Last week saw Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto’s latest series, Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru, come to an end. Through all of the hype, hit pieces, and endless promotion, what promised to be a glorious return for the creator of one of the best-selling comic book series of all time turned out to be nothing more than a dull flop. So much for brand recognition.
For those of us who follow Weekly Shonen Jump and manga industry news as a whole, the end of Samurai 8 should not come as much of a surprise. Abysmal sales figures for volume one already signaled late last year that the series was floundering in comparison to its contemporaries, and it has long been Shueisha’s policy to cut from their legendary magazine that which cannot perform. Therein lies at least one of the secrets to its success.
But the question remains: why did Kishimoto’s new series perform so poorly? What went so wrong that Samurai 8 would meet such a magnanimous end? The answers to those questions lie in the shortcomings of the series itself, namely in its artwork and storytelling. What’s more, this paints an unfortunate picture of Masashi Kishimoto as a man out of place and out of time – spelling bad omens, in turn, for another author who is about to make their own glorious return…
The Assistant’s Achilles Heel
It is hard to overestimate how integral art is to a manga series. Not only is manga a visual medium – relying on competent paneling, artwork, and character design to see it through – but visuals are often what draws a potential fan to a series. Particularly in Japan, when perusing a bookstore that leaves you overwhelmed with choice, attractive artwork can become a deciding factor. But even in the west, where choice is much more limited, it still plays an important role.
As we read more and more manga online thanks to the development of such services as VIZ Media’s Shonen Jump, artwork can be the difference between hearing about something and actually picking it up. Not everyone has the time to read absolutely everything, and how many times have you received a recommendation from a friend, only to forget about it in a matter of days? That’s where good art comes in: piquing your interest long enough to keep you engaged, or getting you to engage with a series in the first place.
Given this, the shortcomings of Samurai 8’s art have a large part to play in explaining its unfortunate end. Most of the blame for this has to be laid at the feet of Akira Okubo, the artist for the series. Yet, Kishimoto also had a role to play, as we shall see.
For Masashi Kishimoto, the cooperation of Akira Okubo was absolutely essential to the whole project of Samurai 8. Speaking in an interview last year, he said that he wasn’t confident enough in his abilities at his advanced age to tackle a serialization along the lines of Naruto, where he acted as both author and artist. Thus, if Kishimoto was to make a glorious return, it had to be with the help of Akira Okubo. Alas, this was not to be.
From the very beginning, things seemed off. Although Cimi said in his review of the first chapter that the series looked “pretty good,” my first impression was very different. Only a few chapters in, I remarked that Okubo’s combination of a simplistic color palette with detailed background art made parsing each panel quite difficult – and when you find it difficult to simply understand what has been drawn, that doesn’t tend to be a good sign.
Okubo’s particular art style wasn’t helped one bit by his use of small panels, as opposed to letting his artwork breathe in a larger space. Some of the best series and artists in Weekly Shonen Jump right now have achieved success at least partially on the basis of their paneling, such as Boichi and Gege Akutami. This shows how important this particular element of artwork can be.
Nevertheless, what saved Samurai 8, at least in the beginning, from an untimely end was probably its unique character designs. It must be said that Kishimoto’s idea of combining the aesthetic of a samurai with high science-fiction worked remarkably well on a visual level, striking a strong first impression with its dissembling forms, samurai ‘keys’ and shapeshifting ‘holders.’ Okubo is often compared to French artist Moebius on account of his art style, but there is also a comparison to be made on the basis of his character designs: they are brimming with creativity and imagination, just like Moebius’ illustrations. Such a shame, then, that they were simply the best of a bad bunch.
For however good Okubo’s character designs were, the problem was that they simply did not work in action. As the series dragged on, escalating power levels led to more complicated battles whose mechanics and twists and turns struggled to be communicated as a result of Okubo’s style. In this sense, Masashi Kishimoto’s writing also deserves some of the blame. But it is also the role of an artist to take a story and communicate it in the simplest of terms – other successful duos in the magazine, such as Riichiro Inagaki and Boichi, manage to do this well. This might sound a little harsh, but perhaps Okubo was better off as an assistant, after all.
