Review: Yokai Doctor, vol. 1

Yokai Doctor, vol. 1
By Yuki Sato
Rated OT, ages 16+
Del Rey, $10.99

In Japanese folklore, yokai are unseen, often mischievous spirits that interfere in people’s lives in unexpected ways. They aren’t just vague spiritual entities—yokai usually have an odd mix of human and animal characteristics and often have very specific functions, such as cutting mosquito netting or licking out pots.

Yokai figure in a number of manga, including Koge-Donbo’s Kon Kon Kokon (unfortunately abandoned for other projects) and Nina Matsumoto’s Yokaiden. So the idea of a manga about a yokai doctor, someone who understands these odd creatures and knows what makes them tick, sounds like it would have to be a winner.

Unfortunately, Yokai Doctor falls somewhat short of greatness. It isn’t terrible by any means, but the creator relies too much on slapstick and fan service for cheap laughs at the expense of developing the story and the characters.

Kotoko Kasuga is a 16-year-old girl who can see yokai but doesn’t have much power over them. Her grandfather was an exorcist, and she seems to have inherited some of his abilities, but she hasn’t done anything to develop them. However, because her schoolmates are interested, she puts on little performances for them. Kotoko is no Einstein and doesn’t seem to realize that messing with spirits could be a bad idea.

Kuro Gokokuji is a quiet, bespectacled guy who, as only Kotoko can see, is always covered in yokai. Kuro appears to be rather standoffish and has no friends. He is also totally obsessed with women’s breasts, beyond even the norms for manga characters. Kotoko sees that Kuro has supernatural abilities yet has trouble fitting in with his fellow students and extends a hand of friendship to him. Too bad Kuro can only think about her panties.

Did I mention that Kotoko is not too bright? She leads a group of schoolmates up into a haunted forest, and before you know it, they are all embedded in a huge cube of jelly, and Kotoko is facing down a huge, hairy yokai. Just when it looks like all is lost, Kuro shows up, traps the yokai in a net, and explains that it isn’t bad, just sick. And then the truth comes out: Kuro is a yokai doctor, and to Kotoko’s great unease, he seems to side with yokai more than humans.

That’s the bones of the story, and it’s not a bad start. The storytelling, though, is jerky, full of gaps, and hampered by too many digressions into pointless fanservice. This is one of those stories where people are constantly going all spastic, knocking each other over or exploding over the least little thing. The fanservice is played for laughs, but it’s tiresome and intrusive. It’s one thing for Kuro to be obsessed with girls and to have that be part of his character. It’s another to have gratuitous locker-room scenes or panels that are framed with upskirt shots that don’t even pretend to be relevant to the story. Like all spices, fanservice is best applied with a judicious hand, and this particular soup is way over-seasoned.

A worse flaw is that the basic conflict of the story, humans versus yokai, is not well expressed or thought out. Kuro is a human who was raised in the yokai world, although how this came to be is never explained. (The scenes of him as a young child with his bare-breasted but nipple-less (and faceless) mother makes his preoccupation with boobs seem rather icky.) Kuro’s mother was killed by humans, yet he feels compelled to go out into the human world, although again, no explanation is given, nor does he seem to have any particular goal in mind. This doesn’t make sense: If he just wants to be a yokai doctor, he could spare himself a lot of discomfort by staying where he is. If it’s the boobs, well, that’s a pretty stupid premise for a story. There are hints that Kotoko harbors a dark power within her and may wind up being Kuro’s mortal enemy, but she is portrayed as such a bubblehead in most of the book that it will be hard to make this credible if it does develop as a plot element.

One aspect that I did think was good was that the key episode in which Kotoko faces down the yokai in the forest is told twice, from her point of view and then from his. The second retelling reveals new information about Kuro and puts the whole story in a different light without being too repetitive. Only a few scenes are repeated between the two stories, and each time, some information is added.

I was also intrigued by the way Kotoko’s emotions get shifted onto yokai. One yokai that tails her is a long, hairy monster (yes, it does appear somewhat phallic) that turns out to be a cute puffball gone horribly wrong. And what caused this? It has been eating Kotoko’s negative energy for years. When she was bullied as a child, this little monster kept her cheerful by literally swallowing her anxiety, but the bad vibes turned it ugly and hairy (although still kind-hearted underneath). Kuro purges it, reducing it to a small plushie whom Kotoko must now nourish, presumably by only thinking good thoughts. In another chapter, a yokai gives voice to all the negative thoughts that teenage girls put onto themselves—Kuro is not good at what she does, nobody likes her, etc. The resolution to this story is fairly obvious, and it ends on a happy note. This is all a bit troubling—is the creator saying Kotoko doesn’t own her own emotions and must censor her feelings to make another creature happy?—but it at least gives some food for thought. Kuro, on the other hand, doesn’t have particularly complex emotions, and while yokai are his companions, they don’t seem to affect his psychic states.

While the human characters in Yokai Doctor are as conventional as manga characters can be—Kotoko is your classic busty high-schooler, Kuro is that guy with glasses who pops up so often in girl-oriented stories—Sato conjures up an interesting batch of yokai in a variety of different styles, from the simple blob who seems to be Kuro’s constant companion to complicated dragons and other spirits. I’m guessing that he is drawing from other source material, though, as the yokai appear in a variety of different styles and the images don’t always hang together as a whole.

As far as production values go, Del Rey gets full marks. The translation is by Stephen Paul, and while I can’t speak to its accuracy, it certainly reads well, without hiccups or awkwardness. Furthermore, there’s a nice set of translator’s notes at the end of the book—always a good idea when you are dealing with yokai. The paper and print quality are good, which matters with art like Sato’s, where toning is kept to a minimum and areas of pure black and white define the page.

Despite my complaints, I thought that Yokai Doctor was a good read. I can see the series becoming increasingly episodic, with Kuro and Kotoko encountering one yokai after another and solving their problems. In that case, the lack of a backstory probably won’t matter much. If the story is to continue to develop, those gaps need to be filled. And in either case, everyone needs to calm down a bit, keep their clothes on, and stop hitting each other. Still, with the whole world of yokai as its potential guest cast, Yokai Doctor shows a lot of promise.

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