Review: Kamui

Kamui, vols. 1–4
by Shingo Nanami
Rated 13+
Broccoli Books, $9.99 per volume

Warning: Spoilers after the cut!

Kamui is set in a dystopian future in which earthquakes have destroyed much of Japan and enormous monsters called Atanan roam the land. A quasi-military group of teenagers called NOA fights the Atanan, equipped with special powers. The catch—there is always a catch—is that they don’t understand where the powers come from. “Once you gain the power,” a commander named Sumire explains, “your sense of justice is paralyzed.” It’s a tradeoff she’s willing to make: “It’s better than being a weak human,” she says. “The world is falling apart. But as long as you have power, you can do something.”

Sumire is one of the three top officers of NOA. Together with the princely Shiki and the spectacularly evil Hyde, she is in charge of keeping the city secure, although the NOA officers seem to spend more time dallying with friends and spying on one another than actually fighting Atanan or plotting any strategy. (Shows what happens when you put teenagers in charge of civil defense.)

The action really begins with the arrival of Atsuma, a stranger from the north, who also possesses special powers. Infused with the spirit of an ancient sword, he has been sent by the elders of his village to recapture an ancient spirit, Okikurumi, which was stolen by someone in the research complex connected with NOA. His village is completely devoted to preserving Okikurumi, which somehow makes the rest of the world tick, and the theft threw the earth out of balance, triggering the earthquakes and the coming of the Atanan. Okikurumi is also the source of the NOA members’ powers, but only Atsuma seems to be aware of that.

That’s the backbone of the story, but there is much, much more. Nanami has put together an ensemble of varied characters, each with a distinct look, personality, and goal—not all of which is obvious at first glance. As the volumes progress, the story gets both clearer and more tangled, with secrets first hinted at and then revealed. Each of the first four volumes has a different feel. Volume 1 is all setup, and since the story is complicated, it’s tough going at times. Volume 2 is much more focused: A sympathetic young girl named Anzu is introduced, and the story of NOA and the earthquakes is retold through her eyes. Anzu is the classic strong-weak shoujo heroine, tardy and klutzy but good-hearted enough to get Atsuma’s attention through her sheer niceness. She and Atsuma start to become close, but then the dark forces on all sides reassert themselves in a violent outburst that wrecks NOA and puts her in the hospital. Volume 3 returns to the main characters as they each resume their quests in the now-destroyed NOA headquarters. This volume also introduces Utsuho, the mastermind behind NOA. And volume 4 is mostly backstory, set in the remote village that was Okikurumi’s home, showing how Utusuho and Atsuma came to be where they are. This story starts out like folklore but quickly turns disturbing, as the villagers’ beliefs push them to unthinkable cruelty to preserve Okikurumi—only to have Utsuho snatch it away from them.

Nanami’s art is crisp and very linear, with lots of flowing lines and sharp edges. The characters are drawn in an almost stereotypical manga style, with big eyes, pointy chins, and elongated bodies, but each one has a distinct look that telegraphs his or her personality: the languid Sumire, the mischievous Shui, the scheming Yanagi. The art can be overly busy at times: Even relatively static scenes are filled with swirling hair, flowing cloaks, and other complications, and the fighting scenes are so filled with speed lines that the main action is sometimes hard to see. Sound effects are retained and translated, which heightens the sense of action but also adds to the visual clutter. On the other hand, when she focuses on individuals, as in the story of Anzu, Nanami’s style is simpler and quite lovely.

Broccoli has some of the best production values in the business, and these books are no exception. The trim size is slightly smaller than most manga, but the paper is the best I’ve seen, bright white and fairly heavy. The books feel stiff but loosen up a bit as you read. The covers each feature a different character and the colors are lovely. Extras include a color page in the front, an illustrated list of characters (very handy for a book this complicated), translator’s notes, a glossary, and two pages of “after talk” from the creator. Each volume also includes a preview from the next book, but I deliberately skipped those.

Kamui takes a while to warm up to, but the characters are interesting and the plot is compelling. Besides a good story, it also offers one of the satisfactions of good science fiction, contemplation of the human condition and the choices we make to survive. With volume 5 just appearing on the shelves, this is a good series to pick up now.

(This review is based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.)

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