Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Jimbo Yojimbo by David W. Barbee. (Eraserhead Press)
I recently watched the new Timo Tjahjanto action movie, The Night Comes for Us. I sought it out because Max Booth III referenced to it on Twitter by saying, “THE RAID basically has training wheels compared to this.” For anyone who doesn’t know, The Raid: Redemption is an Indonesian movie showing off the talents of Iko Uwais, who plays a cop raiding a drug tower. His team gets picked off easily by the gang of drug dealers and it’s up to him to fight his way to the top. It’s ninety minutes of unadulterated action, and I love it. To hear this movie looks tame compared to another is more than enough to pique my interest. Big news, guys: I also loved The Night Comes for Us. It’s two hours of the most intense action sequences intercut with brief moments of plot, which I’d wager are there more for an action reprieve as opposed to actually wanting to tell a story. This movie’s main focus is on the most intense action scenes I’ve ever watched—so much so that, by the end, I was fatigued by the level of violence and gore on screen.
And now, what does this have to do with Jimbo Yojimbo by David W. Barbee?
The opening chapter of Jimbo Yojimbo has Jimbo’s ghost father pumping him up to escape prison. He yells at Jimbo, telling him how to escape and stoking the fire of revenge that lives deep inside his son. By tapping that rage, Jimbo’s ghost father sends his son on a blood-soaked killing spree. He slaughters the guards and it is a full-sprint for the reader, watching this carnage play out. We know exactly what’s in store for us from the first page.
[The author] promised a gory, post-apocalyptic action fest, and while I was distracted he added a bunch of complex character work that had me thinking long after I’d finished the book.
The book follows Jimbo after he escapes from the prison and begins his quest for revenge on Bushido Budnick, the leader of the Buddha Gump Shrimp Company, and the ruthless ruler of the current society. This is a world where humans are a lesser class. Jimbo was captured and experimented on and now has the face of a crawfish fused over his own face. He needs to find a sacred book, which is supposedly the key to defeating Budnick, and he’ll stop at nothing to find it—including cutting down could-be alliances and murdering a restaurant full of citizens. Like The Night Comes for Us, there are spectacular action scenes where we see Jimbo’s skills fully on display while he takes on hordes of enemy soldiers. While there are scenes in between, it seems like the focal point of this slim novel is showing the rage and violence Jimbo has brewing inside him—at least, in the first half.
When I first started reading the novel, it struck me as something that was meant to be read on the surface and enjoyed for the action. It’s the classic corporation (or government) that oppresses its citizens and deprives their people of so much, so when there is a choice between getting dirty money or living ethically, they’ll pick the money. But the move Barbee takes, that’s smart as hell, is he begins dropping in thematic elements that deepen the characters. As the book goes on, the action lessens, and we’re given a look at the mystery involved in the plot. There is a lot more to it than a crawfish-faced samurai slicing his way to the top. The themes present a complex look at grief, manipulation, and revenge. One influences the other and can be used to orchestrate an unwanted outcome.
While there is a satisfying fight scene at the end, the conclusion was quieter and more somber than I was expecting. This reinforces the themes that were subtly inserted throughout the book. I like the way Barbee snuck this angle in. He promised a gory, post-apocalyptic action fest, and while I was distracted he added a bunch of complex character work that had me thinking long after I’d finished the book.
Come for the fun, but don’t be surprised if you catch a little case of the feels in the end.