For a long time, the three kings of Shonen Jump were One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto, the latter created by Masashi Kishimoto. As time has gone on, two of those series had ended and only one remains. However, Kishimoto would eventually return with a new series: Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru. Is it good?
Only the most powerful warriors are able to transcend their human bodies and become something even greater—samurai. Samurai carry special souls within themselves and can travel through space as easily as walking the earth. Hachimaru has always dreamed of becoming a samurai, but he’s as weak as they come. He’s so sickly that he can’t even eat solid foods. Being too weak to leave the house may have turned Hachimaru into an expert at video games, but with enough heart, could he become a true samurai?
The Initial Reaction
Despite how it came to a close and the routes it took getting there, I did enjoy Naruto. It had some of the best high points of any shonen I was reading at the time, and served as a great introduction into this subgenre of manga and anime. So, when it came to a brand-new series from Kishimoto, I was curious to see what he could come up when leaving the ninja world behind.
After reading the first volume of Samurai 8, I decided to look at the first volume of Naruto again to see how it first began. Looking at the two books side by side, and even judging this new series on its own merits, something nagged at me about the quality of writing and even the artwork. Unfortunately, Samurai 8 is not a very good start to a new series and left a lot to be desired.
On the surface, the basic premise and plot of Samurai 8 is pretty solid: a young boy named Hachimaru has been on life support for all of his life, tons of tubes and machines stuck to his back to keep him living. While his father works tirelessly to keep him alive, he dreams of becoming a samurai, a space warrior who is able to travel the universe and be strong. Then after a meeting with a mysterious figure, in this case a blind cat samurai, his life changes and gets that chance to finally live.
It is a plot that’s fairly typical, but one that works very well. It builds a sympathetic character we can understand, even when he is selfish and lashes out at others. You understand the motivation of his father, where he is coming from, and the lengths he’ll go to protect his son. That stuff is fine and the bond between the two is excellent, outside of one odd moment. What really hurts, though, is what makes up the rest of the writing.
Samurai 8 is HEAVY on lore, backstory, and detailing all the powers and its setting in its opening volume. There is just so much crammed into this first volume that it hurts the manga more than it should. Sure, the audience gets the lowdown on a lot of things right away, but it’s sensory overload. It’s hard to keep up with things since almost every ten or so pages, another idea is just dropped on us. Plus, because the story is always constantly explaining something new, the audience does not get enough time to properly grasp the last idea and understand how it works. There’s just too much going on.
There’s no time as a result to properly pace the story or really dive into the characters. The story, while seemingly fast-paced and action-packed, is actually very slow. It does not feel like the characters really get anywhere by the end of the first book, nor is anything really accomplished. There’s a vague idea of the direction for where the story will go, but it isn’t very clear either. There are hints to future plot elements and characters, but the manga quickly glosses over that before moving onto something else new it can introduce. Everything in the manga is more about building up this universe and its rules over everything else.
The characters are especially hit hard. While Hachimaru has a solid backstory, his goal of becoming a samurai and leaving his house is ultimately realized very early on. Plus, his tantrums can be frustrating after a while. After that, it just kind of goes along for the ride with Darma with his goals. Darma is the wise and mysterious, yet goofy mentor, and that’s really it. Most of his panel time is used for exposition and nothing else. Hachimaru’s father is a guy with his own mysterious backstory who really loves his son and will sacrifice anything for him. However, the decision to leave him behind is pretty quick and without much fanfare, robbing the readers of any extra bit of character growth or characterization that could add more substance to the material. The writing just feels undercooked here.
The only person that ends up really standing out is Nanashi, a non-binary character that Hachimaru first meets when he leaves his home to explore. They’re a character who was left at a dojo very early in life and has gotten no attention or love from anyone, just talking to their hands for comfort and expressing themselves through them. They don’t even know who they are as a person and by the end of their time with Hachimaru, are determined to discover that as they chase their own samurai dream. Nanashi is a very intriguing individual with a lot of potential, but they’re unfortunately not part of the main cast.
The last thing to note is the artwork, provided by Akira Okubo. Okubo originally worked as an assistant on Naruto, and it definitely shows. He is very capable of creating a style distinctly similar to Kishimoto’s, especially in the character designs. While capturing a familiar style, the art is alright on its own. The designs and characters are distinct and nice, the action looks energized, and there’s great amount of detail put into almost every page.
However, the art does have a different issue: visual noise and structure. There’s sometimes way too much going on with so much detail and energy that it is hard to focus on. The action, while neat to look at, doesn’t flow well and feels so chaotic. There are poor transitions between moments and story beats, making the story feel disjointed at times. All of this feels especially noticeable in the first chapter, which is not a good time for something like that. If it is hard to focus at the very start, that does not bode well for the manga going forth.
Is It Good?
Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru Vol. 1 is frustrating. There are good elements here, even if they do seem familiar. It’s not a bad setup at all and the art is very good. But as an experience, there’s too much exposition and backstory at the expense of everything else, leading to a hollow, kind of empty experience that can be hard to focus on. There are better shonen mangas out there and it would be more recommended to check those out instead.