The return of Masashi Kishimoto to the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump is kind of a big deal. For Shueisha, it represents a chance for the author to generate another hit on the same level of NARUTO. For the fans, it’s simply another chance to see the author flex his creative muscles and create another endearing fictional world. But, as it turns out, Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru is none of those things.
Simply put, Samurai 8 is pretty average. While there might be enough excitement to keep you coming back each week for each new chapter, it hardly matches the furious creative spirit that NARUTO seemed to embody. It doesn’t help that the two series are so alike, either.
Only 15 chapters in, we’re already seeing the effects of this. The once top-ranking author Masashi Kishimoto now sees his work languishing in the back of Weekly Shonen Jump, no doubt due (in part) to low ranking in the weekly readership polls. Chatter about the series has also pretty much stopped, aside from a few hardcore fans.
So while Shueisha may have banked on another massive Kishimoto hit, they might be in for a rude awakening: that Kishimoto might not be the creative powerhouse we once thought he might be.
Kishimoto’s Evolution: Characters and Conscience
With all that said, I want to say that I enjoyed reading Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru for this review.
To be honest, I’m a sucker for all things shonen and anything serialized in a weekly format, as I enjoy seeing stories progressively develop and expand over time, and Samurai 8 provided more than sufficient distraction from my day-to-day life. But even beyond this, it must be said that Kishimoto has been able to craft some compelling elements within Samurai 8 over the 15 chapters currently available via VIZ Media’s Shonen Jump service. Namely, characters and their relationships.
It is true that characters have always been one of Kishimoto’s strong points, as evidenced by the giant, iconic cast of NARUTO, but changes in Kishimoto’s own life have also changed the kind of characters he’s been focusing on. No doubt owing to Kishimoto’s own experience as a father, which happened partway through NARUTO’s serialization, Samurai 8 finds it’s emotional core in the father-son relationship between the characters of Furuta and Hachimaru.
At the beginning of the story, Hachimaru is disabled – that is to say that his health and allergies are so bad that he can’t leave the house for very long without being hooked up to a life support machine. Given this, he tends to spend most of his days either looking up at the sky, wishing for freedom or playing video games.
Hachimaru’s childish logic means that he blames his father for his current predicament, without understanding that Furuta is (mostly) only acting in Hachimaru’s own self-interest. Suddenly becoming a samurai and being cured of his ills sets him up, therefore, in conflict with his father’s wishes – making for a classic coming of age story with tragic consequences.
Things like this clearly signal some evolution on Kishimoto’s part as a storyteller, and time has also seemingly given Kishimoto more of a social conscience than in his previous works. I say this because Hachimaru starting the story as disabled provides the young demographic of Weekly Shonen Jump, some of whom may be suffering from disabilities themselves, with a ready role model who uses his own experiences as an outcast from society to help and empathize with others – as shown in Hachimaru’s encounter with the genderless hikikomori Nanashi.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that Kishimoto has situated his protagonist as an outcast from society. Rather, Naruto Uzumaki from NARUTO was exactly that – only because of the nine-tailed fox being sealed inside him at birth, and not because of disability. Realizing this does devalue the importance of Hachimaru as a protagonist just a little bit, but the fact that there are no other disabled protagonists in Weekly Shonen Jump make him an important figure. I’ll also take what I can get, given that Samurai 8 and NARUTO are so alike in many ways.
Samurai 8 vs. NARUTO
Of course, I’m not implying that Samurai 8 and NARUTO are the same in every way. Rather, there are many things that set the series apart – for one, Samurai 8 is about samurais, whereas NARUTO is about ninjas.
But, on a base level, Samurai 8 and NARUTO are the same type of story – a lone protagonist trying to fulfill his destiny in a world that revolves around a single, legendary profession (be it samurai or ninja).
It’s the same story that you keep finding over and over in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump, especially following the success of not just NARUTO but also One Piece, Bleach and the more recent My Hero Academia.
Trying to make another story of this ilk is fine, but I honestly doubt that you’ll be able to find anything new to explore in such a crowded market – especially when you just spent over 15 years doing one of the best, Masashi Kishimoto.
Luckily, Kishimoto seems well aware of this fact. But he’s not exactly addressing it in the right way in the story, as he attempts to make the world of Samurai 8 feel more complicated and unique than it actually is.
The opening chapters of Samurai 8 bring forth a tsunami of exposition that I will attempt to summarise here. Apparently, here was this legendary ‘Warrior God’ (or something) called ‘Fudo Myo-o’ who saved the galaxy, but now there are some evil guys who want to open something called the ‘Mandala Box’ to destroy the universe – for which Hachimaru is one key of seven (actually eight in total) – so his quest is to follow his master Daruma and open ‘Pandora’s Box’ which will save the galaxy or something. Did you get all that?
It’s strange to see Kishimoto actively making a mistake that he avoided quite well during his time of NARUTO: the issue of organic world-building.
