Yokaiden Vol. 1 (Del Rey)

yokaiden-header.gifA young man seeks revenge in a world of monsters and demons in this manga from fan artist turned pro Nina Matsumoto.

 

 

192 pgs., B&W; 10:95

(W & A: Nina Matsumoto)

Japanese folklore is blessed with an astonishing range of creatures known as yokai (variously translated as "demon," "monster" or "spirit"): some resemble humans or animals, some are utterly fantastic, and some are simply household objects which came to life. A variety of these are featured in the new manga series Yokaiden by the Canadian writer and illustrator Nina Matsumoto, which presents the adventures of an nine-year-old orphan named Hamachi who is fascinated by yokaiden and tries to summon them up with a séance-like experiment.

The cover to Yokaiden Vol. 1 by Nina Matsumoto. Click for a larger image.Hamachi believes that if he reads "100 Yokai Tales" by Inukai Mizuki (the name is probably a tribute to the mangaka Shigeru Muzuki, who wrote many yokai tales) and blows out a candle after each tale, when the 100th candle is extinguished a yokai will appear. He falls asleep without completing the experiment, but the yokaiden appear anyway, beginning with a kappa or river spirit. Immediately we see the conflicts between Hamachi and the rest of his village: they want the yokaiden driven away or killed, and hire a wandering samurai to do the job for them. Hamachi defends the yokaiden and claims they are harmless, although he’s forced to re-evaluate his opinion when he returns home to find his grandmother dead and all evidence points toward a kappa who was injured in the trap set by his grandmother.

Hamachi ventures into the realm of the yokaiden to seek revenge, and if that doesn’t sound like the beginning of a hero’s journey then I suggest you review your Joseph Campbell, or at least watch Star Wars again. Judging by the first volume, this is going to be an excellent series which takes manga in a direction which I hope more authors will follow. Written originally in English, it draws on many aspects of the manga tradition and is grounded in Japanese folklore but reinterprets both and draws on western popular culture as well.

Matsumoto first came to public attention for her drawing of the Simpsons characters in manga style and the art of Yokaiden shows a similar sensibility: everything’s a bit spikier and less sweet than the typical manga, and she favors ink washes over patterned backgrounds. Some of the yokai are real smart alecks (think of Bart Simpson) and the human characters are also darker than you find in the typical manga. While Hamachi remains relentlessly cheerful through the usual trials and tribulations of growing up, his grandmother is a bit of an old witch, his fair-weather friends Kimura and Tatsuta are no prizes either, the villagers are xenophobes and the ronin is motivated more by hunger more than by any noble principles.

Yokaiden is packed full of information about the different yokai: in the first volume besides the kappa we meet the akaname or grime-licker (he licks the scum off dirty bathtubs), the azuki-arai or bean-washer, the namahage who slices the skin of kid’s feet if they don’t go home when they should (or that’s what parents tell the kids, anyway), the chochin-obake or lantern spirit, the nue (made up of four different animals), the te-no-me (has eyes in his hands like the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth) and the karakasa-obake or paper umbrella ghost.

Yokaiden is rated T for ages 13+, but will probably appeal to younger children (as well as adults) who like monster stories. Extras include notes on the different yokai, bonus four-panel strips and a two-page comic in which the author explains how she came to create this manga. | Sarah Boslaugh

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