Yōkaiden vol. 2
Written & Illustrated by Nina Matsumoto
Published by Del Rey
Yōkai are creatures from Japanese folklore. If you’ve seen any Hayao Miyazaki films, you’re probably somewhat familiar with the concept – the kodama spirits seen in the forest in Princess Mononoke, those of the rattling heads, are yōkai. The comic series Yōkaiden follows a young boy (in true manga fashion, I kept thinking he was a young lady) named Hamachi who journeys from his reality into the land of the yōkai in pursuit of a creature he believes killed his grandmother.
Although I jumped into the saga without benefit of the introductory volume, Yōkaiden vol. 2 is very easy to follow. Building on Japanese folklore traditions, Yōkaiden manages to be immediately accessible by remaining true to its inspirations. Folklore tales are basic narratives, simple examinations of human foibles and tales of cleverness and wit. Creator Nina Matsumoto adheres to this basic structure, which keeps each chapter focused and accessible.
With each chapter adding to the sum of Yōkaiden, the overall shape of the series quickly comes into focus without detracting from the immediacy of each installment. By continually injecting a new and bizarre creature into Hamachi’s path, Matsumoto provides a puzzle for him to solve or offers a means for us to gain greater insight into the complexities of the homespun lore of these magical characters. Perhaps due to my relative unfamiliarity with Japanese folklore and yōkai, the stories all seem fresh and surprising, with shocking and slightly absurdist twists.
Though it rarely achieves outright laughter, Yōkaiden is definitely an upbeat, light-hearted series. I’d liken it to a film like Back to the Future, which treads near to comedy but remains just barely this side action/adventure boundary. Tiptoeing carefully along this paper-thin boundary is, of course, extremely difficult, but it’s also exactly where I like my adventure fiction, and Matsumoto manages the balance very, very well.
Artistically, the character designs are strong, particularly the more outlandish creatures. Her layouts are generally effective, though sometimes the action is lost in the angular shots and tilted panels. On the subject of the yōkai themselves, my only experience is having seen similar creatures many times in Usagi Yojimbo, but Matsumoto’s manga-inspired designs and focus on the creatures themselves provides a very different look at them.
The most enticing characteristic of the book, to me anyway, are the one-page post-scripts at the conclusion of each chapter, wherein Matsumoto describes the lore behind one of the yōkai featured in the preceding chapter. That research and context enhances the experience, building the reader’s understanding of the plot twists, the creatures’ intentions and relationship with humanity, and the history of the culture.
Yōkaiden is silly, adventurous, well drawn, and lots of fun to read. I haven’t read as much manga (even OEL – Original English Language – manga, which isn’t really manga since it’s not from Japan, but I digress) as I’d like, largely because so many series seem to run for years upon years upon years, long after the freshness has worn off (and, no, I don’t follow many superhero comics, for the same reason), but Yōkaiden is off to a very good start and I’m quite interested in seeing how it develops.