Back in the 1980s — the heyday of Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone — Hollywood cranked out a stream of mediocre but massively entertaining B-movies in which a man with a freakishly muscular physique and a granite jaw battled the Forces of Evil, dispatching villains with a catch-phrase and a lethal weapon. I don’t know if Kohta Hirano ever watched Predator or Red Scorpion, but Drifters reads like the first draft of a truly awesome eighties movie, complete with a trademark phrase — “Say farewell to your head!” — and a simple but effective premise that promises lots of silly, over-the-top fight scenes.
The Dolph Lundgren character — if I might be allowed to call him that — is Shimazu Toyohisa, a Satsuma warrior facing long odds at the Battle of Sekigahara (1600). Just as Shimazu’s death seems imminent, he finds himself transported to an alternate dimension, one in which mankind’s greatest warriors — Hannibal, Nobunaga Oda, Joan of Arc — have been assembled for an elaborate game. The purpose and rules of the game remain elusive, but the primary objective seems to be mass destruction: the game’s organizer unleashes hordes of ghouls and dragons on Shimazu and his allies, in the process laying waste to cities, forts, and crops.
Like all good Schwarzenegger or Stallone vehicles, Drifters makes a few token gestures towards subplot and world-building. Shimazu helps a group of elves resist their oppressors, for example, teaching them the manly art of standing up for themselves. Hirano provides so little explanation for the elves’ marginalized status, however, that the entire episode registers as a stalling tactic for the climatic battle at volume one’s end, a half-hearted effort to show us that however unhinged or deadly Shimazu may be, he knows injustice when he sees it.
Drifters’ other shortcoming is the artwork. Hirano’s clumsy character designs make the entire cast look like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with huge, sunken eyes, large, triangular noses, and blocky torsos. Though one might reasonably argue that Picasso’s bodily distortions were a deliberate aesthetic choice, it’s harder to make the same case for Hirano’s work; his characters’ mitt-like hands and poorly executed profiles suggest a poor command of perspective, rather than an artistic challenge to it.
Hirano’s action scenes suffer from an entirely different problem: they’re riotously busy, bursting at the seams with too many figures, monsters, and weapons, overwhelming the eye with visual information. One could be forgiven for thinking that Hirano was trying to out-do Peter Jackson; not since Sauron flattened the forces of Middle Earth have so many warriors and monsters been assembled in one scene to less effect. Looking at the opening chapter, however, it’s clear than Hirano can stage a credible battle scene when he wants to: he depicts the Battle of Sekigahara as a churning mass of horses, samurai, and swords, effectively capturing the confusion and claustrophobia of medieval combat. Once dragons and orcs enter the picture, however, the action scenes begin to lose their urgency and coherence, substituting the terrible immediacy of hand-to-hand fighting for larger, noisier air battles where the stakes are less clearly defined.
It’s a pity that Drifters is so relentless, as the story certainly has the potential to be a guilty pleasure; what’s not to like about a manga in which Japan’s greatest feudal warriors fight alongside Hannibal, Joan of Arc, and elves? What Hirano needs is a little restraint: when the story is cranked up to eleven from the very beginning, the cumulative effective is deafening, making it difficult for the reader to hear the endearingly cheesy dialogue above the clank of swords and explosions. And if there’s anything I learned from watching old chestnuts like Commando, it’s that even the most testosterone-fueled script needs to pause long enough for the hero to utter his catch phrase.
DRIFTERS, VOL. 1 • BY KOHTA HIRANO • DARK HORSE • 208 pp. RATING: OLDER TEEN