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J. P. Kalonji wields a clean, street-informed style to deliver a tale that glistens with blood and drama, yet is ultimately uplifting. Nearly four-hundred pages long, this graphic novel employs full-page panels to tell the story of an Edo-era swordsman's quest for survival and enlightenment. When Ningen leaves his dojo at the request of his master - to travel the world and grow as a swordsman - he embarks on a journey that becomes a metaphor for the cycle of life and every human's spiritual growth.
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Kalonji’s bare-bones quest tale begins in medias res. A man in a hooded fleece coat immediately faces three swordsmen, whom he cuts down before any of them can even begin swinging at him. As he trudges on, the fray repeats in silhouette. (Is the replay a self-critical review? Remaining unexplained, it looks marvelous, nevertheless.) At an abandoned villa, he rescues a young woman from samurai turned bandits, whom he slaughters. Answering her questions, he reveals that he’s on a mission to kill one samurai for every day of the year. His reward will be having learned the meaning of life. From the initial encounter to the salvific ending, Kalonji rivets attention with his one-frame-per-page procedure, a technique that mitigates the confusion that moving from long or middle perspective to extreme close-up during the fight action often entails in small-panel manga. Incorporating geometrically abstracted faces; a preponderance of bold, thick lines; and dynamic balancing of each panel’s compositional elements, the Swiss artist’s style suggests the similar work of fellow heroic caricaturist Jeff Smith (Bone). --Ray Olson
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