Review: Yotsuba&!, vol. 6

yotsuba_6Yotsuba&!, vol. 6
By Kiyohiko Azuma
Rated All Ages
Yen Press, $10.99

Yotsuba&! has become such a phenomenon in the manga world that it is impossible to write a truly objective review. Everybody loves the little green-haired kid!

The phenomenon might be a little harder for those new to manga to understand. The basic premise of the comic—cute kid misunderstands things in a humorous way—is so simple as to be universal. It’s the underpinning of countless newspaper comic strips and children’s books, and Yotsuba&! never strays too far from that premise. What makes it special is that it is done so well, with solid writing and beautiful, clear artwork.

In the first volume, Yotsuba was puzzled by ordinary things like air conditioners. She would see an object, wonder what it is, and then apply her own logic to the problem, always winding up with a crazy misunderstanding that was gently corrected, with many amused looks, by the others around her.

By volume 6, Azuma seems to have run that well dry, and the stories are more ordinary kid-and-family stories. Yotsuba does a recycling project, taping discarded objects to an old T-shirt. Yotsuba gets a bike. Yotsuba rides all over creation to deliver a bottle of milk to a friend. She just seems like a sweet kid who lives with her father and likes to go hang out with the older kids next door.

There are a few qualities that set Yotsuba&! apart from, say, Dennis the Menace or Rose is Rose. For one thing, the setting is very noticeably Japanese. Yotsuba&! is a slice-of-life manga in a pedestrian setting, so we get to see a lot of images of ordinary people at home, which is somewhat unusual in manga. While many artists keep the backgrounds vague, Azuma treats us to detailed interiors and sweeping urban landscapes, complete with carefully delineated buildings and crisscrossing wires. My favorite part of this volume was the story in which Yotsuba rides her bike cross-country to bring a bottle of milk to a friend, along paths and through fields and neighborhoods, the landscape spreading around her on either side.

Yotsuba herself always seem to be on full power, unlike the people around her. It’s not that she is hyperactive so much as earnest and eager, always straining to head out on the next adventure. One difference between Yen Press’s editions and those produced previously by ADV is that in the Yen book, Yotsuba’s words appear larger in the text balloons, so she seems to be yelling a lot of the time.

One of the interesting things about this series is that Yotsuba is drawn in a noticeably more cartoony, less realistic style than everyone else. Her head is big (bigger than her father’s) and perfectly circular, her body is smaller in proportion to her head than those of other characters, and her eyes are often reduced to circles. Everyone gets the circle-eyed look once in a while, but Yotsuba has it most of the time. It’s as if the iconic smile face grew pigtails and a body. If you apply Scott McCloud’s theory, that means that the reader is supposed to identify with Yotsuba herself. That opens up a range of interesting speculation, given that the series runs in a comics magazine for young men in Japan, that I’m choosing not to pursue.

Here in the U.S., though, Yotsuba takes on a different context. Its all-ages rating makes it a natural for kids, and the clear linework and simple situations also make it easy to grasp the story visually. Azuma describes his characters with great economy, giving each one a distinct look and personality without distracting the eye with a lot of details.

As many readers know, Yotsuba&! was originally published by ADV, which started their manga program with a flood of releases and then slowed their output to a trickle. They published the first five volumes of the series, with decreasing frequency, and then, despite louder and louder clamoring from readers, never published any more. This will remain one of the great mysteries of manga publishing—why, with people practically climbing the walls for these books, they didn’t just go ahead and publish them.

Anyway, Yen rescued the license and has started it fresh, with new translations and redesigned editions of the first five volumes. The translations definitely are different, although which one is better will be a matter of individual taste. The ADV editions have translators’ notes at the end, the Yen editions do not. On the other hand, Yen retains the original sound effects and Japanese script in the art (translated in the margins between the panels), as well as honorifics, which will doubtless please purists. Yen also wins on production values, with high-quality paper and glossy covers making for a very handsome set of books.

Yotsuba&! is one of those atmospheric manga, like Aria, that you can read for relaxation. Each chapter is a self-contained story, so you don’t have to work too hard, and the biggest conflict in the book is Yotsuba taking off on her bike and getting grounded. It’s a great choice for escapist reading for kids or kids-at-heart.

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

Review: CSI: Intern at Your Own Risk

51QCECk36RLCSI: Intern at Your Own Risk
Story by Sekou Hamilton
Art by Steven Cummings
Rated T, for Teen, 13+
Tokyopop, $12.99

I’m going to confess up front that I have only watched the CSI TV show a few times, and I didn’t really care for it; the close-up shots of innards always struck me as a bit cheesy. My tastes lean more toward Law and Order, Bones and NCIS, which go a bit lighter on the bodily fluids.

