In the final analysis, there are two things that stand out about Mugen no Juunin: Immortal for me. First, it was ultimately disappointing – notable for what it might have been as much as for what it was. But the second is that at its best it was truly beautiful. I don’t use that word too often about anime, especially those themed like Immortal, but it fits. The gap between this show at its best and at its worst is about as wide as any current series that’s not Gegege no Kitarou. And those two truths must be reconciled in any attempt to summarize the series as a whole.
As someone who hasn’t read Samura Hiroaki’s manga, I can’t assess how much of what’s disappointing and beautiful comes from it, and how much from Hamasaki Hiroshi’s adaptation. To an extent of course the beauty is easier, because Hamasaki’s genius is on display so often throughout these 24 episodes (not least the final one). It’s easy to look at Eizouken and see that pretty much everything worthwhile about it comes from the execution of the anime – without Science Saru’s brilliance there’s just no “there” there. With Immortal it’s much harder to see the line.
In particular, what I can’t say without knowing the source material is whether the muddled nature of the story is mostly down to cramming 30 volumes into 24 episodes. Obviously that’s a factor, but I get the sense that some of the problem is Samura’s writing. I can’t help but compare this story to Rurouni Kenshin, which incorporates not one but two extended story arcs with broadly similar themes and executes them with far more clarity and elegance. This ending was muddy, a mess – too many characters, too much death for individual deaths to matter, and finally uncertain about what the whole point of it all was.
I’m sure if we’d gotten to know the supporting characters better (as I’m assuming happens in the manga) they wouldn’t have blended together so much here. But with everything that happens in the Kyoto Arc (or Jinchuu, for that matter) we know why. We feel every character’s stake in those events, and good or evil every death feels like a part of us being ripped away. And when Kenshin, Kaoru and Yahiko finally head back to Edo, we understood what it all meant. What did all this mean? What was the point?
I think the most obvious question hanging over Immortal’s denouement was whether Samura made the right call in having Rin kill Kagehisa. She didn’t best him in combat – she killed a seriously injured man in a cowardly sneak attack. That whole sop about wanting the chain of curses to end, and going on a trip to apologize to the families struck me as pretty hollow, like Samura was trying to have it both ways. The impression I get is that he himself didn’t know what he wanted to say with the ending, so he abdicated responsibility and left it up to the reader to decide.
At least as big a problem for me is that Manji became irrelevant in his own story. If Rin’s arc is going to be the true spine of the narrative, at least have it all amount to something significant. Manji doesn’t even have the benefit of a muddled conclusion – his arc has no conclusion because in truth, he has no arc. His past doesn’t matter, his punishment doesn’t matter, his aspirations don’t matter. Manji is an accessory, a plot device. And again, the way he story concludes – pairing him off with Rin’s great-great(-great?) granddaughter (and Kagehisa’s arm) – strikes me as a copout. After not even giving the audience a farewell between he and Rin, to boot.
Indeed, the only part of the conclusion that really worked for me was Renzo’s, because all along it seemed to me that Rin should have sent him off to apprentice with Souri in the first place. And Renzo hardly counts as a major character. But for all that, this was still a stunning final episode in so many respects – and that just makes it more frustrating. Even if the events were kind of meaningless Hamasaki depicted them with stunning grace and style – for example, giving us the climactic (largely anti-, narratively speaking) battle mostly without dialogue. Genius like his can’t be hidden – it bursts through even when the material itself doesn’t have the ability to meet it halfway.
I’d love to see what this adaptation would have looked like at something like the Kyoto Arc’s pace (11 volumes in 35 episodes) but of course we’ll never know. I’m heartily glad Immortal existed, because as anime grows ever-safer and more generic the opportunity to see an auteur like Hamasaki work is one that should be cherished all the more for its rarity. He took what probably should by rights have been a disaster and made it significant, and at its best even memorable. And the scope of that achievement is something that shouldn’t be underestimated.