If there’s a difference between a cliché and a trope, it’s that a trope can be the start of something great, but a cliché is where things end up, often being not-so-great. Nightmare Inspector has its own internal set of tropes, but they never bottom out into cliché. We have Hiruko the baku, an intriguing narrator with motives of his own, with an instinct for things being askew. Said instinct leads him into the ugly spaces in people’s lives that are never what they seem like at first (or even second) glance. Think of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret, turning over rocks in Paris’s darker corners and finding human monsters. Here, it’s 1920s Tokyo, and it’s every bit as decadent and seamy if not more so.
It’s either great or terrible that the first chapter of volume 7 is the best thing in the whole book — possibly even the series as a whole. Great, because right from the start you get a sense of just what sort of heights this series can rise to. Terrible, because while the rest of the adventures in the book are still inspired, they come in a distant second. Put this episode last and it would have had even more impact. Said episode gives us a manga-ka who’s come to the Silver Star to have one of his dreams investigated — a dream which is itself in the form of a four-panel manga. The whole way this is depicted is nothing short of brilliant; it’s as much a commentary on manga as an art form as it is a clever use of the medium for the sake of the story.
The rest of the book, as I mentioned, never rises quite that
stratospherically but hits plenty of high notes all the same. They also
help solidify the approach for the whole series: every nightmare
explored is a reflection of the guilt and fear of the dreamer, a map of
their transgressions. Problem is, sometimes the mapmaking isn’t all
that accurate. The unconscious is a warping mirror, and what seemed
like paradise turns out to be hell or vice versa. This comes through
most effectively in two chapters; the first features a young man who
isn’t sure if he’s a man or a woman seeking Hiruko’s help, and even
those of us in the audience with some understanding of the knotty
issues surrounding gender dysphoria will be surprised at what happens.
The other involves a photographer becoming obsessed with a
picture, convinced that a murder is taking place there. It’s sort of a
backwards tip of the hat to Antonioni’s Blow-Up: instead of
things becoming more disturbing as they are obscured, the plain and
uncontroversial truth of the matter (it’s not a murder after all) turns
out to be a trapdoor into madness.
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 expand 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: sometimes they can
be a little difficult to tell apart at a glance.
Translation: The text of the translation itself I
have no objections with: it’s readable and free of any obvious
problems. However, there are 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 three-page “Afterword” (one page of which is a gorgeous
splash panel); a single-page gag manga — one of the pages from the manga
proper, but with different lettering and to hilarious effect; a pair of
four-panel “tag team manga” drawn by the art assistants; and a
single-page bonus rough sketch contributed by one of the staffers.
The Bottom Line: Nightmare Inspector’s remained consistently good-to-excellent across its run, and the fact that this volume contains one of my favorite episodes through the whole of the series speaks for itself.