Fortunately, Tokyopop’s CSI manga doesn’t lean much on the TV show. Instead, it’s geared for teen readers with a group of high-school students who get the awesome experience of being interns at the Las Vegas CSI labs, with the characters from the show playing the part of their kindly but distant instructors.

If you haven’t already suspended disbelief, please do so now.

Having had the experience of watching real detectives work on cases (not murders, but robberies and a rape), I know that CSI isn’t very realistic, and this manga is an even worse offender. Standard procedures get violated all over the place, and the timeline is off. The plot here relies on the old “The murderer is one of us!!” routine, but it assumes a person can commit a crime of passion and then revert to everyday life as if nothing ever happened. Even for fiction, that’s a stretch.

As entertainment with a bit of science thrown in, the book doesn’t do too badly. It starts out with the murder itself, of course, and then we shift to the interns’ point of view. The lead character, Kiyomi, is the poor-but-happy daughter of a cab driver. She’s smart, too. The other four interns are the usual types: The geek, the jock, the creepy guy, and the cute guy. The creators do a nice job of introducing them by showing the entrance interviews, including their varying reactions to the question “Are you bothered by the smell of decomposing flesh?”

After passing a rigorous test (in which the instructors let Kiyomi through because she’s a girl, even though she scored lower than the guys) everyone gets to work. In my office, interns get coffee, shred paper, and take the blame when the copier breaks down, but the CSI interns get to attend a real autopsy and walk around the crime scene of an open case. Naturally, they start formulating their own theories of the crime. There are a few logical leaps (i.e., the fact that the criminal cleaned up the crime scene leads indisputably to the fact that he is one of the CSI interns), and the astute reader will have no trouble figuring out who the culprit is before the big reveal. But that’s part of the fun—it’s always nice to outsmart the detective.

Unfortunately, the story reads like a first draft. The characters and their dynamics are all in place, but their interactions are a bit too obvious. A worse flaw is the big chunks of expository dialogue that fill in pieces of the plot or information about crime scene techniques. It’s interesting material, but it could have been presented more gracefully.

As a parent, I question the 13+ rating, given that the opening scenes include shots (including one looking right up the crotch) of a bloody, staring corpse. On the one hand, a lot of 13-year-olds see worse on TV every day, on shows like CSI and Bones and NCIS. On the other hand, the natural audience for a 13+ book is 10- to 12-year-olds, and the content of this story backs that up—the dialogue and art are fairly simple. I would have toned down the corpse scene a bit, knowing that kids tend to read a little ahead of the age ratings.

The art is competent, if not outstanding, and it looks like a lot of Tokyopop’s other global manga titles. Cummings has a nice, clean line and doesn’t overuse toning. The biggest flaw is that the elements of the panel don’t always fit together properly: Sometimes two characters will seem to be out of scale with each other, and the backgrounds always look cavernous. The cover art is pretty nice, though.

The book seems a bit slim for $12.99, but the creators have plenty of room to tell their story—it doesn’t feel rushed. The format is bigger than standard manga, which I feel makes the book a bit easier to read. A few character sketches and a chapter from an upcoming CSI novel are the only extras.

Anyone over 16 will probably find CSI: Intern at Your Own Risk to be too elementary, but this is a decent read for younger teens, with the sort of crime-scene science that some people (myself included) find fascinating. While it could use a bit more polish, it also skips the cheesy camera work and graphic violence of the original, leaving a palatable, if rather earnest, little story.

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

Review: Four-Eyed Prince, vol. 1

Four-Eyed PrinceFour-Eyed Prince, vol. 1
By Wataru Mizukami
Rated T, ages 13+
Del Rey, $10.99

Four-Eyed Prince is a cliché-ridden story of a girl who admires a classmate from afar, confesses her love, gets rejected, and goes home to find out that he is her stepbrother. Sachiko is yet another of those plucky orphans who is being dumped on a random family member, in this case, the mother who abandoned her as a baby. The prince, Akihiko, is your usual spectacles-wearing manga guy, cool and aloof, and he wants nothing to do with his klutzy, emotional new stepsister. (Note: Although they go to the same school, Sachiko had no idea this guy was her mother’s stepson until she walked in the door of their house. He, of course, knew it all along. Like life, manga isn’t fair.)

