Author: Fumi Nakamura
Translator: Neil Nadelman
U.S. publisher: Vertical
Released: April 2012
Original release: 2011
Awards: Golden Elephant Award
Enma the Immortal is Fumi Nakamura's debut work as a novelist. A housewife who wrote in her spare time, she submitted Enma the Immortal to the inaugural Golden Elephant Award in 2010. It, along with Akira Arai's novel A Caring Man (also available in translation from Vertical), shared the grand prize. Enma the Immortal was subsequently published in English with a translation by Neil Nadelman, first as an ebook in 2011 and then in print in 2012 by Vertical. The novel has already inspired an adaptation in Western comics--The Immortal: Demon in the Blood, available from Dark Horse. (I haven't read the comics yet, but I do plan on it.) Nakamura has also written a sequel to Enma the Immortal but unfortunately it hasn't been licensed in English yet. Enma the Immortal initially appealed to me for several reasons: the light novel is a historical fantasy primarily set in Japan's Meiji era, I'm intrigued by humans' fascination with immortality and its consequences, and I enjoy tattoos being incorporated into stories.
As the Tokugawa shogunate nears its final days, so does Amane Ichinose. A failure of an assassin and a spy, he finds himself being chased and hunted only to end up injured and dying on the doorstep of Baikou Houshou, a well-known tattooist. The chance encounter changes Amane forever. Baikou saves the younger man's life, but in the process Amane is cursed with immortality; a demon has been bound to him through a tattoo known as an oni-gome. It will do everything it can to keep Amane from dying, whether he wants it to or not. Only one other man knows and completely understands the secrets behind the oni-gome, its curse, and how to destroy it--Yasha, Baikou's disowned and estranged apprentice. Faced with living an eternity alone, Amane is determined to find the missing Yasha. Little does he know that Yasha will develop an intense interest in him as well. The two men possessed by demons, both struggling with and against their own desires for death, are destined to confront each other again and again as the century passes them by.
Each chapter of Enma the Immortal is almost its own self-contained story focusing on a pivotal time in Amane's life, but they also build upon one another. What holds the whole novel together, though, is its characters: Amane himself, the men he betrayed before becoming immortal, the likeable yet cranky old bastard Baikou, Nobumasa Muta who, much to Amane's frustration, repeatedly comes to the immortal's aid, and most importantly Natsu, the daughter of a friend and one of the few people who knows about Amane's peculiar condition. And then there's Yasha, whose own immortality is slowly driving him insane as he tries and fails to maintain his humanity. He is a marvelous antagonist, not inherently evil, but deluded in his attempts to justify his actions. His relationship with Amane is a complex and volatile one, providing a major driving force behind the developments in Enma the Immortal, even before the two of them meet.
In addition to great characters, Nakamura also makes excellent use of historical events and people in Enma the Immortal, everything from the Shinsengumi to Jack the Ripper to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are all incorporated expertly into Amane's story. Even Amane's encounters with Yasha, which could have easily come across as coincidences, seem more like fate than convenient plot devices. In general, I found the novel to be well-plotted with great pacing. The writing style and dialogue in Enma the Immortal do occasionally come across as anachronistic for the time periods in which the narrative is set, but it is highly engaging nonetheless. I absolutely loved Enma the Immortal and am particularly impressed that it is Nakamura's debut work. Even though I know there is a sequel, and I would certainly like to read it, I was completely satisfied with Enma the Immortal. It's both an entertaining and engaging novel that stands perfectly well on its own while still allowing plenty of opportunities for further development. Enma the Immortal is a fantastic read.