One of the big problems with Samurai 8’s world-building is that it remains externalized from the characters of the story, meaning that we don’t have a conduit through which to care about the world-building.
A lot of the world-building is related to Hachimaru and his ‘destiny,’ but he doesn’t care about that at this point in time. This means that, while Naruto Uzumaki’s world was expanded upon in accordance with the character’s own desires after leaving the Hidden Leaf Village, Hachimaru’s world is just being expanded with no reason to care about it.
That being said, I am aware that we are only 15 chapters into this story which will no doubt last several years, perhaps even decades. Furthermore, we’re only just launching into the real meat of the story – the so-called ‘road trip’ that Kishimoto explained the story would be back in May. So, there’s still plenty of time to fix those mistakes.
But all of this exposition is concentrated in the opening chapters of the series, which then act as a major barricade to those wanting to get into the series later on. In turn, I bet this is what is turning many people off the series as it goes on, sinking lower and lower in the Weekly Shonen Jump table of contents.
The Problem of Akira Okubo
Now, I’ve mentioned Masashi Kishimoto quite a lot during this review thus far. This is because Kishimoto is the one writing the story and driving it forwards, which means, in turn, that he’s responsible for their shortcomings.
But Kishimoto is not alone on this project. Instead, he’s been joined by ex-assistant Akira Okubo, who’s taken over art duties this time around. While Okubo’s name might be getting less lip service than Kishimoto’s, this doesn’t mean that his contribution isn’t worthy of criticism, either.
Okubo’s is definitely unique, even among the myriads of different schools and methods on display in the pages of Weekly Shonen Jump. Some have pointed out his creative parallels with the legendary French science fiction comic artist Moebius, with his simple color palette and complex designs. I’m also constantly impressed by his focus on simultaneity and image matching, which brings a real artistic flourish to the series.
But, at the same time, I’ve seen many bring up Okubo’s art style as the number one problem they have with Samurai 8, and to some extent, I’m in agreement with them. This is because Okubo’s art style doesn’t seem conducive to the type of story that Kishimoto is trying to tell, that being an action-packed samurai road trip.
I say this as Okubo’s simple color palette yet complex character designs often clash with the complex background art, which can make it hard to pick out what’s important in a densely packed panel.
But Okubo’s paneling, in general, is what really hampers my enjoyment of the series on a visual level. Instead of letting art breathe in big panels and splash pages like so many other artists, such as Dr. STONE’s Boichi, do in Weekly Shonen Jump, Okubo instead pushes the action into small panels on single pages, sometimes even making panels so small that it’s hard to tell what’s going on within.
Considering that Samurai 8 is, at heart, a shonen action series, this isn’t exactly ideal. So while I love Okubo’s art in isolation, when paired with Kishimoto’s story, it becomes a real thorn in the series’ side that is already turning people away from the story as it continues serialization.
Even so, it is ironic to think that Akira Okubo’s art is one of the only things that makes Samurai 8 on a creative level. In all other aspects, it is a perfectly average shonen action series that often apes Kishimoto’s previous work, while showcasing (in some respects) his evolution as a creator.
In many ways, Samurai 8 feels like it would have been a massive hit if it had started 10 years ago. It feels exactly like the kind of story someone who made his fortune in the 2000s would have made – but, standing next to new, innovative series that push the envelope of the shonen genre as Dr. STONE and Chainsaw Man, it looks like a manga out of time.
It’s ironic to think that Kishimoto is actually in the same position, in 2019, as Yoshihiro Togashi was in 1997. Coming off of the massively successful Yu Yu Hakusho, Togashi was essentially given free rein to do whatever he wanted – an opportunity he grasped with glee, going on to create the innovative and enduring Hunter x Hunter.
Masashi Kishimoto, on the other hand, took this opportunity to do more of the same; to rest on his laurels and craft a series that commits the worst sin of all – being really quite average.
The future of Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru, therefore, remains uncertain. While Shueisha certainly hoped for another Kishimoto hit, the prospects of that happening decrease further and further by the week, as the series continues to drop lower and lower in the table of contents.
Readers are no doubt turned off by the series for the reasons outlined in this review, but that doesn’t mean that this is the end. Rather, the series has yet to receive it’s first collected volume – a publishing move that is becoming more and more important in the current consumer climate – which may bring in outside fans.
But if the series isn’t proving well with the core Weekly Shonen Jump audience, then I’m not sure it has any potential at all. I can’t really think of any cross-demographic appeal it might have, such as Kimetsu no Yaiba’s appeal among female manga fans and The Promised Neverland’s older, ‘seinen’ audience.
For Masashi Kishimoto, then, the question is posed: will he accept his fate and fade away? Or will he try something new, going out in a blaze of glory?
Unfortunately, I think it’s the former.
You can read Samurai 8: The Tale of Hachimaru as it releases in Japan via VIZ Media’s English-language Shonen Jump.