Drifters (ドリフターズ) is a seinen, historical fiction, fantasy, isekai manga series written by Kōta Hirano. It was originally published in 2009 and is still ongoing, with a total of five current volumes. Shōnen Gahosha in Japan and Dark Horse Comics in North America publish it. I will not be comparing the manga to the 2016 anime as I have not seen the anime (yet!).
I have had the manga sitting on my clean, white manga shelves since the very first volume released in English back in 2011. When I went searching for a violent manga to read, I immediately thought of this series as the mangaka has also written Hellsing, which was super bloody and graphic, and figured it was time to dust it off and give it a shot. I will admit right from the start that the first volume did not impress me very much at all as it all came off rather messy and disorganised.
Drifters follows a group of historical figures from various countries—most of which are from Japan—who have been transported to a fantastical world where there are Elves, dragons, and more. Some of the figures introduced in the first volume include: Oda Nobunaga, Ii Naomasa, Scipio Africanus, Joan of Arc, and Naoshi Kanno. They are all brought here to fight a war to help prevent a brutal group of individuals called Ends from destroying this world.
While there are many things I didn’t care for, the intro volume isn’t without some good traits. Firstly, there is a huge variety of historical figures from all corners of the world, aside from Japan, such as Bolivia, Carthage, Rome, and France. It’s such a hodgepodge of people that I would never expect to see tossed together in a narrative. While being odd, it’s also original and sets the story apart from other isekai serials.
Secondly, it is intensely violent. There are decapitated heads and flying limbs amid splashes and streams of blood everywhere. I loved it! When I read seinen manga, most of the time I want it to be graphic and unfiltered. Given how hectic Hellsing was with the bloodshed, I am not surprised (and very pleased) to see the author’s signature artistry portray such viciousness, as well as the familiar over-the-top carnage. If you are someone who really hates violence and doesn’t like such gratuitous amounts of slaughter, then this will not a be a series for you.
Some other minor things that I found to be relatively interesting and can visualise being a compliment to the story later on if it’s written better, is the art style, which consists of very sharp angles and big, bright eyes and expressions. It also implements a lot of black space with minor shading and heavy outlining. It works for how action-packed and fast-paced it is, however it can also contribute to specific jumbled areas as it becomes difficult to decipher a scene or set of panels due to the heaviness of the details all being squished together. Another minor element would be the twist on the isekai genre, taking real-life historical people and throwing them into a land that is quite akin to The Lord of the Rings in terms of the fantasy facets.
Even with all of these enjoyable aspects, the volume was a hot fucking mess. The story starts off very hastily, without much explanation of what the bleeding hell is going on. We watch as the main character—Shimazu Toyohisa—kills opponents at the Battle of Sekigahara in one instance and then in the next is transported to a very strange world, he deems to be Hell. Then it keeps on rolling, taking Toyohisa from one event to the next with very little context in between it all. It can be confusing, disjointed, and unsatisfying. I felt more than a little lost at a couple points in the narrative. The basic explanation of what is happening doesn’t begin to be explained until the last chapter, and even then within the last few pages of said last chapter. There’s a one or two sentence explanation and then wham! Volume ends. There are some dialogues between Toyohisa and the transported figures and the natives of the world that give you the briefest gist of what may be occurring, but still not enough to make you feel connected to it all.
For the first one-half to three-fourths of the way through volume one, all of the chapters also felt unnecessarily short. They were approximately fifteen to twenty pages each, which is about standard for some shōnen stories, but usually seinen ones tend to be a bit longer. Nevertheless, I don’t think the length would have bothered me if anything of actual consequence occurred in them. They ended at points where it made no sense at all to end it. It was if it hit that necessary “commercial break” wall and cut off only to begin in a fresh new chappie. I would classify them as convenient fillers or padding to bulk out the volume more than anything else.
Overall, I was decidedly not impressed with Drifters Volume 1. But, man, I am super biased because I adored Hellsing. I had some of the same artistic issues with Hellsing that I do with Drifters in that it can be so overwhelmingly detailed that it becomes a bitch to decipher the action sequences here and there, but I loved the story of it so much. Regardless of all my negative feelings, I’m going to try and stay optimistic that the series will start to improve with the next volume. I have four of the five released volumes, and if by that fourth one everything is still a frustrating mess, I may drop it.