Japan’s Taishō era, so named for its emperor then, lasted from 1910 to 1925 — a time obsessed with death and downfall. Suicide pacts, madness, and perversity filled the popular culture of the era, as documented in places like Edogawa Rampo’s mystery novels, and real-life disasters like the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 only further hammered home the darkness of the age. The era also sported a distinct and lush visual aesthetic all its own, and modern-day cultural cultivations like Lolita-Goth and visual kei arguably have their roots in the Taishō-era look (and its decadence) as well. It’s one of the most criminally underused periods in manga and anime, if only because it bursts with endless visual tropes and thematic undercurrents that fairly cry out to be put to use.
You now know one of the biggest reasons I was immediately enthralled by Nightmare Inspector: the atmosphere. It’s set in a gorgeously manga-fied Taishō-era Tokyo, where streetcars rattle dismally up and down the steamy avenues, mercury-vapor lamps barely cut through the haze and street signs and movie posters are all written in the same elegantly spidery script. In a rundown, out-of-the-way teahouse, an improbably handsome young man named Hiruko holds court, with only the maidservant as his occasional company. Hiruko is a baku, a “dream-eater” in human form, and those who come to him for aid are plagued by nightmares that only he can dispel. He can do away with the nightmares, but at a cost … and typically that cost is the torment of having to relive the nightmare and discover its true, often soul-jarring meaning.
The premise is vaguely reminiscent of other, similar books as of late — ×××HOLiCcomes to mind, not just because of some story elements but the equally Taishō-inspired artwork; however, Nightmare Inspector stands nicely on its own. Right from the start it finds ways to keep its basic formula quirky and absorbing, and to ring final twists on each story that are like sardonic exclamation points. The very first story gives us what seems to be a young man who’s had a crush on the now-deceased mistress he’s served … but as Hiruko discovers, the identity of the dreamer is not so much a who as it is a what.
This opening chapter steps us through how dream logic is handled in the series as a whole. What seems like nonsense when awake becomes profundity, or interpreted with new clarity, in the dream world. One of the cleverest chapters in this regard involves a boy obsessed with finding out whether or not his now-dead father loved him — and whether or not he was in fact responsible for his death. His dream recollection of the fatal incident plays out symbolically, with kanji characters standing in for the crucial actors in that particular play. It’s beautifully designed and played out.
Aside from the magnificent look and feel of the story, there are other things about Nightmare Inspector that captured my attention. For one, Hiruko’s motivations are often mixed: he doesn’t do this job out of the goodness of his heart, but because dreams are his very sustenance. The darker and more disturbing the dream, the more appealing it is to him — even if teasing that dream out into the open exacts a cost on the dreamer himself. And then there’s the question of how reliable are his interpretations of the dreams — as with the final story in the first volume, where Hiruko discovers the untenability of the theory he’s derived to explain the behavior of a man who may be in love with himself.
Art: I’ve spent a good deal of the body of this review talking about how great this manga looks, but permit me to repeat myself: this is one of the best-looking comics I’ve come across lately. So much so, in fact, that I’m a little disappointed Viz didn’t print this in a larger format. Every page practically glistens with detail, and Shin Mashiba’s character and costume designs both pay homage to the Taishō period and extend on it. Mashiba also doesn’t neglect the more macabre side of what he’s depicting: there’s blood and some mildly disturbing imagery (although it doesn’t push too far against the envelope of the T rating for the book).
Translation: The text of the translation itself I have no objections with: it’s readable and free of any obvious problems. However, there’s a few things about the retouch job that bugged me — for one, effects and some signage have been reworked in English, but part of the beauty of the book is in the way such things are presented. I couldn’t help but feel that those things would have been best left as-is and annotated in the margins. They did preserve the right-to-left formatting of the original, though, and for bonuses we’re treated to a full-page bonus illustration, two pages of Afterword from the creator, and a four-panel gag comic.
The Bottom Line: It seems like there’s been quite a few entries in the “supernatural detective” genre as of late. I mentioned ×××HOLiC, and the more recent Muhyo and Roji comes to mind, too. Nightmare Inspector is very nearly as good as the former, and miles better than the latter. Consider me hooked.