The more I see of Nightmare Inspector, the more I hope it doesn’t just slip through the cracks and go unnoticed. This has to be one of Viz’s better mainstream acquisitions, a title that satisfies both me the critic and me the fan — and while I can often make one or the other happy, you know how hard it is to get both of them to smile?
The first volume introduced us to Hiruko, a baku or dream-eater in human form who holds court in the Silver Star Tea House. Those with nightmares come seeking to dispel them with Hiruko’s aid, and discover things about themselves, not always good, in the process. The unconscious, as Hiruko knows well, is more than just a feeding ground for a baku — it’s a place where the strangest demons can come to life without warning. What’s more, just when you think you’ve plumbed the meaning of what you’ve experienced, it turns out there’s yet another layer to it all.
A perfect example of this would be the continuation of the episode that capped off thefirst volume, where a narcissistic young man fell in love with his own alter ego. But then a woman comes to the Silver Star claiming to be the young man’s real true love, forcing another dive into the dream world. Even after the two have realized each is the other’s soulmate, there are still complications — and it’s all capped off with a gloriously dark twist to remind us that not all of these stories will end happily ever after.
It’s a good portent for the rest of the volume, and sure enough, the other stories deliver as good or even better in the same vein. A little blind girl shows up at the teahouse with a nightmare about a “melancholy sound” — a repetitive thumping — and, again, one set of truths give way to another as Hiruko digs past the first and ultimately superficial set of explanations he unearths. This installment also gives us another perspective on something we saw back in the very first story: that sometimes those who come to the teahouse are anything but human, and sometimes not even alive. Hiruko, being a baku, can sometimes suss out such things … but not always.
The two-part episode that follows suggests how Hiruko is not the only one at work in this particular domain: in some sense, he has competition. A young woman has become obsessed with a painting created by her beloved before he was sent off to war and presumably killed. She can think of no better fate for herself than to join him in the painting — and as it turns out, there’s another shop, “The Delirium,” where those who are growing consumed by their fantasies can live them out.
As with Hiruko’s dream-eating, the fantasy-fulfillment of The Delirium is a two-edged sword: whether it’s a blessing or a curse to have your deepest fantasies realized depends entirely on what they are, and what you do with them. (I’m reminded of Yûko’s wish-fulfillment work in ×××HOLiC: just because you get what you want doesn’t mean it’s what you need.) This story does in fact have a happy ending, but it doesn’t come without a great deal of introspection and pain — although that also makes it all the more worthwhile.
No secret has been made of Hiruko’s supernatural nature, but his past has been kept deliberately shady. That changes the day a potential lodger shows up to rent a spare room in the teahouse. His name’s Hifumi, and he’s a dapper young son of the nouveau riche who takes one look at Mizuki (Hiruko’s young and lovely female assistant) and is instantly smitten with love for her. Hifumi’s presence in the household acts as a catalyst of sorts to bring Hiruko’s origins to the surface: he is, in fact, Mizuki’s brother — albeit after a baku took over and released him from earthly torments.
The last story draws Hifumi all the way into the thick of things when a young boy also named Hifumi — and looking exactly as Hifumi did as a boy — shows up at the teahouse. After some arguing about who the “real” one is, Hiruko conducts a little investigation of his own, and made a discovery that hearkens back to the very first story of the whole series. Inanimate objects can indeed have nightmares and dreams of their own in the universe of Nightmare Inspector, but that’s turning out to be just the beginning of what look like any number of future possibilities.
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 Taisho 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). It’s nice to be able to recommend a book this gorgeous without somehow feeling guilty about it.
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, which is something of a must for a book like this. Bonuses this time around are plentiful: a four-page bonus gag comic, three additional gag pages (including a bizarre song about how Hiruko drinks soda but can’t keep it down), three character- and design-concept pages, a two-page thank-you spread by Shin Mashiba, and a final four-panel gag manga with a very cute punchline.
The Bottom Line: If I was hooked on the first volume, I’m twice as hooked now. I mentioned before that fans of ×××HOLiC should check this out as a sort of companion to that series, but there’s enough here to convince me this one stands on its own as an original.