Yokaiden, vol. 2
By Nina Matsumoto
Rated T, ages 13+
Del Rey, $10.99
The second volume of Nina Matsumoto’s is as imaginative as the first, but it lacks a bit of the sparkle.
Volume 1 introduced Hamachi, a nine-year-old boy who is obsessed with yokai, spirits and monsters of Japanese folklore. When his grandmother, his sole caretaker, is killed by a yokai, Hamachi ventures into the yokai realm to seek revenge.
It’s a pretty classic setup that is enlivened by Matsumoto’s colorful renderings of a huge variety of yokai. However, in the first volume, as she notes in her afterword, she focuses on the more grotesque creatures, while in this one she brings in more human-like yokai, and she also sends Hamachi on a very classic fairy-tale quest. Honestly, I think the yokai in the first volume were more interesting.
Still, she puts some pretty good spins on the traditional tales. In order to find the lizard-like kappa who murdered his grandmother, Hamachi visits the nine-tailed fox spirit, one of the most powerful yokai. Matsumoto imagines her as a massively obese, three-eyed, rather feline fox who is obsessed with human culture: She lives in a mockup of a human home, eats human food, and even has her servants wear human masks. The fox takes a liking to Hamachi and wants to keep him as a pet, but when he insists on staying on mission, she reluctantly agrees to tell him where the kappa is. But first, he must retrieve three treasures that have been stolen from her.
The treasures aren’t stolen, of course; they are simply things the fox wants, and it’s Hamachi who will be doing the stealing. Accompanied by his yokai helpers, a lantern and an umbrella that have come to life after lying around for 100 years, he heads out to perform what should be impossible tasks: stealing a sword from a tengu, a mirror from a slit-mouthed woman, and a necklace from the gods. Each quest brings its own danger, but thanks to his friends’ intervention and a bit of dumb luck, Hamachi manages to get the elusive objects and come out alive. Meanwhile, a human yokai hunter is tracking him, but the hunter is slowed down when the yokai trick him out of his sword and he has to win it back by gambling with them.
Once Hamachi completes his three tasks, the fox yokai reneges on her promise and announces that she is going to keep Hamachi after all. The story ends on a cliff-hanger as the mysterious yokai-hunter bursts in, sword in hand.
Almost all of the interest in this book comes from the varied array of yokai and other creatures that Matsumoto brings to life. She doesn’t just stick with the classical definitions but gives them personalities of their own. Despite their outlandishness, the yokai are convincing as characters, and that makes the story tick. Hamachi usually plays straight man to their quirks, although he does have a sense of humor and a reckless quality all his own. If there is a problem in this book, it is his lack of emotional depth. He was not terribly broken up by the death of his grandmother (who admittedly is portrayed as a mean old woman), and he doesn’t seem to be terribly driven in his quest to avenge her death. It’s more like an excuse for a lark in yokai-land than a burning desire that cannot be quenched. In one chapter, he tells his yokai friends about his parents and how they died, and while the story is charming, it is played a bit too much for laughs. This would have been a good time to show Hamachi’s serious side, but instead he not only shows no sadness, he comes off as a bit dumb when his parents return as ghosts and a villager passes off their unusual appearance as tuberculosis.
I have to admit that I rolled my eyes a bit when the fox spirit announced her three quests—that’s a motif that was done to death by the Middle Ages—but Matsumoto mixes things up a bit and gets Hamachi through each one of them fairly quickly. In fact, the story is quite episodic—one adventure per chapter—which makes it easy to put down and pick up again.
Matsumoto’s art is worth a special mention here, as she does something quite difficult and makes it look easy. Rendering supernatural creatures is tough, because you don’t have real-life models, yet she manages to make an umbrella, a one-legged lizard, and an angel-like tengu all come to life in convincing ways. Not only that, she keeps all the art at the same level. Often Japanese manga artists will put a very cartoony character next to a realistic one, a juxtaposition that I find jarring. Matsumoto’s characters are all consistent—human or yokai, they all look like they belong in the same world. She seamlessly blends disparate parts together, too, giving a woman a convincing bird’s foot, for instance. And she avoids the temptation to make them look too close to classical Japanese representations—they are not overly complicated, nor do they appear to be frozen on the page. Instead they are loosely drawn and very animated, so much so that they look like they could hop off the page.
By the end of this volume, Hamachi is no closer to his goal (in fact, he barely mentions it), but we have been introduced to and entertained by a wide array of yokai, and that is the true charm of this series.
ETA: Almost forgot, I reviewed vol. 1 for Graphic Novel Reporter.
(This review is based on a review copy supplied by the publisher.)