Recycled and Directionless
Good stories will ultimately get a good reception. In an ideal world, that would be the ironclad rule of publication. Alas, the reality is different – marketing and promotion can give a bad series more of a reception than it deserves – but even ‘bad’ series tend to enjoy some sort of audience. Take, for example, The Seven Deadly Sins. I think that it is more or less the most average shonen series in existence, but there is something there that some people like. You can try and push a series all you like, but if there ultimately isn’t anything going for it, people won’t react. The end of Samurai 8 clearly proves that fact.
The problem started at the beginning. The origin story of our protagonist, Hachimaru, takes essentially the same ‘outsider’ archetype as Naruto Uzumaki, the protagonist of Naruto, only this time out of necessity – Hachimaru is disabled, hooked up to a machine that keeps his frail body alive. Kishimoto made quite a big deal of this fact before the series started, saying that one of the key ideas of the manga was that ‘It’s okay not to be perfect,’ but nothing changes the fact that this was recycled almost wholesale from Naruto.
Of course, this doesn’t matter that much if you’re a big fan of Naruto and want to see nothing more than more of the same. But do such people still exist? Clearly, judging from the sales figures, not in large numbers. It has been over five years since Naruto ended, and most people have moved on. Sequel series Boruto’s faltering performance, in turn, proves this fact. Kishimoto needed to appeal to a new generation, and he failed to do so.
Returning to Samurai 8‘s story, it must be said that the beginning arc that saw Hachimaru get his powers and leave his home planet on his fated journey was more or less entertaining. The introduction of Ann, too, gave some hope that Kishimoto would be exploring new characters and character dynamics. But it was not to be.
As soon as the story moved away from its initial setting, the end of Samurai 8 was more or less sealed. It started a new arc on the basis of a ‘battle royale,’ only to quickly discard this idea in favor of more of the same. This was a baffling decision that lost the confidence of many readers, including myself, and destroyed any goodwill that we may have had towards the series. Although there is nothing to prove this point, I am willing to bet that this development was crucial in preventing the spread of the series by word of mouth, which is so important in the manga landscape.
Once the sales figures came in for the first and second collected volume, the clock was already ticking down to Samurai 8’s eventual end. This was clearly reflected in the pace of the story, which suddenly began to race towards a final conclusion in a move that clearly went against Kishimoto’s original ‘road trip’ idea for the series. It goes without saying that, as a result, the ending fell rather flat. At least Ann became a samurai, which was probably about the series’ only saving grace.
This brief run-through of the story should make clear the fact that, for however grand Kishimoto’s plans for the overall narrative were, the chapter-by-chapter play-by-play felt drab and directionless. If the author was not recycling ideas and failing to commit to a concept, then he was falling back on the same samurai battle format that we had seen a dozen times before.
Of course, Akira Okubo does deserve some of the blame for failing to make this a little more exciting. But there were far more expectations on Kishimoto’s shoulders, which makes his failings in the story department feel that much more integral.
Samurai 8 Ends: The Men Out of Time
Regardless of whose ‘fault’ it was, nothing can change the fact that Samurai 8 has ended. This also brings to an end Shueisha’s dreams of a Naruto-type success for the modern-day magazine, and with it the whole idea of bringing back the old authors of the so-called ‘Big Three.’
The news of Samurai 8’s end does not bode well for Bleach author Tite Kubo, who is also scheduled to make a return this summer with a series based on his one-shot, Burn the Witch. It is worth pointing out that the nature of this serialization is a little different – for starters, it will only be for a limited run of chapters and is set in the wider Bleach universe – but the reception to Samurai 8 shows us, at least in some sense, that the expectations of the wider shonen demographic are much different now from how they were in the times where Kubo and Kishimoto reigned supreme.
Nothing shows this better than the kinds of series that now lead the charge on Weekly Shonen Jump’s line-up and sales figures. No longer are they the action-driven, long-form stories of the past: Dr. STONE uses science and chemistry to craft an adventure where brains matter much more than brawn; Chainsaw Man toes the line between horror and comedy, breaking almost all demographic conventions in the process; and even Kimetsu no Yaiba, Jump’s current golden goose, resembles Naruto in its action focus but not in its length – all signs point to an imminent conclusion.
Perhaps Masahi Kishimoto – and Tite Kubo along with him – are simply men out of time. Samurai 8‘s unfortunate end certainly suggests this fact – although only time will tell if this is truly the case.
You can read Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru via VIZ Media’s Shonen Jump service.