Yokaiden Vol. 2 (Del Rey)

yokaiden-header.jpgEisner Award-winner Nina Matsumoto continues her manga-styled story of a 9 year-old venturing into the realm of spirits.

 

 

192 pgs., B&W; $10.99

(W & A: Nina Matsumoto)

 

Canadian mangaka Nina Matsumoto burst on the scene with an internet image of the Simpsons in manga style which caught the attention of both Bongo Comics and Del Rey Manga. Bongo hired her as a penciller and she also wrote one of the stories for their comic Treehouse of Horror #14 ("Murder He Wrote") which won her a 2008 Eisner Award. Not a bad debut for someone in their early 20s. On the manga front, Del Rey published the first volume of her Yokaiden series in 2008 to great critical acclaim including being named World Manga of the Month by the Anime News Network in December 2008.

There’s no letdown with the second volume of Yokaiden: Matsumoto effortlessly combines Japanese folklore and the monomyth of the hero’s journey with an indie sensibility and a distinctive artistic style. The story involves 9-year-old Hamachi who ventures into the yōkai (spirit) realm in search of Madkap, a kappa (water spirit) he believes killed his grandmother and stole her soul. Not that grandma was much of a prize: she was mean and ornery and had very little good to say to anyone. But blood is blood and even though Hamachi doesn’t share the general prejudice against yōkai,  he is determined to retrieve her soul from the kappa. He’s accompanied by two chatty companions, a wisecracking lantern spirit and a hopelessly incompetent umbrella spirit, making this a sort of post-modern Journey to the West. 

Volume 2 is organized around three tasks which Hamachi must perform for an enormous fox spirit with nine tails and a third eye who says she knows where the kappa is hiding. He’s too innocent to realize that she’s not particularly honest and has designs on keeping him captive: by the third task she’s got him wearing a collar with his name engraved on a little dog bone hanging from it.  But the volume’s real interest lies not in the tasks themselves but the number of yōkai  Matsumoto manages to work into the story along the way. As in volume 1, she regularly intersperses the main story with pages explaining each of the yōkai  and their place in Japanese tradition, so these books serve as an introduction to this aspect of Japanese folklore as well as a hero’s journey. It’s also well-paced and really funny: the kitaro is not the only yōkai  who has ulterior motives and Lumi the lantern ghost can spot them a mile away, even if Hamachi has a tendency to ignore her advice.

Hamachi is a picaresque hero who observes life more than he takes part in it and survives by dumb luck and cunning rather than any particular personal merit. This explains why his emotional reactions are muted to non-existent even to the death of his parents (part of the back-story supplied in this volume): sort of like Forrest Gump, he’s a device for telling a story rather than a traditionally developed character. I have no problem with this (we were introduced to the concept of the picaro in 7th grade English and it’s a fine old tradition in both Western and Asian literature) but if you like to emote over heroes you might find this aspect of the series a bit off-putting.

For everyone else, Yokaiden 2 is an excellent continuation to an OEL (original English language) manga series which gives Japanese folk traditions a modern twist. The art is manga-influenced but also shows a distinctive personal approach which works equally well for the realistic characters as for the fantastic. You can check out some examples of her style at http://spacecoyote.deviantart.com/gallery/#Yokaiden. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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