4 out of 5
Two stories: the murder hotel, as run by new character Ienaga and experienced by Sugimoto, Asirpa, Shiraishi, Kiroranke, and Ushiyama; and a wholly separate Yojimbo-esque Western yarn in which a tattooed-prisoner rumor brings Tanigaki and Hijikata / Nagakura to convene upon a town that’s split ‘tween opposing yakuza clans.
Both of these stories are incredibly successful on their own, and for very different, very Noda reasons, but the divide between them is massive – Sugimoto’s trek essentially goes on full pause for what feels like a side story, even though it’s a valid exploration of what’s concerning the other characters while other things are going on. Noda does a little nod to the “meanwhile…” nature of this with the final page of the book, but it’s nonetheless oddly interspersed, not checking in with the mainline folk for a good 100 pages of story.
The murder hotel bit, a spin on H.H. Holmes, is perverse, and hilarious, and violent, and a little spooky, although Noda doesn’t try to withhold any info as to what’s going on: that Ienaga, proprietress of the hotel, is murdering her guests in a hidden torture chamber, so as to fulfill her beliefs regarding methods for extending her life. The spookiness is more in regards to not being sure how far the rabbit hole will go, but it all comes to a head soon enough – Ushiyama checks in to the same hotel while Sugimoto and crew are there; Shiraishi makes funny faces; and things blow up.
The Hijikata half of the tankobon is masterfully cinematic. There’s not much humor here, and Noda casts off most of his history-lessoning for pure action. When the chapter pages start to mimic movie posters, there’s no hiding what he’s after, here. It is, indeed, built up and played out like the best Western epics, with watertower snipers and noon showdowns, and although it has the oddity of completely veering away from Sugimoto, the way it brings Tankgaki and Hijikata together – and further adds to each character’s breed of ruthlessness – ultimately justifies its inclusion in the narrative.