Warning: Spoilers and indignation after the cut

Akhiko disappears, Sachiko goes out after him, it rains, and she winds up, soaking wet, in a bar where the cute bartender, Akira, fixes her some hot milk with brandy, feels her up a bit, and takes her for a walk. On this walk, she unburdens herself of all her feelings about Akihiko, then passes out and wakes up naked in Akira’s bedroom….

… which is in her new apartment….

… because Akira is Akihiko’s secret identity. Like Superman, he changes so profoundly when he puts on glasses that even the woman who has been obsessing over him for months doesn’t recognize him.

And of course he doesn’t “take advantage” of her, because Akihiko may be a jerk, but he’s not a cad. Being a jerk, he calls her “easy” and says all girls are sluts. And Sachiko, well, she’s left to make the best of it.

So, at this point in the story, I was wondering whether the life of a manga-ka is so hard that none of them ever get to be in a real relationship. The setup is so lacking in any kind of emotional authenticity that it’s hard to understand why anyone thought it would be a good idea to write it down in the first place. Yes, it mixes up a lot of shoujo-manga tropes, but most of them aren’t very good tropes to begin with. What’s worse, the only character who expresses genuine emotion, Sachiko, is mocked and put down for it.

Then the clouds part a bit. Akihiko confesses that he is deliberately putting on different personalities to hide his real self. Abandoned by his father, Akihiko was taken in by Sachiko’s mother, his stepmother, who is working hard to pay off the gambler’s debts. Akihiko took on the bartender job so he could become financially independent. It’s still as full of holes as a fishing net, but having been a teenager once, I know that “you don’t know the real me” thing is gonna resonate.

Sachiko decides she wants to get to know her new stepsibling better, and what better way than to enter the two of them in the “Coolest in School” contest, dressed as a pirate and a kidnapped princess? Sachiko wanted Akira to play the part, but Akihiko shows up, glasses and all, and they announce to the entire student body that they are stepsiblings. Everyone starts laughing and jeering, but when Akihiko whips off his glasses and sweeps Sachiko into his arms, the audience turns to jelly and they win the contest handily.

Ah, the power of spectacles.

On the way to the hot springs, Akihiko accuses Sachiko of flirting because she talks to another guy. Then he mocks her looks and takes off with the other guy’s girlfriend. When Sachiko gets frustrated and pushes the girlfriend, Akihiko slaps her in the face. It’s all OK, though, because it turns out the other girl was dissatisfied with her boyfriend because he was too kind and considerate, and she asked Akihiko to come on to her to make him jealous. When the cuckolded boyfriend tries to punch out Akihiko (and gets tossed ignominiously into the pool), well, then, his girlfriend is all hot for him again. In case we don’t get it, Akihiko spells out the moral of the story for Sachiko: “When you consider the lengths that girl went to, it must mean that she really cares about him, right?”

Yup, and if a guy hits you, it’s probably your fault for being too demanding. Sheesh!

There are people who argue that books like this are bad for teenage girls because the girls are such terrible role models. (“His words are usually harsh,” Sachiko says as Akihiko yells at her for dropping a dish, “but underneath it all, my Four-Eyed Prince really is kind to me.”) I actually think this is a good story for teenage girls, because they will react with such indignation to Akihiko’s jerkiness that it will be even harder for the next guy to push them around. (In case you don’t have any teenage girls around, let me tell you that indignation is pretty much their default emotion.) In fact, I have nothing but pity for the poor spectacles-wearing guy who tries to hit up a girl right after she reads this. His earth will be scorched.

Furthermore, Akihiko is actually a good depiction of an abusive boyfriend; he’s charming one minute, cold and controlling the next, and just when Sachiko is totally frustrated, he lets a bit of his real, vulnerable self slip through. It’s a textbook case, especially the business at the hot spring.

The volume ends with a “bonus” story that’s basically more of the same—emotionally aloof rich guy, spunky part-time housekeeper, you know the drill. Let’s just say, it’s no Emma.

While it’s safe to say this book is not for everyone, it’s also safe to say that no one outside the target audience is going to read it anyway. Mizukami’s style is best described as extreme shoujo: The eyes are enormous, the main character goes chibi about every third panel, and flowers and sparkles are everywhere. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Arina Tanemura—less crowded but just as energetic. Tanemura’s heroines usually have more backbone, though.

Although I think it’s intended as a romantic comedy, Four-Eyed Prince reads like cautionary tale to me; while Sachiko will probably get her man in the end, it’s unlikely that American readers are going to think it was worth it.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher, who probably bitterly regrets that decision right now.)

