A common beginning exercise for the budding critic: take the work in question and create an explanatory parallel with another work. With Ghost Slayers Ayashi, f’rinstance, you could come up with something like this: “It’s Mushi-shi for people who liked that series but wanted to see more stuff hacked up and asploded real good.”
I keed, I keed. See, it’s easy to be flip when talking about something this good, not least of all because a) it’s loaded with all the things I savor (feudal Japan, fantasy elements derived from same) and b) it’s a solid piece of manga storytelling entirely apart from all that. Ayashi’s a good manga that happens to contain a great many things I already like, rather than it being a bunch of things I already like justifying the existence of the manga they happen to be in. By all accounts it’s the manga adaptation of the series of the same name, since it sports BONES, the animation studio for Ayashi, as one of the story credits. The other name’s Sho Aikawa — no, not the guy who stars in just about every Takashi Miike movie ever made (and good for him, too), but a screenwriter with a ton of venerable credits: 12 Kingdoms, Love Hina, Legend of the Overfiend (!), the criminally underrated Hakkenden, and many more.
Ayashi kicks off in Japan’s later Edo years — the mid-1800s or so, right before Commodore Perry’s black ships sailed into Yokohama and coined the term gunboat diplomacy. Edo is having a bad time of it regardless: a slew of newly-passed sumptuary laws forbid indulging in exactly the kinds of extravagances that helped drive a good chunk of Edo’s economy. Worse, famine in the countryside has forced many people into the city, which has become a hothouse of the hungry, the restless, the disaffected, and the newly-criminal. And underneath all that is yet another problem: the youi. This is the name the government has applied to various beings that have started to manifest — creatures of ostensibly supernatural origins, wreaking havoc on the peasantry and causing more of exactly the kind of unrest the already-edgy Shogunate doesn’t want. To combat this problem, the government has created the “Office of Barbarian Knowledge Enforcement” — a clandestine group whose mission is to find and put a stop to youi manifestations.
The first volume gives us three key members of the Office (sorry, I’m not typing all that again). By far the most visible is Yukiatsu Ryudo, a rogueish type who has an eye for others left on the wayside by life. He’s also an ayashi, someone who commands abilities beyond human ken — just the sort of thing you need to fight youi and come out on top. What’s nifty is how the nature of his power is given creative and deep-reaching roots in Japanese mythology: he uses the spiritual essences of the written word — the pictographs that form the Japanese syllabilary and the Chinese characters as well — as weapons.
This is a great idea, and it’s brought to vigorous life in the combat that climaxes the first half of the book. There, Yukiatsu has to do battle with a raging mountain god that’s reminiscent of the spirit-monster at the climax of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. This being is apparently the spirit of the mountain, to which sacrifices are made yearly to ensure the survival of the villagers down below. I say “apparently” because the more Yukiatsu sticks around and defends the most recent sacrifice-to-be (a young urchin who latches onto Yukiatsu as a way to avoid getting caught by the police), the more he realizes this beast there is a lot more to the local mythology than even the natives are willing to admit. In fact, the comparison to Miyazaki’s pretty appropriate: the real story here isn’t how Yukiatsu beats the bad guys with his ‘leet powers, but how the greed of earlier generations shortens the lease on life for future ones.
Yukiatsu may be an audience-pleaser of a character, but he’s nothing but a pain in the ass to Saizo, another member of the Office with minimal power but unswerving devotion to her superior, Ogasawara. She’s also irked that the Office has such an interest in Yukiatsu when he’s clearly such an undisciplined hothead. But there’s little question that Yukiatsu has the chops — both his power as an ayashi and his intuitions for situations that involve them — to be someone they’d be foolish to do without. (I expect at some point another shoe to drop and a revelation along the order of Saizo being attracted to him, but right now something like that would only be a distraction.)
The second half of the book deals with a new mystery — a series of murders all apparently committed by the same man. It doesn’t seem to be youi-related at all, but there are hints that his murder spree may have been inspired by an encounter with a mermaid. Japanese legend has it that anyone who eats the flesh of one becomes immortal (see the first Onmyoji movie for another treatment of the same legend), although in this case it’s more like an affliction instead of a gift. Think of Manji from Blade of the Immortal; after a while you find that not being able to die is a horrible inconvenience in some respects.
Two new characters also step up to the fore in this section: the impossibly feminine-looking Genbatsu Edo, and the rustic-looking, taciturn fighter Abi. The former’s main appeal seems to be his — I almost typed her — bubbly attitude, although apparently he can wield a mean pistol when the moment demands it; the latter’s simply a brawler with a spear, although not much in the way of a personality yet. Yukiatsu ultimately steps in to tidy things up, in a way that brings to mind Gambit from X-Men (hint: it involves a deck of cards). Expect more from this particular plotline, since the conclusion of the first book leaves things somewhat open-ended: the more immediate problem’s been dealt with, but its origins are another story entirely.
Art: By all rights this seems to be Yaeko Ninagawa’s first manga in English, and the first volume of Ayashi bodes decently well both for the rest of the series and anything else from the same artist. The art’s a little on the heavy, sketchy side, although this is often used for contrast: the character designs are deliberately set off against the more linear, carefully-delineated interiors. I actually like this approach, even if sometimes it sacrifices detail (or, in the battle scenes, complete coherence of action) for texture.
Translation: This is the first English-language manga that I’ve seen under Bandai’s imprint, and it’s very well-done. It isn’t quite at the heights of the Del Rey productions, but they did several things right. They kept the original right-to-left formatting — which, let’s face it, at this stage of the game is so obligatory it shouldn’t even be an issue unless the original licensors ask otherwise. The original sound effects have also been preserved, although I wasn’t fond of the lettering used to annotate some of them (a personal nitpick). The best part, though, is the translation itself: it’s snappy and readable, and annotated with the kind of cultural savvy that a story rooted in Japanese tradition and history absolutely requires.
The Bottom Line: Two things come to mind when reading Ayashi. The first is that this doesn’t feel like a cash-in; it stands on its own very capably, even if it’s an adaptation of a series that’s about to hit English-speaking shores under the Bandai label as well. The other is that if they keep up the vein this one starts in, and expand on it, I’ll have to recommend the rest of the books as well. Fancy that.