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Yuki no Touge / Tsurugi no Mai, by Hitoshi Iwaaki, (2001) Grade: B+
Hitoshi is the author of Parasyte, Heureka and Historie. Yuki no Touge (Snow Cliff) came out after Parasyte, but before Heureka. The book is actually two stories - Snow Cliff and Sword Dance (Tsurugi no Mai). The descriptions of the first story given at Manga Updates read like something from Viz Media, and don't really give an accurate recount of the plot. Following the Battle of Sekigahara, near the end of the Warring States period, Yoshinobu Satake has called a meeting of Japan's greatest samurai to help him plan out his new castle. The warriors that had fought on the east naturally recommend a location in the eastern half of the country, while the western soldiers, including Satake himself, want a western site. The eastern faction includes Minonokami Kagiwara and Isenokami Kawai, both seasoned fighters (note that what's given here as their first names are actually position titles in the government. Neither man has a wiki entry in English, and I'm too lazy to translate the Japanese entries myself.) Kagiwara is older, more distinguished and more calculating. Kawai is brasher and more likely to blurt out his feelings. The western faction is led by Satake and backed by his closest aide, Naizen Shibue. Shibue has no military experience, but seems to be a talented city planner. He suggests building on a hill named Kubata, a short distance from the ocean up north near the Sea of Japan. This is Satake's favorite choice, because he likes looking at the sea. Kagiwara votes for something like Kanazawa, an existing castle near Osaka that has strong fortifications if the fighting resumes in the future. The story then revolves around the machinations of both Kagiwara and Shibue over where the new city show go.
(East versus west at the planning table. Shibue, left, and Kagiwara, right.)
Interspersed with the haggling are a couple stories regarding the brutality of the samurai. In one, Kagiwara tells of a time when feudal lord Kenshin Uesugi found himself encircled by superior enemy forces, and his castle was under siege. If I understand the story right, one of the other leaders is afraid of being captured and his children held hostage. So Uesugi has the boy and girl brought out, and he cuts them in two to eliminate them as potential liabilities. The specter of Uesugi still haunts Kagiwara to this day.
(The ghost of Uesugi, and a young Kagiwara.)
Eventually, the squabbling between the east and west factions gets so bad that Satake is forced to have the two propositions drawn up and sent by horse to Ieyasu Tokugawa himself, in Edo (Tokyo) for his decision on the matter. However, Shibue arranges to have the eastern proposal delayed just enough that the horse messenger gets caught in the snow in the mountain pass. Tokugawa gets both proposals but the dates are confusing enough to him that he ends up traveling to Satake's camp to look into matters personally. When Satake announces that Tokugawa has given his blessing to the Kubata site, Kagiwara explodes, saying the signature has to be a fake because a messenger couldn't get back through the snow in such a short time.
(Satake shows Tokugawa's approval of the Kubata site.)
Kagiwara is humiliated to learn that Tokugawa is in the guest house right now, a short distance from the main house. Shibue and Kagiwara are ordered to work together to plan the perfect castle town, one that favors rice farming over soldier-lined walls, but which can still be defended easily if needed. Work proceeds, with Shibue in charge. Kagiwara senses a change in the air and returns back to his own home just before Kawai and the remaining eastern faction attempt to assassinate Satake in a failed coup. Satake expected this and had the other three leaders killed at the same time, while allowing Kawai to get close enough to attack before being gutted by a bodyguard. The narrator goes on to say that Shibue is now know as the designer for modern-day Akita City in northern Japan.
(Haruna finds herself a teacher, with Bungoro and Nobutsuna.)
Sword Dance involves a young woman named Haruna. During one of the Sengoku (Warring States) battles, a group of samurai invade a peasant village and kidnap Haruna, supposedly leaving her parents and younger brother behind unharmed. After repeatedly raping and beating her, the men pass out, and Haruna is able to untie her bonds, steal a pouch of gold and then escape. When she succeeds in returning home, she finds the rest of her family slaughtered. Vowing revenge, she visits the dojo of the famed swordsman Nobutsuna Kamiizumi (creator of the Shinkage-ryu school of combat), and talks his nephew, Bungoro Hikita into taking her on as a student, using some of the stolen gold as payment. Nobutsuna has told Bungoro to start using a shinai (a light bamboo sword) for training, and he now gives his blessing to Bun to become a teacher as a way of furthering his own skills. At first, Haruna is really bad, but she eventually improves somewhat from the constant practice, with Bun defending himself with the shinai, and Haruna using a regular heavy wooden practice sword.
(Bungoro in action.)
One day, Haruna and Bungoro visit the neighboring samurai camp, where they encounter Yokichi, a farmer from Haruna's village. He yells at her for stealing the soldiers' gold, which is why they'd killed her family afterward. She tries to correct him, but he won't listen. Yokichi gets further inflamed at finding out that Bungoro is teaching her how to fight. They part ways for the moment, but a few days later enemy forces descend on the estate, and Nobutsuna has to lead the daimyo's forces into battle, with Bungoro going to the main front. Haruna and Yokichi are instructed to defend the main house, and are to retreat at the first sign of the enemy if they get past him. The fighting starts, and many of the enemy make it to the house, including Haruna's kidnappers. She manages to kill the first three, but the leader is too skilled and battle hardened for her. He stabs her through the chest, and as she starts to die, she takes the rest of the gold from the pouch and drops it to the floor. This distracts the other guy enough to let her grab his dagger and slit his throat. Yokichi finds her just before she passes away, and she makes him promise to give the remaining money to her teacher as thanks. Yokichi berates Bungoro for being the kind of person that death follows, and he loses his interest in sword work as a form of physical training
(Yokichi finds Haruna.)
A few years later, Nobutsuna has shaved his head and become a monk at a temple in Yamatonokuni. He's visited by Munetoshi Yagyu (known for mastering Shinkage-ryu), who wants to challenge him to a duel. Nobutsuna agrees, but says that Bungoro will fight in his place. Further, while Yagyu can use a wooden practice sword, Bungoro will just have the shinai. Yagyu's followers are offended at this huge slight, but Yagyu himself has no choice but to agree to these terms. Bungoro has been in a deep funk during all this time, and has no interest in the duel. He has to be prodded to even notice what's going on around him. His uncle tells him "just go out and have fun". Remembering Haruma, Bungoro wonders how any of this can be fun. It is then recorded that Bungoro scored solid hits to Yagyu's head three times in a row with his shinai.
Comments: The character designs are typical Iwaaki, but they're still crude and undeveloped compared to Historie. The backgrounds are highly detailed, and the fight scenes do look very dynamic. Iwaaki has this tendency to show body parts flying through the air as if they've been cut off with a very fast laser. While this can be dramatic, he does it too much and it's not very realistic. Both stories unfold slowly, and are extremely talky. If you're looking for action, it only occurs once or twice throughout. Mainly, this book shows more of the psychological play between the various characters as they interact between battles. The battles themselves are rather short. But they are gruesome and graphic. If you don't like blood or heavy physical violence, especially against women, then you won't like Sword Dance. On the other hand, if you're a Japanese history buff, then Snow Cliff is recommended for its depiction of the founding of Akita, and Sword Dance for its look into the lives of the historic figures Nobutsuna Kamiizumi and Bugoro Hikita.