decision to set the story's text in a font that doesn't resemble human handwriting or appear stylistically of a piece with Hirata's cartooning has a distracting, distancing effect. Collaborations between Holmberg and other publishers follow this practice as well, opting for as neutral a typeface as possible rather than attempting to affect some quality of a book's linework through text. But a release such as the Breakdown Press edition of Fukushima Devil Fish does the same thing more deftly, with a choice of font that looks less like a placeholder. The lettering throughout the Retrofit-Big Planet Bloody Stumps pairs poorly with cartooning that's so much about feel and urgency.
In addition to this urgency, Hirata achieves some complexity in his characterization of Gennosuke. Early scenes find Gennosuke training with an almost feral single-mindedness. (A reader can understand why a burakumin advocacy group would object to the portrayal.) Still, Hirata's authorial sympathies go far with the character. As other members of the dojo refuse to spar with him--and condescend to him because of his suspected roots--Bloody Stumps builds to a story in which Gennosuke is pushed and pushed before doing something atrocious. Even as he begins to maim his former colleagues, Hirata suggests the pain of a thwarted dreamer. And as the violence intensifies, the story never cedes the moral footing to Gennosuke's enemies--rather, all parties debase themselves.
At this point in Bloody Stumps Samurai--Gennosuke's revenge--the story expands into more extreme terrain. After both Gennosuke and his enemies lose limbs to the feud, they begin parallel body-augmentation efforts. An armless, legless Gennosuke scrapes his torso against a rock for days, giving himself snakelike scales for crawling, and binds blades to his upper stumps. One rival, also armless, develops a combat style involving spitting needles and a mouth dagger. Another designs a rhino-like headpiece.
These developments animate the book's final third, with Hirata devising new modes of attack as his characters dismember one another. And yet, with the new edition, they also raise questions about what a publisher of this sort of release owes a reader. The eventual limblessness of Gennosuke and his enemies leads to Hirata's most inventive pages. It likewise signifies their spiritual decline. And while giving Hirata a more nuanced outlook on disability and representation is beyond the purview of a twenty-first century translator or editor, the Retrofit-Big Planet edition of Bloody Stumps already includes extensive qualifications about its content. A line or two about possible ableist interpretations would not have been a difficult addition.
Bloody Stumps Samurai more or less bears out Holmberg and Retrofit-Big Planet’s framing of it: a work with notable failures of execution but still a valuable addition to the body of sixties manga in translation. To its credit, the English-language edition does not suggest that relitigating the book will ultimately show the wisdom of Hirata’s choices. Still, some rewards come quickly to the fore. Bloody Stumps Samurai has genuine flaws but also an intensity and adventurousness, delivered in a package that doesn’t require a choice between one view or the other.