Writer: Jordan Patrick Finn
Artist: Greg Woronchak
Independently published, 2020
Death Kanji is an excellent independent publication written Jordan Patrick Finn by with art by Greg Woronchak. Here is their Kickstarter pitch:
With its roots in the short stories of HP Lovecraft and the films of Akira Kurosawa, Death Kanji tells the story of a samurai’s struggle to maintain his duty and honour when terrifying knowledge comes to light. It is a story about how we view the unknown, and our reactions to creatures and concepts that we do not fully understand.
First a note on Mr Woronchak’s art. There is a temptation when dealing with Japanese subject matter to resort to Japanese manga styles. These range from big-eyed anime to the smooth artwork we see in titles such as Opus. Here, however, the artwork is much more along the lines of Japanese ukiyo-e, with the odd perspectives of a woodprint. One key flashback is rendered quite differently: it is dreamy, with vibrant and almost translucent colours, taking the protagonist back to the very Japanese concept of the saddest day in the happiest of time. The art is a genuine pleasure to look at.
Second, the title itself is interesting, because it describes a sound effect used by the creative team when a character is killed. The character is “shi”, for “death”:
Your review is a former resident of Osaka and is mediocre speaker of Japanese, and it was not apparent until this title that the character could be used as a sound effect. “Shi” could easily be the sound of a sword slicing through flesh.
Japanese manga uses giongo, an onomatopoeia subscript written in katakana text. (Katakana is usually only used for foreign words, emphasis, or giongo.) Death Kanji is a departure from typical giongo, in that the creators use kanji (Chinese-based ideographs) rather than katakana.
On the face of it, we have a curious mash-up between a tale from the days of samurai and a Lovecraftian horror. The nameless protagonist discovers in a faraway town an horrific monster, a composite of a voracious otherworldly lamprey and a human, pleading for death, trapped in the creature’s green-grey skin. The title otherwise reeks of hagakure – living as though one was already dead, in that a samurai must be willing to die at any moment in order to be loyal to his feudal lord.
But is this just a quest story? The protagonist, as the daimyo’s best samurai, is sent by his daimyo on two quests: the first to kill a monster, revealed to be a tiger, and the second to find the true identity of his daimyo. That second quest leads to the overt horror of the gooey monster, and the twist as to the offspring of the monster.
On his journey, the samurai comes across a child, who he teaches swordplay, and who rapidly becomes like a daughter to him. Such is their relationship that he prolongs his stay, delaying his quest. The samurai learns a terrible, bitter lesson, that some things are just what they are: nothing which is inherent can change. Sparing the tiger cub in the beginning of the comic led to the tiger cub growing up, and eventually killing the child. With that, and learning the parentage of his daimyo, the samurai decides that no matter how much genuine warmth and fraternity exists between him and his master, as the offspring of a demon, the master cannot be permitted to live.
A philosophically bleak assessment on the nature of humans and beasts, but is it really the samurai’s belief? What is easily missed is the fact that the nameless samurai is in love with the daimyo’s wife. Is the daimyo’s and his infant son’s execution, each damned by their green eyes, really a way of dealing with deep jealousy, masked as an effort to stamp out a demon’s lineage? Perhaps, to apply an English saying, it was the samurai who was the green-eyed monster?
So many dark chambers of interpretation, out of an eighty-page comic book. The Kickstarter campaign is closed, but the book can be pre-ordered directly from the writer, Jordan Patrick Finn, by direct message via the Kickstarter page (http://kck.st/2OjpmZ8) or on Twitter (@jordanpfinn).