Manga: Sakamoto Shinichi's Innocent

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Innocent is a masterfully crafted manga by Sakamoto Shinichi first started publishing in Young Jump issue 2013 Nr. 9. Sakamoto Shinichi already made a name for himself with his earlier work Kokou no Hito.
In his new manga Innocent, he depicts a heavily fictionalized version of Charles-Henri Sanson's life as chief executioner of France, his inner struggle with his duty due to his innocent and pure heart and his family's dynasty of executioners in the 18th century, leading up to the French Revolution.

The decision to depict the history of the Sanson dynasty is interesting on it's own, because back in the day, France's main attraction might as well have been executions. Granted, that wasn't just exclusive to France but that country is most famously known for the massacres and terror during the French Revolution in which Charles-Henri Sanson's guillotines came to use like clockwork, with the most famous execution being former Louis XVI on the Place de la Concorde, making them literally part of France's pop culture.

Charles-Henri Sanson is said to have executed over 3000 people but with his responsibility that came with being born into the Sanson family of executors came also his desire to make execution more human or possibly even get rid of it, at least that's what he initially wishes for in Sakamoto's manga.
Charles' son actually wrote one of the books about his father, also partially fictionalized, but he made an effort to depict the caring side of his father. Which interestingly enough wasn't that far from truth however people aren't as one-sided. But a man that is believed to be destined to be the Crown's executor due to his Sanson blood, came with similar myths of what is known as royal blood. Kings and nobles are higher than common folk, maybe even divine, it's their privilege. Sanson blood was meant to kill while, accordingly to the Crown, taking care of criminals. They surely must have had it in their blood. To kill without remorse.

During his life-time however, Charles-Henri made an effort to make executions more painless, as well as treating criminals, and people better than what they got. Innocent focuses on that idea, that a pure hearted man, who's life it dedicated to death, might resent the idea of killing. Being haunted by death and pain and struggling with his duties. He has to keep the Sanson dynasty running in the end however, which is also his best chance of changing the whole process.
Innocent is depicting the torture and executions heavily detailed, it's almost torture porn. It probably helps that almost every panel of this manga is worth of being described as master piece. While not as graphic as some of the many other gore fest manga, Innocent shows more of the pain and trauma that comes with it, and explains why. It explains the ideas and processes behind various torturing and execution methods, making it strangely fascinating instead of disgusting. The purpose of it wasn't to disgust the reader in the first place, it's making an effort to show that these processes where a "common" part of the life of certain individuals.
The Sansons weren't the only dynasty of executioners in France. You could call it a competition even.
If the Sansons would fail their duty, someone else might step in. This would lead to the ruin the family's status, their privileges and estate. And we're talking about 18th France here. You don't want to rely on Marie-Antoinette's promised cake.
In history, every major city had their own executioner and they didn't all lack Charles' vision though. Except his brothers who weren't necessarily cruel but they did a shoddier job. But Charles-Henri paid from his own pocket to ensure proper executions. With the guillotine largely fixing the problems. But under the king, the Sansons had first pick rights over local manufacturers and farmers. This special privilege granted to the king's servants was meant to allow them to stockpile food so that they would not have to worry about household logistics and could concentrate on their jobs. In actuality, families who had this privilege sold their stockpile in the city market which increased the family's income significantly.
Charles viewed his work as just another job. He treated executions as exercises in logistics and supported the adoption of the guillotine because it was more efficient cheaper to operate.
At the same time he was a humanist who wanted to honor the dignity of his victims. He would place women in their own carriage and prepare seats facing away from the platform for them. During times of mass executions he placed the weakest at the front of the row and finish them off quickly, before their fears overwhelmed them, making them humiliate themselves.

Sanson was a "business man", a royalist but also a humanist who protected the victim's dignity. Innocent depicts his inner conflict, his duty, responsibilities and his own beliefs. We see how his manipulative grandmother tries to ensure the success of the families dynasty and how she and nobles benefit from their privileges while the common folk was starving on the streets, leading to the French Revolution. We are shown many dirty secrets of attempts of keeping the bloodline successful and succumbing to personal desire. This includes Charles' sister in the manga, Marie-Joseph, who shows and affinity for the profession of killing but in contrast of Charles' lacks any signs of empathy or sympathy for her victims.
Like I mentioned multiple times, the art is very beautiful (and gross), detailed, just like the explanations of the processes. Initially the art reminded me of a modern version of Rose of Versailles, because some male characters, including Charles, are drawn very feminine. And yes, it also contains homosexual activities or implications. The story and characters are hard to relate to and the setting might be kind of depressing (especially since we know where this is leading to) but it's a fascinating work, about a fascinating character and his profession. Because it's so interesting, I would never describe anything in there as disgusting or horrid, and I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest in manga.

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