When we last left Hana and Kenichi, our heroes had been completely separated for the first time since they left the island. In a drastic reversal, Kenichi fled the Shogun’s service in horror, while Hana remained close to the young tyrant, hoping to figure out an answer. Now they both find themselves lost, uncertain, and surrounded by truly terrible people.
Ronin Island has slowed down considerably in its second arc. It’s not just that we now have two stories to follow, but that, additionally, each one is moving a little bit slower. Between flashbacks to Kenichi and Hana’s history, building relationships with newer characters, and making room for action, Ronin Island isn’t moving as quickly or as elegantly as it was in issues #3 and 4. It’s a change that I’m not terribly fond of, but that’s what this arc and this issue are aiming for so let’s judge it on the scale it’s meant for. This is the issue where our heroes decide how they’re going to deal with their circumstances and refocus on what’s important to them.
Hana never belonged on the island. Her journey from outcast to Island champion has been an unlikely one and now, strangely enough, she finds herself working within the system. There is a question hanging over her that is all too plain to the people around her: what has the Island even done for her?
The core of this issue is answering that question and it’s where it shines the brightest. Greg Pak’s work has always been political, but he’s a writer who’s not afraid of being political and so he can weave in and out of in-story thinking and ‘bigger message’ writing very easily. In this issue he leans farther into the moral of the story than he has on Ronin Island thus far. This is a big moment for the series metatextually, but it still feels grounded in the narrative and this harsh stare past the forth wall doesn’t overstay its welcome, so it feels like an organically significant moment.
Pak spends a little too much time establishing the tension and outright hostility of the Shogun’s camp and hits the same beats a little too hard in doing so, but the process of Hana finding the reason for what she’s doing and acknowledging that the Island is her home, deeply imperfect as it is, is lovely.
On the other hand, there was never any doubt that Kenichi would fight to protect his home; it’s what he’s been preparing for his entire life. However the method was very much in question. All alone with nothing but a sword, the odds were clearly staked against him, but the answer makes a certain degree of sense.
Kenichi’s always been a little too enamored with his father’s legacy and the shiny superiority that samurai culture offered him. So its not surprising that his challenge is to get down in the dirt and allow that legacy to be tarnished a bit for the greater good. His moment is kind of the opposite of Hana’s. For Kenichi, discovering the way forward is a longer, more isolated process that definitely adds more to the narrative going forward but has less to say about the series as a whole. It also doesn’t come through quite as strongly. Hana packs a lot into her one statement of why the Island matters to her, but Kenichi knows why he fights and merely needs a strategy. The end result is a clever turn for the story that doesn’t actually do as much for this issue is it likely will for future installments.
I also have to say that Kenichi’s big moment is very melodramatic. I can’t say much without spoiling it, but there’s some rather direct symbolism that doesn’t actually add that much and definitely makes me wonder about some distances. It feels like it kind of overplays the scene and lets the hand of the author(s) be felt a little too noticeably.
As I’ve implied, one of the issue’s greatest weaknesses is how focused it is on selling its couple of main ideas, but that’s not to say that there isn’t more to see here. Though the byōnin no longer feel quite as threatening as they once did, Pak continues to scale up how unsettling they are, as they begin to reveal new mysteries and traits that they can demonstrate even in their ‘controlled’ state. Likewise seeing Kenichi’s parents and Elder Jin again helps to reconnect us to the Island and prepare us for a possible return in the near future.
Giannis Milonogiannis remains a strong and expressive artist, well suited to the series. Over time, he’s only grown more suited to Ronin Island and this issue’s more character focused priorities serve him well. Though action retains its satisfying finality, Milonogiannis’ snapshot style of capturing a scene finds its strongest expression in meaningful glances, simple celebrations, and desperate wisps of hair. The stark anime look of the series has never been stronger, but the influence of newspaper comics, American superheroes, and possibly even ligne claire is still felt keenly, combining all of them into a malleable yet exceptionally clear aesthetic.
Especially in the hills of the Shogun’s kingdom, backgrounds are usually sparse. It’s not distracting but it is noticeable, however, between the single-minded attention to character and the frequent elimination of backdrops entirely for dramatic effect, this seems very much a conscious decision. One suspects that the choice allowed Milonogiannis to turn out such lovely artwork on a monthly title, but it also reinforces the primacy of the characters and their reactions. It would certainly have been nice to have a few more panels that take advantage of the setting, but, since its usually implemented believably, the sparce backdrops put attention on character interaction and color.
While this lack of detail could trouble some and there are definitely panels here and there, especially as we begin to put distance between the reader and the cast, where characters feel a little off model, the fact of the matter is that Ronin Island is a beautiful comic. Described, I feel it might sound simple or underwhelming, but, in execution, this is a book that you could easily pick up just for Milonogiannis’ art.
Well, I say just for Milonogiannis’ art, but it’s not just Milonogiannis’ art. The striking, fading colors come courtesy of Irma Kniivila. The sunset red, pale violet, and clay green accents are not an obvious palette, but they prove to be a surprisingly charming one.
Something that I don’t find myself thinking about often in considering comics art is how colors are blended. You won’t be able to avoid that thought in this book. In a format that often plays with contrasts, Kniivila does a beautiful job of mixing and fading shades into one another and it really awakens the reality in Milonogiannis’ restrained, representational linework. The book has many shades and hues that range all over the place, but they’re used in such a way that they feel cohesive, or like the outliers are colored by the light of the primary shades.
These few rules are discarded and replaced in the flashback sequences, which feature a much more traditional, primary inspired look. Together with the even simpler linework, the ricepaper texture and the contrast of the bold colors toned down make for a lovely break from the usual look of the series that instantly recalls classic comics and traditional Japanese painting. This latter effect is especially nice in an issue that interrogates the rose colored glasses of nationalism.
The slower pace of this second arc remains somewhat stifling and, at times, it can feel as though not enough is happening, but Ronin Island #6 provides one of the short series’ most essential moments. There’s tremendous timeliness about this issue, where before the direct relationship between the book and our reality was comparatively more evasive, and, though the subtext was always there, that willingness to stop and address it head on helps to bring the whole story into greater focus. Combined with continued home runs from Milonogiannis and Kniivila, Ronin Island #6 is both a beautiful and important issue of the series, even if it can’t be called the best or most exciting.
Ronin Island #6 is currently available in comic shops from Boom! Studios.