After a certain point, most manga hit a kind of a plateau. They’ve set up the basic situation, and for the next however many volumes they’re going to run through variations on it like John Coltrane riffing for a solid hour on “My Favorite Things”. The good manga spiral out from their original inspiration and find new and wonderful places to go, like Coltrane did; the mediocre ones just repeat themselves, or run aground.
With volume 4, Nightmare Inspector feels like it’s hit a plateau — but not in the sense that it’s becoming redundant. It’s found a groove that works and is exploring it, and it’s also taking the occasional detour back into the roots of its premises — the former life of Hiruko, the baku, among other things, which provides plenty of meat for future twists. So maybe it hasn’t plateaued at all, and it certainly hasn’t peaked. Even if the plotting runs aground in this series, I’ll probably still snap it up for the artwork, the decadent 1920s Tokyo atmosphere that drips off every page — and the grim little twist ending that caps off every chapter, like a razor between the ribs.
The opening segment serves a good encapsulation of everything this series is about. The childhood friend of the rich and spoiled Hirofumi comes to Hiruko for help about a dream involving a streetcar. The real meaning of the streetcar — and its passengers — is withheld until the last minute, when we realize the meaning of everything we’ve seen has elaborate psychological symbolism. What makes it all more than just the manipulation of symbols, though, is a concluding observation that throws all we’ve seen into sharp relief.
The next few chapters — which make up almost half the book — deal once again with Hiruko’s tangled past. He both is and is not the brother of Mizuki, the proprietor of the Silver Star Teahouse where he holds court, something that has already caused the two of them a fair number of complications. One day a customer shows up, someone who remembers Hiruko from his previous incarnation, and the past is quite literally unlocked for us. The shock causes Hiruko to revert, in a sense, to being Mizuki’s brother Chitose, and Mizuki has to perform her own dream-diving to put the broken pieces back together. The resulting melodrama’s worthy of one of Edogawa Rampo’s more overheated works, like Beast in the Shadows, but it does fit with the overall mood of the series — and, just as importantly, leaves the door open for possible future conflicts in the same vein.
The chapter name “Clockwork” takes another common trope — what if someone could show you your future? — and sets it on its ear, when the future Hiruko reveals for someone turns out to be that person’s past. “Shadows” uses something of the same trick, where we are given just enough information about a boy’s nightmare to draw all the wrong conclusions about it. Part of the fun is knowing that a twist is on the way and trying to figure out where it will reveal itself — whether as a mechanical turnabout, or as a slight shift in perception.
Art: I’ve spent a good deal of my time in reviews of previous installments 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). It’s nice to be able to recommend a book this gorgeous without somehow feeling guilty about it. My only gripe, such as it is, is that many of the characters tend to have the same consistently androgynous look.
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 include a four-page gag comic (the cast head for the beach), a two-page gag add-on from Mashiba’s art assistant, and a note from the author.
The Bottom Line: There’s something to be said for a series that delivers competently and consistently in each volume, especially when it’s wrapped up in as great-looking a package as this one.