The problem with OEL (original English-language) manga is simple: most of them stink. Red String and In Odd We Trust were both awful by any standards, and the worst part is that I didn’t want them to be that lousy. We deserve good graphic novels no matter what the source.
So, now the good news: Nina Matsumoto’s Yokaiden doesn’t stink. In fact, it may be the best OEL manga I’ve read thus far, not only because it taps into the usual trove of visual tropes from manga but also a whole cache of concepts from Japanese mythology. Such things have typically been explored only by Japanese creators themselves, but here and there non-Japanese authors and artists are venturing into that territory (me included). I figure if Hideyuki Kikuchi can combine tropes from all around–from Hammer horror productions to gunslinger Westerns and Chinese mythology–and create something like Vampire Hunter D, why can’t we do the same in return?
Yokaiden gets its title from two words: yokai — the spirits and creatures of Japanese myth and legend — and the suffix –den, meaning “stories” or “tales”. The hero of the story, Hamachi, is a youngster who’s developed a fascination with the yokai: he’s read every scrap of literature he can find on them, and wants more than anything else to meet one for real. And meet one he does, in the form of a kappa who gets caught in Hamachi’s grumbling old granny’s monster trap. With a little too much cheer for the situation at hand, he frees the poor monster by hacking its leg off and providing him with a handy prosthetic. Said kappa — whom he’s now dubbed “Madkap” — has no intention of hanging around this weird kid, and so goes his own way.
The other kappa learn about Madkap’s injury and decide to visit a little vengeance on Grandma. When Hamachi returns home the next day, he finds her in a state of deathly catatonia. Her soul’s been stolen away by another yokai. Seeing no reason to stay in the human world, he arms himself with provisions and gear (and his own self-penned yokai guidebook, which forms the art for the inter-chapter illustrations), and sets off to enter the world of the yokai to find her — and to look for his one-legged friend.
Getting into the yokai realm isn’t as difficult as he imagined, but he has competition of a sort. Before he sets off, he bumps into a ronin — a long-haired, dour type very much in the Ryunosuke of Sword of Doom mold — whose self-appointed mission is to find and slay yokai. Hamachi’s appalled. Yokai and humans should be friends! (Never mind that neither side seems to find this much of a priority.) And while the yokai he meets generally want to have little to do with him, he ends up making a few companions: a down-and-out lantern yokai, who talks like Tom Waits and is about as cynical in his worldview; and an umbrella yokai, who’s only too happy to be Hamachi’s buddy … except that Hamachi insists on “setting him free” instead.
This is all very funny, in a way that’s also fresh and unforced. The laughs come naturally out of the material, even if they’re often done in a let’s-break-the-fourth-wall-shall-we? sort of way (not that I mind). Most of the humor revolves around Hamachi’s perennial optimism: he’s determined to make friends out of everyone he meets, even if they hate his guts on general principles. Yes, he’s even willing to try and make friends with the nué, an amalgam of three monsters in one who bears a disturbing resemblance to … well, I’ll just quote one of the jokes in the bonus panels in the back: “Eyes of Christopher Walken! Receding hairline of John Lithgow! Voice of Kelsey Grammer!” Yes, I laughed.
What I like best about Yokaiden is how it takes its Eastern concepts — the yokai and the mythology surrounding them — and presents them in a way that’s immediate and accessible to people who know nothing about this stuff. It’s not just for manga fans, and really, it shouldn’t be.
Art: Here’s where I feel obliged to give a mixed review. As much as I enjoyed the story, there were things about Nina Matsumoto’s artwork that I both liked and didn’t like. If the name rings a bell, there’s a good chance you’ve run into her manga-fied Simpsons drawing courtesy of DeviantArt. Her artwork has spirit and spunk — the layouts of panels and the way she frames the action is all fine — but the designs themselves have a heavily sketchy quality that borders on the amateurish. That said, I look at the cover art and some of the interstitials, and I get the impression at least some of that roughness is deliberate — it’s a way to give us a world of silk and straw, as someone else once put it — and that while this first volume may be a bit shaky, so are many others I’ve seen. I suspect it’ll improve, in much the same way the first installments of Real/Fake Princess were rough-looking but quickly turned into remarkable pieces of work.
The Bottom Line: Despite the roughness of the art — which I’m willing to forgive further down the line, especially if the story holds up — what we have here is a real gem, an OEL manga that stands up nicely against its imported counterparts. And it does so in the most important respect: the story.