Review: Crown, vols. 1 and 2

crown1largeCrown, vols. 1 and 2
Written by Shinji Wada
Art by You Higuri
Rated OT, for Older Teens (16+)
Go! Comi, $10.99

When I first looked at the cover of the first volume of Crown, my heart sank a bit. Could you get any more cliched than that—two hot guys with a girl in the center? Then I turned to the title page…


… and I literally laughed out loud.

And that’s Crown. Written by veteran shoujo manga-ka Shinji Wada and illustrated by the superbly talented You Higuri, Crown is an enjoyable spoof of the many clichés of shoujo manga. It starts out with a girl who is so sweet that the book should come with its own insulin pump. Mahiro is left alone when her mother dies and an evil family kicks her out of her house, but she works two jobs so as not to be a burden on anyone. She is at her night job, as a flagger at a construction site, when two guys scoop her up, toss her into a limo, and drive away.

They are not kidnappers, however, but hardened mercenaries from another country, and the blond one is Mahiro’s older brother, Ren. It seems that Mahiro and Ren are actually a prince and princess, but their evil stepmother conspired to have them killed so she could inherit the throne. They were just spirited away instead, and the queen has just learned that Mahiro is still alive. She wants to assassinate Mahiro, but Ren has sworn to protect her; his partner Jake is along for the ride because of a poker debt, but also, we eventually learn, to fill a greater emotional need.

There is plenty of action in this story but it’s all tongue in cheek. Ren and Jake are super-mercenaries, the best in the business. They dispatch the evil family who took over Mahiro’s house, then take her out to dinner even as the queen’s mercenaries are surrounding the building; they follow up their gourmet meal by blowing up an entire section of Tokyo. And they leave bodies scattered everywhere. Soon another mercenary gets dragged in: The Condor, who is fired ignominiously after he fails to capture Mahiro and ends up being so captivated by her sweetness that Ren and Jake hire him as her protector. Oh, and there’s a cross-dressing assassin, too, but I don’t want to give too much away.

Wada and Higuri have a lot of fun with the clichés of manga. Ren and Jake are impossibly good at what they do, calculating their opponents’ moves to the split second. They wear full camouflage uniforms under their impeccably tailored suits, and they are fond of striking the sorts of poses you usually see on movie posters. Also, they shower together and generally act like seme and uke, except there is no sexual tension (or sex) between them. Mahiro, for her part, is so cute and naïve and generally obliging that by the second volume Higuri has started to draw her with puppy ears and a wagging tail. She fixes elaborate breakfasts, cheerily greets Ren’s one-night stands, and drags Condor off on a shopping spree. She and Ren also display an unnatural amount of affection for one another. All the characters act out stereotyped manga roles, but they are completely clueless about it; it’s as if Wada and Higuri are winking at us over their heads.

Since both creators are old hands, it’s no surprise that this manga is very well done. Higuri’s art is outstanding, although Mahiro’s moe-ness gets to be a bit much after a while. Her attraction to Ren is a bit icky, but it’s played as mostly unconscious and hopefully it will be resolved in the usual way (“What? You’re adopted?”) in vol. 3. (It’s hard to believe they could resist that cliche, having included most of the others.) The story is entertaining and completely over the top, but if you’re willing to suspend disbelief, it’s an enjoyable ride.

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

Reviews: Sinner theater

Hell Girl, vol. 1
By Miyuki Eto
Rated OT, for Older Teens (16+)
Del Rey, $10.99

Nightmares for Sale, vol. 1
by Kaoru Ohashi
Rated OT, for Older Teens (16+)
Aurora, $10.99*

Presents, vol. 1
By Kanako Inuki
Rated M, for Mature readers (18+)
CMX, $12.99

One of the most interesting mini-genres of manga what John Jakala brilliantly named “comeuppance theater,” in which we get to watch someone behave badly and then pay a creative and usually bloody price for their sins.

There is something viscerally satisfying about watching a bad person being punished for their evil deeds. “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small,” Longfellow wrote. The “slowly” part is the catch; we often see people get away with reprehensible things in real life, from the driver who dents a car in the parking lot and drives off to the CEO who runs a company into the ground and picks up a huge bonus check on his way out the door. They may get their just desserts, in this world or the next, but we don’t get to see it.

