Ah, Nina Matsumoto, welcome back. And here I was, terrified that one of the best original English manga I’ve yet seen was consigned to never get past its first volume. Yōkaiden’s first installment charmed the cheesecake out of me, making the wait for part two all the tougher to stomach — but here it is, and it was more than worth holding my breath for.
The first book introduced us to Hamachi, fan of the yōkai, or the panopoly of monsters from Japanese folklore. After one such beast (which he’s christened “Madkap”) kills his grandmother, Hamachi girds himself for a journey into the underworld. His mission: find Madkap, and make the wrong things right. His equipment: a length of magic rope, a sentient (and sarcastic lantern) and an also-sentient (and rather dim-witted) umbrella. He has far more enthusiasm than skill, but hey, that’s how heroes are born.
Hamachi’s quest brings him into the court of the nine-tailed fox, a matronly creature with a smile that seems more hungry than friendly. Not that Hamachi can tell the difference: he’s all too eager to help her find some lost treasure in exchange for the whereabouts of Madkap. Said mini-quests lead him afoul of a number of other yōkai, each with their own loopy quirks — as well as Binzuru, a handsome young fellow with a few assorted powers of his own. He’s been watching Hamachi from afar for a while now, but his real motives are unclear — although it’s clear he can be just as massive a sap as Hamachi, albeit lovably so. Take the scene where he encounters the infamous Slit-Mouthed Woman and tries to use a verbal dodge (“It’s who you are on the inside!”) to avoid being torn to pieces. No such luck.
Absolutely no knowledge of Japanese folklore is needed to enjoy Yōkaidan, since most everything you’d need to know is explained along the way. That said, J-history and J-mythology buffs will get that much more out of the story, sometimes when they least expect it. When Ninetails sends Hamachi on his little errands, even Japanese culture buffs might get most of the way through the book before realizing she’s sent him to fetch a mirror, sword and jewel. And even with such things, the story’s sly nudge-in-the-ribs tone is preserved all the way through: when Hamachi finally tracks down item #3, it’s Binzuru’s phone charm. (One wonders how spotty the reception is in the yōkai realm, or if that’s just if you’re using T-Mobile.)
I know that I groused a bit last time about Nina Matsumoto’s art, and a lot of that may simply be a question of preference. My words: “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.” The second volume has much of the same roughness, but again I get the impression that more of it is deliberate than not. And now that I’m this far along, my experiences with it parallel what I had with One Piece: at first I resisted the look of it, and now I can’t imagine this story looking any other way except this.
It would have been easy enough for Nina Matsumoto to just take all the different yōkai in the catalog and parade them past the reader, and use that as a substitute for real imagination. TV cynics call this approach the “Freak of the Week” method — something we’ve seen in plenty of mediocre anime and manga, both. Thankfully, she aimed higher than that and told an honest-to-god story. And a fun one, and one worth telling, and one worth revisiting too.