Thursday, September 17, 2009

Yokaiden, vol. 1

Since I didn't post a review yesterday, I figured I'd double up today. At this year's San Diego Comic-Con International, I had the pleasure of momentarily meeting Nina Matsumoto while she autographed a free copy of Yokaiden for me at the Del Rey booth, where they had daily giveaways of this unique book.

The story: Hamachi is a young boy living with his grandmother. While she isn't the sweet little granny type, Hamachi isn't exactly "normal," either, since he loves yokai, or Japanese spirits! He's known as the local yokai expert in his village and tries to befriend them at every opportunity. But, when his grandmother is killed by a yokai, Hamachi sets off on a quest to find her killer in the yokai realm. The land of darkness, "white blobby things" and plenty of ill-meaning demons is otherworldly, and Hamachi is determined to traverse the landscape to avenge his grandmother.

Reaction: I really loved the concept behind Yokaiden. While Hamachi is similar to some always-optimistic shojo heroines -- think Tohru from Fruits Basket -- he's different because of his love of all things yokai. While this might be annoying to my more cynical side, I found it mostly endearing, even when Hamachi made excuses for his grandmother's atrocious behavior. This first volume moved pretty slowly, with Hamachi only getting so far as one night in the yokai realm, but it provided a strong foundation for the following volumes. Also, the dialogue crafted by Matsumoto really shines here, especially with the use of some of my favorite words -- schadenfreude -- and a tangent on the differences between situational irony and cosmic irony!

Deep thoughts: I love the pantheon of yokai that Matsumoto includes here; I was surprised to recognize as many as I did. While going through this volume, I was reminded of now-defunct Broccoli Books' Kon Kon Kokon, which features a modern-day, elementary school-aged yokai otaku as its main character. Of course, the well-known Inuyasha, by Rumiko Takahashi, has quite a few demons in it, too. And I've watched several films by Hayao Miyazaki, who frequently includes spirits in his movies. Considering the Japanese respect for nature and other Shinto-based beliefs, demons and spirits are fairly common themes in folklore and popular culture properties.

The biggest focus here is the plethora of demons and spirits, and their character design. I really enjoyed the variety of yokai and their respective personalities; there was a good balance and a perfect fit with their appearances and abilities. And the few human characters were distinctive and easily recognizable, too. Matsumoto includes descriptions of each yokai in between chapters and introduces the humans at volume's end, where she also includes some entertaining four-panel strips.

While I'm most familiar with Matsumoto's work from the Eisner-winning issue of The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror, the art is definitely manga-inspired. There are some distinctive and classic touches like the 1970s shojo-era look of surprise captured in pupil-less wide eyes and the occasional patterned screentone. However, I found it visually disruptive when panels switched to a hazy look reminiscent of tracing paper or vellum. It lost that crisp appearance and really broke up the story visually, but it seems it's put to rest after the third chapter or "candle."

The verdict:
If only... While story-wise, this is one of the best original English-language (OEL) manga out there, there are some rough edges to Matsumoto's artwork and the first volume moves a little too slowly. But, now that the foundation has been laid and Matsumoto's had more time to immerse herself in this book's detailed world, I'm anxious to see the second volume. And for anyone who thinks OEL manga is inferior to Japanese manga, I think you'll be plenty surprised by this entertaining book! Yokaiden is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

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