That’s why it’s fun to read books like these. They compress time and strip away all ambiguity, leaving a single story arc: Person does bad thing, person gets punished. In real life there are gray areas, and victims (especially of con games) are often complicit in their suffering. In fiction, such messy considerations would ruin the fun. What it boils down to is an innocent victim, an evil tormentor—and, hopefully, a creative storyteller.

Hell Girl is a particularly pure example of the genre. Each of the five stories in volume 1 features a truly awful villain—a girl who frames a classmate and then bullies her, a baker who steals recipes from his student and spreads rumors about her shop, a vet who neglects the animals in his care (except for those that belong to celebrities). It’s formulaic evil that never gets realistic enough to be disturbing. In each case the victim is driven to despair, unable to solve the problem, and—this is key—no one else believes her, so no one will help.

Then she hears about a mysterious website that can be accessed only at midnight. The website calls up Hell Girl, a huge-eyed, kimono-clad dispenser of justice. She strikes a hard bargain—the price of vengeance is that the victim will be sent to hell when she dies. Oddly, no one seems to be bothered by this. Once Hell Girl is hired, she really delivers the goods, interrupting the evildoer’s enjoyment of their ill-gotten gains to inflict a custom-tailored version of hell.

The book is very formulaic, down to the very words that Hell Girl says and the blurry chrysanthemums that she calls up every time she shows up to deliver justice. On the other hand, the torments are nicely designed and fit the villains quite well. The book isn’t really that scary, but it’s troubling that no one seems to be in the least bit bothered by the prospect of eternal damnation. Most simply enjoy getting the status quo back and resolve to enjoy the here and now.

Nightmares for Sale throws some really different twists into the revenge scenario. Creator Kaoru Ohashi squeezes six stories, one a two-parter, into volume 1, and each story follows a different path. In this series, the intervention is supplied by a supernatural pawnshop staffed by a loli girl (who is apparently much older than she looks) and a lovely boy, but their role is less straightforward than Hell Girl’s. Some of the stories involve a transaction with them, but in others, they simply stand around and the characters come in and tell them things.

The first two chapters are pretty straightforward tales, one of a bullied girl getting revenge, the other of a vain fashion model getting what she wishes for (which is never good in these books). After that, the stories get more interesting and twisted. People still get punished, but things are seldom what they appear to be on the first page, and most of the stories end ambiguously, with a hint that the dark forces are only temporarily banished. The writing is really quite clever, especially considering how short the chapters are. The art is uneven, however; some chapters are drawn in a very spare, linear style with toning substituting for shading and backgrounds, while other chapters are more fully developed. Often the art has a pale look because of the dependence on toning. Ohashi does some interesting things with the panels, often letting the story unfold in a series of thin vertical slices and using strong diagonals to keep the action moving. The production quality is almost too good—the high-quality, very white paper makes the thin lines and light toning look even paler, and the binding is rather stiff. Still, it’s a nice book and a decent read.

Presents is a series of cautionary tales, most beginning with a gift and ending with horrific death. Most of the characters are schoolchildren, and greed is the chief sin in the book: One greedy girl snatches presents away from the other kids, only to find that each box contains a different way to die; another pays little attention to the gifts she is given, until they gang up on her; and a woman who is only dating a guy for the bling he brings her gets a final delivery from beyond the grave. The chief actor in these stories is a little girl who didn’t get any birthday presents, thanks to a mean classmate’s trick, and therefore stays young forever. She pops up in different ways in each story, sometimes to help the victim, sometimes to deliver a gruesome judgment.

The style of Presents seems old-fashioned; the figures are rounded, with bug eyes and simple hair and clothes. This makes for some jarring contrasts—the stories all start out like children’s stories and end in madness, with melting faces or spilled guts. It’s all very imaginative, though, and it’s amazing how many different kinds of evil manga-ka Kanako Inuki can come up with, and how many different retributions she can confect, all based on the same theme.

Presents also has a greater degree of interior-ness than the other books; Hell Girl doesn’t care about the souls of the people she punishes, she’s just out for revenge. The little girl in Presents, on the other hand, is punishing people as much for their flaws—their greed or callousness—as for what they have actually done.

Of the three, Presents is definitely the most interesting read, with the most imaginative stories, although the art will probably not appeal to everyone. Nightmares for Sale has interesting stories but some weak points in the art, while Hell Girl is the most simplistic and formulaic, although the art is slick and professional. But all three deliver the solid satisfaction of watching bad things happen to bad people.

*Aurora has all their older titles, including this one, on sale for $5.00 if you buy through them.

These reviews are based on complimentary copies supplied by the publishers. But obviously, I’m not easily bought!

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.